Training Guidelines for the Marmotte Pyrenees
The Marmotte GranFondo Pyrenees challenges its elder brother in the Alps for the title of the toughest one-day mass-participation sportive. At 165km and 5,600m+, the least we can say is that the organisers didn’t miss the mark!
The 2020 edition returns to the 2018 configuration, starting in Argelès-Gazost and finishing in Luz Ardiden. With a double ascension of the Tourmalet, punctuated by the Hourquette d’Ancizan and the col d’Aspin and followed by the summit finish in Luz Ardiden, there is very little flat. The descents are sometimes steep and always fast, giving little time to recover between the unremitting climbs.
In 2018, the first rider took just under 6 hours and the last person to finish came in at just under 13 hours. Even in the best weather conditions, this will be a seriously hard day on the bike. Just to finish the Marmotte Pyrenees is an exploit to be proud of: a large number of riders abandon every year, more if the weather is bad.
What does it take to do well at this event?
Depending on your level, expect to take between 6h and 13 hours to complete the 165km and 5,600m of climbing.
An event such as this should be prepared over several years. If you are relatively new to cycling, we recommend you accumulate experience riding shorter and less challenging events before tackling the Marmotte. We suggest riding an absolute minimum of 5,000km with at least 50,000m+ of climbing in the year before. The great majority of participants have many years of experience and ride more than twice these amounts.
So how best to prepare for the Marmotte Pyrenees?
To answer this let’s take a look at the demands of the event. The Marmotte includes five major climbs, four long descents and three valleys, the first being an 18km false flat climb from Argelès-Gazost to Luz Saint Sauveur the start of the Tourmalet, the second a 7km false flat climb from Ste Marie de Campan to Payolle and the turn off to the Hourquette d’Ancizan, and the last a 7km false flat descent from the foot of the col d’Aspin to Ste Marie de Campan and the start back up the Tourmalet. Read here for more details Course analysis for the Marmotte Pyrenees.
The weather is a major imponderable, and can turn a tough event into a terrible ordeal if you are unprepared or lack the right clothes. Extremes of heat can be as challenging for some as heavy rain, sleet or even snow and the resulting risk of hypothermia for others. Even if it doesn’t rain, you can expect to experience temperatures varying from as low as ~0°C to as high as 30°C throughout the day.
Getting into the detail, the Marmotte Pyrenees makes the following demands of you:
- A high power-to-weight ratio (measured at FTP)
- Excellent aerobic endurance (1-2h climbs in Zones 2-4)
- Good short-term muscular endurance (short, hard efforts in Zones 5-6)
- The ability to recover quickly between efforts
- Able to maintain focus and motivation on long climbs
- Able to concentrate and stay lucid when severely fatigued
- The mental ability to descend and corner at speeds above 60 km/hr
- Able to stay positive and deal with inevitable setbacks and negative thoughts
- Excellent climbing skills, on long climbs and varied gradients
- Excellent descending and cornering skills
- Very good bunch riding skills
- The ability to eat and drink while climbing and while riding in a peloton
- The ability to change clothing or at least adjust for temperature while riding
- The ability to stick to the optimum pace on long climbs
- The ability to identify when to push harder and when to conserve energy
It is certainly possible to reach the finish line of the Marmotte Pyrenees without being “excellent” on all these criteria. The challenge, however, will be that much greater… Each criterion is important and your particular combination will determine your overall performance, or indeed whether or not you finish.
Take the time to analyse your current abilities against this list to identify your strengths and limiters. Plan not only to develop your strengths, but also work on your limiters, at least to the point where they no longer handicap you. As an example, if descending is a limiter for you, you might easily lose 2-3 minutes on each descent. The cumulative effect however will be much worse because you will lose the people you were riding with and drop back at least one group each time. The result could easily add up to a 30 or 40 minute deficit by the end. This is a shame, because descending faster is a skill that has almost no extra energy cost!
Developing Your Training Plan
The best training plan for you is one that has been designed with your unique strengths, limiters, objectives, context and constraints in mind, and is constantly adapted for you when things change (as they inevitably do).
Someone likely to finish in less than 7h or so needs a very different plan to someone who will take 10-12h to finish. The closer to the front, the more like a race; the closer to the back, the more like a pure endurance ride.
