Training for cycling - ultra

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 Womble 25 Jan 2021

Hi All,

I'll be riding a 1500 mile mostly off road cycling event this summer (UK) and looking for training tips. Last year my longest ride was a 300 mile bikepacking long weekend + a couple of 100/80 mile days in the leadup. So this is clearly rather bigger than anything else I have done.

Looking for tips + also any training plans people might have that I can get my head around. I have around 6 months to prepare.


 Toby_W 25 Jan 2021
In reply to Womble:

Tricky, fitness and condition (for me) is easy but endurance and day after day toughness takes longer.  I remember thinking this when riding up and then down the east coast of Oz.  It took a week at least, maybe more before I was hardened to riding day after day anything from 50-150miles with a loaded tourer.

I think if you get your fitness and distances up and try and do some back to back days you’ll ride into it during the event.  The more you can do the less aching you’ll do adjusting

Very best of luck.


Post edited at 15:27
 DaveHK 25 Jan 2021
In reply to Womble:

What is the format of the 1500 miler and how long do you have to complete it? A self supported 'non-stop' event is going to require different prep from a multi-stage supported one.

Post edited at 15:34
 Jim Lancs 25 Jan 2021
In reply to Womble:

You don't say whether it's a stage event over many days or non-stop?

But, with only 6 months to prepare, and with the limitations imposed by the pandemic, you're going to need professional help. In other words,  if you're serious about doing it, you need someone really knowledgable (and in whom you have complete confidence) to come up with a program that you can follow day by day. No more than that; you don't need daily advice, but as the event approaches, you will come under a certain amount of 'stress' and knowing that 'sticking to the training schedule' will see you right, is a really easy way to focus on the what's important. 

I've only done 1000 mile non stop road events but having a training program that told me when to ride hard, when to do long distances and when to rest, stopped me getting into the feedback loop of "more must be better so I'll do more and more". 

The only thing I would add from the experiences is that core strength is really important. Although cycling doesn't develop this very much, a strong skeletal frame work connecting your arms to your legs is fundamental. And so is having enough neck and shoulder muscles to support your head for 1500 miles of waggling up and down. I was stunned by the number of people who lost all muscular control of their necks and some only finished by using neck braces or rigging innertubes from their helmets to the back of their saddles. Suddenly climbing as part of long distance cycling training seemed to pay off.

 nniff 25 Jan 2021
In reply to Womble:

I think you're going to have to get used to day after day riding because the days are going to catch up on you and you'll have to overcome that.  It does also rather depend on how long you intend to take....

 greg_may_ 25 Jan 2021
In reply to Womble:

I did the Tour Divide 5 years ago. 20 day finisher. Was on for 18 but had a mechanical that resulted in a 40km walk over a mesa before I could start coasting towards a town and possible fix.

Training wise, I rode my bike nearly every day for 4 months to and from work (45km each way commute, longer weekend rides) off road, with a LOADED bike all the time. Don't kid yourself that miles on an empty bike are the same as a loaded bike.

I'd put in close to 5,000km prep for a 4,800km "race" in the 4 months leading into it. Not quite the elevation gain. This was on the back of quite a few years of endurance training and racing 24hour races.

Ride lots. Ride some more. Do it back to back. Day after day. In every weather you can imagine. 

 JLS 25 Jan 2021
In reply to greg_may_:

Looks like the OP is looking at the too.

Awsome effort on your finish.

How did you break up you efforts mileage/time wise?

I've no idea about such events. I couldn't imagine doing much more that 70 miles a day broken into 35 miles early on and then another 35 miles after a l-o-n-g break.  Is it better to just keep jogging along in one long stint a day?

 DaveHK 25 Jan 2021
In reply to greg_may_:

> Ride lots. Ride some more. Do it back to back. Day after day. In every weather you can imagine. 

That's it really for any big endurance challenge/event.

 Womble 25 Jan 2021
In reply to Womble:

Thanks all, to give some context.... is the event & its around 14/15 days. Non stop but I guess you can "stop when you like".

I am not a newbie to cycling longer distances so doing 100 miles in a day doesn't worry me. Carrying a couple of days worth of food + bivi gear also is fine. However back to back 100/150 mile days (required to hit the time limit) carrying kit for 2 weeks is obviously where the challenge lies!

Neck pain is a good shout & I have seen benefits from core training & yoga for running before so that will be on the plan. 

What I don't know about is "what a long distance cycle training plan looks like". Lots of things online focus around the turbo and performance. Whereas I want to train resilience for those 2am stints when I am halfway along the Pennine Way battling into a headwind.

