How To Train for an Ultra-endurance Bikepacking Race or Event
Over recent years I have helped many people train for ultra-endurance bike packing events and over that time I have learned a lot about effective training methods. I thought it would be useful to write an article explaining the details of what I have found to be the best way to train and prepare for a bike packing event.
So, how do you train for an ultra-endurance bikepacking event?
Build your aerobic fitness and endurance with long and short rides at an easy pace;
Build your speed with harder and faster workouts each week;
Train consistently over several months to gradually build the fitness you need;
Develop a weekly routine for your training so that you can quickly understand what works and what doesn’t by making small incremental changes;
Develop a daily routine for your event that is based on duration, not distance, and practice it;
Build your endurance and practice your systems with gradually longer rides and practice events;
Training isn’t complicated but it is important to do the right things and be consistent. Training at the right intensities and durations to make sure that you build fitness but don’t over do it and get ill or injured requires some planning, discipline and objectivity to be most effective.
Many people think that it is necessary to do huge amounts of riding to prepare for an ultra-endurance event but this isn’t the case.
It is necessary to do some long rides and practice some short blocks of 2, 3 or 4 days in a row a few times, but it isn’t necessary to do huge mileages every day.
Learn to ride for one long day first
For it to be possible to ride for more than a few days with only minimal recovery such as a few hours sleep, the speed you are riding at must be sustainable.
That means that you can train to be able to ride for one long day at a sustainable pace and if you can do that, you are likely to be able to do it again, and again as long as you eat and drink enough to keep you going.
If you don’t eat or drink enough, or you ride too fast, you will soon run out of energy.
Because of the way your body works, this would only take a few hours, not a few days, so practicing pacing and building your endurance to ride long for just one or two days works well and leaves time for harder training that will build your average speed in different ways.
Your long ride is the most important of the week
Not surprisingly, doing regular long rides is the most important thing to do.
Start with what you can manage, maybe 4 or 5 hours and build up until you can ride for as long as you expect to do in your event.
Do this gradually, you don’t need to do more and more every week, you need to have some shorter and some longer weeks to get proper recovery and let your body build.
Some weeks you can do a bit longer and some weeks you can split your long ride over two days to get used to riding the day after a long ride, sometimes take it easy and do a bit less, when you are tired.
When you do two days in a row, it is best to make the first day the longest but don’t worry if this is inconvenient, you can do it the other way round as well and make the first day a little faster.
Most people find it convenient to do their longer rides at the weekends
If you work Monday to Friday, you may have more time at the weekends, so it can be most convenient to do your longer rides at the weekends. This allows you to do build the volume of your endurance training by using both Saturday and Sunday and if you want to have a 3 day practice you can start on Friday evening.
If you do this, you can use the weekdays for shorter, harder sessions that will boost your speed and fitness in other ways.
Do some harder, faster workouts
Including some harder workouts into your weekly schedule will make a big difference.
These workouts increase the maximum speeds you can sustain for short periods of time, which in turn makes riding at slower speeds easier and therefore will also increase the sustainable endurance pace that you will be riding at during your event.
Harder rides also make you tired faster, and doing some easy endurance rides when you are tired can boost your endurance/aerobic fitness. Don’t do this all the time though and make sure you are recovered and rested properly for your hard sessions, or they will be wasted effort. Hard efforts need to be fast and hard to be effective.
Having this higher power at your disposal also means that if you do need to work a bit harder during your event, perhaps on a steep climb, you can do it and not dip so deep into your valuable reserves of short term energy.
These harder workouts are often best done as what are known as interval sessions. These involve working hard for a period of time, having a short recovery and then doing it again.
How hard is hard? Training Zones
Harder, faster training is done at different intensities.
The most common way of defining these intensities is to use what are known as Training Zones.
Training Zones are ways to define different intensities based on some form of measurement such as heart rate, power or perceived exertion (RPE). Heart rate and power are measured by heart rate monitors and power meters, whereas RPE is how hard you feel you are working according to certain guidelines.
There are many different sets of training zones, defined slightly differently but I like to use those developed by Andrew Coggan. The figure shows the Andrew Coggan training zones that are reproduced from an article that he wrote and published as a TrainingPeaks blog: https://www.trainingpeaks.com/blog/power-training-levels/ .
Long endurance rides and other easier riding should be done in your training zones 1 and 2. This training should be below what is known as your aerobic threshold and if you want to learn more about it, look at my article: Why is aerobic threshold important and how to use it to get fitter.
