How to Unbound: Ian Boswell’s Training Year Story

The leading group rides on the gravel roads of Unbound Gravel surrounded by the green of Emporia, Kansas

After some difficult years as a professional road cyclist, Ian Boswell catapulted himself to one of the best Gravel Racers in the American Offroad Scene. By Gravel, Boswell rediscovered his joy and love for riding and racing his bike.

With this newfound passion for cycling, he became the 2021 Unbound winner. 

Well, Unbound Gravel isn’t “just” a race. Unbound is the ultimate challenge. Unbound is the one race to rule them all. No surprise Unbound attracts Gravel Racers from around the globe. Over the years, Unbound drew so much attention that even World Tour Pros took their chance at the race. An increase in the level of competition seems logical. 

Now, the one-million-dollar question is how do you prepare for a 200-mile race (330km)? What should your Unbound training plan look like, and how hard is Unbound Gravel really? 

To get a clear picture of the demands of Unbound, I will take you through Ian Boswell’s whole prep for Unbound 2022, where he finished third. 

By the way, the 2022 edition was the fastest ever in the race’s young history. 

The Overall Training Year

Ian Boswell takes a rather unconventional approach to training. Instead, of looking at power he’s looking at speed. With this focus on speed, he’s replicating the speed of gravel racing. 

Now, elite racers complete the distances at around 20 mph (32kmh+). This race pace approach adds lots of specificity to Boswell’s training. In the end, gravel racing is about who can ride at Tempo the most and attack from there. 

Apart from that, Boswell also completes structured work. Especially, during winter due to his residence he reduces training volume. To compensate, he engages in lots of Wahoo SYSTM interval sessions. Thereby, he stays entertained and focused. 

Furthermore, to prep for the 2022 season Boswell completed two training camps, where we will take a closer look. His lead-up race for Unbound was Gravel Locos. This race evolved into the final test before Unbound for many athletes in recent years. 

However, Ian Boswell is not a typical off-road racer. He entered the Gravel scene with a significant world tour background. Coming off 25-30 hour weeks and Grand Tours this dude has a big engine. But, Boswell is still training 15-20+ hours per week in season, I mean Unbound isn’t won on its own. 

Now, on to the nitty-gritty details.

Ian Boswell’s Training Year Periodisation

Here’s to how Ian Boswell periodized his season. We’ll look at Boswell’s full prep from the end of October until Unbound in June.

1. Winter Fitness Maintenance

Boswell entered Fall and Winter with a successful season behind him. Above all, becoming the 2021 Unbound 200 Winner. 

However, the off-season is no easy task for Boswell. He lives in Vermont. Which is quiet in the north. Meaning summer is short, while winter is even longer. Heavy snow and low temps are a logical consequence. 

Accordingly, long rides are not the first choice. Instead, indoor training is on the agenda.   

So, the focus during the off-season is maintenance. However, Boswell didn’t hold back on interval sessions. He performed 1-2 harder Wahoo SYSTM workouts per day, all at around tempo. A session he did often was a 7x3min Tempo or 8x3min sub-threshold. Especially, the double sessions remind me of the Norwegian double threshold days. Yet, Boswell used every opportunity to ride outside and gather hours. 

A Winter week that stood out to me was Nov. 15th til 21st 21, where Boswell performed 4-5 intensity sessions in a week. While, the literature suggests 2-3 interval sessions per week, we know from block periodization that an overload week can cause a good stimulus. And as Boswell is a highly trained athlete he needs a higher training density. 

Consequently, a strategy for cyclists that are tight on time could be to incorporate a high-intensity week, when training time is limited. 

Training hard indoors, though, Boswell added Tempo runs to his schedule and completed the Woodstock Turkey 5k in sub 18min. All these runs added additional training stress during the low-volume weeks. 

While Boswell has no coach, he still gets a lot of things right. Even the maintenance phase fits the scientific literature. Because if you’re short on time the two most important factors to maintain performance are frequency and intensity. Boswell executed both well, training 5-6 times a week and including intensity. In addition, from a study by Ronnestad and colleagues, we know how vital some intensity is during the off-season to get a breakthrough in the season. 

