By Fred Matheny
Cycling is an endurance sport. The early Tour de France featured stages of 400 km (250 miles) or longer. The 1200-km (744-mile) ride from Paris westward to the Atlantic coast and back began as a race in 1891and now Paris-Brest-Paris is the most famous randonnee in the world. The epic Race Across America, arguably cycling’s toughest event, covers some 3,000 miles (4,800 km).
Even for such extreme rides, endurance isn’t hard to develop. Train by riding a bunch of miles. Of course, if you really want to do your best, it’s more complicated than that. Nutrition, equipment, pacing and on-road repairs are part of the arsenal of every experienced and successful long-distance rider. Still, once you have a good mileage base, riding long is mainly a matter of keeping the crank turning.
But speed has always been an important element of endurance cycling. Just as PBP began as a race, some randonneurs now complete the distance in 50 hours or less. RAAM’s transcontinental trek takes less than 9 days for some riders. Pro racers devour the 270 km (167 miles) of Paris- Roubaix at an average speed greater than 40 kph (25 mph).
We tend to equate endurance with a steady and stately pace, but the leaders in these events would soon drop most of us. How can riders go so fast over such intimidating distances? How do they combine speed and endurance?
They know a secret about elite endurance performance that most riders don’t know: Endurance isn’t just the ability to go long at any pace, it’s the ability to go long at a specific pace.
Take, for instance, track riders who specialize in the individual pursuit. Pursuiters are classified as “endurance” track athletes because their event is 4,000 meters long rather than an all-out dash for mere seconds. Compared to burly sprinters, pursuiters have great endurance as well as speed. But their event lasts just over 4 minutes.
On the other end of the spectrum is the Race Across America. An average speed record was set in 1986 by Pete Penseyres at 15.4 mph (24.8 kph). This doesn’t sound remarkable until you realize that it represents total time from start to finish. In RAAM, the clock runs while riders stop to eat, sleep and wait for traffic lights. So Pete’s riding speed was much faster than 15.4 mph over that year’s 3,107-mile (5,002-km) course, which he completed in 8 days, 9 hours, 47 minutes.
Penseyres, who also won RAAM in 1984 but at a 13.3-mph (21.4-kph) average speed, had come to realize that most riders who want to gain endurance make a big mistake. They assume that to build stamina they only have to ride long and steadily, which almost by definition means slowly. This approach trains them to ride—you guessed it—steadily but slowly.
There’s nothing wrong with that in some situations. There’s a place for long, steady rides. But I bet that you’d like to be like Pete in ’86—longer and stronger, able to comfortably maintain a relatively brisk pace. I bet you’d rather ride athletically rather than plod stolidly along.
It’s not hard to develop speed as you improve endurance. If your goal is to ride longer, why not do the simple things necessary to ride faster as well? This extensive guide will show you how.
Speed Is Good on Long Rides: Here’s Why
Why should you want to be faster during endurance events if the primary goal is to complete the distance?
Speed helps compress endurance demands. Suppose you want endurance for a century (161 km). If you can ride 100 miles in 8 hours you need to develop endurance for 8 hours of cycling. But if you’re fast enough to ride that 100 miles in 6 hours, you’ll be on your bike 2 hours less. You’ll need to build 2 hours less endurance.
Here’s the paradox: When it comes to endurance events, the more speed you have, the less endurance you need. That’s why a good endurance training program should have a significant speed component.
So the secret of many experienced long-distance competitors is that they go fast enough to lessen the endurance demands. In this way they effectively shorten the race. Bill Rogers, the Boston Marathon legend, used to hang around to cheer slower runners after he had finished. He said he was impressed by people who could run for twice as much time as he could.
Jan Heine, the publisher of Bicycle Quarterly who rode the 2007 Paris-Brest-Paris in 50 hours flat to lead all Americans, told me he minimizes the distress of lengthy events by concentrating on finishing them quickly—a brisk, steady pace, no wasted time at stops. There’s a big difference between completing PBP in 50 hours and just making the time cut of 90 hours. That’s nearly 2 fewer days on the road!
