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Pro workouts: Zone 2 endurance rides with James Shaw

Our British climber is building his foundation for 2024 with long hours on the bike

December 19, 2023

James Shaw is home in England’s Peak District, building his launchpad for 2024.

The base of aerobic fitness he gains now will allow him to soar to greater heights next summer, when he hopes to top his best-ever performances in the mountains. This past season was the British climber’s most successful yet. He made his Tour de France debut and fulfilled a boyhood dream by going toe-to-toe with the best riders in the Alps and Pyrenees. Although an unfortunate crash meant he had to go home before the Tour arrived in Paris, James showed himself that he has what it takes to win on cycling’s biggest stage. Now, he’s hungry to turn that promise into victories. The work to make that happen starts this winter with long rides over the moors on the country lanes where James started cycling. Zone 2 rides like these are key to a good training plan.

“Right now, I am still getting back in the swing of things, so my rides are not that intense,” James says. “It’s not that they are not challenging, but I’m not yet doing many high intensity efforts. I am a lot more focused on base work, and then spending a bit of time in the gym and doing that sort of stuff, but really it is about getting those long Zone 2 endurance rides in and trying to build my foundation for the season to come.”

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The workout

Endurance ride

3 hours in Zone 2


As your fitness increases, you can increase the duration of these rides. As James’s form improves, he will extend his up to six hours.

*Zone 2 is either 56%-75% of FTP or 69%-83% of threshold heart rate

* FTP= Functional Threshold Power, the maximum power output you could maintain for one hour, which is approximately equivalent to your best 20-minute effort, minus 5%.

*Threshold HR= the maximum average heart rate you could maintain for one hour.

James builds his endurance progressively. After the off-season, he is often tempted to go out and smash long ride after long ride, but he knows that he needs to increase his workload steadily and give himself enough time to rest and recover to build his strength. Otherwise, he will just tire himself out and make himself more susceptible to illness and injury.

“We start out with rides around three hours, and then we work towards five, six hours and add structure a little bit more each week,” James says. “The body needs to recognize an increase in load, so if you just go straight in on six hours, six hours, six hours, you get a good adaptation to it, but your body does not recognize that increase in stress. If you stress your body a little bit, it will be like, ah yeah, I will adapt to that, and then you stress it a little bit more, and it will be like, ah yeah, I will adapt to that, and then you add a little bit more, and it adapts that little bit more, whereas if you just go in bam, you get a big adaptation but no continuous improvement, so it is better to do it in bite-size pieces instead of trying to do it all in one go. I start at two and a half to three hours, and we work towards those big five or six hour rides. Some guys like to go a full seven hours eventually, but for me I tend to get towards about six and that is, not my limit, but maybe the limit of my concentration.

Training Benefit

Zone 2 endurance rides are the foundation of any successful training plan. Efforts at higher intensities are necessary to build peak power, but pros still spend 80%-90% of their training time riding at an endurance pace in order to increase the capacity of their aerobic engines. At these lower intensities, the body primarily burns fat for fuel. Zone 2 rides stimulate mitochondrial growth and function in slow-twitch muscle fibers, improving your body’s fat-burning efficiency. This preserves glycogen, your body’s other main source of fuel and its prime source for harder efforts. The better you are at burning fat, the more glycogen you will have left to make a winning attack at the end of a race. Slow-twitch muscle fibers also play a key role in clearing lactate, which is a byproduct of harder, glycogen-burning efforts. The better your slow-twitch muscle fibers function, the better able you will be to match attacks late in a race. And the best way to improve the function of those muscle fibers is with Zone 2 endurance rides.

Pro Tips

For James, winter endurance rides bring him back to the kind of cycling that made him fall in love with the sport in the first place. Out on his home lanes, he’ll often ride with friends, continuing on for an extra hour or three by himself after they have called it quits. He keeps himself in check on the climbs, but doesn’t focus too much on his power numbers.

“For the most part, it is definitely just a matter of going out and riding your bike,” James says. “I go out on the road, and if I get to a climb and I have to go a little bit harder, I don’t mind doing that. Obviously you get a bit of a rest on the other side, but it’s key to keep the reins on it. You don’t want to go ballistic and start racing people, not in December anyways.”

For James, it is important to stay calm, accept where his fitness is at the moment, without trying to rush himself into form.

“Maybe, I am one of the guys who lets myself go a little too much in the off season,” he says. “Maybe I partied a little too hard and ate and drank a little too much, so always the first weeks back on the bike, I struggle a bit. I just find I’m treading treacle and ask myself, how on earth am I a professional athlete? But after a week, things start to look a bit more rosy and by two weeks in I am starting to feel like my old self. Often I will have to ride my mountain bike to take my mind off being so unfit, just to sort of get my head in the game for a bit.”

Soon, James’s pedal stroke starts to feel more fluid and powerful as his three-hour rides turn into rides of five or six hours. In the winter, he makes sure to have fun with his training.

“I love doing these rides,” James says. “They are reminiscent of why I got into bike riding, of the roads and going out and it being cold and then coming back and falling asleep on the couch all afternoon with the football on in the background, sort of very nostalgic memories of why I got into bike riding out in the Peak District National Park. You manage the weather. You go out and get yourself a really sturdy set of mud guards, go get yourself some robust, grippy, wet weather tires, because you also don’t want to be stood by the side of the road, changing an inner tube for the third, fourth time in a day, because you will freeze to death on the top of the moors. You put on your winter kit, but accept that you are never going to win against the weather of the winter in the Peak District. It always beats you.”

James takes those beatings happily now, because next summer, he wants to win.

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