Training Guidelines for the Marmotte Alps
Revised and updated January 2020
The Marmotte Alps is the best known, the oldest and the toughest of the mass-participation French sportives. Because of its difficulty, the iconic reputation of the climbs, and the prestigious finish in Alpe d’Huez, all sportive riders dream of tackling it at least once. To finish the Marmotte is an exploit to be proud of: many hundreds of riders abandon every year, more if the weather is bad.
The Marmotte is limited to 7,500 participants and invariably sold out quickly. The event attracts the best sportive and GranFondo riders from the world over, and competition is fierce. Only the most dedicated and best-trained cyclists can hope to achieve a “Gold” certificate, let alone to finish anywhere near the podium.
What does it take to do well at this event?
Depending on your level, it will take you between 6h30 and 14 hours to complete the 175km and 4,900m of climbing that takes you from Bourg d’Oisans to Alpe d’Huez, via the Glandon, the Télégraphe and the Galibier.
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 a 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?
To answer this let’s take a look at the demands of the event. The Marmotte includes four major climbs, two long descents (the first untimed) and two long valleys, the first a false flat climb and the second a false flat descent. Read here for more details Course analysis for the Marmotte Alps.
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 ~0°C to 30°C throughout the day.
Getting into the detail, the Marmotte 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 tiredness, 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 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 20 or 30 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 the top 500 or in less than 7h15 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 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 take time 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, six months before the Marmotte (July 5th), 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 and ride as much as possible in hot weather to acclimatise. Alpine Cols is running a training camp in Tenerife (1-8 Feb) and in the Alps (14-21 June): this last includes participation in the GranFondo Morzine-Haut Chablais and is well-timed to finalise your preparation for the Marmotte.
Training Plan Structure
The training plan is made up of three phases: Preparation, Pre-Competition and Competition. Each phase is then broken down into 4-week meso-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 January through March. 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 MARCH
- Aerobic endurance: progressing to 5h rides in Zone1/Zone2 (less than 70-75% 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 MARCH
- 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 April to June. 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, APRIL TO JUNE
- Aerobic endurance: continuing long rides in Zone1/Zone2, progressing to an 8h ride by mid-June, 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 May or June, 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, APRIL TO JUNE
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.
- 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.
GENERAL, APRIL TO JUNE
- 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 20-21 June 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 27-28 June and a further two recovery rides during the week before the Marmotte on July 5th.
Ideally, you should arrive in Alpe d’Huez 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 and details of the Training Zones. Remember, it is up to you to adapt it depending on your personal situation.
SUPPORT FROM ALPINE COLS
All of our coaches have ridden the Marmotte multiple times and know the challenge 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.
Want to perform at your best during the GranFondo? Join an Alpine Cols coaching camp to improve your skills and learn race tactics from our expert coaches.
Contact Alpine Cols if you would like a professional coach to help you prepare for the Marmotte.