Long Distance Cycling | How to Prepare for a Long Bike Ride

Tackling a long ride is something most of us undertake sooner or later. Whether you are considering your first metric century (62 miles) or the more ambitious double century (200 miles), setting a specific goal is an important part of achieving success.

Completing a long ride can serve as a benchmark of your fitness and provides an incredibly satisfying sense of accomplishment, confirming all the hard work you’ve put in throughout your season.

To set your goal, you should look at your accomplishments to date. Your longest ride so far will give you an idea of what you can reasonably expect to achieve in the short term.

If you’ve never ridden more than 50 miles in a day, you might not want to try a double century just yet. If, however, you have ridden a metric century before and now routinely ride more than 50 miles at a time, you might consider your first century. The big day requires a bit of planning, but if you’re prepared it will be no big deal.

The Long Ride Equipment

No amount of go-fast gear will enable you to ride a distance your body is not yet ready for, but equipment disasters can surely foil an otherwise well-prepared ride.

Since you have to train for the big day, make sure that you test all the equipment you plan to use: Have a pump that works, extra tubes, a patch kit and a small tool kit handy.

Rob Kish, who has completed the nearly 3000-mile Race Across America (RAAM) 11 times (winning three of those and setting the transcontinental record), knows a thing or two about long rides.

While training for RAAM, he will do 250-mile unsupported rides. The first piece of equipment he suggests you have is an aero bar. “Back before there were aero bars, it would take my hands a month to get back to normal. I couldn’t even get a screw-top bottle open,” Kish recalled.

Because you don’t rest your upper body’s weight on your hands while using aero bars, Kish said they really do “make a big difference in comfort.”

Fellow RAAMer and four-time women’s champion (and holder of the women’s transcontinental record) Seana Hogan emphasizes the bicycle contact points as the areas to target. Hogan concurs with Kish.

“Aero bars are really important for long rides, not because of the aero position, but because of the comfort. It’s easier on the hands and shoulders,” she emphasized. The issue, according to her, isn’t aerodynamics, but pure comfort.

“You don’t want a time-trial position,” she said. Beyond the bars, Hogan says it’s important to have the best gloves that money can buy, cycling shoes and padded shorts that fit well and are comfortable.

She’s not too concerned with equipment weight. Under her saddle, she carries a tool kit that includes a Cool Tool, a spoke wrench, two tire boots, two tubes, a patch kit, an extra 5-millimeter wrench, and tire levers.

Since you’ll be increasing your weekly mileage, your bike is going to receive more wear and tear in a month than usual. If you do your own maintenance, inspect it frequently, but if your local shop performs your bike’s maintenance, you should plan on scheduling regular visits for tune-ups and overhauls.

If you plan to purchase a special piece of gear to use on your ride, buy it sooner, not later. Try it on a short ride near your home so if you have a problem, you’re not 40 miles into a 62-mile ride, stranded in the next county.

Logging the Miles

To accomplish your goal, you need to put in some solid miles over the weeks ahead. By bumping up your mileage incrementally you can stress your system enough to force it to adapt to the new load.

Increase your mileage by too much, though, and you’ll enter the zone of overtraining, where you increase your mileage by too great a margin and too frequently. The result will be fatigue and an inability to recover from your rides.

Most coaches don’t suggest increasing the length of your longest weekly ride or your weekly total miles by more than 10 percent per week. That means if your longest recent ride was 50 miles, you don’t want to jump to 75 miles this week. Likewise, if your longest weekly total was 100 miles, you don’t want to bump up your week’s mileage to 150.

Hogan believes it’s possible to increase your mileage by more than 10 percent, but you have to give yourself an opportunity to recover. She said, “I’ll increase my mileage by as much as 150 miles (from 450 to 600) in a week, but then I back off the next week to recover. I’ll ask myself ŚGee, why am I so tired?’ so then I do fewer miles.”

Toby Stanton believes the key to successful long rides is time. He should know. As coach of the G.S. Mengoni team, Stanton has guided many junior riders into national championship jerseys. Stanton says it’s important to think in terms of time, not mileage when training for a ride you will do in a group.

Because a group will ride at a higher average speed than you can ride on your own, according to Stanton, it is important to train the time you think it will take you to ride that distance in a group.

So if you think your group can finish the century in six hours, you don’t need to ride longer than six hours for your longest training ride. “Your body can’t tell how fast or how far you’ve gone, but it does know how long you’ve been on the bike. Endurance is [measured in] time,” he said.

Eat to Win

Okay, so you probably aren’t interested in racing, but to succeed you should prepare as if it was the most important ride of your life. Whatever you do, don’t buy a new energy bar/drink/gel the day before your big ride. Any ride more than two hours in length will require refueling, and if you are pushing yourself, then you should stick with an energy source that won’t upset your stomach. Your fuel of choice should be proven and reliable.