This phase lasted till January and Boswell trained 88 hours from October til the end of December. On average, he trained 5-6 hours per week. Nonetheless, he spent as much time outside on the bike as the weather allowed. 

2. Winter Base

Back in January, the snow broadened in Vermont. Boswell added skiing to his plan and included rides on the fat bike. That way, he could increase training volume to around 10 hours per week with a good blend of endurance and intensity. However, tempo and threshold intervals defined his days during base. 

A typical day would be a ski session for 2 hours and an interval session on the smart trainer. 

He maintained this rhythm until a big training camp in February. 

And yet again Boswell is on a good path to get faster. During base, he increased training volume and got ready for a spring full of proper rides. During base, he built the foundation for what was to come. 

Big Miles in Floyd’s Training Camp 

Floyd’s training camp lasted 7 days straight. In addition to that Boswell did a pre-camp ride of 1h13m at 240w average power. In total, he trained 29h43m during that intense week of training. Just a typical week pro cyclists do in a training camp. 

Now, let’s take these days one by one. 

Day #1: Endurance Ride

On day one the group completed a 4h endurance ride with 1751m of elevation gain. Nothing crazy at 189w average power, 223 NP. The ride lasted 3h55m which equals 2673 kJ of work.

Day #2: Hilly Endurance Ride With Tempo

Day two was a 4h50m hilly ride with some tempo. The tempo work caused a Variability Index (VI) of 1.25 with an average power of 203w and NP at 254w. Boswell produced 3550 kJ, almost 1000 kJ more than on day one. 

Day #3: Monster Ride With Long Intervals

On day 3 Boswell takes training density to a new level. He did 6h03m at 246w average power, 274w NP equal to 5212 kJ of work. The ride contained 3.721m of elevation gain, which is a lot. In the first interval, Boswell rode for 39 minutes at 324 watts. In the middle of the ride, it was just 5 minutes at 311 watts. However, in the end, after more than 4.5 hours of hard riding, Boswell finished it off with 50 minutes at 326 watts. 

Day #4: Recovery Ride

Nothing crazy just cruising. 2h4m at 177w average power with 1002m of elevation gain. Active recovery for an engine like Boswell.

Day #5: Hill Intervals

On day 5 of the camp hill intervals were on the menu. Boswell completed the 4.5-hour ride at 259w average, 298 NP, produced 4189 kJ, and gathered 2859m of elevation. The first interval was 1h6m long with an average power of 352w. It wasn’t a constant one yet, as Boswell increased the power to 376w for 9min after 50min done at 340 watts. The second interval was 12min at 352w, and the third interval at 333w for 6.5min. All in all, a pretty hard sweet spot-ish ride.

Day #6: Diesel Day

Kind of a Fatmax/LT1 day for Boswell with 3.5h and 2004m elevation gain, done at 244w (265 NP). Yet again, a decent amount of work was done with 3050 kJ. 

Day #7: Easy Endurance with a bit of Tempo

On the last day of the camp, Boswell did a 4h15m endurance ride with an average power of 186 and NP of 236w. He gained 2.459m of elevation and accumulated 2858kj. The VI is high at 1.27 due to some Tempo on the climbs. 

That’s a wrap for the training camp with almost 30h hours of training, 15049m of elevation gain, and 871km done. So, the stats look similar to a proper world tour training camp. 

The big hard rides Boswell does a lot of to mimic race demands

Huge Spring Build Towards Unbound

Returning to his base, Boswell went to Wahoo Systm intensity, before easing into a rest week at the end of February. The rest week is suited nicely as the “Vuelta Tequila” is coming up in March. March is the time when Boswell holds his weekly volume at around 15-25 hours till Unbound.

1. Vuelta Tequila Camp

The Vuelta Tequila is more of a journey rather than a training camp. And with just 3 days it’s quite short. However, it’s 3 days of very hard riding. 