To this end I am thinking of writing myself a plan where I am increasing hours on the bike (not worried about distance) over the next 5.5 months with a 2 week high load 1 week low load (recovery) cycle and 2 week taper at the end. Probably working towards a target of X many hours in the saddle per week with Y many hours focussed on hill climbs + then mix in Z hours of running and yoga.

I am prepared to be fully committed to this but without a plan I do tend to "wander"!

If anyone has a training plan as a base that I can start building mine out from that would be really appreciated! 

In reply to JLS:

That looks seriously tough. I look forward to the dot watching. 

 mattyP 25 Jan 2021
In reply to Womble:

I have absolutely no ultra riding experience (in fact I've not really ridden a bike for 5 years due to a hamstring tendon injury) but listening to this guy was fascinating. It's an interview with Dom Irvine (who has credentials at riding bikes far and fast). I found it fascinating, and have/will be putting things into practice when I do my BGR (probs 2022....)

 Jim Lancs 25 Jan 2021
In reply to Womble:

> . . . . but without a plan I do tend to "wander"!

That's why I suggest you find someone who coaches this sort of event. This is quite a commitment in time, effort and money, so seems sensible to get yourself the best possible plan. 

You've also got a lot of work to do on your bike making sure it can stand up to 1500 miles off road. It's going to take a pounding!

 greg_may_ 26 Jan 2021
In reply to JLS:

> How did you break up you efforts mileage/time wise?

During the race....didn't. Get on bike, start riding, ride until I need to stop to fill up or buy food, get back on bike, ride and eat. Stops were limited to 30mins for "fresh" food if I could get some - aka Subway. Aimed for highest continual average speed. Stopped at 2230 every night, got up at 0500 and started riding again. Repeat. 

>  Is it better to just keep jogging along in one long stint a day?

Pretty much. Stopped time is wasted time. If you can do it on the bike - do it. Why stop?

 greg_may_ 26 Jan 2021
In reply to Womble:

Don't overthink it - you just need to ride your bike. Seriously, go ride outside a lot all the time. 


 - Get used to riding low. Wake up, drink a coffee/tea then get on your bike and ride for 2 to 3 hours. Eat when you get home. Do this a lot.

- Get stronger. Muscular endurance is your friend. Heavy bike, big hills, lots.

- Ride more. outside. Zwift and other such nonsense is not your friend.

 JLS 26 Jan 2021
In reply to greg_may_:

>"Stopped at 2230 every night, got up at 0500 and started riding again. Repeat."

Yikes! That sounds like a tough schedule!

I'd been thinking 8 hours a day riding, 8am-12pm and 4pm-8pm would get the job done.

I'm probably deluding myself that around 9mph average could be maintained, off road, on a loaded bike, if I built in a lot of rest into my schedule.  

 greg_may_ 26 Jan 2021
In reply to JLS:

The route has just over 55,000m of ascent, so you need quite a bit of time in a day for climbs. A lot of it is over 2,500m (80%) and some climbs up to 3,600m.

Easier to get going and ride to stay warm. Then you can carry less stuff also ;)

There were certainly some people who tried to sleep longer and ride faster. Didn't work for me. Never has!

 Womble 26 Jan 2021
In reply to Womble:

Thanks guys. All interesting food for thought. And also really interesting info on the Tour Divide. Makes my objective feel small ;)

I have just over 6 months to the day until the ride begins and have a rough plan. Spoke to a coach for an hour who gave me some interesting info too.

Going to see how the next 2 months go as I increase volume of riding per week so I am consistently getting in 3 rides and up to 15/20 hours per week and 2 sessions of yoga.

Not planning to get a coach at this stage unless I feel like I need someone to beat me out of the door every day. I want my motivation to come from enjoyment of the training and focussing on getting to the start line in good condition. If that doesn't work then might consider a coach for the next 4 months. However I will be getting a bike fit as soon as allowed so any recommendations for places in Bristol or surrounding area please let me know. Ta

 Henry Iddon 27 Jan 2021
In reply to Womble:

Be able to suffer - really suffer. I'm guessing from what you've said you've had some long long days out in the past - be it on the hill, bike or where ever - those times when you have to use all the will in the world to grind it out. Personally I don't think you can 'train' suffering - that sounds glib I know - but 'you're either hard or you're not'. (By hard I mean able to suffer). If there's one competitive sport that requires suffering it's cycling.

