Endurance training: Surviving the Tour


1. Torture de France

2. Breathing training

3. Incredible eating machine

4. Exercise: Healthy for you and me?

Minutes after crashing, a sweaty, determined Lance Armstrong captures the mountainous stage 15 in the 2003 Tour de France. That gritty performance provided most of his margin in his fifth Tour victory. Photo by Graham Watson, courtesy Trek Bicycle

Triki Beltran (on the right) leads (from left) Alexandre Vinokourov, Lance Armstrong, and Jan Ullrich, up a pesky little hump in the Pyrenees, during the 2003 Tour. When the tour was finished, "Vino" was #3, Ullrich was #2, and Armstrong was #1. Photo by Graham Watson, courtesy Trek Bicycle

Endurance training improves the heart, circulatory system and muscles.

Cyclist, looking pained, strains to finish race. Armstrong's trial
Will he or won't he? Will Lance Armstrong beat the odds to become the first man in history to win a sixth Tour de France? Will he again dominate the ultimate physical challenge: a 2,082 mile race that grinds up every loathsome mountain pass and formidablé series of switchbacks?

Over three weeks of highly paid, highly televised endurance, the Tour makes a marathon race look as easy as walking the dog.

Most of us would be proud to ride 2,082 miles in a lifetime, but for Lance Armstrong, Jan Ullrich and other highly motivated bike racers, the point is not just to cross the finish line but to be the fastest non-drugged rider to cross it.

As Lance Legstrong, winner of five consecutive Tours, competes for a historic sixth victory, let's step back for a second: What does it take to train for endurance events like the Tour, or for the Ironman triathlon or the Olympic marathon? Can you improve your breathing muscles? Is a low-fat diet the best fuel for endurance performance? On a more personal note, can less-intense exercise help the rest of us stay healthy?

map of 'le tour de france' route

Things have changed
In time dimly remembered, Tour de France riders slugged Beaujolais box of Gauloises (french cigarettes)from wineskins and chuffed Gauloises as they powered their way across the French countryside. bottle of BeaujolaisWe don't know how they trained, but we bet wind tunnels, heart-rate monitors, and software played a minor role when the race first hit the road a century ago.

These days, athletic training has become mind-bogglingly complex. Whether it's marathon running, endurance cycling, or the Ironman, to train right, you apparently need to know your rate of oxygen uptake, your lactate threshold, resting heart rate, maximum heart rate, even the date your condition should reach its peak.

Sounds like a delight for data hounds.

Broadly speaking, endurance sport training must improve the capacity of the circulatory system, lungs and muscles. In long-distance cycling, the body must supply sustained power for the flats, and periodic bursts for finish-line sprints and mountain stages, where the Tour is often won or lost.

To prepare for an endurance event, athletic trainers establish a schedule of gradually increasing intensity, with segments devoted to base fitness, increasing strength, endurance, and power output. As soon as the athlete is comfortable at a certain intensity, things will get harder. This forces the heart, lungs and muscles to improve.

Four cyclists in racing gear ride as a pack.

In contrast to training for strength sports like football, endurance training is intended to improve not muscle strength but rather the ability to produce power hour after hour.

Endurance training has these effects on the body:

Strengthens heart muscles

Causes the heart to pump more blood per contraction

Stimulates growth of capillaries, which deliver blood to muscles.

Forms more mitochondria in skeletal muscle cells. (These tiny structures make ATP, the chemical that powers muscle contractions).

Sparks formation of myoglobin inside muscle cells. This chemical briefly stores oxygen.

Improves balance and coordination.

Lungs matter in all sports. Can you increase the endurance of your breathing muscles?

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Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

©2004, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.