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The Noob Roadie’s Guide To The Century

August 2012
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There has been an ongoing discussion about whether or not a Century ride equates to a running Marathon. I certainly won’t be the one with the perfect on-liner that ends the debate. In fact, from where I sit, the debate itself is a little silly.

Having been a runner for more than a decade and having just gotten into cycling a year ago, the comparison has merit but riding a century is definitely less taxing on the body from a “pounding” perspective. I can recover from a century in a day and ride one every other week (if not much sooner) easily. However, taking the energy and time required to complete a Century vs. a Marathon into account, the Century wins by a handy margin. A decent marathon can be run in 4 hours while decent century takes 5. Also, running a marathon will burn about 3,110 calories (considering weight, height and fitness – I’m fit, 6’0″ and weigh 157 154.5 lbs) and I would have to drink about 100 ounces of fluid* to keep from dehydrating. A century on the other hand, with a 5-1/2 hour time, will burn almost 5,290 calories and require a whopping 270 ounces of fluid*. Where the two are almost identical is that both the ride and run have a “wall” that must be run/ridden through somewhere around 80% mark (at least for we noobs). As far as the debate goes on which is tougher, I’ll leave that to brighter people than I, or possibly leave it at; does it even matter?

The question I seek to answer is how. How can one get in shape for a century, how long does it take to prepare for one, how do you prepare the day of, and so forth.

First of all, anyone who tells you that you can simply hop on a buddy’s bike and jump right into the high mileage rides is unbelievably fit, lucky – or both (maybe we could throw “crazy” in there instead of lucky). You’ve got to be in good shape to ride that far, unless you plan on dogging it – in which case, you’re still on a bike for upwards of 10 hours. Moreover, your bike has to fit you. Some people are into the torture thing and while I do agree with the “pain is weakness leaving your body” mantra, we don’t need unnecessary pain which would most certainly be afflicted by a bike that doesn’t fit the rider. Having a bike that has been properly fitted to you is the key to the successful Century. I’ve ridden 33 miles on a bike that doesn’t fit and I hurt a lot worse after that than after a century on my bike.

Next is the saddle – the seat. Many people are of the mistaken belief that those tiny saddles with the ultra-thin padding are uncomfortable. It’s simply not true – if the bike fits and your saddle height is correct. This is doubly so once you start breaking into the higher mileage. The funny thing about padding is that, while it does cushion, it also restricts blood flow. On a 12 mile leisure ride with the kids, that’s not a big deal – on a century, it’s huge. In addition to the blood flow issue, there is also friction to deal with. The more padding to the saddle, the more friction it creates. Over the course of a century, with the proper cadence, you will turn the pedals around 27,000 times. Considering that there are several body parts that reside in the area where the pedal stroke originates that are highly susceptible to friction, it makes sense to reduce that as much as possible. The main trick is to get your saddle height properly adjusted, then dial it in over a few longer rides (mine is dialed in within a millimeter or 39 thousandths of an inch).

From there, I’d recommend some clip-less pedals and cycling shoes. They absolutely make pedaling easier.

Beyond that, it’s all up to the training.

