So a few days ago I asked my handful of Instagram followers if they had any suggestions / topics they would like me to cover. One of the suggestions was how to train and prepare for a bike ride upwards of 50 miles in length.
Now I’m no sport scientist or personal trainer and I’m definitely not waving around any cycling trophies, minus my Strava ones, that say I am the main man when it comes to helping you ride your bike. However, it was only a couple of years ago that I was working towards riding my bike these kind of lengths. They are milestones that as a cyclist you want to tick off. It’s nice to say you rode your bike 50 miles, that’s a significant distance. Then when that’s done you’ve got the triple figure 100 in your mind. After that things get really tasty!
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though. The goal of this article is to cover the areas that need some thought before you embark on a long bike ride. Some of these I learned the hard way by not preparing properly. Therefore, the plan is that by writing this you’ll not encounter some of the problems I did. I’m going to break it down into these areas:
Your Fitness Level
Your Equipment & Your Bike
Nutrition – Before and During
By covering these areas individually I’ll hopefully be able to give you some sort of structure to follow. I know an article like this would have helped me because I like structure. I like to have a plan and be in control of that plan. When I feel circumstances or situations are out of my control, when on the bike, then that’s usually down to me not having prepared properly.
My First 50 Mile Ride – 5:30am, June 2019.
Your Fitness Level
Only you know where your fitness is really at but the most important thing here is to be honest with yourself. Let’s say 3 years ago you were a machine! Multiple triathlons per year, throw in a couple of marathons for good measure, the odd gym session also. That’s great. But it was also 3 years ago… Be honest with yourself.
Fitness is not what you used to be able to do, fitness is what you can show me right now.
Old personal bests from years ago may be impressive but they won’t help you when you’re 20 miles from home and running out of legs!
If your fitness is fairly well rounded and you’re regularly active then we’re off to a promising start when it comes to planning a longer ride. Could a novice who’s only exercise is from the sofa to fridge and back ride 50 miles? Maybe, but I’d rather be in the saddle with a base level of fitness under my belt. Not just for the cycling aspect but also from a health point of view. Going from nothing to something quite strenuous can be bad for you.
If you’re reading this and are new to cycling, or exercise in general, don’t be disheartened here. Get on your bike, but instead of the 50 mile goal start with a 5 mile goal. These goals can increase over time as you increase your fitness over time. This article and the structure it provides will work equally as well for you.
It makes sense that for the this article to stay relevant to its title we will assume that you’re a regular cyclist, maybe a commuter, or maybe you have a good fitness base from another sport. Either way – you’re in shape to start putting a plan in place for this 50 mile goal.
Your Equipment & Your Bike
Most of these points are going to be my opinion but you should trust me at least a little bit. I promise you that they are opinions based upon real world experience and application. Would I lie to you?!
Cycling clothing can look a bit weird, it can come in some outrageous colours, and it can put foam bulges where bulges shouldn’t appear… However, this type of clothing was created for a reason and that reason was to either:
A – Keep you comfortable on the bike.
B – Keep you warm on the bike.
C – Make you more aerodynamic on the bike.
D – Make you more visible on the bike.
E – A combination of all of these.
As a rule of thumb, the more you pay the more of these you seem to get in one piece of clothing.
Sometimes you need all the clothes… Am I Right Mr P?!
I’m not going to write a huge article covering specific gear for winter, summer, spring, and autumn riding because we would be here forever. I’m going to assume it’s a nice clear spring morning, a little chill in the air at the start but a strong chance of the sun popping it’s head out resulting in some nice weather for your ride.
What are the basics I’m taking when it comes to cycling equipment? Click the red links to see some of the clothing and equipment I use.
Bib shorts or bib tights. Your bum will thank you and then you can thank me.
Some nice merino socks if you can afford them. Not too bulky, super warm, stops your feet sweating.
Comfortable, already worn in, cycling shoes. I would definitely be using SPD or SPD-SL pedals and the appropriate cleats & pedals for a longer ride.
A base layer. They’re thin, keep you warm, and are easy to scrunch up into a pocket if it gets too hot.
A lightweight rain jacket in one of your rear jersey pockets. Just in case!
Food and drink but we will cover this later.
Your mobile phone and a gps bike computer if possible.
A helmet, and a rear light as a minimum. Front light if you wish.
It looks a long list but by the time you get it all onto your fine physique of a body, and pack your pockets, you’ll be surprised at how little room it all takes up.
Now it’s time to tackle the bike issue! What bike should you ride? The short answer is any bike you want / have. However, there are things to consider before you jump on your penny farthing or unicycle…
If you’re planning a 50 mile road ride I would highly recommend riding a road bike. That’s what they are made for after all. However, there are many variations of hybrid bikes nowadays that you may find comfier. A road bike has drop handlebars and most have integrated brakes and gears. If you have never ridden a bike like this before I would get used to it on a shorter ride first. The hybrid bike will have a more classical handlebar setup but will also have tyres that still roll relatively quickly to help you eat the miles up. They usually have a large selection of gears to help with those hills!
Drop Bars on my Gravel Bike
Flat Bars on my Mountain Bike
So why haven’t I mentioned the mountain bike you may ask? Could 50 miles be done? Yes, definitely. Would it take you longer because the tyres are chunkier and roll slower? Yes. Apart from that go for it. You’ll definitely be on the bike quite a bit longer though so build that time into your planning.
Whatever bike you pick make sure you have checked it over. The basics to check are:
Tyre condition and tyre pressure.
Do the brakes work? Ride it slowly to check them instead of a static check.
Is the seat the correct height and does it stay in place?
Are the gears all working? Is the chain lubed?
All those little bolts that hold your handlebars, bottle cages etc in place. Check them!