Speed means less training. If you can ride quickly, you can finish training sooner, thus freeing time for other things. If you’re as time-challenged as most cyclists, it’s hard to squeeze in even one long ride each week. And if you have limited time to ride, the number of miles you can fit in—and, hence, your endurance improvement—is limited too.
But speed changes everything. If you have 8 hours for a long training ride, wouldn’t you rather finish 100 miles in 6 hours rather than 8, then use the 2 additional hours to ride 30 more miles (48 km)?
Or, at an organized century ride, have those 2 hours to hang out at the finish, munch from the post-ride buffet and recount the ride with friends? Of course, you could also spend those 2 saved hours mowing the lawn—but that isn’t as much fun!
Speed expands your training routes. If you can ride 100 miles in the time that you previously covered 80 miles (129 km), your speed will open up new roads that were out of reach in a given time frame.
North of my home in Montrose, Colorado, sits Grand Mesa, the highest flat top mountain in the world. The south-facing slopes are interlaced with narrow, hilly roads that are perfect for riding. But it takes 35 miles (56 km) to reach these roads and 35 miles to get home. If I can ride the roundtrip faster, more of my available time can be used to enjoy that bit of roadie paradise.
Speed increases comfort. The longer you sit on the saddle, push on the pedals and lean on the handlebar, the greater the stress on your contact points—sit bones, feet and hands. Faster riding reduces the time that your tender tissue has to contact hard bike components.
This is especially important when it comes to the relationship between your tush and the saddle—a fraught alliance where many endurance riders come to grief. More spritely pedaling means that you aren’t sitting as heavy on the saddle. With each pedal stroke a rider levitates slightly off the saddle, so the harder we pedal the less weight is borne by our tender parts. In this way, riding faster lessens pain in this crucial area—or at least postpones it until later in the ride. You can cover more ground before the nether regions begin to complain.
Speed increases confidence. If you know you can ride strongly for long distances, you can go easy early to save energy, certain that you’ll make up for the relaxed pace later. Many experienced endurance riders use this tactic, riding what’s called a “negative split”—purposefully planning the second half to be faster than the first. This also ensures you’ll have some zip left in case of late-ride obstacles like headwinds or unexpected hills. Remember the time-tested rule: It’s easier for a fast rider to go slow than for a slow rider to go fast.
The Trouble With Adding 10%
Now you see why an effective approach to endurance should emphasize not only going the distance but the ability to ride it at a faster pace.
As mentioned, you can develop great endurance simply by riding steadily at a comfortable, sustainable pace. That’s the traditional way, and it’s possible to increase long-ride distance an impressive amount—say from 35 to 110 miles (56-177 km) —in only 12 weeks.
The standard rule is to do one long ride per week and lengthen the distance about 10% each time. This chart shows how this builds significant endurance in a relatively short time (the 10% increases are rounded):
Week 1: 35 miles
Week 2: 40
Week 3: 45
Week 4: 50
Week 5: 55
Week 6: 60
Week 7: 67
Week 8: 75
Week 9: 80
Week 10: 90
Week 11: 100
Week 12: 110
Looks impressive. But the 10% approach has at least 3 shortcomings:
Simply riding longer means you’ll develop endurance with little or no improvement in speed. You’re in danger of becoming a plodder.
It’s difficult to increase a weekly long ride at this regular and metronomic rate. One week you might feel really good, can’t contain yourself and ride 25% longer than the previous week’s effort. Two weeks later you may be coming off a tough week at work or feeling the effects of a virus and be hard pressed to increase mileage at all.
If it’s raining, the wind is howling or a heat wave has descended on the one day you can ride long, it may be impossible to maintain a precise schedule. Fitness doesn’t build at a steady and predictable rate. Instead it proceeds by fits and starts. Especially when you feel good, you need to take advantage, not be restrained by an arbitrary schedule.
For all the above reasons, I’m advocating an approach to distance training that emphasizes speed as well as endurance and gives you a great chance to become a significantly stronger long-distance rider. I’m not talking about gut-wrenching intervals or sizzling sprints.
Instead I’ll show you techniques that will not only increase the speed at which you can cover significant distances but make long rides more fun.
