How to Prepare for a Long Bike Ride
Whether you’re going out for a long ride up the canyon, entering a day-long race like Lotoja, or going for something far more ambitious like South Africa’s Cape Epic, there’s something about distance cycling that is far different from a trip to work, a morning wake-up ride, or a casual jaunt with the kids through the park. A long-distance bike ride takes a different set of skills, a new level of preparation, and some intense dedication to your sport. But it’s extremely rewarding, both in the physical and mental benefits that you receive from it, and in the sense of accomplishment and pride you feel crossing that finish line.
So how do you get ready for a long distance ride? It can vary a lot depending on whether this is a race, whether it stretches more than one day and requires a support team, or whether it’s just you on the open road, pushing yourself to your limits. But there are some things that are common to all distance rides, and you would be wise to prepare your body and mind for them.
Build Up Endurance
This seems like a no-brainer. Before you can take a long distance ride you have to have put in some endurance training. But how do you go about it? The answer is: gradually. You can’t jump from a two-hour ride to an eight-hour ride without risking serious injury and painful recovery.
A good idea is to add a little bit to your workout every week. If you regularly ride two hours once a week, try adding a half hour to that ride each week, slowly building up your stamina. Do that for two months, and your two hour ride will be a six hour ride. You’ll be stretching yourself and pushing yourself--and it may require digging deep to power through--but you’ll make it if you take it slow and build gradually.
At the same time, you don’t want to push yourself with every ride. You need recovery rides just as much as you need limit-stretching rides. While you’re spending your Saturdays on longer and longer trips, have a few middle-of-the-week cycling trips where you go at a leisurely pace for one or two hours. You’re still getting a workout, still keeping those muscles limber and loose, but you’re not straining every time you hop onto your bike.
Keep Eating and Drinking
You wouldn’t stop in the middle of a 100 meter dash for a bottle of water, but there’s a difference between an endurance race and a sprint. It’s essential while cycling long distances that you stay hydrated and keep eating. A good rule of thumb is to drink a bottle of water every hour, and even more if you’re cycling on a hot day or on a particularly grueling endurance ride. And you’ll want a bite or two of food every fifteen minutes or so. This can be many things, and different cyclists have their various favorites, but it can be anything from a banana to a Snickers bar to a jam sandwich.
The body consumes around 60-90g of carbs per hour to use as fuel, and you need to keep replenishing that energy. If you’re in a race with a crew following behind you, they can help you remember to eat regularly and keep track of what you’ve eaten and when. But if you’re on your own for a long ride, there’s nothing wrong with pulling into a gas station and buying something high in calories that is good on your stomach. One thing to keep in mind is to never try a new kind of food on race day: part of your preparation for a race is making sure that your stomach is accustomed to the food you’re putting into it. You don’t want to try some new super food or energy gel two hours into the Iron Man only to realize it doesn’t agree with you.
Distance cycling is a game of endurance, not sprinting, and you want to make sure that you’re not wearing out your body trying to get ahead in the early hours only to fall apart from fatigue as the race continues. In the Tour de France, the cyclist in the lead changes regularly as competitors wait for their opportunity to make their move, saving up energy reserves for a burst of speed at the end.
And even if it’s just you riding against yourself, listen to your body. It’ll tell you what you can and can’t do. If you’re breathing too hard to talk while riding, you’re probably pushing yourself too much. Likewise, if your legs are burning from lactic acid, you’re riding too hard.
Endurance riding is all about avoiding quick accelerations and sprints, and using the slow-twitch muscle fibers, which are central to making it through the long haul. Save your glycogen energy stores.
Prepare with the Essential Equipment
Before you get on your bike, you want to make sure that you have everything you’re going to need, and that everything is in working order. There’s nothing worse than being on a lonely stretch of road in the middle of nowhere and popping a tire, or being in a race and having to stop because of a mechanical glitch with your bike.
So know what you need before you go in, and have everything laid out--make a checklist if you need one, or snap a picture of your long distance kit and refer to it every time you get ready to hit the road.
First, inspect your bike. Are the tires worn? Are the brake pads bare? Are the chain or chainrings worn and need replacing? Are the brake pads rubbing? Are the tires at the appropriate pressure?
Then take everything with you that you would need to solve any mechanical problem you may run into: extra chain links, a gear cable, spare brake pads, and anything else your bike might need.
Then remember your personal gear: your helmet, your proper clothing that doesn’t chafe after hours of riding, your food, your water. If you use a Camel-bak, fill that; if you use a bottle, fill that. And remember you’re going to need more water and food the longer you go. And plan for trouble--take a little cash with you in case you do end up at a lonely gas station in need of help, take a cell phone, take your ID. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Listen to Your Body, Not Your Mind
We like to say that athletics is mind over matter, and that’s true in some situations--sometimes your body is tiring out and you coax it by saying “we just need to make it to that next ridge”. But sometimes your body is giving you signals that you need to listen to for your long-term health, not just to get through one race.
Pushing through severe knee pain might be doing serious damage to your body that is going to cost you greatly when the race is over, even if it’s possible to grit your teeth and force yourself to go ten more miles on it.
But at the same time, your brain can betray you--it can want to give up before your body does. Your brain can be telling you that you just can’t go any more and that you need to give up, even though your body still has energy and life left in it. In situations like these it’s good to have made a plan in advance to coax your mind along. Promise yourself that if you just make it ten more miles you can indulge in that treat that you’ve stashed in your backpack. Or break things down into steps: you can do five more miles, then once you’ve done that you can do five more. Figure out what motivates you and ride with it.