Simple things but if you take them for granted all the time then one day they will let you down. Isn’t there an old saying about if you look after ‘it’ then ‘it’ will look after you. In case you are struggling here the ‘it’ is the bike. Don’t say I’m not good to you!
Nutrition – Before & During
Am I already anxious about the possible comments coming after I attempt to give you advice on what to eat? Maybe a little bit…
This is 50 miles, we’re not cycling across countries here so the age old carb loading for days before hand is not super important. I would recommend a good breakfast and try and make it at least an hour before your ride starts. Some slow releasing carbs will help you out here – porridge for example. A classic but great for many reasons. Throw some fruit in there, some honey, a handful of nuts for those healthy fats and you have a solid meal that will fuel you for hours to come.
Not into porridge? A couple of slices of brown toast, some scrambled eggs, and a cup of coffee might sound better. Still have it an hour or more before the ride and again you’re getting some carbs in there, plus some protein, and a little caffeine boost as well.
You don’t want to get on the bike feeling heavy but you want the good stuff inside of you so that once you are moving you have the energy you need. These are my go to breakfasts if I’m heading out on the bike and they work for me. Will they work for you? Maybe, but if not then experiment and find what you can stomach. Literally… see what I did there. Everyone loves a pun right…?!
Now what about on the bike? Are you a fan of the carb energy gels, the energy bars, the homemade oat bars, the classic banana, the coffee shop bacon roll, or maybe a carb loaded electrolyte filled drink? So many options!
Some of what I would take along with me.
You want to take energy filled foods but I don’t mean just load up on chocolate cake. The gels are good because they absorb quickly and are easy to take, the bars are equally as good because it’s proper food and fills you up a bit. Plus you know you’re getting the carbs that you need. If you’re route passes by a coffee shop then don’t be shy! Pop in and have a breakfast roll, you won’t instantly become a fat mess who can get back on the bike.
The key thing to remember is make sure you’re taking some sort of food with you. You will need it or you will run out of energy. It’s pretty simple. Your car won’t run forever if you don’t top it up with fuel. Your body is the same.
Liquids are equally as important. Staying hydrated sounds a simple task but when I first started out I was really bad for simply forgetting to drink. In fact I was pretty poor at forgetting to eat as well. It only takes a few rides of getting your nutrition wrong until you learn the hard way. Running out of energy (known commonly in the cycling world as ‘bonking’) is a terrible feeling. Legs heavy, can barely turn the pedals, hungry but struggling to take anything in… don’t be this person!
I’m a big fan of carb and electrolyte loaded drinks (click here for my recommendation) as they serve the purpose of hydrating me and getting carbs into me for energy. As it’s a liquid it gets into your system really quickly. Those with sensitive stomachs may struggle but don’t rule it out until you’ve tried it. The science behind these drinks is very good these days. Water in your bottle at a minimum and ideally with some sort of electrolyte tablet to replenish your salt loss. No salt and you will start cramping up.
The minimum I would be taking with me.
Experiment with some of these and find what works for you. If you want to squash a cheese sandwich into your pocket then do it. If you want to have a selection of 20 gels instead try that. Fruity energy bars sound better then dive right in. As long as you’re taking something.
This is my golden rule: Drink before you feel thirsty and eat before you feel hungry. If you are feeling thirsty or hungry then you are too late!
My First 100 Mile Ride. Big ride = big food!
Don’t like hill climbs? Plan a route around them. Love hill climbs? You get the idea… The joys of all of these route planning apps and programs is that you can plan your route down to a tee. It will show you the length, the elevation, the types of surface you will ride on etc. With this much detail at your fingertips make your route suit you and your fitness level. As you get stronger and fitter you can mix it up and add a few climbs in.
If you haven’t used a route planning program I recently made a post on how to get started so click here for some help. It’s free so you would be crazy not to take advantage of it!
This is the big one. If you’ve prepared properly, your gear and bike is ready to go, and you’ve fuelled your body correctly, then all that’s left is to tell yourself that you can ride 50 miles. You know you want to do it because if you didn’t there’s no way you would have put in all that preparation!
Don’t let all your hard work go to waste. Be positive when you get on the bike but not so positive you go out way too fast and burn your energy and legs within the first 10 miles. I’ve been guilty of this recently resulting in me having to, shamefully, get a lift home in the car.
I had planned a 250km bike ride for Fathers Day. A little treat to myself. However, right from the start the wind was strong. I pushed into the wind for about 80km but I pushed too hard. I knew I had but I was determined to continue. I had made it about 170km when the legs really weren’t there anymore. The wind still whipped around and my head went down. I was 203km in when I phoned home. I was pretty close but my reserves were depleted. I was crawling along and it was getting dark and cold. Did I learn a valuable lesson though? Of course I did and it’s from these experiences that I feel I can try and share some wisdom with you in these posts.
Valuable lessons were learned on this ride!
Go out at a steady pace, a pace you feel you can hold. If you feel fresh after 40 miles and you’re nearly home then sure, put a few efforts in. Feeling empty and exhausted on the bike when you’re miles from home is a crushing feeling. Don’t do this to yourself when it is something easy to control. Don’t be like me on that 250km ride!
Staying positive when you’re out there will be assisted by making sure you are drinking and eating correctly. If you need to then set time reminders on your phone or smart watch. Remember you shouldn’t feel thirsty or hungry – drink and eat before it gets to this stage.
So there we have it. A little guide full of tips and advice, based upon my own experience and habits, that should help you work up to those longer distance rides.
Preparation is everything. Whether we relate that to your fitness, your diet, your equipment and bike, or your route, all of these are things you are in control of. Make them work for you. When you climb onto your bike you should feel ready both physically and mentally and that combo right there is what will get you across the finish line whether it’s 5 miles, 50 miles or 100 miles. The setup is the same.
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