It feels like endurance cycling is having a moment. Whereas once riding across entire countries at a time was the preserve of a committed few on the fringe, now cyclists clamour for places in events such as the Transcontinental Race, a non-stop self-supported ultra-distance bike race across Europe and Rapha’s Manchester to London.
Whereas racing might not be everyone’s cup of tea, many of us relish a challenge on two wheels and that’s where events such as hilly sportives and long distance events come in. Not wanting to be left out of the action, I’ve signed up for Deloitte’s Ride Across Britain, a 969-mile cycle from Land’s End to John O’ Groats.
Ridden over nine consecutive days, the event will be one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever undertaken. We’ll begin with 7000 feet of climbing through rugged Devon and Cornwall before pedalling up to the Forest of Dean. The Peak District and its rolling green pastures come next, before Manchester ship canal and finally Scotland’s majestic highlands. We’ll see the best of the UK from our saddles before enjoying a hearty meal and cosying up in a tent each night; heaven indeed.
Fabulous though it sounds, with no days off, this is not an event to be taken lightly and only the foolhardy with arrive unprepared. So even though I’m coming at it with a good level of fitness, over the next three months I’ll be adapting my training to prepare for multiple back-to-back days on the bike, trying to fit endurance sessions around my race training and competitions.
Concerned about how to fit the increased training load into my life without facing exhaustion, I had a quick chat with Trans Am bike race veteran Laura Scott to find out how to best tackle the increased number of long rides I’ll be doing.
“Just don’t be competitive when you’re doing your endurance rides, it’s not a race. Don’t get sucked into pushing yourself too hard, pace yourself up hills staying in your granny gear to keep your heart rate down."
And how to fit in all the extra training?
“Get up early," says Laura. “Once you build it into your routine it’s actually really nice. There’s nobody on the roads, so it’s quite and beautiful. If you ride first thing in the morning, it makes everything else that happens in the day easier to deal with."
With Laura’s words of wisdom and a new alarm programmed into my phone, I’m ready to begin preparing for Ride Across Britain.
Here are my top tips for long-distance cycling
Build volume slowly
You’ll need to get used to long hours in the saddle but start off small and gradually increase the length of your rides so that your body has time to adapt without becoming excessively fatigued. As a rough guide, each week increase your weekday rides by 15 minutes and your weekend ride by 30 minutes.
Schedule at least one or two complete rest days every week to allow your body to recover and adapt to the training you’ve been doing. It’s important not to skip these or you won’t see the progress you want and you risk depleting your immune system. Every fourth week, ease off on your training, riding shorter, easier routes.
Develop your aerobic system
The bulk of your training should be done in heart rate zone 2 or a perceived effort of 4 or 5 on a scale of 10. This kind of riding develops efficiency and doesn’t fatigue you too much so recovery time isn’t too long
Don’t skip the hard stuff
Despite the fact you need to include a lot of long, steady rides, short sessions of high intensity, either incorporated into your longer weekend rides (once you’ve built a base level of fitness) or as separate midweek sessions are essential. These sessions help develop power and can make your mitochondria, the cells responsible for the production of energy, more powerful.
Aim for a blend of 80% zone 2 or endurance rides and 20% high-intensity training.
Don’t look for shortcuts
When it comes to training for a long distance event, there really are no shortcuts. When you feel tempted to skip a session, remember how much more fun your event will be if you’re properly prepared and able to enjoy it.
Train with others
It makes sense to ride your short, high-intensity session alone but however much you love cycling, multiple long sessions on the bike can get lonely or (dare I say it!) boring. Recruit some training buddies or join a club for company, tips and encouragement.
Ride back-to-back days
Where possible, take long rides on consecutive days to mimic the riding you’ll be doing during your event.
Get your nutrition right
Make sure you fuel yourself properly both on the bike and off it. Eat plenty of carbohydrates so that your glycogen stores are topped up before you get on the bike. Porridge is a great pre-ride meal as it’s slow burning and low fat – high-fat meals can it difficult to absorb fuel once you’re on your bike. Drink plenty of water so you’re well hydrated.
Your body can only store a limited about of carbohydrate and once you burn through it, your performance is badly affected. On longer rides, once you’re 45 minutes in, aim to consume around 60g of carbs in the form of easily digestible food, bars, gels or drinks.
A recovery drink or some glucose and carbs (such as chocolate milk) after your ride will help you recover more quickly, allowing you to tackle your next training session feeling fresh.
Look after yourself
Training for these kinds of events can be enormously taxing on your body so consider adding some restorative activities such as yoga or gentle swimming. Cycling involves long hours in a static position so include stretching and foam rolling to keep your body supple. If you can afford it, a massage is a treat that has real benefit.
So what are you waiting for? Set a cycling goal to challenge your skill and endurance, train hard and effectively and prove to yourself that you can do it, but most of all, enjoy!