If you’re training for a long ride of at least fifty miles, it can be hard to break through the psychological and physical barriers that limit your potential distance. For some people, it’s cycling for over an hour, for others a distance feels out of reach.
Having taken myself from twenty miles to being able to cover a hundred miles a day, I wanted to share some of the tips I picked up that helped me achieve what I would have thought was beyond me a year ago.
The mechanical side
As someone who’d only ever owned mountain bikes, I didn’t appreciate the additional weight and effort required to pedal one on tarmac roads. Those bulky off-road tyres were great for muddy tracks and bumps, but so much more work compared to a thin, smooth race tyre.
Borrowing a road bike from a friend was the cycling equivalent of driving a Ferrari. With so much less effort, I could glide along at much faster speeds and get to twenty miles with half the perspiration.
Indeed, once I’d upgraded to my own race bike, the extra confidence easily doubled the distance I believed I could do.
The physical side
One theory to riding further is simply to ride more often. However, even when I rode more often that the usual once a week, I kept struggling and inevitably ended up hitting the wall and running on empty. I could add a few more miles each time, but doing fifty miles in a day, let along a single session felt, well, miles away.
The revelation came from a talk on long distance cycling I attended. The speaker explained the difference between anaerobic and aerobic exercise.
Aerobic exercise is staying within your limits – not maxing out your effort or heart rate and always trying to stay in the saddle and within the edges of your comfort zone. For me, this meant stopping trying to fight the hill and instead dropping down a gear or two and trying to find a nice rhythm and cadence similar to the effort levels on the flat or even downhills.
Anaerobic exercise is when you get beyond your comfort zone and start breathing heavily, with your body running short of oxygen. The speaker used an analogy from the infamous Lance Armstrong. You start the day with a box of matches. Each time you fight the bike, the equivalent to him of a breakaway, you burn a match. When you’ve run of matches, that’s it, you hit the wall.
I’ve found keeping this in mind is extremely helpful. Keep at the edges of the comfort zone and only burn a match when absolutely necessary, for example the top of the steepest hill.
As long as you take on some food every hour and stay hydrated, you should be able to keep going all day long after a reasonably amount of training.
The mental side
The final challenge was my own self-imposed mental boundaries; I simply didn’t believe I could cycle over fifty miles and, ergo, I couldn’t.
However, once I’d started working more on the mechanical and the physical side, the realisation that I could indeed continue beyond twenty miles dawned on me and then thirty miles felt achievable, then forty, then fifty and once you’re beyond fifty, then you’re well on your way to cycling all day and clocking up much longer distances.
There’s nothing like seeing one of your peers achieve what you thought wasn’t possible. This year I’ve ridden nearly a hundred miles in a day alongside a 19-stone man well into his fifties and if we can do it, well, just about anyone can. It’s all about belief.
Once you’ve unlocked those longer distances, then you can start working on the margin gains that turn a 10 miles an hour weekender into a 15 miles an hour cruiser – tweaking your average speed, your cadence, your kit, your weight and your comfort zone. And then you’re well on your way to cycling as far and as long as your imagination will carry you…