Will racking up more miles on your bike this year help you ride better? Yes, and no.
Just riding a lot more probably won’t help you to improve as much as you want to improve. Let’s take a look at how big miles can help. Then we’ll discuss when those big miles don’t really help.
How More Miles Will Help
Increasing the volume of miles that you ride will help to build your endurance, which is the foundation of all riding. Endurance riding improves:
1. Muscular Endurance. Endurance riding increases the number of mitochondria, which are subcellular structures in the muscles where aerobic energy is produced.
2. VO2 Max. Although it sounds contradictory, moderately paced riding increases the maximum amount of oxygen that your muscles can consume when riding flat out.
3. Efficiency of the Heart. Endurance training improves the stroke volume, the amount of blood pumped per heart beat.
4. Capacity to Store Carbohydrates. Your body can store approximately 1,800 calories’worth of carbohydrate as glycogen. You can exhaust your glycogen stores during 60 to 90 minutes of hard riding or two to three hours of moderate riding. Through endurance training you can increase your ability to store glycogen by 20 to 50%!
5. Neuromuscular Efficiency of Pedaling. Power is a function both of the strength of the muscles and coordinating the firing pattern of the nerves to activate the right muscle fibers at the right time so you go forward with less wasted energy.
6. Capacity to Burn Fat. Through endurance training your fuel mix on endurance rides shifts to more fat and less glycogen, sparing precious glycogen stores. Note that this doesn’t automatically result in weight loss; that is a function of calories in and calories out.
7. Heat Dissipation. Endurance riding increases the blood flow to the skin, which will pay off this summer.
Situations When Riding More Miles Will Pay Off
Riding more miles will help you to improve:
- If you started riding just a few years ago and haven’t done other endurance exercise recently.
- If you’ve been riding a relatively low annual volume of a few thousand miles per year.
- If you’re coming back from a major layoff of a year or more.
- If you want to significantly increase the duration of your longest rides, e.g., move from a 100K rider to a century rider.
When More Miles Won’t Help
Once you’ve built a good endurance base your body keeps the seven benefits listed above from season to season. After an active off-season you will still have pretty good endurance in the spring. Ramping up to last year’s volume will fully restore your base endurance.
According to the Pareto Principle, 80% of the benefit comes from the first 20% of the effort. Once you’ve built a good base, then just doing more riding only brings marginal gains and risks injury and overtraining. To continue to improve you need to incorporate intensity training.
Too Many Miles?
Your body can only handle so much training. To improve, you can change any of the following variables:
1. Duration: how long you ride
2. Frequency: number of rides per week
3. Volume: the combination of the first two
4. Intensity: how hard you ride
To avoid overtraining, only change one variable at a time!
If you are an experienced roadie and want to improve, then you need to incorporate intensity, which means doing fewer miles! Garbage miles (not to be confused with recovery miles) are called garbage miles for a reason – they have no training benefit!
Of course, we also ride for fun – and a ride with only the purpose of enjoyment isn’t garbage miles!
3 Typical Workouts: Endurance, Intensity, Recovery
Here are three typical workouts that I give riders. Each is defined in terms of perceived exertion, heart rate or power. And in all three, it doesn’t really matter how many miles the rider covers.
1. Endurance: Ride for two hours at a conversational pace. How many miles or kilometers the rider covers depends on how hilly or flat the ride is, whether it’s calm or windy, whether the rider is drafting or riding alone, and other variables.
2. Intensity: Ride for 60 – 90 minutes:
- At least 15 minutes warm-up
- Do 3 to 6 reps of: 6 minutes in the Sweet Spot and 4 minutes easy.
- At least 15 minutes cool-down
How many miles the rider covers depends on how long the warm-up and cool-down are, how many reps the rider does, and whether the rider chooses to do flat or hilly intervals.
3. Recovery: Ride slowly for 30 – 45 minutes.
How many miles the rider covers depends on the amount of recovery he or she feels is needed, how slowly her or she rode and the amount of time that he or she has to ride.
No Idea How Many Miles I Ride in a Year
I have no idea how many miles I rode in 2016. Or the year before that, or the year before that. I do know that in 2016 I rode 180 hours and 20 minutes, and that I met my 2016 goal of climbing all six of the Colorado (mostly) paved passes over 12,000 feet. I also XC ski until mid-March, until my main riding season starts.
I ride until mid-November when the snow (hopefully) starts falling. Last year I enjoyed 106 hours on the snow!
If tracking your riding by mileage (or kilometers) is something you like to do, by all means, do it. But there’s no set amount of distance that you can ride to help you improve. Each rider is different, in numerous ways. So while distance is important in some very meaningful ways – it is not the be all and end all for improvement. If you’ve already got all the benefits in your body that distance has to offer, then you need to add intensity to your riding as well to continue to improve.
Next week I’ll describe in more detail how to incorporate intensity into your riding.
Want to ride you bike better or faster? Here is some of the best advice from Coach Hughes that will get you riding strong and riding confidently. Only $16 for real, proven cycling tips and advice to make you a better cyclist for a lifetime.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.