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The secrets of building up gradually to ride as far as you like

Lac de Roselend (CC BY-NC 2.0 will_cyclist:Flickr)

Planning a long ride this year? Here's how to build up to it so it's a joy and not a chore.

Last year I broke my leg and was off the bike for several months. When I’d healed I set myself a target of riding a 100-mile Audax. In the process I learnt quite a bit about increasing the distance you’re capable of riding.

Get comfortable

Mat Brett has written an excellent guide to being more comfortable on your bike. His tips are the first place you should start. If you can’t ride more than a few kilometres without discomfort, then you can’t aim for three-figure rides in kilometres, never mind miles.

I’d add to Mat’s advice: stay relaxed on the bike and change position often. If you hold your arms and neck stiff, you’ll get sore and tired quickly so keep your arms bent, flex your neck and give your arms a stretch and a shake now and then. Switch your hand position around between tops, hoods and drops too, and get out of the saddle from time to time.

Choose your target

Sportive riders (CC BY 2.0 Paul Dobson).jpg

Sportive riders (CC BY 2.0 Paul Dobson).jpg

I knew the prospect of a 100-mile ride would get me off my arse to regain the fitness I’d lost while broken, but I was realistic about just how fit I was going to get in the three months I had. I wasn’t going to aim for some ludicrously hilly Welsh or Lake District monster nutter epic. I signed up for a very pleasant pootle about the lanes of Essex and Hertfordshire instead, with just enough rolling hills to keep it interesting. As Clint Eastwood once said: “A man’s gotta know his limitations.”

Buy new shorts

roadcc bibs1.jpg

Okay this is a bit off-the-wall, but bear with me. I discovered that my once-favourite shorts were long past their best. The liner was knackered; they no longer cosseted my bottom the way I wanted them to. I grabbed myself a couple of pairs of shiny new shorts (road.cc Evo bibs as it happens — you’ll probably think I’m biased, but they really are very very nice).

There’s something inspiring about new shorts. Shorts are never as comfortable as when they’re brand new, in my experience, and fresh Lycra has a scent and feel that’s unique, and that it loses after a few washes. Ok, maybe I’m just odd. Moving along…

Build up gradually

If your usual ride is a few miles to and from the office, with a 20-mile potter at the weekend, don’t try and go straight to doing a 75-mile ride. Sure, that’s obvious, but it’s a mistake a surprising number of people make. You might manage it — some people are just talented — but it’s more likely you’ll plod the last half cramped and uncomfortable, and decide not to bother after all.

Speaking of cramps, gradually building up your fitness seems to be the best way to avoid them. An overview article in the journal Sports Health concluded that the evidence is poor that cramps are caused by dehydration and electrolyte loss. (And this cynic notes that explanation is very popular among people trying to sell you electrolyte drinks. Funny that.)

Nice Hairpin Autumn, Mont Salève (CC BY-NC 2.0 will_cyclist:Flickr.jpg

Nice Hairpin Autumn, Mont Salève (CC BY-NC 2.0 will_cyclist:Flickr.jpg

A better explanation — called the ‘neuromuscular theory’ — is that cramps arise from over-tired muscles that aren’t accustomed to the amount or intensity of work you’re asking them to do. That’s why you get cramps at the end of an unusually long ride even if you’ve drunk lots, and why they tend to hit on long climbs, where you’re working very hard and for a long time.

That leads to a quandary. You want to get fitter and build stamina, but to do so you have to ride further and that means you’re risking cramps. That’s why you build up gradually. Don’t double your distance between one ride and the next, unless you enjoy rolling round on the living room floor squealing like a pig the evening after a ride.

Coaches recommend building up your rides 10-20% at a time, so your weekly long ride should be 10-20% longer each week and your total milage each week or month would also be 10-20% greater.

If you’re aiming for a century, as I was, then you should be aiming to finish with a ride or two in the 80-mile range a couple of weeks before the event.

Pace yourself

The other way of trashing yourself is to try and go hard every time you ride. You can’t do a 50-mile ride at the same pace as you do a 3-mile office dash; not without lots of the right speed-orientated training anyway.

If your aim is just to finish your target long ride, then aim for a pace that feels easy enough you could keep it up all day.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t aim for a fast time, by the way, but for relative beginners to long rides, going fast is almost certainly less important than finishing. With the confidence boost that comes from knowing you can go the distance, you can work on points for speed on your next long ride.