Distance Cycling Nutrition: Food and Fluids
Before outlining this training it’s important to mention a key component of successful distance cycling—nutrition. In fact, endurance cycling coach John Hughes often says that the ability to ride long distances is governed by the amount of food and liquid your body can process. Working at a moderate rate for hours (or days) is only possible if you continually stoke the body’s furnace.
This can be more art than science, though. Different riders react differently to the same dietary approach. Some do well on solid food ranging from energy bars to convenience store burritos. Others can only tolerate liquids, particularly when it’s hot. So one important objective of long training rides is to experiment and fine-tune what works well for you.
A good starting point is to ingest 200-300 calories per hour. They can be provided by a sports drink in combination with solid food such as an energy bar, PB&J sandwich, fig cookies, fruit and so on. You’ll soon learn how many calories are too much or too little and in what conditions the amount might change. Most long-distance riders do well on solid food, but there are also liquid nutrition options.
Ideas on hydration are changing. Until recently, endurance athletes were cautioned to drink copiously and follow a specific hydration schedule. Some riders set a timer on their sports watch or bike computer to beep every 15 minutes as a reminder to take another gulp.
However, newer research indicates that it’s okay to drink according to thirst. Sports drinks are beneficial because they contain calories and most have electrolytes, but water hydrates just as well and you may find that it works better for washing down food.
An important aspect of long ride planning is knowing where you can replenish food and fluids. Convenience stores are the cyclist’s friends on the road. So are parks with public water fountains. Learn to accurately estimate how long you can ride on the nourishment you carry, and know where stores are located along your route.
Some riders like to tote most of their supplies with them. This eliminates lengthy stops and the need to plan routes around food sources. For instance, on long brevets Jan Heine loads a handlebar bag with all the chow he’ll need for the first 250 miles. He still has to stop for fluid, but that doesn’t always require a store.
Prepping for a Long Bicycle Ride
Most riders find that long rides fit naturally into a weekend. They often get up early and begin at first light or even use lights so they don’t need to wait. In this way they can ride for 7 hours and be home by noon for chores or family activities.
Be flexible in your planning so you can take advantage of your natural ebb and flow of energy. If you’re not feeling well on Saturday, it’s ideal if you can postpone the ride to Sunday or even to the middle of the week if other obligations permit.
That said, you need to be pretty firm in your schedule so you can do the right things in the preceding 24 hours. Let’s see what’s necessary in order to make maximum advantage of an upcoming endurance- and speed-building workout.
Accentuate carbs. Eat plenty of carbohydrate such as fruits, veggies and whole grains. There’s no need to take in more calories than normal, but the percentage of carbs should be higher.
Plan ride food. What will you eat on the ride—energy bars that you carry or grab from stores along the way? Have a plan so you’re not stuck on a rural road, bonking and dehydrated but still 20 miles from nourishment. Always carry an emergency energy bar or gel packet (one more than you’re sure you’ll need), just in case.
Dress for success. Previous long rides should have helped you refine your clothing. Do seams in certain shorts abrade your skin? Is your shoe/sock combo comfy as the hours mount up? Does your rain jacket keep you warm as well as reasonably dry? Use the answers to plan your wardrobe, and continue refining.
Plan for mechanicals. Long rides can be hard on equipment. Be sure to have what you need to install a new tube or gear cable and true around a broken spoke. Pack a multitool with wrenches and screwdrivers that fit the various size nuts, bolts and adjustment screws on your bike.
Pack. How do you carry all this stuff on a long, unsupported ride? Most recreational cyclists do fine with a small seat bag containing a spare tube, tire lever and maybe a multitool. When they shed arm warmers or a jacket they stuff them in their jersey pockets.
But this minimalist approach doesn’t work for long rides. You may need extra clothes for temperature changes or rain. You’ll need to carry extra food if supply points are widely separated or you want to avoid the time and expense of stopping. It’s smart to have more than one spare tube too.
Solutions include a larger, expandable seat bag or a trunk that sits on a rear rack. An increasing number of endurance riders are adopting randonneur-style handlebar bags, but some frame geometries aren’t suited to a front load. Again, long training rides are a way to learn what works best for you, your bike and the conditions you ride in. The questions should all be answered when you line up for an event.