It'll be a mind game as much as anything else. Feeling confident in your training will help your mind ( see the post suggesting a coach you can trust) - but at the end of the day it's a sufferfest.

 Jim Lancs 27 Jan 2021
In reply to Henry Iddon:

> but at the end of the day it's a sufferfest.

You are so right. In my advice for first timers thinking about Paris-Brest-Paris, I emphasise that 'those who have been to some very dark places in their lives won't find the nights too bad'. 

Suffering not only hurts, but can be scary. Best get practicing!

 greg_may_ 27 Jan 2021
In reply to Jim Lancs:

Suffering can also be exceptionally life affirming.  Makes a lot of other parts of your life feel a lot easier.

Easiest way to train the central governor for suffering....ride when you don't want to.

 guisboro andy 27 Jan 2021
In reply to Womble:

Before doing JOGLE i tried to ride everyday, even if it was 30 mins after a 12 hour shift just to get the body used to being on the bike.

 Rip van Winkle 27 Jan 2021
In reply to Womble:

If you have time and haven't already read it, "Where There's A Will" by Emily Chappell is an excellent insight into the trials and stresses of ultra-cycling, Not a pedal-by-pedal account, more about coping (or not) with the mental and physical highs and lows.

 Marek 27 Jan 2021
In reply to Henry Iddon:

> Be able to suffer - really suffer. I'm guessing from what you've said you've had some long long days out in the past - be it on the hill, bike or where ever - those times when you have to use all the will in the world to grind it out. Personally I don't think you can 'train' suffering ...

I agree, but you can learn how to deal with it better.

I'd really suggest that the OP do a few 'breakdown' runs between now and the event. Go out one day and ride till you're knackered. Practice eating and navigating on the move. Next day do it again - it might be worse it might be better. Next day - definitely worse. Hit some technical terrain - when you're knackered (physically and mentally) you'll probably have to slow down a lot. Experience and learn.

A month or so later, do it again. But this time, no hot shower when you get back, no take-away meals, no comfort. Cook something on your camping stove like you would on the event. Learn what works, what doesn't. Sleep on the floor, get up early, cold breakfast and off you go again. No fresh clothes, just put on what you wore yesterday.

When you get to the event there will be fewer nasty surprises. You'll have a much better idea of what to expect and you'll know better how to deal with it. More people bail out of this sort of event because they don't know how to deal with the mental side than from physical breakdown. As the saying goes, play to your strengths but train out your weaknesses. For that you have to know what your weakness are BEFORE the flag drops. If you've not 'broken-down' in training before the event, you are far more likely to do so during it.

Post edited at 13:08
 Womble 27 Jan 2021
In reply to Marek:

Thanks. This idea is planned in so good to hear. Will be doing full weekend rides one weekend a month April, May, June exactly like this. Leave work Friday Eve, ride 50 miles, bivi, ride 100 miles, bivi etc. Thinking about routes such as king alfreds way as a practice. 

 Trossachs 27 Jan 2021
In reply to Womble:

I've raced two mountain bike ultras and I'm currently training for the Highland Trail 550 this May (if it goes ahead). For me, training that focuses on intensity rather than distance works better. I prepared for my first ultra by doing loads of long rides and focused almost exclusively on distance. This resulted in doing lots of riding at endurance pace or easier which is an inefficient way to build fitness.

The second race I was forced to prepare for by doing lots of intensity work and intervals (it was during lockdown...) and it turned out to be way more effective. Obviously I went into the event with more experience, but I was faster and recovered quicker afterwards.

This year I've built a training schedule which focuses on getting the best gains from the hours I have available each week, rather than thinking about distance. There's a mix of intervals, sessions targeting a specific weakness and some longer rides (70-80km) at pace, plus some strength training and yoga.

It's all outside because I don't have a turbo - the downside to that is that it's harder to do proper intervals, the upside is it gets you out in all weathers and used to operating in crappy conditions!

I will throw in some long days as well, and a couple of overnighters closer to the event. I've found a good psychological technique for me has been to look at the hardest day I might have in the event and go and do a bigger one.

I would say don't neglect working on the mental side and also fine-tuning your systems - clothing, navigation, food and water, shelter, bike maintenance, kit organisation. The more efficient you are on and off the bike the faster you'll go. I was shocked when I looked at the stop time during my first ultra and realised how many hours I'd spent faffing around! I guess this will be doubly important for the GBDuro if you have to be self-sufficient like last year (I've only done self-supported events when you can use commercially available services).

