This article originally appeared on Triathlete
The rolling country roads, the ever-changing conditions and the welcoming gravel community have drawn riders from all athletic backgrounds and experience levels to the gravel cycling world. Now, with the growth of the USA Triathlon’s new gravel triathlon series, triathletes have a chance to experience the challenge and excitement of running on mixed terrain.
What is gravel tri and how do you train for it?
The new USAT gravel triathlon series will include a national championship and will primarily focus on Olympic races and sprint distance races. The primary difference from off-road triathlon (commonly known as XTERRA) is that the bike leg in gravel tri is far less technical: done on gravel roads, canal trails or non-technical gravel trails. This means you can use any bike you want – except a time trial bike. The biggest rule difference from regular triathlon to gravel triathlon is that aerobars are banned and it is legal.
To train for your first gravel triathlon, you need a regular Olympic distance or sprint distance training plan – and then make some training adjustments to practice the basics of gravel cycling. Gravel riding combines on- and off-road cycling elements and typically includes non-technical, packed gravel or soil surfaces. Here are some training tips, exercise skills and nutrition and hydration details you need to consider to help you run gravel tri faster and finish strong.
Use an Olympic or sprint distance training plan to get ready for your Olympic or sprint distance gravel triathlon – with the most important adjustments and additions below:
Which training should be adapted specifically to gravel
Since the biggest difference in a gravel triathlon comes in the bike segment, your swimming and running training does not need significant changes compared to your typical on-road triathlon training. However, the cycling segment of a gravel triathlon offers new challenges thanks to the rougher road surface and varying terrain. This is where it will be important to add some gravel-specific training days to your regular bike workout to be ready for this new challenge.
Get out first and practice riding on gravel. Although this seems like an easy task, the more experience you have with driving on gravel surfaces, the more comfortable you will be during a race. Start by driving some of your easy or basic rides on gravel or gravel roads and gradually build into your harder or faster driving on gravel. The more you can simulate driving at a running pace during training, the easier it will feel on race day.
Since these gravel triathlon races are also drag legal (meaning athletes can be within each other’s moves or near each other when cycling), it’s a good idea to practice running around with other people. Take a local shopping trip or bring your training friends along to practice riding together in a group on mixed terrain. The more you practice group riding, the less stressful it will feel on race day.
Finally, add some low cadence exercises to your workout to help prepare you for the various physical demands that running on gravel poses. Dirt and gravel surfaces increase rolling resistance, which means it will feel noticeably harder to step on your bike at a given speed compared to riding on the road. Add some moderate intervals to your workout schedule, running at low cadence (50-60 rpm) for 4-8 minutes to help simulate this extra resistance. You will boost your strength and endurance for the kind of high-resistance driving that gravel requires.
RELATED: Gravel Cycling 101: A Triathlete’s Guide to the Basics of Gravel
What gravel tri skills to practice
Refining your technical skills can also play a big role in your gravel success. Gravel roads can have uneven, rocky, loose, sandy or tracked sections, requiring extra care and navigation. Spending a few minutes during each ride to work on specific gravel riding skills can make a huge difference in your ability to get through technical sections with confidence and speed. Here are some skills to practice:
The more relaxed you can keep your body when you encounter technical terrain, the more likely you are to get through that section without crashing or having to walk. A relaxed body absorbs shocks and shocks and helps keep your bike moving forward. Tightening up or trying to control the bike too aggressively will create a jerky and unpredictable ride that no one enjoys. Take a deep breath, relax your shoulders and hands, and let the bike move around a little below you.
Scan the road in front of you so you can easily maneuver around any obstacles or avoid loose parts of the road. The further out you look, the more time you have to gradually steer your bike around these technical sections, and the faster you get around the obstacle ahead.
One of the most frightening aspects of riding and racing on gravel is turning through a loose or sandy corner. Sharp or irregular movements are likely to catch your front wheel and make things unstable or possibly cause you to crash. Instead, gently go to the corner and take the most straight line you can safely take without hampering the riders around you.
Even a well-packed gravel road is looser and less predictable than a paved road. When braking on gravel, think of a smooth and controlled action to prevent your rear wheel from locking on the loose surface. Look ahead so you can start your braking early and avoid emergency braking at the last minute, which often causes your rear wheel to slip.
Proper body position can make a huge difference in self-confidence and control when going down on gravel. Start by moving your hands into the fall of the handlebars for a more secure grip on the bar as you drive down uneven and rocky terrain. Then lift yourself off the saddle a little so that the bike can move around under you. Then make sure to bend your knees and elbows so that you can absorb the shocks while keeping your body stable over the bike. This is what people often call the “attack position”, and it helps keep your center of gravity low and stable, while also helping your body deal with bumps at higher speeds as you go down.
RELATED: What gravel equipment and equipment do you need for your first gravel trip?
Gravel tri nutrition & hydration
Like any other race, your nutrition and hydration plan is the key to your success in a gravel triathlon. A big bonk can derail anyone’s race, no matter how experienced you are. Unlike on-road triathlon, however, gravel running presents a new challenge by making it harder to eat and drink on the bike while navigating the unsafe roads.
Taking your hands off the handlebars to grab your water bottle or open an energy bar can be a challenge in uneven terrain. Choose snacks that are easy to open, or try to open your riding food before the race so you do not have to mess with wrapping while concentrating on the road ahead, or stick to lighter water bottles and less complicated wrapping. (Maybe not open gels early as they can leak out and make you very sticky.)
If you still do not feel safe taking your hands off the handlebars to drink, consider carrying a hydration pack on your back for the bike segment. Yes, this is less aerodynamic and it adds weight to your setup, but it’s much more important to keep your body hydrated and full properly than the aeroofre you provide.
RELATED: Triathlete’s guide to racing fuel for every distance
Gravel triathlon is an exciting new way to test your swimming, cycling and running strength, and offers a unique experience for triathletes looking for something a little different. While mixed pavements present new challenges and can feel daunting, a few essential skills and some exercises in driving on gravel will help you feel comfortable and confident in your first gravel run.
Like preparing for any triathlon, the key is to have fun, challenge yourself and stay consistent with your plan. Put all these pieces together and you are sure to enjoy that goal-oriented feeling of accomplishing something new.
Kristen Legan is a former pro triathlete, elite gravel racer and podium finisher, and trainer and founder of Rambleur Coaching.
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