Plan a varied route. Even the most enthusiastic rider can get stale using the same routes over and over. The key to enjoying long rides is to make them adventurous. Get a detailed map of your state such as a DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer or spend some time going over Google Maps or RideWithGPS routes, then plan to ride some roads you’ve never seen from the saddle. By using a GPS bike computer and some of the route planning apps, you can build a route with turn-by-turn directions.
Check the Randonneurs USA website for brevets in your area. https://rusa.org/ You may find websites with downloadable cue sheets for rides of 200K (124 miles) or longer. Surf the internet for other sources, including cycling clubs and bike shops in your region that post cue sheets for century rides.
Consider your safety. Carry your phone so you can call for help in case of injury or an un-repairable mechanical problem. Don’t ride in the dark unless you have a good lighting system and a reflective vest and ankle bands. Long rides don’t have to be solo. There’s safety in numbers, and the camaraderie of a like-minded group makes the hours go by faster.
Identifying Intensity Levels on the Bike
Okay, you’re ready to ride long—and increase your speed too. Next are the training techniques you can insert into any long ride to spice up the hours and put snap in your legs. I’ll describe each drill then show how to put them into long rides for maximum effectiveness.
As for the intensity of this training, remember—you aren’t a road or criterium racer trying to improve short-term top-end speed for closing gaps, attacking the group or winning sprints. Instead, the purpose of these drills is to increase your cruising speed—the average pace you can maintain for hours without undue fatigue.
This means you don’t need to work at maximum levels. You’d quickly tire and not be able to ride long enough to meet your endurance goals. Intensity is moderate for each drill.
It’s become popular to precisely delineate intensity zones using heart monitors or power meters. However, that’s not necessary for these workouts. Instead I’ll suggest a simple measure of perceived exertion.
The scale starts with your normal cruising intensity (NCI). This is the effort you expend when riding more than an hour for enjoyment. It’s a moderate effort that feels good. Your breathing is steady, your legs don’t burn and you can easily chat with riding companions. You feel like you could go for hours and increase the intensity at any time. In fact, you often do—for hills or headwinds. NCI is a steady-state, sustainable effort.
The other crucial—and harder—intensity level is your lactate threshold (LT). This is the strongest pace you can sustain for no more than an hour, such as in a time trial. You don’t need electronics to pinpoint your LT. You can identify it simply by paying attention to your breathing rate.
Here’s how: Ride up a long, gradual hill and increase the pace slightly every minute. Pay attention to your body’s response. As you transition through your normal cruising intensity breathing will get deeper and faster. At some point during this increasing effort you will suddenly switch from deep and rhythmical breathing to panting—shallow and quick.
The onset of this uncontrolled breathing is called your ventilatory threshold. If you ease off slightly so panting stops and steady-but-forceful breathing returns, you’re back to lactate threshold intensity.
Techniques to Increase Your Cycling Speed
Learn to recognize the 2 intensity levels—NCI and LT. I’ll key the recommended training efforts to them. These are the speed training techniques you’ll be using.
Sprints. Shift to the next higher gear (smaller cassette cog) than the one you are using to ride steadily. Stand and accelerate, not all-out but forcefully. When your cadence reaches about 110 rpm, sit down and pedal even faster. The total effort should take no more than 20 seconds. Then ease off, recover, and resume your NCI pace. This isn’t a maximum effort. It should feel snappy and invigorating.
Hills. Climbs that take 1-3 minutes can be ridden near your LT. Choose an easier gear (larger cog) that allows a cadence about 10 rpm higher than you’d normally use. This will spare leg muscles for the rest of your long ride but allow you to raise your heart rate. Longer climbs should be ridden at a pace about halfway between your NCI and your LT. Again, keep your cadence brisk.
Windups. Riding at your NCI pace on a level road, gradually increase the cadence until you’re almost spun out. Then shift to the next higher gear (smaller cog) and spin up again. Do this 3 times. Spend about 10 seconds in each gear. Your effort should max out at slightly below your LT by the end. That is, before you reach the panting point. Keep your cadence high and your pedaling style supple. Don’t strain.
