Training for a Century Ride

Gear Prudence reached out to me this week about a question he received about training for a century. The person writing in wondered if it was truly necessary to train for a century.

The question surprised me somewhat because I am a big believer in preparing for things and avoiding problems when I can. I’m not a person who signs up for stuff just for the heck of it to see how I’ll do. If that means training, then so be it.

Gear Prudence did an excellent job summarizing my perspective, and as a follow-up, I put together a more complete response to training for a century. Some people see training as a dirty word, but I think it’s helpful to train or build one’s fitness in order to better control a ride experience.

Let’s pretend you are a daily commuter like me, and ride approximately 50 miles total between Monday through Friday. That is not that much, but if combined with other fitness activities– a couple of trips to the gym and a run or two during the week, it means a solid base is there to easily build to the 100-mile distance.

One way to work up to a century is to continue the weekday riding and workout routine, and gradually increase the distances of weekend bike rides. Start with something like 30 miles and steadily extend your distance each week.

This is how I approached my first century in 2004 (the Potomac Pedalers Back Roads Century, for those familiar with that route). I think my longest ride was in the 70-mile or so range, which I would now say is about the minimum I would do as century preparation. Ideally, I’d like to complete up to an 80-mile ride before century day.

When Ed and I are doing our initial build for brevets, the shortest of which is 125 miles, we like to hit 150 miles total miles for the week, through a combination of commuting and weekend rides. For a century, I would translate that into, say, 50 or so miles for commuting each week and a weekend ride as long 75 to 80 miles before the event.

This guy
This guy

As rides are extended, a person notices bike fit issues, potential aches and pains, and fueling and nutrition needs that are not apparent on shorter rides. Training rides allow one to address these important issues before an actual event. The rear end also acclimates to more time in the saddle, which is really critical if someone wants to be comfortable during century day.

It is impossible to ride a century without eating some food during the ride so it’s important to know what you can digest while active. When the body expends energy pedaling, it can sometimes become more difficult to eat certain foods. The blood is rushing to the legs and can’t attend to the stomach like it normally would. For me, sports gels and water are not enough to get me through a century. I need at least a sandwich and a couple of snacks along the way. My go-to at the moment is almond butter with fruit preserves. Yum.

Longer training rides also help in figuring out if you will need certain gear, like a vest or a rain jacket, sunscreen, or whatever else you consider essential (in addition to a patch kit, pump, and spare tube). You can then develop a system for carrying it and test it out on your training rides to see how it works for you. Some people like to use front handlebar bags. Others prefer a rear bag, Some don’t mind carrying a little extra on their backs, and use Osprey or Camelbak packs.

Felkerino

It’s helpful to plan a few weekend rides in terrain similar to that of the century course. Not all rides are created equal. A century over flat terrain– where there is not as much undulation, but constant pedaling and time in the saddle, mostly in the same gear– is distinct to a ride that covers rollers or significant climbs where a person moves in and out of the saddle and shifts gears frequently.

I did not take terrain into consideration when I trained for my first century. The route was moderately rolling with a couple steeps in the final miles. However, I had done all of my training from Washington, D.C., on the mostly flat W&OD trail. I made it through the century that day, but the last 15 miles were very very long and difficult. My training was more geared toward a flat century than a rolling one.

Building a mileage base and doing longer rides in areas similar in nature to where the ride will occur not only increases fitness for a century, but also builds confidence. You know more about what to expect from your body as the ride extends in length. You’ve spent extended time with your bike to know how it will handle, and you have a better idea of what to take along for a full day of riding. It’s also a good idea to take a couple of weeks between your longest training ride and the century ride, in order to let the training miles sink in and give your legs some recovery before the main event.

The distance is demystified through training, and you are mentally and physically prepared when century day arrives. I’m sure I missed something so please add any parts I may have not included. Thanks to Gear Prudence for getting the wheels turning in my head about this topic. Happy riding!

7 thoughts on “Training for a Century Ride

  1. i remember my first century. i rode 5 to 10 miles every day, just to get out of the house. then i decided i wanted to do a charity ride. i had 10 weeks to prepare, a junker bike and was clueless. even with a happy confluence of circumstance [started seeing an avid 300 mile per week cyclist, was gifted a road bike, perfect weather and flat road] i was, to put it politely, saddle sore. but it was soooo worth it.

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  2. Very helpful article. Definitely worth putting in the miles before the event or one will probably be quite sore (and possibly sidelined to recover.)

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  3. I learned about training the hard way. I probably misunderstood all the advice I had received along the way, which is nobody’s fault but mine. I think I focused more on the mental aspects of doing a long ride (which is not something I need training on) at the expense of physical conditioning. Hence, I burned out physically because I did not put in the requisite training miles. Your point about training on the same terrain as the ride is also spot-on.

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  4. You are so right–there is no substitute for training and preparation. A couple of years ago I did a century with a small group of what I’ll call aggressive fitness riders…the type who like fast group rides, interval sessions, and a lot of Computrainer classes in the winter. They were fit, and can generally leave me behind on a Saturday morning 30-miler.

    These strong cyclists were all deeply surprised and confused at around mile 60 when their bodies just gave out on them. Leg cramps, bonked, the whole bit. It really illustrated the point that there is no substitute for specific training for the type of event you plan to do. Want to go fast? Practice fast. Want to go the distance? No substitute for miles in the saddle.

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