Here’s to Boswell’s stats…

Vuelta Tequila Day #1: Tempo Grind

  • Ride time: 4h39m
  • Distance: 151.5 km
  • Power: 256w average, 272 NP
  • Work done: 4.295 kJ
  • Intervals: 30min at 306w average
  • Elevation gain: 1953m 

Vuelta Tequila Day #2:

  • Ride time: 6h20m
  • Distance: 168.9 km
  • Power: 243w average, 279 NP
  • Work done: 5.557 kJ
  • Intervals: 1. 36m @319w, 
  • Elevation gain: 3981m

Vuelta Tequila Day #3:

  • Ride time: 5h20m
  • Distance: 153.7 km
  • Power: 253w average, 272 NP
  • Work done: 4.863 kJ
  • Intervals: Lots of Tempo @270-300w 
  • Elevation gain: 2884m 

A pattern we see here again is Boswell’s ability to accumulate a vast amount of kJ and average power on consecutive days. He does so with a good amount of tempo, whether deliberate or unconscious. But this is highly specific to the type of racing he does. And we will look at it a little later. 

Getting into peak shape is a long ongoing process. However, everyone knows the key sessions. Everyone has their form finder rides that they feel make all the difference. 

Ian Boswell has his ones. Let’s talk about that now.

2. High Volume Buck Fifty Race Week

Talking about key sessions the Buck Fifty Race week stands out to me. Buck Fifty included, Boswell rode a total of 19h20m and almost 600km that week. 

The first hard ride took 3h15m, with 106.5km, 1.448m of elevation, and an average power of a whopping 280w and NP over 312w. As a result, Boswell produced 3.288 kJ which includes hard sweet spot and threshold efforts. 

The second hard day was his Buck Fifty recon ride. Though, pancake flat, Boswell averaged 247w (257 NP) for the 131.5km and 4h16m ride. While the session was very consistent he still produced 3.797 kJ two days out from the Croatan Buck Fifty. 

In the Buck Fifty, he beats Dylan Johnson in the final Sprint after more than 7 hours of racing. 

Here are Boswell’s stats:

  • Race Time: 7h11m
  • Race Distance: 241.78 km
  • Elevation: 206m
  • Power: 206w average, 243 NP, 944w max power
  • Work done: 6.303 kJ
  • VI: 1.18 – shows lots of attacks

Now, this is what I’m talking about with Boswell’s training strategy. He completes many rides with that huge kJ where he comes close to race demands. And this is the key here: In events longer than 2 to 3 hours you will spend a lot of time in zone 3. In addition, zone 3 yields the opportunity to quickly build up high kilojoules and replicate energy demands during a race. And while zone 2 would take forever to accumulate those kJs, high intensity above LT2 would result in too-high fatigue.

Huge training hours during Croatan Buck Fifty Race Week

3. HIT Max Efforts 

The second key session is one of the few sessions where Boswell made all-out efforts. He did the ride on March 30th and with 2h30m it was a shorter one. While the ride looks average with 73km and 1473m of elevation, the power data is outstanding. 

The average power for the ride was 248w, with 330w NP, and 2248 kJ of work. Boswell completed 5 efforts to make that turbo spin and here they are:

  1. 5.5min at 480w average
  2. 4.5min at 474w average
  3. 5.5min at 459w average
  4. 4.5min at 488w average
  5. 3.5min at 492w average

So, there are some conclusions we can draw from the low frequency of HIT sessions Boswell did. 

Firstly, pro cyclists probably are close to their VO2max ceiling. Secondly, research suggests that you only need a few HIT sessions to see adequate improvements. Lastly, adaptations from HIT sessions don’t result in VO2max improvements only. HIT sessions train your fast-twitch muscle fibers and result in improved lactate removal and buffering capacity. Both are essential components for the level of competition in gravel racing.

Boswell’s crazy power numbers after 2h17m of hard training

4. Big Rasputitsa Gravel Win

Another Gravel race another win for Ian Boswell at Rasputitsa Dirt. The race took place on the 30th of April. Leading up to the event was a solid month of training with a great amount of hard enduring rides. 