Fartlek. This Swedish term means “speed play.” It’s applied to random harder efforts during a steady-state ride. There’s no structure. Simply go harder when the spirit moves you and then back off to your cruising speed. A fun way to throw in some fartlek is to go faster for 10 seconds to 3 minutes whenever you see a certain cue like a bluebird, white mailbox or tractor in a field.
Tempo. A tempo interval is a 10-to-30-minute effort that’s slightly below the intensity you’d use for a time trial of the same length.
Long Bike Ride Workouts
There’s no need for the kind of intense and detailed warm-up routine that you’d need for a short, hard event like a criterium or time trial. Simply start rides slowly and gradually increase the pace until you’re at your NCI (normal cruising intensity). Throw in a couple of easy accelerations to get your heart going and open your lungs and legs, then settle in.
Here are 2 examples of how speed techniques can be interspersed throughout long rides. If you find that the harder efforts take too much out of you and you can’t complete the distance without struggling, reduce the number and build up to the recommendations as you gain fitness. Early on, simply breaking out of a steady, plodding pace will begin making a positive difference.
4-hour Endurance Ride
First 30 minutes: warm-up
30-minutes to 1 hour: moderate, steady tempo at an intensity between your NCI and LT 1-1:15: relaxed spin
1:15-1:30: 5 sprints of 10-15 seconds each, separated by about 3 minutes of relaxed spinning
1:30-2:00: NCI pace
2:00-2:30: 3-5 hills that take 2-4 minutes each to climb at an intensity one notch below LT; spin easily between each effort
2:30-3:30: NCI pace
3:30-3:45: tempo at slightly lower than LT pace
3:45-4:00: spin easily to the finish for a cool-down
(Note: If there aren’t hills at the right time during either of these examples, go into fartlek mode to produce the required intensity.)
6-hour Endurance Ride
First 30 minutes: warm-up
30 minutes to 1 hour: steady tempo at an intensity slightly higher than your NCI pace 1-1:15: relaxed spin
1:15-1:30: 5 sprints of 10-15 seconds each separated by about 3 minutes of relaxed spinning
1:30-2:30: NCI pace
2:30-3:00: 3-5 hills that take 2-4 minutes each to climb at an intensity slightly below your LT; spin easily between each effort
3:00-3:30: NCI pace
3:30-3:45: relaxed spin
3:45-4:30: moderate tempo at an intensity between your NCI and LT
4:30-5:00: NCI pace
5:00-5:20: long climb at an intensity slightly less than LT pace
5:20-5:30: relaxed spin
5:30-5:45: 5 windups separated by easy spinning
5:45-6:00: spin easily to the finish for a cool-down
Using the Terrain for Intensity Training
I hear you—not everyone everywhere is going to have training routes that fit those 2 workout examples. You may be on a steep hill when you’re supposed to be relaxing. You may be on a flat road with a tailwind when you’re supposed to be pounding a climb.
An effective alternative is to let the terrain and wind conditions dictate when you go hard and when you recover.
Find a route with varied terrain. Hopefully it will have several short hills, at least one long climb, some wind and even a mix of pavement quality. Don’t be afraid of using dirt roads if your bike has 25 mm or wider tires. Dirt roads can expand routes, make rides more interesting and improve bike-handling skills.
Here’s a fartlek-type approach to using varied conditions:
Ride the flat sections at your NCI pace.
Increase the intensity on the short hills, pushing to your LT (or slightly above). Recover on the descent and flats by spinning easily.
Ride headwind sections just below your LT—a pace that you find “annoyingly unpleasant” but not extremely difficult.
Do the long climbs at the same unpleasant intensity. Recover on the descents.
Do short sprints with long recoveries on tailwind sections.
On rough pavement or dirt roads, work on your technique by sliding back on the saddle and using a slightly higher gear than normal. Intensity should be slightly below LT.
In these unstructured rides, shoot for:
30% of total time at intensities between your NCI and LT
15% spinning easily for recovery
55% at your NCI pace
Combining Group and Solo Rides
An excellent way to get distance and speed work on a given day is to combine several hours of solo NCI effort with the local group ride. Group rides tend to be quite spirited, giving you great intensity.
