I’ve had experience training for long distance rides, and kind of stumbled onto a format that works for me. I used my old marathon training plans, any resources I could find online, and asked questions of other friends who ultracycle to come up with something that has worked well for me.
I recently had a friend send me a question via Facebook — it went something like this —
Melissa, you’re the only person I know that has participated in something of this scale. [She included a link to a long distance, multi-day ride — more on the details in a bit.] How do you prepare for it?
My first thought was, who me?! I don’t know crap. Maybe I should refer her to a REAL ultra distance cyclist, or a certified coach? In my little world, I’m surrounded by many other cyclists that have done much more gnarly and impressive events than anything I’ve done so far. Rides that I aspire to do in the years to come, in fact, and things I consider daunting and downright stunning.
The more I mulled over the question, I began to appreciate how my ability to ride long distances has grown since I started cycling regularly four years ago. I’ve gone through a quick period of growth, going from a newbie who was ecstatic to complete my first roadie century in 2014 to a rider who thought it was totally reasonable to ride 380 off-road miles in 3 days in 2016, just two short years later.
I’m naturally an analytical person and I over think everything, which in this situation is a good thing. I’d reflect on training rides each week and scrutinize what went well and what didn’t, treating each ride as an experiment to figure out what worked best for me. The next ride provided a new experimental platform to test a brand new hypothesis. Repeat this for a few years, and it really helped me dial in what I needed to do to complete long rides well. It also helped that I loved the longer distance riding, and found that my body excelled at it compared to other types of shorter, faster paced rides.
After a few days reflecting on my friend’s question and the thoughts outlined in the paragraphs above, I agreed to answer her as best I could. I asked if she objected if I made it a blog post, and she said go right ahead!
My Friend’s Ride
First, some details about her ride — it’s 500 miles in 5 days, with the mileage split fairly evenly across those 5 days of back to back riding. The route isn’t very hilly, with most days having an elevation gain around 500-600 ft/day with the exception of one day in the middle with 3000 ft of climbing. The route is on pavement and the riders have full SAG support — mechanics available, repair miscellanea on the SAG vehicle, and the option to hitch a ride if their legs give out. There are planned rest stops and places to eat and refuel along each day’s route, and riders will sleep in a hotel each night. Also, she has multiple months to prepare since the ride is in the spring of 2018. Perfect!
I feel like I first need to say that I am NOT an expert (if that wasn’t already clear!), I’m not a coach, I’m not professionally trained — just a cycling hobbyist that can now ride for hours upon hours while generally having a blast and usually not bonking. Ok, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, we can begin. 😉
The first thing that most people look at when contemplating a “long” ride (that means something different to everyone, but usually it involves reaching a new daily distance or multi-day distance you’ve never been near before!) is mileage. How many miles over how much time?
To help me prepare for the 380 mile Alexander, I scoured the internet for ultracycling training plans. Coming from a brief running background, I was used to following a very prescriptive marathon training plan with goal paces for each run, specified workouts, long runs, rest weeks, etc. Since I’ve started cycling I’ve found its harder to find workout plans quite like this so I tend to mock-up something on my own after doing a little online research. I found a now-deleted ultracycling guide that had basic recommendations on training for 12-24 hour races. This isn’t exactly what my friend is doing or what I was doing, but we’ll start with that concept.
The site recommended a gradual build, with general guidelines as follows —
- Increase weekend “long ride” distance by about 10% each week, topping out at 66-75% of your long ride distance.
- Factor in a lower intensity rest week every few weeks. Recommendations vary, but depending on your body, how hard you’re pushing your limits, and your age, consider adding in a rest week after 3-4 weeks of consistent training.
- Plan for a midweek long ride of 30-50% of your target distance.
- Add in a day or two of intentional training rides — if your course is hilly, work on hill repeats at a faster pace than your long rides, for example.
- Schedule in a multi-week taper (2-3 weeks) where you ramp down your distance in preparation for the big event. This means your longest training ride should be 2-3 weeks before the start of your event.
I recommend training on the terrain you’ll race on when possible, taking into consideration road surface and elevation changes. However, it may not be feasible for off-road events. The bumpy terrain may beat up your body too much to get all your miles on it, singletrack may be closed due to rain, or maybe you’re out of town and away from your ideal training grounds. In addition to mileage goals for rides, I also calculated a rough guess of how LONG each training ride should be in hours, not just miles. If I was riding pavement instead of gravel, I’d need more miles to hit my required number of hours.
Time on the Bike & Fueling
We talk a lot about miles, but the time it takes to complete them will vary A LOT. I found that road running was more consistent in pacing, and cycling was all over the place. As a new cyclist, I quickly discovered I needed to plan out fueling strategies considering time more than miles. A rough section of off-road hike-a-bike could see you slugging along at under 3 miles per hour. Riding in a fast pack of road riders could see you zooming along well above 20 miles per hour. Huge difference!
Each rider has their own preferences for how to manage caloric intake, fluids, and electrolytes. I like to handle mine separately so I can fine tune each element.
- See what your body needs for different amounts of time on the bike. I find that my fueling strategy for 4 hour rides is MUCH different from when I train for all day events. I can tolerate more of the traditional “energy foods” and gels on 4 hour rides, but once I start to miss a meal or two I need more protein and fat in my fuels.
