Mark Allen analysis: Gravel riding can bring big triathlon gains

Six-times IRONMAN World Champion Mark Allen joins us again for his regular ‘Mondays With Mark Allen’ feature to illustrate how thinking outside the box and adding some cross-training into your routine can produce significant gains.

Gravel riding, gravel racing, is such an amazing opportunity for people. Let me explain why.

When you’re trying to get ready for any kind of sporting event, one of the things that is good to do is broaden your base of overall fitness.

If you do cycling that is slightly different than what you’ll be doing on the road – a little more demanding in a certain way – then that will help you be stronger and faster and more fit.

And gravel riding is such an amazing way to actually do that, to accomplish it. And here’s a couple of reasons:

  • It’s different than mountain biking, which clearly develops your skills at bike handling. You’re on single track. You’re going up and down. It’s harder to regulate your heart rate, though. You’re really high and then it’s really low. And you can crash kind of easy.
  • And when you’re riding your bike [on the road], obviously, you have to concentrate a lot on the traffic. If you’re on a stationary trainer, great focus, great concentration. But it’s not real world.
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Added benefits of gravel

However, when you’re out there on gravel, you have an extra load on your legs that you just normally don’t have compared to a smoother surface.

Not only do you get more physical strength out of it, but you can also kind of dial in that focus because there’s less traffic first of all, so you don’t have to worry about that.

The second thing is most gravel riding is not super-technical. So you can kind of get into that rhythm, into that focus where you are really experiencing your body and how different effort levels feel to you and how you can push through some areas where maybe you didn’t think you could go any harder.

Give it a go

We’ve had stars like Alistair Brownlee recently enjoy what he called an “incredible experience” at the Badlands race, as well as claiming a title at the British Gravel Championships. I didn’t have this opportunity when I was racing but I wish I had.

Let me tell you why.

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In 1990, I did an off-road mountain bike race and an off-road triathlon in Chile and then on Easter Island. It was kind of a combo trip.

The mountain bike race was a several-stage race. It was all on mountain bikes, but it was all on gravel. There was nothing technical about it. So for three days we were in that rhythm where you were going really hard, didn’t have to worry about traffic. We’re really getting a load on the legs and it was just dialling in that steady focus that you need to stay on task when you’re out there in a race that really helped me.

And then doing the off-road triathlon on Easter Island – very cool by the way – that really helped me to put that together.

And later in the year – 1990 – I won the IRONMAN World Championship by the biggest margin that I ever had in my entire career. I beat Scott Tinley by about nine and a half minutes.

Was it just from those particular races? No, but certainly they added to it.

USA Triathlon have just announced the ‘2022 Gravel Triathlon Series’ which are a lot of varying distances, more or less around Olympic distance events so if you have the opportunity, check them out and do them.

It will totally enhance your strength and ability and it’s also a great excuse to get a new bike!

Mark Allen
Written by
Mark Allen
Mark Allen has to be in any conversation about the greatest triathlete of all time. A six-time IRONMAN World Champion, he won every other title that mattered in the sport and dominated like few others
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