Tempo, Lactate Threshold and Max Aerobic are the other zones of interest for your training.
Tempo training is something that you can sustain for quite a long time, maybe 45 minutes to 2 hours and is represented by your zone 3 heart rate or power. Once you have done a couple of weeks riding at an easy/endurance pace you are ready to start some harder training.
As a guide, this should feel a bit uncomfortable at your tempo pace but you can keep going at that pace, you can converse but only in short phrases and generally it feels better not to talk and just focus on riding.
These sessions help your basic riding speed and build your ability to ride at a relatively fast, steady pace. Examples would be on long road or on long sections into a strong headwind.
Good tempo sessions to start with are 2 or 3 x 15 minutes with 5 minutes rest between each effort, 3 x 20 minutes with 5 minutes or 1 x 30 minutes. As you get fitter you will be able to build up to longer efforts so that you are doing a total of around 2 hours at tempo.
It is best to do these efforts on a good surface where you just focus on riding. You can use a road bike or a mountain bike, or an indoor trainer. If you have a gym membership, using a Wattbike or similar is a great way to start incorporating power into your workouts. Many athletes I work with have found that a Wattbike in the gym is a great way to do harder, more focused sessions and actually enjoy working with power in that way. This works even better for the threshold and VO2 max efforts, see the next section.
Don’t over do the tempo training though, it is just as damaging to your body as the higher intensity, Threshold and Maximum Aerobic but isn’t quite as effective at building your fitness. After a few weeks of tempo training, start to include some Lactate Threshold training.
Threshold is a bit like hard tempo, a level of effort you can sustain for between 30 and 60 minutes before you have to slow down. This is the effort known as Functional Threshold Power or Critical Power, which are slightly different but in practical terms can be treated the same. Physiologically, it is known as your anaerobic threshold.
Threshold workouts are often best done with hard efforts of 2 to 10 minutes with shorter recoveries. Things like 3, 4 or 5 x 8 minutes with 2 minutes recoveries, or 12 x 3 minutes with 1 minute recoveries are great Threshold workouts.
You should aim to do them at the best pace you can but making all the efforts the same speed, so pacing is important, don’t go off too hard. The best thing to do is start a little easy and pick things up if you have something left later on.
Maximum Aerobic (VO2max)
After a few weeks of doing tempo sessions you can start to include some VO2max sessions into your plan.
These sessions will increase the power that you can sustain for 3 to 5 minutes, which is the basic limiter of your aerobic fitness. Putting this more simply, if you increase the speed or power you can ride at your VO2max, you are likely to increase the speed or power you can ride at any other aerobic effort, even your zone 1 speed will get faster.
Good VO2max sessions are 2 sets of 10 x 1 minute with 1 minute recoveries and 5 minutes between sets, or 4 x 5 minutes with 5 minutes recoveries. Experiment and keep the recoveries around the same duration as the efforts.
The most effective high intensity workouts are Lactate Threshold workouts, so if you do 2 harder training sessions each week, aim to do 1 threshold session a week and alternate a tempo and a VO2max so you do one of them every other week.
Plan a good weekly schedule
It may be tempting to think that continuously building your training volume, hours, distance and intensity up until your event is the best way to go. However, fitness doesn’t develop as smoothly as that and you have to take rests to recover before building up again. Some days and weeks you feel tired and sometimes you feel really strong as if you can’t get tired.
Taking as much control of how your fitness develops is the best way, and the best way to do that is to include planned easier and harder days as well as planned easier and harder weeks. This is particularly the case if you have a fixed weekly schedule with commitments you have to keep. You don’t want to be feeling super strong on a day you can’t go out and ride, so making that day a planned easier day is a good idea.
I like to have a regular weekly structure that gives the best chance of being strongest and most fresh for the higher intensity sessions and doing easier rides when tired. If you work with the longer weekend sessions like I mentioned earlier, a good week might be:
Monday: something easy or a rest day with no riding to recover from the weekend;
Tuesday: some easy riding of an hour or two at your endurance pace (below aerobic threshold);
Wednesday: a hard Threshold session like 4 x 8 minutes as hard as you can with 2 minutes recoveries between efforts;
Thursday: a longer easy ride, as long as you have time for;
Friday: either a Tempo session or a VO2max session;
Saturday: your longest ride of the week where you build your endurance and practice everything like pacing, nutrition and gradually build your skills on representative terrain;
Sunday: another endurance ride, initially the point of this ride is to get used to riding the day after a long ride but as you build your endurance, increase the duration of this ride to be more representative of your event. Use this ride for further practice of your race skills.