The training does not have to be too intense, depending of course on how fast you want to complete your century and the amount of hill/mountain climbing you’ll experience on the course. If you’re looking for a 6-7 hour finish, we can assume 20 minutes worth of stops to top off water bottles and maybe have a snack, so that would leave 5:40 to 6:40 of ride time which works out to an average speed of about 17.5 mph for the quicker time and 15 mph for the latter. Assuming you’re actually able to ride a bike in the first place and that you understand the rules of the road, the training to get to 100 miles is pretty straight forward – put the miles in. Now I was a complete noob when I started riding again after 25 years without a real bike. I started at 4 miles, 3 times a week. From there, I increased my weekly mileage, then speed, then added more days. I had a fair base built up in three months and had run a couple of Olympic length triathlons after only training for two (I’d been running for years – the ride is just short of 25 miles). I bought my first road bike less than a year ago and rode that for a couple of months before the weather started getting too nasty. I rode my bike on a trainer in my office to stay in shape through the winter and hit the ground running as soon as the weather broke in March and April. I had a metric century planned for April 29th so I started upping my daily and weekly miles. I’m an everyday rider – back then I was at 13.5 miles a day with two 30-35 mile rides a week. When I showed up at the starting line for the ride, 39 miles was as far as I’d ever ridden. I finished the ride in 3:30 minutes at exactly 18 mph under my own steam (no drafting). After that, I started turning in 50 mile days on Saturdays, bumped up my normal daily rides to 16 miles, then added in a couple of 25 mile days and began riding in a club ride every other Tuesday (35-39 miles). On July 4th, I went on a new longest ride ever – 80 miles, and I rode out to the meeting place and back home to make it an even 90. I completed the 80, with drafting help, in 4:09 or at an average of 19 mph. After that, I continued with my normal weekly schedule and rode in my first century on August 4th. With drafting help for the first half, I finished in 5:12, at an average speed of 18.8 mph (the course was two miles short).

So, the trick to breaking into the longer distances is to understand the special advantages there are to riding in lieu of running. In short, if you run out of energy on a bike, you can dial it back considerably and still make pretty decent time. You can rest for a mile or two at the slower pace, eat a few energy bars and drink some water/Gatorade and you’ll be right as rain before you know it. If you blow up on a run and have to walk – especially a long run – your muscles will tighten and you will begin to feel the pain of your effort…and walking to the end will take forever. The ramifications of trying to bite off more than you can chew are greatly reduced when riding.

Now, I also have a set plan for how I prepare for the ride, day of. I’m going to skip over the maintenance items associated with making sure the bike is ready – that goes without saying. Equally important though is eating enough (and early enough) that you’re ready to ride. For anything under 40 miles I don’t worry about on-board fuel, but for the long rides I stock up on Clif Bars and Jelly Belly Energy Beans. Specifically, the walnut/raisin/oatmeal Clif Bars and the Extreme Cherry energy beans. I also recommend bananas if they are available at rest stops.

For liquids, I have two different setups – for extra hot days, 95+, I go to a backpack hydration system and two bottles of Gatorade. For anything below 90, I’ll go with a bottle of Gatorade and a bottle of water.

With the on-board stuff sorted, it’s time to deal with pre-ride meals. I eat big the night before, whatever sounds good within reason. Morning of, it’s a bowl of healthy cereal, vitamin D milk and two bananas. Half an hour prior I eat a Clif bar. Fifteen minutes before the start I drink a Gatorade Prime, I love that stuff.

The main thing to remember, is to eat what works. Nothing too crazy as you won’t want an upset stomach while you’re cruising down the road…and don’t overeat. There’s nothing worse than feeling like you want to puke for 50 miles. Balance is key grasshopper.

For the ride, strategy is everything. Do you want to ride alone, or in a group? If you want to ride alone and sight-see, just watch your speed early on so you don’t overdo it too soon. Figure dropping 1-2 mph from your average on a 30-50 mile ride and maintain that, you should be fine. If you want to ride in a group, which is quite a bit more taxing mentally because you have to keep constant vigil with where you’re at in the group, you’ll have to find a group that you can keep up with and won’t be too slow. To do this, if it’s not a race or a timed event, simply leave early. Pay attention to groups as they pass you. When you see the lead rider closing on you, speed up so you can latch on at the end. When you’re safely on as a part of the pace-line, stay with it a few miles. If they’re going too fast for you to keep up in the back, you’ll blow up after your turn at the front. It’s best to drop before you get there – just do it carefully. Don’t leave a big gap between any riders behind you and the person directly in front of you – give anyone behind you the courtesy of being able to latch on when you drop. To do that, wave those behind you up and then speed up as if you’re going to pass the person in front of you – this will eliminate the gap between them and the draft, because once you’re out, you are out. Just be sure to announce your intentions so the people around you aren’t caught unaware.