Plan and explore

Plotaroute.jpg

Plotaroute.jpg

Building up the stamina for a long ride will quickly get very dull if you ride the same routes every time. Judicious use of one of the many route-mapping websites out there is a great way to plan new routes away from major roads. Combine that with a guide to cycling cafes and you’ve got the perfect combination of route and refreshment stops.

Unless you have old-school map and route skills the best way to follow a route is to load it to a mapping GPS. Yes, they’re not cheap (the Garmin Edge Touring is the cheapest we’re currently aware of) but they’re very handy for exploring new routes.

Buddy Up

PWC Yorkshire Cycle Ride Sportive (CC BY 2.0 Allan McKenzie).jpg

PWC Yorkshire Cycle Ride Sportive (CC BY 2.0 Allan McKenzie).jpg

I did some solo rides in preparing for my comeback century, but for many I had the company of a very patient and much fitter friend. Thanks Al!

Your milage my vary, but I’ve always found it easier to get out for a ride if there’s someone else to ride with, even though I don’t mind riding alone once I’m actually out the door.

We did the century together too, which Al described as “the slowest hundred miles I’ve ever ridden.” Hey, it was a nice day – what’s the rush?

Eat and drink

Fuel and water are vital for any long ride. You might be able to do 20-30 miles without eating, but you’ll deplete your body’s energy reserves (the glycogen stored in your liver and muscles) after a couple of hours, and then you need to eat or you risk the dreaded ‘bonk’.

However, you don’t need to scoff expensive gels and energy bars. Sports nutrition products can work well, especially if you’re in a hurry and need the almost-instant energy hit they provide. But we’re talking more leisurely riding here, just as easily fuelled by bananas, Snickers bars, jam sandwiches or whatever is your favourite sugary snack. There are even these marvellous things called ‘cafes’ which give you a place to sit that’s more than six inches wide and will make you a coffee for a further boost.

As for water, carry a couple of large bottles and top them up whenever you get the chances (cafes are good for this too). Drink lots. It’s better to have to go behind a tree than to get dehydrated.

Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.

Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.

Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.

The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.

17 comments

Avatar
alotronic [519 posts] 1 year ago
9 likes

Or join Audax UK... lots of very ordinary cyclists riding a very long way and would love to share their addiction thoughts with you...

http://www.aukweb.net/

 

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antonio [1163 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

Plus one for the Audax UK, best value event rides ever.

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dougie_c [34 posts] 1 year ago
2 likes

Good article. Sensible advice. One thing I've found over the years is that it's well worth concentrating on not going too fast in the first hour, especially if you're trying to improve a time. Setting out on a nice morning, maybe with a slight tailwind, it's easy to feel fresh early on, ride a bit too fast, and get over-knackered later. "Hurry slowly" is the watchword.

In the first hour of any long ride, I consciously force myself to spin easily, changing down to a slightly smaller gear should I have the slightest inkling of morning friskiness. Only then, if I'm in a hurry, do I press on a bit, gently at first, putting in increasing intervals with a little aerobic effort. And it's only in the last 10-20% of the ride that it's advisable to attempt riding at maximum effort—your body will then tell you if that's not possible.

As I said to that gendarme who kindly wondered what I was doing stumbling round a village stadium in the dark (trying to find a tap to refill my bidon) : "Le secret de la longue distance ce n'est jamais faire effort." He then directed me to the gents at the back of the church.

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dafyddp [432 posts] 1 year ago
2 likes

Good stuff. One point maybe worth mentioning, is that regular long rides (at a slowing pace) help condition the  body to burn fat rather than relying on glycogen stores. So it's a bit of a win-win really - you burn fat, get lighter, which lets you go further and faster...

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Richard D [76 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

A timely article!  I broke my femur on a hundred-mile audax last June, and I've set myself the challenge of riding - and completing - the same audax this year.

Last year it was no real challenge; I was commuting by bike and with club rides/other audaxes, I was averaging 150 miles a week.

This year, it might be a bit of a battle.  8 months post-break, and I'm still not allowed back on my bike for another five weeks yet.  I'll have four months to go from zero to a hundred; I like the idea of increasing my distances by 10% per week, but 10% of nothing is still nothing!

I love a challenge.  A colleague persuaded me to enter another 100-mile event two days before the planned audax, but that one's already full.  I don't know whether to be disappointed or relieved.

