"Struggle Moors is one of the UK's hardest sportives..."
What on earth, when I read that sentence, made me want to sign up for it? If I'm being completely honest, I can't put it into words. All I know is that, when I read that, and looked at the route, something in me went 'Yes. I really want to do that. I don't know if I can, but I know I'm prepared to give it a really good go'.
The event is in 12 weeks time, and I want to share my journey with you. I'll share how I put together my plan for training, and then some of the highs and lows as the weeks progress. And then finally, whether I can do it... or not!
The video shows the route of the longer event (180km, 3100m climbing); the one I'll be doing is ever so slightly shorter at 150km, with 2500m of ascent including 4 major (and majorly steep!) climbs, Yorkshire style.
I grew up just a few miles from the route of this event, in Middlesbrough. The industrial town couldn't be more different from the beautiful National Park it is overlooked by, and the contrasts (both geographical and social) of the area are one of its most striking features, in my eyes. I spent much of my childhood and teenage years learning to sail and racing sailing dinghies at Scaling Dam Sailing Club on the windy plateau of the North York Moors, and the roads around there are still seared into my memory 30 years later.
I've been riding a bike for various different purposes for around 13 years, after buying one on the Cycle to Work scheme. I've never been fast or particularly strong, but I've always enjoyed it. I've had lots of adventures by bike, but this will be one like no other. I also love hills... and hate them, and love them... Walking up them, running up them, riding up them. I've never been light, so they've never been my forté but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy them. And it does mean I can enjoy getting better at them.
So what's the plan? How will I prepare for it?
I'll plan my training and preparation in the same way as I would with any Fitness & Nutrition Coaching client. First of all, work out where I am now; then where I need to get to (well, we know that!); and then what I will need to do to get me there.
So where am I now?
I'm feeling in reasonable shape at the moment- for me, that is. We all have to start from where we are. I've been riding on Zwift (an online cycling platform in the form of a computer game, with other real riders on their indoor trainers) regularly for a couple of months, and I'm gradually keeping up on faster group rides. I've ridden some reasonably big hills on there too. Outdoors, I've recently ridden 80km with about 500m of climbing. I'm certain I could do more outside right now, but the weather's been particularly cold, so indoors has the win for the moment.
What don't I know at the moment?
I don't know what gradient of hill I can manage as a maximum at present, either indoors or out. So I need to test that to find out. The Struggle Moors route has gradients of around 20% in several places, and one (Rosedale Chimney) stretch of 30%!
Where do I need to get to?
The route itself is 150km long, and has 2500m of climbing. There are 4 major climbs, but they only add up to 720m of that, so the rest of the ascent is spread along the route. I need to get comfortable with riding up (and down!) hills.
The event is in July, so it's likely to be reasonably warm; but then, this is the North York Moors: it could be cold, it could be windy, it could be raining. Or we could have a heat wave. Or possibly all of those in a single day.
In order to maximise the time I have to complete the event, I will need to start at 6.30am.
The feed stations provide Veloforte bars, bananas, pork pies and water; they also provide electrolyte tablets and sports drink, but I intend to take my own.
So how will I get there?
Firstly, and most obviously, I need to cycle. A lot. But not just any kind of cycling: I need to be as specific as I can to the event. That word 'specific' is going to come up a lot in the next few paragraphs. The hills in this event are mostly relatively short but very steep. So there's very little point in me spending all my time riding long, gently graded hills or flat roads. I need to get the '100 cycling climbs' and 'Hill climbs for cyclists' books out and find the steepest roads I can in my area, the Scottish Highlands. And then, I need to go out and test the gradient of hill I can ride up right now. Once I know that, I can progressively work my way up to riding steeper gradients. Doing this outdoors has specific challenges, in weather, road surface, and most critically, staying on my bike! There comes a level of steepness when riding hills where, if you put a foot down, there is absolutely no chance of starting again: you are stuck with walking the rest of the hill.
Training plan item: Complete one 'hill training' ride of at least an hour per week, including one or (preferably) more challenging gradients. To be specific, this should be outdoors by preference.
Next, I need to ride long. I will be on my bike for 9 hours or more on the day, covering 95 miles. The longest ride I've completed recently has been around 3-4 hours, so I will need to gradually increase the length of time I can comfortably spend on my bike.
Training plan item: Complete one 'long' ride per week, gradually increasing in distance, and including a progressively increasing amount of ascent. If possible, it should also include some steep gradients. This ride must be outdoors...