A generic plan will thus be sub-optimum at best and potentially useless. This is why we are not providing a generic plan. The “plan” we propose below is in fact a framework and a set of guidelines for you to adopt and adapt as appropriate. Our goal is to give you the means to think carefully about the process and take responsibility for your own preparation.
The key principles are:
- Build a strong aerobic base, so you can ride hard for several hours without having to ease off. To do this, we recommend training in Zones 1 &2, below LT1, the point at which lactates start to increase in your blood (70-75% of FTP or HRmax). Training at this low intensity provides all the adaptations you need while keeping fatigue manageable.
- Build short-term muscular endurance, to close gaps, stay with a group and power up short climbs.
- Increase the load progressively, then recover, in 4 week cycles (3 intense weeks followed by 1 week of active recovery). Consider adopting a 3 week cycle (2 intense weeks followed by 1 week of active recovery) if you are 50+ and find it’s getting harder to recover.
- The recovery weeks are essential to allow your body time to adapt and get stronger. Remember, training breaks you down and makes you weaker! You only get stronger when you give your body time to recover and adapt. There should be a big difference between your hardest and your easiest training weeks.
- Work on both strengths and limiters, so you don’t get dropped unnecessarily.
- Include exercises to develop technical skills, and not only physiological capacity, because bike racing is not only about FTP and VO2max.
Our framework begins in the second week of January, almost eight months before the Marmotte (August 30th, 2020) and assumes your ability to continue to ride regularly on the roads throughout the period. If this is not the case, you will have to compensate by doing long rides on the turbo (Zwift is a great help for this) and ideally by joining a training camp in the early part of the year in a convenient warm-weather location such as southern Spain or Portugal, Mallorca or Tenerife.
To finalise your preparations, plan a training camp in the mountains in June or July and ride as much as possible in hot weather to acclimatise. Alpine Cols is running a training camp in Tenerife (1-8 Feb), in the Alps (14-21 June) and in the Pyrenees (23-29 August). Too late to build fitness for the Marmotte Pyrenees on Aug 30th, this last camp is focused on technical skills, race tactics and route reconnaissance.
Training Plan Structure
Our suggested framework includes three phases: Preparation, Pre-Competition and Competition. Each phase is then broken down into 4-week cycles including 3 load weeks and 1 recovery week, with a target training load for each week. If you are over 50, consider adopting a 3-week cycle of 2 load weeks and 1 recovery week.
This covers the period from now until mid-May. The key objectives here are to accustom your body to training 8-12 hours per week, to build a strong aerobic base, and to use a limited number of HIT interval sessions to develop short-term muscular endurance.
Training Focus during Preparation Phase
ON THE BIKE, JANUARY TO MID-MAY
- Aerobic endurance: progressing to 5h rides in Zone1/Zone2 (less than 75% of your HRmax or FTP; if in doubt, err on the cautious side. The rides should FEEL slow). Aerobic endurance is by far the most important quality you need to build and you should spend ~80% of your training on this.
- Short-term muscular endurance: multiple 4’-8’ efforts in Zone5 or 1’-2’ efforts in Zone6. High short-term muscular endurance is essential for staying with the other riders at your level during the first hour and staying in a peloton in the valleys. These efforts are best done at low cadence at this time of year. No more than one per week, and none during the recovery weeks.
- Technical limiters: e.g. bunch riding, descending, cornering, etc. Take every opportunity on your long rides to practice technical skills. If you are not a confident descender, consider joining a training camp in the mountains with a coaching team qualified to teach you to do this.
OFF THE BIKE, JANUARY TO MID-MAY
You may not be used to off-the-bike training. Nevertheless, it can have a significant impact on your performance. To cycle faster, you need to push harder on the pedals, which means you need not only stronger leg muscles but also greater core strength to stabilise and channel the extra force. The best way to strengthen your muscles is off the bike, using appropriate exercises and good technique.
- Strength and conditioning: one or two sessions per week, ideally guided by a Strength and Conditioning coach with experience in cycling. If you are new to this, err on the side of caution to limit the risk of injury.
- Flexibility and stretching: two to three 20’ sessions per week. Pilates or Yoga can be extremely beneficial. Learning correct technique is vital so choose a practitioner who knows cycling and only takes small groups (or better still individuals).
- Complement occasionally with other sports: running, swimming, etc. If cycling is your only sport you risk building up imbalances and soft tissue problems over time.
