Unless you’re into TT, cycling is an endurance sport where going the distance is more important than your top speed. Of course, if you can combine the two and cycle further and faster, all the better!
To get the most out of a day in the saddle, we need to be comfortable in our position, comfortable with the bike and comfortable with the distance you’re planning to cover. Like any challenge, you don’t just launch into it, you build up to it.
Getting comfortable in your position on the bike is imperative and is covered in ‘How to make your bike more comfortable’. Being comfortable with the bike is about your position and your confidence in its ability to cover the distance. Read ‘Essential pre-ride checks’ to get your bike ready for distance.
Getting comfortable with the distance you’re planning to cover is about preparation. That’s what we are going to discuss today.
Set a goal
The first step in cycling further is goal setting. We need to set ourselves a challenging but realistic goal and give ourselves the time to achieve it. For many, that’s a century ride, 100km. For some it’s within an audax or sportive, for others it is as part of a group ride. I tend to ride solo, so I set myself individual goals, one being a century ride.
Once you have set yourself a distance goal, it’s time to set a timescale. This will depend on how fit you are, how many years cycling you have in you and how much time you can dedicate to training. If you’re a regular road cyclist, three months isn’t an unreasonable amount of time. You decide.
Build a plan
Building a fitness plan is mainly about calculating the difference between the distance you do now and the distance you want to achieve. Most coaches suggest building up that distance around 10% per week until you reach your target. This will depend on your age, fitness and experience level, but isn’t an unreasonable goal.
Factor in rest days too. Rest is vital and will determine the success of any training plan. To begin with, don’t ride more than two or three days in a row without resting. You can rest less once you’re fitter, but make sure to factor in regular rest otherwise your body won’t have the time to make the adjustments necessary to give you the gains you’re looking for.
Finally, it is often a good idea to train for the terrain rather than distance. For example, if you live in Lincolnshire but are entering a sportive in the Lake District, the challenge won’t be the distance, it will be the hills. That means a good portion of your planning should include hill training wherever possible, even if it is hill repeats.
Mix it up
A good training plan will include a mixture of distance, pace, intervals and recovery rides. Scheduling every ride to be at pace over steadily increasing distances will make gains but it isn’t the most efficient way of doing it. You will rapidly exhaust yourself and make yourself more susceptible to injury.
Scheduling a couple of distance sessions with a shorter interval ride and a recovery ride or two per week with rest days in-between is a good balance. It will include all training zones and give your body the time it needs to adapt to the demands you’re putting on it.
Pacing is important with training. It isn’t all about covering the most distance in the shortest time. That comes later. To begin with, keep things gentle and aim to finish longer rides rather than starting out too hot and bonk halfway through. Slower rides, around zone 2 are very useful in teaching the body to burn fat for fuel rather than just depleting your glycogen stores. Riding slow and easy is not the same as slacking.
Mixing high cadence with high gears, sprint intervals, hill repeats, quick HIIT turbo sessions and off-bike exercises can all contribute to a fitter cyclist. Try them all and see what works for you.
Fuelling is a vital component of cycling and of training. Without fuel, your body cannot achieve the goals you set for it. Give it what it needs and your body will deliver, it’s as simple as that. I cover fuelling in more detail in ‘Fuelling for long distance cycle rides’ but it’s worth mentioning a few points here.
Eat every 20 minutes or so after the first hour on the bike. This gets the body used to eating while exercising and gives your gut the practice it may need to digest with a limited blood supply. Plus, it tops up those glycogen stores and will help avoid the bonk.
Drink too, a couple of large bottles of water or squash for a 2-3 hour ride should be fine. Aim to drink around 500ml an hour unless you sweat heavily or it’s hot. The more you sweat, the more you need to drink. It is far better to have to stop for nature breaks than have to combat dehydration!
As you proceed through your training plan, spend a few minutes each week looking at Strava or whatever tracking you use to make sure you are making improvements. A plan is only as good as the results it produces and if yours isn’t working, it’s better to adjust early than arrive at your event less than ready.
Have a think about how you feel after a ride. Do you have enough energy? Do you cramp often? Do you feel good? Elated? How are recovery days? Do you ache? Hardly move? Or just feel calm and relaxed? All these things can influence how you move on from here.
If you feel tired, eat, drink and sleep more. Lower the tempo slightly on a ride or miss one out altogether. If you get muscle soreness, that can be overcome with more gentle training and a paracetamol. However, be careful to avoid overtraining as this can lead to injury. It’s okay to overcome a little bit of pain every now and again but if it becomes regular, it’s time to look a little deeper.
If your plan seems to be working and you are cycling further, feeling better and are improving, keep at it. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!