HOW TO CONQUER THE MARMOTTE GRAN FONDO PT. 2: TRAINING

cyclist on galibier
On the Galibier

Everybody reading this post will have a different starting point to their Marmotte training, as well as different scheduling demands and different terrain options. In this post I’ll detail my own situation and the steps I took to prepare in the months before getting on the plane for France. Hopefully you will find at least a few insights to apply to your own situation.

DEVELOPING A PLAN

When I committed to riding La Marmotte, I knew that I had to significantly change the spring training program I had followed for years. In fact, that’s one of the big reasons I was so excited about doing it! I was energized by the challenge of doing something entirely new on my bike.

Previously, with my training focused on spring criterium racing, I would usually put in around 10 hours a week – about 170 miles total – with the longest ride at 60 miles on gently rolling terrain. If I found myself on, say, a weekend sixty-five mile group ride with 6500 feet of climbing, it would be a challenge. And I would usually do one century each year on rolling terrain, and that was always really tough day for me.

To prepare for la Marmotte, I upped my mileage goal to 220 miles a week, and made a huge leap in the elevation totals on those rides. I began doing two long rides each week that were between 8,000 and 9,100 feet of climbing each! This nearly tripled the amount of elevation I was doing previously. And by late April/early May, the idea that I used to struggle on a rolling-terrain hundred-miler was laughable – now I was perfectly comfortable riding 75 to 90 miles at one go with nearly 10,000 feet of climbing!

I was thrilled with my progress, and amazed that for so long I had thought that long climbs, long rides, and long-climbing-rides were just not for me.

MIMICKING THE TERRAIN

profile la marmotteI was fortunate that at the outset of my training,  I got to pick the brain of a friend with a lot of granfondo experience. Most importantly, he emphasized seeking out training climbs that had long and steady upward grades – terrain that mimicked the Alpine climbs I’d be riding at the Marmotte. Cumulative short climbs over several small, steep hills was not ideal, he said – he called that  “death by 1,000 cuts.”

The goal of seeking out long climbs was twofold. First, it was important for adapting the physiology of my body, especially my legs, to recruit as many slow twitch endurance muscle fibers as possible. Secondly, and perhaps equally as important, was to train my brain to not panic during a very-long-term effort and to keep the little voices of doubt and whining from dominating my mind.

There are obviously no climbs to rival the Glandon or the Galibier on the East Coast of the USA, but fortunately I found routes within an hour of the DC area  where I could string together 4-5 climbs of 3 to 6 miles each in one ride. And sometimes I simply repeatedly rode up and down longer climbs that fit the bill.

TRAINING VOLUME

At the beginning of the year I began to really focus on endurance rides. My goal was to increase my total weekly mileage to nearly double the distance I would ride at la Marmotte by early March – about 220 miles a week. I started that process by seeking to increase my miles on the weekends, eventually building up to two long weekend days in the saddle – about 65 miles of rolling terrain on Saturday, and then some climbing miles out in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia or the hills around Frederick, Maryland..

In the spring, with about eight weeks to go before the event, my plan became much more structured. From mid-March to late June, I rode 190 to 225 miles a week. My plan now included 2 long routes per week – one 75 to 80 miles and the other ninety miles. I would also do a thirty mile fast race pace group ride midweek, and two recovery days with rides that were 20 to 30 miles each.

In addition I spent an amazing four-day training weekend with some climbing buddies at the Raw Talent Ranch in West Virginia, where the elevation is serious enough that even some pros go there to get some local climbing in their legs. I found that the hills there provided sustained climbs that were as close as I could get locally for simulating the Alps, and as the event got closer I made the six hour round-trip on my own to grind out some of those climbs again.

TRAINING DIET

When you’re looking at the brutal effort that is the Marmotte with nearly fifty-seven miles of climbing, you are highly motivated to carry as little body weight up the mountains as possible. I enjoy food WAY too much to starve myself, but I did keep to a diet that minimized refined carbs (bread, sugars, sweets, pasta, cereals), and instead focused on

  • fresh vegetables, seasonal fruit (melon, peaches, blueberries, raisins, apples, pears)
  • healthy fats (vinegar and oil dressing, avocado, almonds, walnuts)
  • clean protein (chicken, salmon, tuna, pork tenderloin, eggs)
  • complex carbohydrates (oatmeal, sweet potatoes, fresh corn).

The only sugars I ate – barring a little cheating here and there – were on the bike to support long rides.

I was never energy-depleted on this program, and I dropped body weight slowly but steadily as the training weeks passed.

In the next post we’ll talk about equipment choices.

2 Comments

  1. Simon

    I’m looking at the La Marmotte and understand that simulating alpine climbs is obviously the best way to train for what is the preeminent Alpine Gran Fondo.

    I wonder if you have any thoughts on the merits of using an indoor trainer, like a direct drive trainer which provides real-time resistant feedback, to simulate alpine climbs.

    Living in a very non-alpine environment means specific training can be difficult to achieve.

    • Renee

      Hi Simon,

      I would absolutely recommend using an indoor trainer, preferably combined with an app like Zwift, Rouvy, etc. The most important thing is to simulate the muscular and endurance efforts you will be putting in riding uphill. You can also use a training program to help you simulate the efforts for big climbs. Fascatcoaching.com, for example offers six-week training blocks like “climbing” and “gran fondo” to train your body for the types of intervals you’ll be doing on real climbs, at the efforts you’ll be doing for your individual power and bodyweight, and for the long periods you’ll be doing them.

      What the trainer can’t do, though, is help your body acclimate to the angles and positions you assume when you head uphill and the way gravity affects your pedal stroke, nor can it help you mentally prepare for the constant uphill effort that sometimes never seems like it will end. So use any uphill riding opportunities your area does offer. If you have one good, steady climb nearby, do multiple repeats on that climb. In addition, of course, to your indoor training program.

      Also, I don’t have any scientific proof that this works, but my husband always chooses long climbing routes for his Zwift or Rouvy training because he wants his brain to be used to “looking uphill” when he is putting in some tough miles, so that when he goes uphill in the real world it won’t be so daunting.

      In this series of blog posts, you can see what kind of mileage and effort I was putting in each week, and when I got to the Alps I was well prepared for the long climbs and the long distances. Also, you’ll see that I arrived in Europe a week early and did “easy” training rides in the mountains, which also helped to acclimate my body to the sensations and body positions of alpine climbing.

      It was an amazing experience and is such a wonderful goal – all the very best to you and I hope you get to take on La Marmotte. Please let me know if you do and how it goes!

      Kind Regards,
      Renee Roth Powers

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