Don’t make all your endurance rides filled with skills practice because this can detract from building fitness and endurance. When you are focusing on skills, you have to go slower and also when you are tired from a long ride, you are more likely to have an accident. Therefore, learning technical riding skills should be separate from your endurance rides until you have them mastered.
If you want some inspiration for your interval sessions, or to learn a bit more about how to organise them, you can read my article Why do I need Interval Training?, or Get fit for cycling using the 5 pace system.
A great way to build specific fitness is to find some shorter events to do that challenge your endurance in a relevant way. It keeps things interesting and provides a great learning experience.
Ride twice a day if you have time
Doing two rides on some days can be a great way to build your aerobic fitness. To some extent, the more endurance riding you do, the more you will build your aerobic fitness, the more efficient you will be and therefore the faster you will be. This is obviously with the caveat that you shouldn’t do too much and compromise your harder training sessions or more importantly your health.
A short, easy morning ride can also prepare your body for a harder workout later in the day, resulting in a harder more effective workout.
Alternatively, if you can do two workouts in the same day, you can make a visit to the gym without compromising your riding time.
As with everything, don’t over do it, but if you have time, a morning ride before breakfast can make a significant difference to your fitness.
Make a balance and ensure you still have enough recovery time, both physically and mentally.
If you have time, spend some time in the gym to build strength
Spending time in the gym working on building strength if you have time is likely to pay dividends and even one session a week can be worth it. Having better general strength and conditioning will reduce the impact of fatigue and lessen the likelihood of injury. Focus on your general strength and conditioning rather than trying to lift heavy weights, you are looking to build resilience rather than power.
There are many great books on strength and conditioning but I particularly like the book by Phil Burt and Martin Evans: Strength and Conditioning for Cyclists because it takes care to ensure that correct range of motion is available before moving on to more loaded efforts.
Get enough rest and learn how to spot when you are getting too tired
This is perhaps more important than getting the nuances of training right. Doing too much is definitely much worse than doing too little, so stay cautious and learn to spot when things might be drifting towards excessive fatigue.
Making sure you have planned rest days and easier weeks is a good way to ensure you don’t get too tired but sometimes things like illness, work, etc., get in the way and cause unexpected stress and fatigue so beware.
You can use objective metrics like heart rate variability (HRV) and resting heart rate as well as more subjective measures like how tired you feel, your mood, how well you are sleeping, etc. For these to work effectively you need to build up a baseline so that you know what is normal and can spot things changing for the better, ideally, or for the worse, not ideal but better to spot things early before you get ill or injured.
If you take your pulse and HRV each morning and record some other things like your mood, sleep, sleep quality, fatigue, etc. you will quickly build up an understanding of how things should be. You can use tools like TrainingPeaks to look at trends in these values, which can be very helpful. For example, comparing HRV and sleep for one of my athletes showed a clear correlation with fatigue when she got less than 8 hours sleep for a sustained period. She is now able to focus on getting at least 8 hours sleep and that is really helping her manage her fatigue levels.
A good, less objective, but effective method is to get your friends or family to mention if they notice your mood changing for a day or two. If you explain the reasoning and what to look out for this is a great approach. Of course, if you work closely with a coach they can also help with these observations.
Having said all that, there are no guarantees so be careful and stay on the safe side.
Thoroughly research the route and plan as much as possible
Bikepacking events vary considerably in distance, format and challenges that dictate the type of fitness and skills you will need to develop.
Events like the Transatlantic Way and Trans Pyrenees Race travel on roads through relatively predictable environments and well known cultures, whereas the Silk Road Race is on varied surfaces, often at high altitude with potentially extreme weather and less well known cultures and options for resupply of food, water and spares.
Your route will inform the training that you do and your riding strategy so spend some time considering what is important. If you have long sections without the option of some sort of resupply you need to be aware of them and have a plan.
Have a look at the accounts of previous competitors if it is an event that has been run before so you can understand as much as possible about what to expect.
Ride sections of the course if it is at all possible so that you know what to expect and can prepare for any tricky sections.