- Consider what foods will be available to you on your event day and work them into your training rides. I knew most of my food on the Alexander would come from gas stations and fast food locations and that I’d be digesting on the bike, so I went on weeknight training rides with a specific goal of eating dinner halfway through at a gas station, and then continuing on my ride. Too much tomato sauce spells death for me, but for others gas station pizza is a life saver. I also discovered a love of strawberry milk and potato chips.
- How much do you sweat, and how hot could it be at your event? Don’t forget you need liquids too when it’s cold out even if drinking sounds miserable. Figure out your liquids strategy (I tend to think in number of bottles per X number of hours) and go from there. Some sites have recommendations for weighing your body before and after a long ride to get an idea of how close your hydration is to meeting what you’ve lost.
- I sweat a TON, often buckets more than other riders. The traditional sugary sports drinks give me gut rot if I drink enough of them to manage my hydration needs, so I needed to find another solution to keep increasing my ride distances. I started taking what I call “salt tabs” during rides and drinking more plain water. Everybody has their favorite thing, and mine is Hammer Endurolytes or Endurolytes Extreme for “stupid long rides”.
- I have figured out about how many tabs I need per # of hours in hot weather and anything under. Experiment with the tablets on training rides. Another thing to consider is hyper-hydration before your event — google it! It’s very easy to under or overdo it though, so don’t try anything new near race day.
- I have a handful of chemical / food intolerances so my options are limited, but ask your training buddies for what works for them! Maybe they’ll even give you a sample to try before you invest in a whole container or package of something.
The Multi-Day Aspect
My friend’s ride is 5 back to back days of riding centuries, basically. The training information above only takes into account doing ONE really long ride. If you have the luxury of time, plan on riding a few back to back long or hard days to see how your body adapts. You will feel like shit when you first get on the bike. Your whole body will scream that you need to stop and retreat to the couch — pedal through it, at least for the first 20-30 minutes. I find that after I’m warmed up, I still hurt but the pain fades and things are manageable. Your body has a very strong self-preservation instinct and won’t like your first few forays into day-after-day hard riding. Still, pay attention, you MAY be injured and need to skip your ride – learn your body. I’m still trying to figure my body’s signals out! If your training was solid, long rides are often made successful due to sheer mental determination. Get tough, and practice riding in non-ideal conditions so you don’t lose your mind when a rainstorm whips up during your event.
Another thing to pay attention to during training is what you can get away with the night before long rides. This will especially apply to the “in between” nights for multi-day events — can you drink a beer or two and feel ok riding the following day? (I usually can’t.) Can you fall asleep after a hard day of riding so you can pound out more miles the next day? (I can’t, I need a sleep aid or I can’t amp down.) How heavy of a meal can you eat, how will you replenish your calories and fluids and feel your best the next day? I have suggestions if anybody would like – comment below!
Supported vs. Unsupported
Repairs and Bike Maintenance
My friend is fortunate in that she’ll have mechanics in the SAG vehicles, ready to help with bike repairs, If you’re doing an unsupported event, decide what level of bike repairs you’re comfortable doing on the side of the road. I’ve been known to “waste” a few CO2 cartridges in the days before an event remembering how to use my CO2 inflator. My last flat on a ride occurred at 5:30 AM, in the dark with temperatures near freezing, and I was struggling to use my CO2 inflator with my numb hands and also wasn’t smart enough to pack a headlamp in addition to my bike’s headlight, so it was a disaster. Like the newbie I was, I also didn’t bring a PUMP along and ended up bumming one from of my riding companions. I had to deal with a slow-leaker tube the whole day (long story) and at one point I was separated from the group, terrified as to what I’d do out in the middle of nowhere. They took pity on me and decided that whoever was the current lantern rouge would carry the pump, acting as a sweeper for the riders in front should they flat and need the pump.
Regardless of whether your ride is supported or not, you’ll want some supplies. Bring single use packets of chamois cream! Seriously! I bought a small tub of vaseline from a Wal-Mart out of desperation once. Worked great at the time, but the chamois was NOT HAPPY and it oozed petroleum jelly for weeks. Yuck. If things get really bad I’ve used numbing cream to stay moderately happy on the bike.
How will you carry your food, fluids, and electrolytes? Will the SAG vehicle pull up when you beckon? Are the planned stops close enough that you don’t need to pack much, or will you go for hours without a resupply and need a giant seatbag, camelbak, or frame bag?
Do you have or need a packable rain jacket? Arm or leg warmers? Arm or leg coolers? Casual shoes for off the bike? Extra shorts? A casual outfit for at night to get you out of your chamois for a little while?
Mistakes I Made (and still make …)
I underestimate the value of a good rest and recovery week. When looking back at my Alexander training plan, I didn’t factor in down weeks during my training. I blew up at a few events, unable to complete the distances. That REALLY shook my confidence going into the Alexander and that’s not what you need when trying to break your own personal distance record!
I didn’t bring a pump (see story above!) and wasn’t prepared to convert my bike to a single speed when I ripped off my derailleur in the middle of the night. (Nope, never finished the Alexander during the actual event. I hope to have another chance in the years to come.)
I forget how to fuel, what to eat, how much chamois cream to use, and all that crap when it’s been a while since I’ve done a longer ride. Don’t beat yourself up too much if your execution isn’t perfect — keep pedaling and hope to complete your event, even if it’s not the beautiful triumphant finish you planned. The chaos makes for better stories anyway — that I can promise you. 😉