Weekly team time trialing and road racing with friends was how Pete Penseyres made his revolutionary break from pure endurance training in the 1980s. It’s the reason he was able to raise his RAAM average speed a remarkable 2.1 mph (3.4 kph) between his win in ’84 and setting the 15.4-mph (24.8-kph) speed record in ’86, which still stood 23 years later.
Do your solo ride before or after joining the group, depending on when it goes off. Or you could ride a couple of hours at your NCI pace, ride with the group, then do a couple more hours solo. That was Pete’s method. He sandwiched the twice-a-week training races with long 60-mile (97- km) rides to and from his job. He was 43 at the time.
Setting Distance Cycling Records
You’ve done the training and now you want to ride longer than you ever have—set a personal distance record. Should you continue to include faster efforts or should you keep a steady pace?
If you are going only slightly longer than you have previously, and the ride is training for future long events, I recommend continuing to vary the pace. You don’t need to flirt with your LT, however. Relatively mild changes in intensity will enliven your legs without the danger of premature fatigue.
If the ride is a serious distance increase—say, advancing from a century to a 200K brevet (124 miles)—keep the pace steady without the artificial intensity changes. Of course, the terrain and wind will require that you go harder at times.
In a perfect world we could ride at a perfectly steady pace, well within our abilities, and pedal for hours or days without undue strain as long as we ate and hydrated properly. But a long ride nearly always has headwinds, tough hills, fast sections and pavement ranging from smooth to potholed to perhaps none at all.
This is where your training will serve you well. The longer the ride, the more impossible it is to ride steadily. Thanks to mixing hard efforts with endurance in training, you can handle the challenge and finish faster and stronger than ever.
Save Energy Here to Ride Stronger Later
One way to ride stronger longer is to save energy when doing so doesn’t cost you significant time. Here’s a good technique: Save your precious supply of energy by coasting (and resting) on steeper descents. Because wind resistance is higher at greater speeds, pedaling when you’re going faster than about 28 mph (45 kph) requires lots of wattage for little speed gain. A better approach is to tuck aerodynamically and coast when you reach this speed.
The aforementioned Jan Heine rarely uses a gear larger than 50×15-teeth and still excels in long- distance events. When he spins out that gear, he tucks and goes faster than he could if pedaling.
I rode with Heine in Seattle, his hometown, and he routinely dropped me on descents even though he was coasting and I was pedaling a fairly large gear. With his crankarms horizontal, he put his hands next to the stem and bent low, peering over his handlebar bag. He told me he’d been in a wind tunnel to hone his slippery position, which saves him significant energy on long, hilly rides.
The Rest of the Week
Now you know how to spice up your long training rides. For most riders this takes care of one day each week—one long ride every 7-10 days is plenty. When you’re up to triple mileage digits on your odometer (161+ km), a “breakthrough” ride every 2 weeks should be enough.
What do you do on the other days?
For the most part you can rest or do short, easy recovery rides, perhaps with friends. Once each week a more spirited ride helps keep speed in your legs. Sprints, short intervals, longer tempo and hills pushed hard all work well.
Remember, the training principles I’ve discussed work for rides of any length. You can throw some intensity into a 2-hour ride or one that lasts 4 times as long.
Don’t Skimp on Recovery
Finally, a word on recovery. When you push your endurance and speed to new levels, your body will be under great stress. Your hard work will pay off in improvement only if you give your body plenty of time to recover. For most riders the minimum is at least one day off the bike each week and 2 additional days of short, easy spinning. Err on the side of more rest, less stress—then go for it on the day you are adding speed to distance.
Don’t skimp on calories or fluids while off the bike. Eat a diet high in carbohydrate with a moderate amount of protein and “good” fat. Keep the fluids topped off too so that urine is barely light yellow. If you’re not getting up at least twice at night to urinate, you’re trending toward dehydration.
Follow the training principles in this guide and your cruising speed will increase. You’ll ride a set distance faster. You’ll ride farther in a set time. And your strength and fitness will help you have more fun on rides of all lengths.