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Training for Bike Touring. Train Now for Less Pain Later!

Want to maximize your fun and minimize your pain? Then intentionally train for your next bicycle tour.

I recently completed the 48th RAGBRAI – the famous ride across Iowa. I logged 473 miles over six days. (Yes, the actual ride takes seven days, but I had reasons to get home early – see the related article on how this complicated packing!)

Before the ride and following the ride there were continuous posts on various Facebook pages, asking about training to maximize performance and minimize the pain and suffering. Many replies simply referred to the RAGBRAI website which outlined pre-ride training suggestions. In a series of articles, David Ertl, a USA Cycling Level 1 Coach, offered his advice on preparation. His key suggestion is simply put in the miles! The main route for the 2021 RAGBRAI was about 450 miles. David suggested – in articles that were posted in March, nearly five months before the ride – that you log at least 1,000 miles before the weeklong tour. This plan will not only strengthen your muscles and toughen your backside but will train you to eat correctly and learn to keep yourself hydrated. You might even lose a few pounds!

During RAGBRAI, I heard comments from many people that they hadn’t been on their bike for weeks, or that they should have put in more miles. Some of these comments were from people struggling on hills or against headwinds. Others were from people straggling into camp, hours after the rest of us had showered and relaxed. Yes, you can ride yourself into shape. But you will enjoy any bike tour more if you added some prior training.

At a minimum, for ANY bike tour that you are planning, I recommend training an equal distance. If you want to go on a 500 mile tour, first log at least 500 miles in training. This is actual bicycle riding, in the heat and wind and rain, not on an indoor trainer. (For those of us in northern states, indoor training is a necessity for maintenance during the winter, but it is a poor substitute for actual riding.)

You also need to ride long distances on your training rides. David Ertl points out that if you can do 60 miles in training, you can do 80 miles on a tour. You may need to ride slower, but enjoying the scenery is part of bike touring! The key is methodically working up from 20 to 30 to 40 to 60 miles per day, 80 or more if you plan to tackle “century” rides. It won’t take long to rack up 500 miles in training!

RAGBRAI is more than just a ride. It is an event, often called a rolling fair across Iowa, and it attracts people who are bicycle novices and those who may only ride this single event each year. Every bicycle tour links multiple days of riding. RAGBRAI covers seven days. David points out in another RAGBRAI training article the obvious fact that you need to get up and ride again the next day! Training one day per week, even riding 100 miles, is not enough! Preparation for a multi-day bicycle tour requires that you also train on consecutive days. You need to condition your body to riding, then rest and recovery, followed by more riding.

bicycle touring bikepacking
Bikepacking on a shake-down ride to a lakeside campsite.

The best possible training is a two or three-day “shakedown cruise”. Get on your bike and ride to a campground or a friend’s house in a distant town. Ride, eat and sleep – then ride back home. Since I elected to carry about half of my gear every day on RAGBRAI 2021, I went on a 65-mile out and back camping overnight. In the process, I made a few modifications to my set-up and added a new level of toughness to my physical and mental state.

Which brings up another point: train like you tour. Use the same bike, carry the same gear, wear the same clothes, drink and refill water bottles, operate the same GPS or bike computer, etc. The other question that comes up continually is training for the hills in Iowa. There is NO substitute for training in similar hills. Simulate, as much as possible, the long and gradual hills encountered on RAGBRAI. If you are from a hilly area, this is easy. If you are from the flat lands you need to either search out hills and/or intentionally add intensity to your training.

mountain bike racing
The constant hills of the CAMBA trails

Not all hills are alike. In my case, I often ride in northwestern Wisconsin on rough trails that have short, steep hills. Training on long, gradual hills on smooth roads near my home in central Wisconsin doesn’t cut it. I must find the steepest hill, then ride “hill repeats” at the fastest pace and highest gear to train effectively. If you have no hills to train on, the next best alternative is to ride high-gear intervals at your maximum pace, working up from 30 seconds to a few minutes.

