Working with long distance cyclists I am often amazed at how the human body can be trained to cycle further and further. I thought it would be useful to help others learn from my experience by writing a blog article with some guidance on how to develop your ability to cycle longer distances.

So, how can I cycle further without getting tired? There are four main things that will help:

  1. Gradually build up the distance of your rides over time, don’t rush, it takes time to build your endurance;
  2. Include some faster riding, interval training and hill repetitions to build your fitness and so that you can ride faster. This will make the slower pace of your longer rides easier and you will be able to ride for longer;
  3. During your long rides, be careful to ride at a comfortable pace, don’t set off too fast;
  4. Eat and drink enough to keep your energy and hydration levels topped up.

The most common mistakes in trying to cycle longer distances are going too fast early on and not eating and drinking enough. If you go too fast you will use up the energy supplies in your body too quickly; if you don’t drink enough, you will become dehydrated, making your body less efficient and if you don’t eat enough of the right things during a long ride your body quickly run out of readily accessible energy and have to work harder to keep you going. All these things will result in you feeling very tired and having to slow down significantly or stop altogether. The good thing is that doing the right things is very easy and you can train your body to use energy more efficiently.

Schedule your time and keep it simple

Up to a point, the more you ride your bike the better you will become at it and the longer you will be able to ride. Doing some faster riding will help that process along and eating properly will help too.

If you work full time, or have commitments during certain periods of the week, think about when you can best make time for your longer rides. When you have less time, you can focus on doing shorter, faster rides. Many of the athletes I work with are in full time employment so they do higher intensity rides during on weekdays, often on an indoor trainer or at the gym on an exercise bike such as a Wattbike. Longer rides are saved for the weekends.

The other important factor is to make sure you get enough rest and recovery so you need to build easier days into your schedule. It is tempting to think that working harder and harder will make you fitter quicker but this isn’t true. Your body adapts to the stresses you have imposed on it during periods of rest and recovery, so the easier days are when your fitness develops. The trick is to do some things that your body isn’t used to and then have time off to let it adapt.

A good plan for a week, if you have time more time at weekends is to include 2 harder rides during the week, such as an interval session (e.g. 20 minutes warm up then 4 x fast for 5 minutes, easy for 5 minutes and then 10 minutes cool down), hill repeats (ride up a hill hard and then recover as you ride downhill for 20 minutes to an hour) or a hard ride; with one or two longer rides at the weekend. If you are fit enough to do more riding, make up the the extra with easier rides. I don’t recommend more than 2 hard sessions each week as a rule, particularly if you will be doing a long ride at the weekend. One hard session can be enough for many people, it isn’t soft to do less riding or ride at a lesser intensity, do what is right for you and you will get fitter quicker and enjoy your riding more than many people who over do things. You will have to adjust the amount you ride, the number of harder sessions and how much rest to take according to your level of fitness and available time. It is usually best to take a rest day between harder sessions and longer rides, particularly when you are starting out.

Eat well

Even if you are cycling to lose weight it is important to eat plenty of food to fuel your body when it needs it. Not eating enough will mean that you will significantly reduce your chances of building fitness and could make yourself very ill. If you want to lose weight then do it gradually, aiming to lose around 1kg every 2 weeks is a good target. If you are already at a healthy weight then don’t be tempted to lose more to get faster, you may see some improvements on hills at first but this won’t last if you are under weight or lose weight too fast.

If you are unsure how much to eat, or whether you are eating the right amount, it can be a good idea to keep a food diary for a few weeks. There are many good tools available such as MyFitnessPal . If you want to learn more about nutrition, I can highly recommend any of the books by Anita Bean and if you are interested more specifically in cycle racing, Nigel Mitchel’s book, Fuelling the Cycling Revolution is very good. I had the pleasure of working with Nigel during my time at British Cycling and always found his advice to be practical and effective.

Things to consider are that you need to maintain your energy levels at all times, particularly before hard or long sessions and that you need to replace the energy you have used after your shorter training sessions and during longer rides.

When recovering from a ride, if you are going to have a meal shortly after your ride, by shortly I mean within 30 to 45 minutes, you can just have a small quick snack with some protein and carbohydrate to keep you going until your meal. If it is going to be several hours before you eat, it is a good idea to have a more substantial snack, including some protein and carbohydrate to help your body start the recovery process. You should also ensure that you aren’t hungry when starting your rides.

During rides of more than 90 minutes, you should aim to consume between 30g and 60g or carbohydrate as well as around 500ml of liquid per hour. You will need more liquid if it is hot and you are sweating more. Using an electrolyte mix in your drinking bottle will help you absorb the liquid more effectively than if you just use water.

If you choose to use ready made nutrition products, follow the manufacturers recommendations. Ready made products are convenient but the costs can add up, so you can make your own or carry some more normal foods if the riding isn’t so intense. Both Anita Bean and Nigel Mitchel have recipes for home made nutrition that will work just as well as the ready made, ‘off the shelf’ products.

