Ooh, I’m guilty of the dark clothes one… My helmet is white, does that count?
We call it the Biking Bubble Sphere because many of us come to believe we are impervious to harm while out on the bike.
Lazy mental habits can lead to accidents on the bike. No matter what type of rider you are, from casual trail pedaler to full-on road cyclist or triathlete barreling down a country road at 25 mph, you cannot afford to ride in a sphere where you forget what you are doing.
It’s dangerous. It can lead to harm from careless drivers or irritated farm dogs. If you live in a city you can ruin the reputation of cyclists for other riders if your Biking Bubble permits you to ride…
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For the longest time, on my blog, I’ve concentrated mainly on speed. This is because my number one focus was on getting fast. The way I saw it, having been a runner for a decade before I picked up cycling, the distance would come if I could get fast first. Agree or not, I thought speed was sexy. The other side of the cycling equation is distance and while a cyclist may look “cool” flying down the boulevard at 25 mph to passerby, being able to do the distance is just as important – even more so when we’re talking about newbies and why they get into cycling in the first place, which is to get into shape and lose weight.
So, for once, let’s put speed aside and look at training to go the distance. Let’s also start with the assumption that your doctor has cleared you for strenuous exercise and that you have a bike that has been properly fitted to you. Before we begin, when you hear cyclists talk of hundred mile rides that take between five and seven hours, does that confound you? Do you wonder how anyone could ride ten miles, let alone do a 100k (62.4 miles) for fun? Well, this is the right post for you because while those distances aren’t easy, per se, they’re not as tough as you think either. You’ll see.
The first important thing to realize is that cycling is not running. You will be working your muscles but the impact, compared to running, is minimal. This means training distances can increase in a fraction of the time it takes to build up a good running base. To start, I went a little harder than most will be able to handle starting out because, being a runner, I was already in shape. Let’s take that back a notch though and start from scratch. First, training for cycling is four-dimensional: Speed – Distance – Effort – Time (Linear time – days of the week). Think of three-dimensional chess. For a noob, regular chess is hard enough but three dimensions could boggle the mind. Well we’re dealing with four here so it could be made to be even worse. I’ll try to keep this short and simple so as not to scare anyone off…
Each dimension of training is interconnected. If you try too hard, too quickly, you will burn out or hurt yourself so we work on all four dimensions at the same time, juggling speed, effort, distance and time gains throughout a given week. The good news is that not every day will be a “hard day” once we get you going. I like to look as speed and effort together because one greatly effects the other, then distance and then time. Going for distance, you’ll want to start easy, call it four miles. At a minimum of effort you can do this in a half-hour. Start with this distance, four days a week – more if you’re not sore the next day. That’s two of the four dimensions in the first week. The second week, two of those four days, use to bump up the speed and effort a little bit. If your normal is a half-hour for that four miles, try to knock four minutes off of that and shoot for twenty-six minutes. If you’ve got more than just a little muscle tightness after any of the days in that second week, repeat the last week’s workout (this goes for the rest of the plan by the way).
We can go a few different ways after you’ve become accustomed to the 4 mile a day, 4 day a week plan. You can ramp up speed and effort, bump up the distance or increase the number of days you ride every week. Personally, again because I already had some speed going, I went for the distance first. Unlike running, where you’re resigned to increasing 10% per week, you can increase 50% and still be okay – just watch the speed and effort. In fact, that’s what I would recommend, go from four miles to six on that third week, keeping in mind that afterward (the next day), you want to feel like you’ve worked, not that you’re so sore you have a tough time walking. We’re looking to build you up, not burn you out. After that week, if you’re feeling pretty good, pick up the pace a little bid on two of the four days for the next week again.
Now, you’re four weeks in. You’re going to increase distance again and go from six miles a day to eight. The fifth week, you’ll increase speed and effort on two of the four days. After that sixth week you should be feeling a lot more lively but you’ll be wondering why the weight isn’t melting off quite yet. It’s because we’re getting there but you’ve still got some work to do… Just like the weeks prior, you’re going to increase on that seventh week but you’re going up 50% again. Twelve miles a day, four days a week. The eighth week will be for increasing speed and effort on two of the four days. Depending on your speed and weight, this is the beginning of the good times. This is where you start burning off some of that weight that you’re looking to lose. Assuming your now at about a 5 minute mile pace (or 12 mph), you’re on the road for an hour a day. If you’re faster than that, GREAT. Increase your mileage until you’re doing an hour a day. Just remember, when you increase the miles, it’s okay if your speed dips a little bit.
We’re going to stay on this hour a day, four days a week schedule for a few weeks to work on speed and effort. Two days a week, simply try to beat that hour time by as much as you can – and don’t worry about running out of gas in the middle of a ride. This ISN’T running. You’ll be able to pedal easy for a mile and recover your breathing and muscles and get back at it without too much trouble.
Now that we’re at 12-16 (or more) miles a day, four days a week and you’re really starting to shape up (assuming you’re not replacing all of those calories you’re burning on the bike), I would bump that up to five days a week for a couple of weeks and then the sky is the limit.
The general rule that I went by is this: If I can ride 16 miles, I can ride 32 – I just knock one mile per hour off of my normal average and I’ll be good. If I can ride 32, I can ride 64. If I can ride 64, I can ride 100. The trick here is to try to get used to the longer distance by riding it once or twice a week if time allows. For instance, if we’re shooting for 32 miles and you’re riding at a relatively easy pace of 16 mph (on a road bike that’s relatively easy – that’s a little speedy on a hybrid and flat-out fast on a mountain bike), we’re talking about a two-hour effort. Just bring a couple of water bottles and stuff a banana in your jersey pocket to eat while you’re riding (you surely have a jersey by now because you’re a cyclist).
Now that last part might seem a little daunting because I didn’t go into a lot of detail, but trust me… Once you’re at that one hour a day mark, things get a lot simpler. You’ll see.
UPDATE: Saltyvelo, a frequenter of my blog (and I of his), added that this little training plan is a little too cautious and he has a very good point. Many people will be able to increase their mileage a lot faster but the purpose of this post was to reach out to the pure noob, just contemplating or getting into cycling, to give them a doable plan to attain those high mileage rides. He also added this gem: “Another general rule of thumb is your longest ride = weekly mileage. So, if you’re putting in 100 miles a week, a century should be no problem. OF course, this is a rule of thumb.” I like it.