Strength training for gravel racing?

I just completed my first race of the season. It was a gravel race with two 25-mile laps (50 miles total). A good split of fire roads and rocky, rooty single track. I had a great first lap and was only a few minutes back from the leaders but then started the second lap and everything seemed to go downhill for me. My legs started cramping big time (topic for a different forum, I need to get better about on-bike nutrition) and my triceps started killing after absorbing all the shocks to the point I had a hard time point the bike in the right direction. The result was my second lap was 25 minutes slower than my first lap. To build up to this event, I did the gravel racing plan with strength training (completed Level 3 by the end of that training block). Given the lack of strength I had in my triceps, I’m thinking my strength training was not enough for this event. Recommendations on if SYSTM strength workouts are enough but I need to select higher level or do I need to do other workouts to boost some arm strength for gravel and mountain biking events?

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@Magic_velo When I read about cramping and fading in the second lap I definitely think about hydration and nutrition but also wonder about the length of your training rides leading up to the event and how acclimated you were for the race or whether the race air temperature and humidity were different than the conditions when you trained. Cramping is complex and sometimes can be the result of hydration / nutrition but sometimes it is just the muscles saying “whoa - too much being asked right now and we got confused with all of the commands”.

Did you stay close the the pace that you usually set for a similar ride or did you try to push to much? Also how much riding did you do outside pre-event or was most of your training indoors. Strength work can definitely help but getting acclimated to the overall stress on the body via outdoor rides on similar terrain when possible is also important.


Not gonna lie, I think the Systm strength workouts are a good add-on, and I like the cycling-specific leg/core work, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near enough for strength work - especially upper body. I do separate upper-body work x3 per week.


@JSampson the plan I was on had endurance rides of 3 - 4 hours on the weekends. I didn’t miss any of these rides but did them on the trainer inside due to my tendency to ride too hard when I ride outside (I think I hit 95% of my workouts over the 12 week plan). So the thought did cross my mind that I didn’t simulate the route conditions with my training.

I did some longer rides on the mountain bike last year and suffered the same symptoms (limited strength in the triceps supporting my upper body weight) so I’m going to beef up my upper body strength training regardless.

For nutrition- I was using Hammer Perpetuem (2 bottles), 1 gel, 2/3 bar, potato chips (I really needed salt after starting to cramp) and some gummies. No beers the night before but also did not focus on hydrating.

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IMO, sounds more like a matter of upper body endurance than strength. Strength is good, but endurance is different. Like developing leg/riding endurance, it takes long low-moderate efforts to develop. This is probably best done with long rides similar to those that are giving you trouble. Longer XC mtb might be a good surrogate. Similar is developing upper body and core endurance for off road motorcycling.

Reminds me of very long ago when I worked at a moving company (Atlas Van Lines) while in college. The best workers were lanky and could just go all day long. Bigger, bulkier guys weren’t as productive. It was a matter of endurance and skill rather than raw strength.


I raced an 80km gravel race at the end of last Nov with similar terrain. And then bikepacked 214km 2 weeks later which incluced 60m of crazy rough single track. Both times my arms were fine in terms of arm strength. Tired, but I could manage.

I lift heavy 3 times a week. Think working with a bar bell, free weights, and kettle bells and training to failure. :+1: Seems to work for me.

I should also add: I ride my gravel bike on stupidly rough stuff quite a bit. This likely helps as well. I remember the first time I rode 30km of single track on it. Well groomed but…pump track like. I felt like I’d spent 2 hours in a washing machine.


Having done many long gravel events and races around 140-150 miles, including Steamboat GRVL, sounds like hydration, eating more/better, and just more time on bike. I don’t think I would do well coming off a string of indoor only trainer rides into a long gravel race.

Upper body endurance/strength won’t hurt though. I do 50-100 pushups and several 1-2 minute planks 3-5 days/week, and that seems to be enough.

@Magic_velo Great compliance but going outside more probably would go a long way to solving several issues you encountered in the race. I definitely can relate to going too hard when riding outside - it is just something that needs to be kept in check and frankly if you stay disciplined on that it will be helpful for your overall race pacing. Best of luck with the rest of the season!

Welcome @Magic_velo!

I’ve found that doing plenty of core strengthening helps with my endurance in longer gravel and mountain bike events. Being able to keep some of the weight off my arms helps reduce the amount of fatigue that accumulates in them. I’ve been doing daily SYSTM yoga, daily SYSTM mobility, and one of the SYSTM strength programs.


@Saddlesaur Yes, I think you’re right. It is more strength endurance that I need and not more strength. I’m not looking for bigger muscles but lean muscles that can last the event is more inline with what I’m shooting for.

@DameLisa Your adventures sound pretty amazing! I’ve done a few gran fondos and road races but this is my first venture into longer gravel and mountain bike rides. I’m typically in the 45 minute CX races or crit races so it will take my body a little while to adapt to these longer efforts with the different muscle set.

@JSampson Yep, I think my biggest take away from everyone’s advice here is to include more race simulated terrain in advance of the next event. I’ll probably try to do that with the endurance rides so that I’m doing power training on the trainer and then the longer 3-5 hour rides outdoors in an analogous terrain. Now I just need to figure out my next event. Too much other life getting in the way with kids/family stuff for some of the events I had planned this year so I’ll keep training but it will probably be general fitness now instead of for an event. My next planned event is a 110 mile gran fondo with 11,000 ft of climbing. That’s not until September, so I need some more near term things to shoot for.

Thanks for all the great advice! I’ve been using Sufferfest for a long time but only recently joined the forum here. Cheers!


This sums up what I was going to say. I suffer the same thing on long gravel rides with soreness in my triceps. I’m on the trainer more often in the winter during gravel season and being outside actually maneuvering the bike on the terrain will strain your arms and upper body differently as compared to the trainer. Strength training is always a good addition but probably not the fix for this issue. Just get outside more and acclimate your upper body to the rigors of any long rides.

I experienced the same triceps soreness on a century that I was fit enough for but not acclimated too. I think it’s just a matter of being in the correct position for that amount of time.


Two other things that come to mind are tire (pressure) choice and bike fit.

Wider tires and/or less pressure could take some shock absorption duties off your arms and a less aggressive position could take some weight off your arms and maybe help with the weight distribution between your wheels.

Not saying you need to do either, just things to keep in mind.

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@attaquer Good thoughts. I was running 42 mm wide tires, so I don’t think that was an issue but I do think I had them inflated too much.

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