I need to get stronger. Riding up steep hills is about strength and power endurance. About the ability to climb either seated or standing in the pedals and just keep pushing until you reach the top. Not just 'single effort' strength, but repeated again, and again, and again. I'll be working on this in the gym, and again on my bike. In the gym, the training needs - again - to be specific. It must mimic the actions of riding up a hill. Squats do this, and split squats do it even better. Adding load to that progressively, along with increasing repetitions over time will gradually build strength and endurance. Hip hinge movements such as the deadlift and kettlebell swing will help to build glute strength and power, which is particularly important for climbing. And not to be forgotten, the ability to just hold yourself up on a bike for that length of time takes work, and a strong core.
Training plan item: At least two gym sessions per week, programmed for full body strength with an emphasis on cycling specific movement.
I need to be able to ride at 6.30am!
Anyone who knows me will know that I am not, nor have I ever been, a morning person. I've always struggled to get up early, let alone exercise early in the day. But if I am to give myself the best chance of completing this ride, I will need to start early on the day. If that's not going to feel horrendous, and make me hate it on the day itself, I'll need to practice riding at the right time of day. This comes with a caveat for the spring, however: although the weather on the North York Moors can be wild, we're unlikely to get ice on the roads in July. If it's below 4 degrees C at 6.30am on a day when I should be riding early, I can do this indoors.
Training plan item: Every Sunday until the event, I will be on my bike by 6.30am, even if it's only for half an hour.
Psychologically, I may spend a significant portion of the event riding alone. I'm likely to be near the back of the pack, and long hours alone on a bike or in a boat can feel much harder than in company, if you're not used to it. If you're struggling, there's no-one there to pick you up. I know this all too well after I spent over a month of a long expedition paddling round Scotland in 2015 as an unplanned solo effort after my paddling buddy bailed out. That was one of the hardest experiences of my life, and I'd had virtually no preparation for it. For this event, I want to be prepared for the psychological peaks and troughs: I know there will be many!
Training plan item: Complete at least 50% of my 'long rides' solo, including the final and hardest long training ride.
Nutrition. There's no getting away from it: climbing hills is easier if you weigh less. Or at least, it is as long as you are well fuelled and can produce the required amount of power. For me, trying to lose weight has been an overriding feature of my life, sometimes to the detriment of performance and of my mental health. For this training period, I will focus on gaining power, increasing skill and confidence, and developing the tools I need to get me through the day. If I get lighter as a result of the training that will be an added bonus - but I won't be focussing on it directly. What I will be focussing on is eating well and healthily, fuelling my body well to do what it needs to do and developing a healthy relationship with food.
On the day, getting the right food and fluid into me will be critical to success or failure. So knowing what will be available at feed stops in advance (and the fact I already like those items!) means I can practice both my nutrition & hydration on my training rides.
Training plan item: copy 'on the day' food & fluid timings and items as closely as possible on long rides.
Cross training. I'm also a paddler of course, and a runner. I enjoy walking up hills, too. So through all of this I will be continuing with those sports where either work demands, or where I just want to do them. All of it helps to improve general all-round fitness, mobility and flexibility - and they will also help me recover from the cycling and keep my mojo in tact.
Training plan item: sports & activities other than riding my bike!
Mileage. It's going to be important to just spend as much time on my bike as I can. I've been riding on Zwift with a group called 'The Pack' and my power and speed have improved as a result, so I'll be continuing to use those rides to help me push myself.
Training plan item: 'Pack' rides on Zwift to help build speed, mileage and enjoyment.
Scheduling. Over recent years I have developed the ability to 'train as I feel' rather than stick to a very specific schedule. It's not always the fastest way of achieving a goal, but for me it works better, as I can take into account how I feel mentally & physically, what the weather is doing, and the other demands on my body & mind. Rather than strictly schedule my training, I will have a list to work through each week, and adapt as life demands. For some people this might mean that they don't complete their training; for me, as I'm reasonably practiced at it now, it means I can adapt and avoid Overtraining.
And finally... it needs to be fun!
Being lucky enough to live in the Scottish Highlands means I have a huge amount of fantastic road biking routes available to me within an hour or two travel time. I'll be making the best use I can of those opportunities in order that I enjoy this process as much as I possibly can (within Covid restrictions, obviously).
Can I do it?
I have no idea... I think I can, but I don't know for certain. But it's not an adventure if the outcome is certain. I'll give it my very best shot, and try my best to document the journey. Watch this space to find out more...
Have an event you want to train for, or want to get fitter and improve your nutrition? Take a look at www.zoenewsamcoaching.co.uk or Contact Me.
Sea Kayak Coach & Personal Trainer based in the Scottish Highlands. I love paddling, running, lifting weights, cycling, and moving well- and I love helping other people to do the same. I have to work really hard to build and maintain my skills on the water and my fitness, and I hope that helps me to understand how hard my clients also have to work!