If that group didn’t suit you, and you’ve pulled out of line, wait for the next group to pass and repeat the process until you find one you’re comfortable with. Pace-line riding is excellent in helping you to finish quicker and less taxed physically than going it alone. In a long group, when you’re at the back, you can go faster at half the effort than you would be able to on your own. Unfortunately, there isn’t much time for sight-seeing that way.

Another option is to ride a good percentage of the ride in a pace-line and then drop off the back at a random mile marker to spin back alone and site-see for the rest of the trip. I, for obvious reasons, do not recommend trying to do that the opposite way, site-seeing first followed by latching onto a group later – the good groups will be long gone by the time you’re ready to latch on (unless you’re fast enough not to need any of this advice anyway – in which case I can’t believe you’ve read this much of the post).

The rest is up to you. Having completed two centuries in two weeks, the sense of accomplishment and the friends you’ll make along the way make the ride and effort well worth the time investment. Add to that the strength that comes with completing long rides and riding a century makes even more sense (you will become abundantly stronger and faster for your shorter rides and club rides after just a century or two, after you’ve recovered from the effort of course).

Finally, there is no hard and fast rule, ride so many miles per day and you’ll be ready to go. My training mileage, solo, was around 50 miles once a week for three weeks with a bunch of 16 mile and 25 mile rides scattered in there… Why 50? If I can ride 50 on my own, then double the distance at half the effort (in a group) seemed reasonable.

If you like riding, I highly recommend the century… The sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that awaits you at the finish line is incredible.

*Fluid requirements according to Endomondo figures.

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13 Comments

  1. meganjanicke says:

    Great information. I’m hoping to tackle a century ride soon myself. Right now my longest ride has been 65mi. I ride about 150mi over the course of a week with one longer 30-40 mIle ride on the weekends. I’ve wondered if this would equate to training for a century since, you know, it’s hard to get 80 + miles in at one time on a weekly basis. Thanks for all the tips!

  2. aaronwest says:

    The question about which is tougher, a marathon or a century is interesting. You pretty much summed up my feelings. But this year some friends of mine who are runners (many had done marathons) and triathletes (one had done a flat iron man) did the Mount Mitchell ride. Afterward I asked them which was tougher. They all said that the marathon was more taxing on the body, but not by as much. They also said that the Mitchell ride was among the hardest things they did in their lives. As to which is tougher, there was no clear answer. They are both extremely tough, just different.

    Good guide!

  3. lee says:

    Good post! I always find what others eat during a century ride interesting. I tend to stick with the offered wheat buns, peanut butter, bananas, and water. I’m probably one of the few distance riders who avoid the Gatorade cooler.

    Also, thanks for the tips for group riding. I’m usually alone while riding an event.

    • bgddyjim says:

      My pleasure… First century I rode, they offered water only – electrolytes crashed and I cramped up really bad. The Gatorade helps to manage that – but the sugar can be weighty.

  4. try366 says:

    Lots of really good info in there Jim!

  5. […] one of the roadblocks getting in the way of my riding more than once a week or so. (Though reading Fit Recovery gives me a sense of how exhilarating a good cycling workout can be, I need to psych myself up to […]

  6. […] Cycling, Fitness, Nutrition, Running, Triathlon. Leave a Comment I’ve written about how I fuel before a century before so I won’t rehash that, but I’ve been thinking about how I’ve eaten over […]

  7. jbrickman1 says:

    Hope you don’t mind me commenting on an older post, but this is really good info. I’m planning to do my first century later this year, with a metric century in about 6 weeks.

  8. […] This post will be relatively short and is intended simply as a broad overview of how to get into shape for your first.  For a more detailed look, I have two posts on the subject, here and here. […]

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