Now, Rasputitsa is a shorter race with “just” 92km. However, the shorter the distance, the higher the intensity. Boswell completed the course in 2h56m with an average power of 282w and an NP of 338w. That’s huge. And the race started fast. Shortly after the start, there was a surge that took Boswell 489w over a minute.

The race-winning move from Boswell came late in the race by riding 453w for almost 6 minutes. 

So, just a month away from Unbound Gravel 2022 Boswell was on a great way to put his mark on the race again. 

And with one last test coming up at Gravel Locos he was more than ready.

5. Unbound Tune-Up Race: Gravel Locos

For many athletes, including Ian Boswell, Gravel Locos in Hico evolved into the final preparation race before Unbound. Because with just around two weeks out from the big goal it’s placed perfectly on the calendar. Additionally, its length of 250km (150 miles) and its profile are the perfect opportunities to test out your gear, as well as your hydration and nutrition strategy. 

However, Gravel Locos 2022 couldn’t be held as usual. Moriah Wilson’s death overshadowed the race. May her soul rest in peace. May the cycling world remember her. 

With these circumstances, Gravel Locos wasn’t just a race. It was a remembrance. It was a ride for peace. 

Jasper Ockeleon won the race, while Boswell sprinted to 6th place in a group of seven. 

The race lasted 7h4m of riding time with 2116m of elevation, an average power of 239w, and an NP* of 291w. Boswell produced 6.078 kJ. The VI* was 1.22 due to attacks mid-race with surges beyond 500w. However, the race decision came with 700w attacks after more than 6.5 hours of racing. If you want to keep up with the best, you need to develop that fatigue resistance. Fresh power numbers won’t do the job. And if you followed closely, you saw that Boswell included that in his sessions. 

What I find very interesting up to now is how good Boswell is at recovering. 

The Fastest Ever Unbound Gravel

The 2022 Garmin Unbound Gravel manifested itself as the fastest-ever edition. Dutchman Ivar Slik got away with the win in 9h22m. Boswell came in 3rd a second behind the winner.

For the 200-mile race, Boswell had an average power of 258w, and an NP of 296w. He produced a whopping 8.651 kJ of work. Riders had to overcome almost 3000m of elevation till the finish line. 

#A Few Words on Substrate Utilization

With the metabolic efficiency in cycling, we can assume that 1 kJ roughly equals 1 kilocalorie. Therefore, Boswell burned around 8.651 kilocalories. If he was able to take in 100 grams of carbs per hour, he would consume around 950 grams of carbs in total. As 1g of carb equals 4 kilocalories that’s 3.800 kilocalories worth of energy. So, half of Boswell’s energy production comes from exogenous carbs. Consequently, you see how crucial a proper nutrition and hydration strategy is for Unbound.

Now, a trained athlete can store around 100g of carbs in the liver and 500-700g of carbs in the muscles. That would add another 2.000-2.800 kilocalories of energy to the equation. And again you see how important it is to keep your glycogen stores filled before such a big event.

What about the residual energy, I mean we still have a gap of 2.851-2.051 kilocalories to fill. Well, the rest will come from fats and proteins. However, our fat stores are sufficient while our carbohydrate stores are limited, so keep your carbs in mind for your next event.

#Unbound 200 Race Analysis

In the leading group, the race was very intense. Especially, because a bigger group rode away, the tempo was higher. On Towers Climb, around 30 km in the race, Boswell averaged 396w for almost 18min. That is insane power considering how long and difficult the race is. But it also demonstrates what kind of a great racer Ian Boswell is. A year after his win at Unbound he was back in the lead. He was back in great shape. He was ready to adapt to the higher level of competition. 

Of course, when we look at the second half of the race, the power dropped significantly. And this is a typical scenario for ultra-endurance events. 