Get Fast! by Selene Yeager

There are countless resources for more training regimens and formats. One example is “Get Fast!” by Selene Yeager, Bicycling Magazine’s “fit chick”. Selene is a top-selling author and professional health and fitness writer who is a certified personal trainer, professional mountain bike and gravel racer, and triathlete. She is a frequent contributor to Runner's World, Women's Health, and Shape magazines. She has authored, co-authored, and contributed to more than two dozen books, including “Bike Your Butt Off!” and “The Bicycling Big Book of Cycling for Women”.

In Get Fast!, Selene breaks down training, nutrition, and mental attitude. She emphasizes that you need to train both for speed (that is, strength) and endurance. Strength training requires short, intense efforts. Strength training requires work on and off the bike, that is, riding intervals and weight training. Endurance training requires time on the bike. Endurance training also conditions your muscles to rely on fat stores rather than quick sugary fixes. Shortchange either one and you will be dragging on the second day of your bicycle tour!

This brings me to my last point. Selene and other coaches/trainers caution you to not “burn your matches” too soon. They mean that your base of conditioning is like a book of matches. (You can also relate to a gas tank – but don’t think of endurance strictly from the energy intake perspective.) Your objective is to get to the end of the ride. If you burn your matches too early you have exceeded your capacity and will labor in pain for the rest of the day.

The good news is that conditioning promotes rapid recovery. With training for strength and endurance, you will find that you can snap back after a long hill climb or long stretch against a head wind. On a bike tour, the rider who is in shape will be ready to ride again after a short break while the out-of-shape rider may take hours – or may be forced to rely on the “sag wagon” – if available. The in-shape rider will climb the same hill using less energy and recover faster. It’s NOT about the bike!

On RAGBRAI 2021, I ended each day without any muscle pain, slept well, and woke up the next morning ready to ride. A steady pace and frequent stops at pass-through towns meant that I never exceeded my training. Indeed, RAGBRAI was a vacation at a slower pace than I typically ride! It may amuse the more casual rider, but some of us use RAGBRAI to add to our base of training.

mountain bike racing
The Chequmegon MTB Festival includes a 40-mile race from Hayward to Cable, WI

Next on my calendar is the 40-mile Chequamegon MTB Festival race, followed by the 80-mile Iron Bull gravel grinder. A week after RAGBRAI I went out on a training ride. Heavy rain was in the forecast, and I wanted to squeeze in a short ride. I rode as hard and fast as I could for only 20 miles. At the end, I hurt in all new places. I couldn’t sit comfortably on the saddle and my legs burned from the exertion. (This is after over 1,000 miles of riding this summer.) But this was exactly the intensity of training required to condition my body for the racing I have coming up soon. I remembered seeing the same exhaustion in many riders on RAGBRAI – standing, stretching, coasting at the crest of every hill, and grimacing on easy sections. Many “matches” were burned only 10 or 20 miles into the day! A bike tour should be enjoyable, not punishment.

As mentioned above, training also includes conditioning your body for recovery. A glass of chocolate milk and a protein snack after my workout and I was totally recovered within 30 minutes. My heart rate was back to resting levels. I could have gotten on the bike and repeated the ride indefinitely. (You undoubtedly were passed by MANY riders on RAGBRAI that embrace this methodology: sprinting from town to town to beer vendor, rest, repeat!) But if you don’t have a base of training, the recovery may take hours or days. If you embark on a tour without sufficient training – quantity and quality – you will burn your matches and face a difficult and painful series of days.

Also note: I firmly believe in the training principle of “maximum overload”. That is, train hard to the point of exhaustion, thus stimulating muscles to compensate by rebuilding even stronger and increasing blood flow to stressed fibers. This is ALWAYS followed by an easy day of low intensity exercise, often cross-training with easy jogging or a low impact fat bike ride.

The solution isn’t new tires or fancier bike. The ONLY solution is more riding and more structured training. Put in the time and effort BEFORE your bike tour. You will go further on less energy and increase your enjoyment exponentially!


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