Read the rules and guidance of the event for snippets and also to make sure you don’t do something that disqualifies your efforts.
Use all the resources you can, you can never learn too much.
Get the right equipment and develop the skills to make basic repairs
Think about how much time and money you are committing to training and how you would feel if you had a mechanical failure because you had skimped on a certain piece of kit.
It isn’t necessary to have the highest end equipment, in fact there is a strong argument to have something less fancy or complicated that can be easily repaired and replacement parts easily obtained.
However, it is important to make sure you have robust equipment that isn’t worn out, make sure your tyres are suitable for the terrain and are in good enough condition to comfortably complete the course. Don’t use an old chain that might snap, just use some common sense and make sure everything is in working order and won’t let you down and leave you stuck in the middle of nowhere with a long walk ahead.
Plan a daily time schedule, not a distance schedule
Most, if not all, ultra endurance cyclists I have worked with have found that working to a time schedule is far more effective and less stressful than working to a distance schedule. It is impossible to predict the unexpected things that may and probably will happen during a long event and having your daily distance goal knocked out by such an event could leave your whole schedule and even worse, your confidence, in pieces.
It is best to use distances in making assumptions about where you will be at certain times. If you need to resupply at a certain point because you have a long way before the next opportunity, etc. Once you have that, it is best to plan your days according to a daily but flexible time schedule so that you have so much riding time, eating, sleeping, faffing, etc. You may smile at the faffing time but if you forget it, you will realise that you are struggling for time. Practice your schedule and make sure it works. Have a night in the garden to test everything, it may sound silly but it is worth it.
Be flexible and use the unexpected to your advantage. If you are going to have to wait in a town for a bike shop to open the next day, you can get a good meal and book into a hotel for the night to get extra rest, wash your kit and get reorganised so that you can make the most of the next part of the ride once you get going again.
Your schedule is something that is particular to you, so don’t try and force yourself to fit with someone else’s schedule you found somewhere. Think about what you need, test it, adjust it, test it again and get it right for you.
Get your nutrition right
Nutrition is vitally important to being successful. Obviously the most important is to get enough calories to keep you going and I can think of several accounts of experienced ultra-endurance racers where they have lost significant time and places in events due to inadequate nutrition.
Learn what is likely to be available along your route and make a plan accordingly.
Make a nutrition plan, practice it and make it a routine. If in doubt, play it safe and spend a bit of time making sure you have sufficient supplies.
Think about ‘what ifs’
‘What ifs’ are something I do with everyone I work with, whether they are going to do a short event lasting less than an hour or a multi-day endurance event. Obviously the ‘ifs’ are significantly different but the process is the same.
Start now and every time you think of something that might happen to cause a problem in your event, make a note of it. Keep going through your list and adding what you will do if that thing happens or what you need to carry to account for that eventuality. It may be that you decide the risk of something happening is low or the consequences are so low that you can ignore it but at least you have thought it through.
This approach will do two things, firstly it will reduce the number of unexpected things that happen because you will have prepared your equipment accordingly, it will also mean that you are better equipped to deal with things that happen along the way because you have strategies. You are less likely to panic unduly and also have a plan to move forward. Hopefully all will go smoothly but is that likely!?
It is also good to have a strategy for if something goes wrong that you don't expect. I like the acronym from Steve Peters’ book: The Chimp Paradox - AMP, which stands for Accept and Move forward with a Plan. Basically, accept that things go wrong and not everything is in your control, Accept that it is normal to panic in these situations and Allow yourself some time to panic, be emotional and get that out of your system. Then, Make a Plan and Move forward with that Plan.
Make a plan and stick to it
There is loads of stuff to go on there, now you have to make sure you do it and do it in a structured way. The best way to do that is to make a plan that takes you from now until your chosen event.
You can use a spreadsheet, a bit of paper or a tool like TrainingPeaks and write down what things you need to do each month and what your goals are for each month so that you address all the things you need to.
As a guide, it is best to spend a couple of months on each goal if you are trying to make a physiological or psychological change, so don’t worry if you don’t see a change after a couple of weeks.
Break that plan down into weeks and I find it best to work with a one week or two week cycle so I plan the same sort of session for each day. I gave some ideas of how to arrange a week of training earlier in the article, so have a look at that.
Remember to give yourself enough rest and recovery, if you don’t, rest properly, your body will force you to, probably when you don’t want it to.
Good luck and have fun!
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