Also agree with what others have said about training on a loaded bike, especially close to the event. You don't want it to be a shock when your 10kg carbon racing machine suddenly feels like a tank on the start line

A couple of resources that really helped me were Kurt Refsnider's eBook on training for ultras. Don't know if it's still available for download, but there's a ton of good stuff in there if you can find it. Also this podcast episode on training for ultras is really interesting:

Good luck!

 andrew549 27 Jan 2021
In reply to Womble:

I've used these guys for a bike fit before, based in Newbury so not close but not too far away. I found the fit really good and felt much more comfortable and stable on the bike afterwards especially for multiple days back to back in the saddle.

It might be worth looking up Steve Hogg if your interested in bike fitting as he has quite a lot of stuff on his website.

 Womble 28 Jan 2021
In reply to Womble:

Thanks @Trossachs - that's really useful and detailed information. I am happy with HIT type training - This worked for a half marathon & a few 4/6 hour sportive in the past (e.g. averaging 20mph). Will be introducing threshold sessions after the first month or two and then more high intensity & shorter work in the last 2 months. I feel like at this stage I would really benefit from getting on the bike regularly - the science seems to support this "base training" but mainly from a mental standpoint I need to force cycling back in as a habit rather than flogging myself 2 days a week and seeing it as a trial.

All longer rides I am doing with my rear rack on as it'll be easy to carry the kitchen sink for all eventualities this time of year + adds some simulated weight.

Interesting the point on the HT550 - the nature of MTB riding is more HIT than an equivalent or longer road event, so can see why you did better with this type of training. Super jealous as it sounds amazing - would love to do at some point.

@andrew549 - thanks for the info on bike fitting - my parents actually live very close to Newbury so great recommendation for me when we are out of lockdown (if that ever happens)! In the meantime will check out Steve Hogg.

 greg_may_ 28 Jan 2021
In reply to Womble:

Worth a read if you think HIT is going to be something suitable for any endurance event:

Even as an ex-XC racer who transfered to racing ultras - HIT is not the key. There is a reason people run/swim/ride miles to race over longer miles. 

EDIT: The HT550 is an excellent event - I did the inaugural race. 

Post edited at 11:41
 Dave Cundy 28 Jan 2021
In reply to Womble:

I got a bike bike fit from Oli Beckinsale at BW Cycling, a few years ago.  ex olympic cyclist.  Very knowledgeable.  The shop is in Brizzle, under the flyover in the Cumberland basin.

Just to re-inforce what others have said, Mike Hall used to work in our office  (round-the-world / Tour Divide / TCR organiser) and two things were very clear about his trips.

1)  Just don't stop.  No point lying in bed for an hour waiting to fall asleep.  Cycle until you drop.

2)  The physical prep should be a given.  Its the mental side that sorts out the winners.  As Henry says, you've got to suffer if you want to finish in a half sensible time.  Mike told a colleague that one night, his heart went haywire.  Didn't know whethere he'd wake up in the morning. So you need to work out what level of suffering you're prepared to tolerate.

He had great tales, Mike.  Hopefully, you will too 👍

 greg_may_ 28 Jan 2021
In reply to Dave Cundy:

I miss Mike, he was a good human.

vivid memories of crossing the border into New Mexico on the 2015TDR , popping into the church shop in Como and being hailed as “welcome Greg, racer number 9, Mike finished an hour ago.”  
 Sat down on their porch for an hour and had a small cry. Knowing that a friend was finished with his ride.

Had a much bigger cry a few months later when he was killed in that accident.

Without a doubt the best ultra athlete we’ve had in this country. 

 GerM 28 Jan 2021
In reply to Womble:

Get on the bike early in the day. a 6 or 7am start means you've covered a lot of miles by lunchtime.

Stop regularly for a little break. 10 to 15mins every hour or hour and a half. Don't stop for too long except for once or twice a day.

Eat lots, eat at every break, eat real food. Don't eat loads in one go till you are done for the day.

Drink plenty.

If you're cycling past a pub that is open, have a pint. But just the one, unless you're almost done for the day.

Post edited at 20:53
 GerM 28 Jan 2021
In reply to Womble:

Oh. And any time you need to go somewhere between now and then, cycle there if it is physically possible. Even if it sounds like a stupid idea.

Especially if it sounds like a stupid idea.

 Womble 28 Jan 2021

In reply to flisterseven:

I think you have just simplified everything there!

 greg_may_ 28 Jan 2021
In reply to GerM:

Agree with this 100%

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