Set some goals

People often ask me how they can get fitter and my usual answer is to ask them what they mean by fitter. Fitness is both specific to your overall goals and your current level of fitness, for example, a 65 year old person recovering from a hip replacement and wanting to get fit enough to cycle 20km is in a completely different situation to a experienced cyclist wanting to ride a major bike packing event like the Transcontinental Race. Both their goals are valid and challenging, and both would benefit from a clear plan and some interim goals but the starting and finish points are very different.

Our 65 year old may need to learn to ride a bike again and would benefit from cycling indoors to develop the fitness and flexibility needed to ride a bike outside. Their first goal may be to ride for 10 minutes non stop on an indoor trainer or exercise bike. Our Transcontinental rider may aim to develop the fitness to ride a 300km Audax event as an initial stepping stone to riding long back to back days. Whatever your goals, they need to be specific to your needs and if you have an event in mind, they need to be achieved in time to move onto subsequent steps in the process. It is therefore a good idea to set a series of goals with associated dates when they will be achieved.

Think about what you want achieve and work towards it, getting fitter doesn’t have to be complicated, just think about the fact that your mind and body will adapt to what you do to it. If you want to ride a bike for a long time you need to practice riding a bike for longer periods of time until you reach your goal, building in a good mix of intensities to keep your body adapting.

Think about when you want to achieve your ultimate goal. If you have an event in mind, this is easier, if not then set a date and stick to it. Think about what you can do now, identify the things you need to train and improve for your goal and then write down some interim goals that you will reach in 1 week, 2 weeks, 4 weeks, 8 weeks, etc. Be realistic and remember you can’t force yourself to get fit, you have to wait for your body to adapt so bear in mind that it typically takes 4 to 8 weeks for your body to adapt to an increased level of training.

How to stay motivated

After the initial excitement has worn off it can sometimes be difficult to stay motivated and stick to your plan. This is particularly the case if the weather is bad or you start to suffer from external pressures on your time. There are a few things that you can do to keep things moving through these difficult periods:

  • Make sure that you have regular, achievable goals that form stepping stones to your overall goal;
  • Celebrate when you reach a goal or achieve a success, even if it is just a small one;
  • Keep a diary and use it to see your progress;
  • Look back at all the riding you have done since you started and be proud of the progress you have made: even if it isn’t quite what you had hoped, look for small improvements and realise you will keep improving if you keep working;
  • Involve someone else in your plan, either as someone to ride with or someone to share your journey with. Make sure this person understands what you are doing, isn’t going to judge you and realises that you will have difficult times mixed in with the successes;
  • If you don’t feel you can do the whole of a planned session, do what you can and be happy with it, training consistently is what makes the difference so don’t worry if the odd session doesn’t work out, there will be times you exceed your expectations as well;
  • Have a routine so that you do the same things at similar times each day so that things become automatic and natural.

Make sure you do things you enjoy

Not everything about getting fitter to achieve a goal is always enjoyable but in this case, I assume that you want to cycle further because you like cycling; at least I hope that is the case. If you are doing it for other reasons such as trying to lose weight then as you get fitter you will start to enjoy it more and more, so stick at it, but set some achievable goals that form stepping stones to your final target.

Remember to enjoy your rides and don’t get hung up on thinking you should or shouldn’t do certain things all the time, you will be giving yourself the best chance of success by having fun, mixing it up and enjoying the journey to your new found fitness.

Related Questions

Can I do too much training? Yes, you can definitely do too much, and particularly if you aren’t looking after yourself properly. It is important to be aware of how you feel and if things feel wrong or you are ill, it is time to ease off a bit. Be aware, also, that what was manageable at one time may be too much at a different time due to other factors in your life. External pressures, such as additional stress from work, extra working hours, or additional family commitments and pressures all take our energy and may leave less energy for cycling, so be careful. However, also remember that if you’re stressed, getting out for a bike ride in the fresh are can be a relief and exercise is an amazing cure for depression, if you’re struggling then doing what feels right can be a good move.

Does it matter what bike I ride? If your aim is to develop your ability to ride for longer, it doesn’t matter what bike you ride. That means that if you find it more convenient to do a little extra on your daily commute using a bike that isn’t the one you like to enjoy at weekends or will do your event on, that is fine, in fact it can be a great way of getting some extra riding in. Also, if you usually ride on the roads and fancy trying mountain biking for a change then it all adds up to building that fitness. Having said that, if you are training for a specific event that is going to be on a specific bike, you should ensure that you do a significant amount of riding on your event bike and on relevant terrain to ensure you are as efficient as possible on that setup.

I hope you enjoyed the article and found it useful. If you have any questions or you think we can help with anything else, get in touch or leave a comment. If you have particular interests that you would like us to write about, please let us know.

John Hampshire
Post by John Hampshire
March 11, 2019