If you plan to run on the assorted goodies that you may find at an organized century’s rest stops, then you should try eating that on your training rides. Call the organizer and ask what will be served. If they plan to serve oatmeal and chocolate chip cookies, buy some the next time you stop at the store. If they’re only going to serve fruit, you need to know if you can run on apples, bananas and oranges for six hours.

One thing you can count on at an organized ride is a bountiful water supply. When Hogan and Kish do their long, solo training rides, each carries premeasured amounts (carried in separate self-sealing baggies) of their selected energy drinks so they can mix up more to drink as the day progresses.

Both Hogan and Kish stick to an all-liquid diet for their rides and, while they usually finish with a caloric deficit (they haven’t replaced everything they burned), they say the important factor is not bonking. If you plan on using a liquid diet but will still pound down the odd cookie or two, make sure you drink extra water‹energy drinks are formulated to be digested with no surplus water, so extra food in the stomach can upset the balance of carbs and the water needed to digest it.

Energy bars and gels are very popular and may represent one of the easier ways to get the calories you need while sticking with a food source friendly to your belly. Randy Ice, a cardiopulmonary physical therapist and nutrition consultant to RAAM, said his rule of thumb for eating is dictated by the weather.

“The cooler it gets the more the calories go up and the water drops,” he said.

As the temperature drops, the body’s consumption of water also drops but the caloric needs rise. While he prefers a liquid diet for long rides, he understands most people like to chew something. Ice suggests that if you want to munch on some of those oatmeal-raisin cookies at your next stop, that’s okay, but you might want to drink a little water, too.

If you are planning to do a hard ride three hours or longer, you should plan on taking in some protein, according to Ice. “There’s quite a bit of scientific info showing that branch-chain amino acids and glutamines are necessary to performance. On longer rides you dip into lean body mass,” he explained. What this means is that you will actually burn muscle. When exactly does this begin to happen? “Any event that lasts two and a half to three hours and longer and averages above 16 to 18 mph,” Ice said. The reason for this is that energy output goes up exponentially because wind resistance goes up exponentially, he explained. Because of this, a caloric deficit is practically unavoidable for anyone riding above 16 mph. Ice is careful to state that while this deficit may be unavoidable, you want to put it off as long as possible. “You want it to happen later in the ride, not earlier. Every five to 10 minutes people should be putting something into their stomachs,” he advised.

Head Games

Stanton said the best favor a rider can do himself is to take the cycling computer off the bike. “Don’t look at it as distance. It’s like driving to grandma’s and looking at the 10ths tick off on the odometer. The only thing you have to conquer is the mental game,” he said emphatically. Set reasonable goals, he suggested. “If you’ve never done the distance, don’t set a time limit. Next time you can knock an hour off. The first time it’s just doing the century. The battle is going to be not thinking about the mileage,” he said.

Kish concurred with Stanton, saying, “You have to just try to stay in the moment. If you concentrate on the finish, you’ll quit.”

Hogan tries to go someplace else altogether. “Ride someplace where you enjoy the scenery, someplace you think is beautiful. What makes a ride mentally draining is being uncomfortable. Try thinking of something happy, like family,” she advised.

The Big Day

A longest-ever ride need not necessarily be all day per se, but your chances of success do improve if you’ve given yourself room in which to work. You’ll want to set aside a day to devote to your ride. Knowing that you have to get home to mow the lawn or hang drywall will put a damper on the ride and you’ll be more likely to bail before you’ve reached your goal.

If you are doing your ride alone, you might want to plan out the route in advance. Both Hogan and Kish said they scout their routes so they know exactly where the water stops are. Kish is very selective about his stops because he doesn’t like to leave his bike unattended and he has come across sinks that are too small to fill his bottles. Also, they say a 20-mile stretch of road with no water source could spell disaster if you hit it with empty bottles. It may sound contradictory, but both claim minimizing the number and length of stops helps reduce fatigue. Those long stops allow your leg muscles to cool and stiffen, and getting back on the bike requires you to start the blood flowing through those muscles once again, which slows you down and makes you feel fatigued.

If you are doing an organized ride, remember to ride within your limits. Sure, a group will ride at a pace faster than you can set yourself, but if you are usually hammered after spending an hour in a paceline going 25 mph, then you might not want to spend your day in a group riding at 23 mph.

Whatever your goal, stick to it. Halfway through a century isn’t the time to decide you can do it in six hours and start hammering. We all have our stories of favorite rides and a few of rides we never, ever wish to repeat. If you plan it right, you can regale friends with stories of your best day.

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