Avatar
fustuarium [215 posts] 1 year ago
2 likes

Something someone on here said once: don't train to the distance but ride the elevation gain for the route you are planning. If you train to that, the longer time/distance in the saddle is more mental than physical. Worked for me so far  1

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DaveE128 [887 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes
fustuarium wrote:

Something someone on here said once: don't train to the distance but ride the elevation gain for the route you are planning. If you train to that, the longer time/distance in the saddle is more mental than physical. Worked for me so far  1

Hmmm, that's bad news... I'm training for the SDW-in-a-day (dare I mention that on this website?!) in July with limited time for training. Don't think I can squeeze that kind of elevation into a shorter ride!

Timely article for me too though.

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rix [170 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

I use timer app (Repeat Timer Free) on smartphone to sound alarm every 20min to get out of saddle, change position, have a small snack and drink on my long rides. It is easy to forget to do this when you need it the most... that is when you are tired.

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BPArchibald [1 post] 1 year ago
2 likes

Hi Chaps,

Really good article! We moved back to Hungary from London with my partner last August on road bikes across Europe. It was an epic trip, 120-130 kilometres-a-day on average, all in all 2250 km in 24 days, every third day a resting day. It is a bit off the topic, as you've spoken about one day trips, but still important. Even if we pushed it relatively hard (or lets say sporty) on the bikes, we've got to the next city in time, we had enough time to have a rest, recover and start the next day with the same mojo. I think, apart from the above mentioned points (I spent a fortune on bibs, bags and planned all our days on Strava before the trip, etc.) it wouldn't have been such a great experience without enough time off the bike. So I'd definitely mention the resting before THE day! Anyway it's great to read these sort of articles, thanks very much!

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arfa [851 posts] 1 year ago
2 likes

All sensible stuff but the one thing i'd add in is a bit of regular pilates as a strengthened core can make all the difference between a long ride being hellish to being a pleasure, especially if you are a "more mature rider"

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cycling_woman [1 post] 1 year ago
4 likes

It's always the thought of the coffee and cake that keeps me going, here's to hoping there are a lot of coffee shops along the route across Canada this summer, 6700km/4200 miles is a long ride! http://cyclingacrosscanada.com

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jumbo469 [9 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

Great posts, building up to your goal is the key, but riding different distances at different speeds helps me(mixing it up), some short sprint routines,  riding in a high (hard) gear on flat straights helps my climbing capabilities. I do these exercises on my 5 mile morning and evening commutes, and my times over 25 and 40 miles are rapidly improving....

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mylesrants [380 posts] 1 year ago
3 likes

can of coke will get any tired body the last 20k home

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IanW1968 [326 posts] 4 months ago
0 likes

Good article. 

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Bikermel76 [1 post] 1 month ago
1 like
fustuarium wrote:

Something someone on here said once: don't train to the distance but ride the elevation gain for the route you are planning. If you train to that, the longer time/distance in the saddle is more mental than physical. Worked for me so far  1

Interesting, this has been in my mind as I've trained for RideLondon - I seem OK with whatever mileage I've chucked at my body but once the feet rack up I'm tired and achy and tense shoulders. Now we've been focusing on getting the feet in rather than miles!

Avatar
dmack [17 posts] 1 month ago
0 likes
arfa wrote:

All sensible stuff but the one thing i'd add in is a bit of regular pilates as a strengthened core can make all the difference between a long ride being hellish to being a pleasure, especially if you are a "more mature rider"

Yoga or pilates are pretty important.  Cycling is an unbalanced sport posture wise, so something to stretch you in the opposite direction is pretty important for your life off the bike!  I mix ashtaga yoga with my cycling to keep my, somewhat, older body in balance.

Avatar
Yorkshire wallet [1252 posts] 1 month ago
0 likes
dmack wrote:
arfa wrote:

All sensible stuff but the one thing i'd add in is a bit of regular pilates as a strengthened core can make all the difference between a long ride being hellish to being a pleasure, especially if you are a "more mature rider"

Yoga or pilates are pretty important.  Cycling is an unbalanced sport posture wise, so something to stretch you in the opposite direction is pretty important for your life off the bike!  I mix ashtaga yoga with my cycling to keep my, somewhat, older body in balance.

I had a knee problem for about 2 years but tried to cycle around it to no avail. I had an enforced timeout due to about 3 months of constant illness when all I could really manage was walking. It actually did me the world of good, the main problem I reckon, was that I was constantly on the bike and never really countered being sat down either on bike or at work.

Now I've swapped riding at dinner time and tea breaks for walking and I haven't had a knee problem for months now (fingers crossed).

Got a 160 mile round-trip into Scotland planned next weekend so I guess we'll see how things hold up then.