This covers the period from mid-May to early August. The key objectives during this phase are to increase the training load to up to 15 hours per week or more, to reinforce your aerobic base, to improve your climbing at threshold and to improve your general race fitness.
Training Focus during Pre-competition Phase
ON THE BIKE, MID-MAY TO AUGUST
- Aerobic endurance: continuing long rides in Zone1/Zone2, progressing to an 8h ride in July, with as much climbing as possible. Either do these long rides alone or with an understanding training mate willing to stick to the low intensity.
- Threshold: multiple 10’-30’ efforts in Z4 to develop your ability to climb at pace. No need to structure too much: just make all the climbs in Zone 4 on a 2-4h ride. No more than one per week.
- Sportive or club ride: twice per month in June and July, either ride a sportive or join a fast club ride in order to sharpen your reflexes and (re-)accustom yourself to race pace.
- Recovery: short rides, 60-90 minutes, strictly in Zone 1. Make the easy weeks EASY. If the hardest weeks have pushed you close to your limit, then the easy weeks will need to be easier than normal, otherwise you will overtrain and lose the benefit.
- Test different nutritional and equipment choices so that come July 5th you know exactly what works – and what doesn’t work. Practice changing clothing and adapting to different temperatures while riding. Get used to carrying two spare inner tubes and canisters or a pump.
OFF THE BIKE, MID-MAY TO AUGUST
- Flexibility and stretching: as in the previous phase it is vital to maintain these sessions to keep your body flexible. Do two to three 20’ sessions per week.
- Other activities: optional, as desired. We recommend an occasional swim or perhaps a 1-2h walk.
MID-MAY TO AUGUST
- Maximise your sleep. This is essential for recovery and adaptation. You should aim at a minimum of 8h per night, and try to wake up naturally (without an alarm-clock). Banish all screens from the bedroom.
- Ensure high quality nutrition. This is even more important than usual, due to the high training load. This is not the place for extensive advice on nutrition, but the key principles are to avoid industrial food and supplements (except under medical advice) and eat the widest possible variety of fresh, top-quality natural foods.
- Minimum travel, minimum stress: the more you can avoid adding to the stress on your body, the better off you will be. This is certainly easier said than done but it is possible to learn psychological coping strategies to reduce the impact of the most stressful events that life can throw at you.
This covers the final two to three weeks before the event. The key objective is to eliminate fatigue without losing fitness. The goal is to arrive on the start line the fittest you have ever been, but also super-fresh and thus able to go the distance. The longer the event, the longer the taper: if you would normally taper 7 days prior to a typical event, taper 10-14 days for the Marmotte.
Training Focus during Taper
ON THE BIKE, LAST 2-3 WEEKS
Progressively reduce your training volume by at least 50%. For example, if on the weekend of 15-16 August you do a final long club ride or a sportive, you might do two 1h recovery rides on Tuesday and Thursday, followed by riding 6-8h in two rides over the weekend of 22-23 August and a further two recovery rides during the week before the Marmotte on August 30th.
Ideally, you should arrive in Argelès-Gazost at least 2-3 days before the start. The earlier, the better. Do a couple of short rides to spin the legs but nothing strenuous.
OFF THE BIKE, LAST 2-3 WEEKS
The need for sleep, good quality nutrition and minimum stress are even more acute during the taper. The advice is the same as for the Pre-Competition Phase. The better you can plan to sleep well, eat well and avoid stress, the better off you will be…
Download the training plan. Remember, it is up to you to adapt it depending on your personal situation.
Download the training plan and details of the Training Zones. Remember, it is up to you to adapt it depending on your personal situation.
SUPPORT FROM ALPINE COLS
Our coaches have been competing for many years and know the challenge represented by the Marmotte Pyrenees extremely well. We can help you prepare in two complementary ways:
- Sign up for a six-month coaching agreement to receive individual day-to-day coaching and one-on-one advice;
- Join a one-week coaching camp to benefit from a big block of training as well as one-on-one coaching on your technical skills and of course plenty of advice and tips for your preparation and the event itself.
Contact Alpine Cols if you would like a professional coach to help you prepare for the Marmotte Pyrenees.
Do you want to perform at your best during the Marmotte Pyrenees? Join an Alpine Cols coaching camp to improve your skills and learn how to tackle this challenging event from our expert coaches.