However, what is outstanding to me is how great Boswell is at handling accumulated fatigue. After 9 hours of racing, he was able to surge 600-800w. Then, on the last climb right before the finish,  the Highland Hill, Boswell rode 496w for 34s. And in the final sprint for the win, after 9h22m Boswell reached his max power of the day of 910w to finish 3rd. 

I hope you have a good idea now of what it takes to keep up with the best gravel racers in the world. Because the whole training process already starts a year earlier and is built on top of that season. In the end, training is a long and ongoing process, yet the most crucial one for success. Because the fitter you are the better your odds of handling adversity in such a long and difficult race. The fitter you are the better your ability to recover and adapt to training. 

The demands of being in the leading group at Unbound Gravel 200 2022

Ian Boswell’s Training Advice

While Boswell is not a coach and training himself, I think he has some good ideas about training we can take away.

Because Boswell said something profound. He thinks that many pros are “overtrained” and sees training as a bell curve. And it’s at the top of the bell, where you’re training just right to make constant progress, yet create enough stimulus. And when we look at how many hours pro cyclists ride there’s some truth in Boswell’s argument. More is not always better. Just because you can handle the training load doesn’t mean you should. Ultimately, what you want is for your training to transfer into race performance. 

And one thing Boswell executes well is training density. He suggests one big ride instead of a more evenly distributed week. In addition to that he always practices his race nutrition and takes care of his carb intake.

And so it seems like Ian Boswell just sits at the top of his bell curve. It seems like he’s right where he wants to be. It seems like he and his bike are inseparable.

Learning From The Best

Now, if we want to improve as cyclists a good way to do so is by looking at what the best in the game do. 

Boswell has proven that with commitment and determination, we can adapt to anything. By the end of his pro road career Boswell started working at Wahoo. More so, he is a father and a husband. But yet, he tries to be his best. That’s why Boswell is a great example for many athletes who need to balance life with their love for riding and racing bikes.

Short on time? Did life punch you right in the face? Try to maintain fitness and focus on frequency and intensity. Preparing for your next big Gravel event? Go out and get this big hard ride done to mimic your race event. But we’ve seen that to master Unbound you don’t need to log in a 10-14 hour ride. Instead, focus on more hard 5-6 hour rides, maybe. And as I’m a huge advocate of adding spice to meals, and you probably too, don’t forget to add some spice in your rides as Boswell did. A standard 5x3min VO2max workout gets the job done. 

All in all, succeeding, in the long run, is about training consistently and living a healthy lifestyle. But more importantly, doing so without being obsessed with numbers. You better save that for the after-race party.

Because at the end of the day, the question is, what do you prefer? Higher numbers or better racing?


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Resources

  1. Ian Boswell’s Strava Profile
  2. Wahoo Fitness – By The Numbers: Ian Boswell’s Unbound Win
  3. https://www.unboundgravel.com/
  4. Fundamentals of glycogen metabolism for coaches and athletes
  5. Glycogen availability and skeletal muscle adaptations with endurance and resistance exercise
  6. The Scientific Basis for High-Intensity Interval Training
  7. Skeletal muscle buffering capacity and endurance performance after high-intensity interval training by well-trained cyclists
  8. Training for intense exercise performance: high-intensity or high-volume training?
  9. Influence of Interval Training Frequency on Time-Trial Performance in Elite Endurance Athletes
  10. Does Lactate-Guided Threshold Interval Training within a High-Volume Low-Intensity Approach Represent the “Next Step” in the Evolution of Distance Running Training?
  11. HIT maintains performance during the transition period and improves next season performance in well-trained cyclists
  12. Training the Gut for Athletes
  13. Training Fast Twitch Muscle Fibers: Why and How
  14. Case Report: Load, Intensity, and Performance Characteristics in Multiple Grand Tours
  15. Maintaining Power Output with Accumulating Levels of Work Done Is a Key Determinant for Success in Professional Cycling
  16. Durability and repeatability of professional cyclists during a Grand Tour
  17. Pyramidal Training Intensity Distribution: Relationship with a Half-Ironman Distance Triathlon Competition
  18. What is the Best Way to Train to Become a Star Endurance Athlete?

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