Grizzly’s note: This is a post in an ongoing “How To” series. Have an idea for a How to post? Let me know. And if any topics come up that I am no help at all with, I will track down someone who is!
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Attempting an off-road 100-mile bike ride can be a daunting prospect. One hundred miles is a long, long way, especially when that distance traverses over mountain passes, steep canyons, rocky singletrack, and deep forests. An off-road 100-mile race can mean spending anywhere from 8–12 hours on the bike. And yet, each year thousands of everyday riders complete that significant accomplishment.
The golden question is, “how?” How do you prepare your mind and body for an all-day adventure on the bike? Read on:
After I had completed a couple of endurance races I was asked what I had done to prepare for them. I gave, what must have been an unsatisfactory answer.
“I just sort of rode my bike more.”
Not exactly helpful, is it? While an increase in training time was certainly fundamental in my preparation, it was only part of that foundation. There were several other factors that played a role, all of which can be accomplished in the course of your normal riding and training. I think you will find that riding your first off-road century is a lot less daunting and intimidating than it needs to be. Being prepared for that big day will improve your experience by leaps and bounds. And really, having fun out on the bike is the whole point, right?
Listed below are some of the actions I took as I prepared for my first endurance race:
1. I read everything I could. I surfed forums, blogs, articles, magazines, and books. I sent e-mails to people who were already established and successful endurance racers and asked for their advice. I became a sponge. I tried to learn everything I could about the course I would be riding, the weather for that area during that time of the year, and what others had done in previous years at the event. Knowing the course and the nature of the race is important in setting your race-day goals and expectations. Knowledge is power.
2. I rode my bike more. It seems obvious, but a small increase in training hours can push your fitness and abilities to the next level. Knowledge is powerful, but putting that into practice is even more so. In addition to the regular riding and training I was doing, I tried to incorporate a few 5–8 hour mountain bike rides into my schedule. There is no need to do gigantic rides every week. If you are riding on a regular basis, adding a bigger ride into the mix once or twice a month will give you an important indicator of how you will react to a full day in the saddle. These rides allowed me to answer questions about pacing and fueling. I learned a lot in those first few long rides about myself, and what would—and would not—work in an endurance setting.
3. I trained a lot on the road. It might seem a little counter-intuitive, but training on the road can be a great way to prepare for your first mountain bike endurance race. And while I find road riding to be boring (compared to singletrack), it is excellent training. The consistency of it meant that I could target my power or heart rate very specifically for extended periods of time. And because road riding allows for a ton of miles relatively easily, it became a big confidence booster. It felt great to look back on a day and see 60 or 70 miles behind me in only three or four hours of riding. I also did my first road century in preparation for my first off-road one. It was a huge help in getting everything dialed in for that inaugural dirty hundie. Don’t have a road bike? No problem. You can still ride the pavement on your mountain bike. Or, you could find long stretches of dirt road to train on. You are looking for consistency in terrain, which leads to consistency in effort.
4. I tried a lot of different foods. Fuel is going to play a major part in your day. What you eat and drink could be the difference between a strong finish, and not finishing at all. Trust me, I know. During the race you don’t want to have to think much about your calories. Instead, you want to have all of those questions answered so that on race day, you can focus on turning those cranks. Leading up to any race, but especially that first one, I tried different drinks, gels, bars, and real foods (bread, fruit, meats, etc.) out on those big rides. Experiment. Find out what tastes good after six or eight hours in the saddle. Find what needs or cravings your body has during long efforts and plan accordingly. If the event is going to provide a drop service, take advantage of that. It’s better to have foods waiting for you at the aid stations that you know you will be able to eat and enjoy, rather than taking a chance with whatever might be provided. Of course, if you see something that looks appetizing at the aid station, by all means, eat it!
5. I had a plan. It is important to have a goal for your big rides and races. But, be reasonable in those plans. An unrealistic goal is a fantastic way to be sorely disappointed on race day. Studying past results for your target event is a very helpful way to see what other riders in your ability range have done. If you have aspirations to win, you can see what sort of effort that required. Similarly, if you just want to finish inside the time cutoff, you can see what that entailed. Be flexible in your race day goals. Result-oriented goals, such as “top 20” or “sub-nine hours” are risky because ultimately you have little control over them. Finishing in the top 20 may be an excellent result, but there is simply no way of knowing who those other 19 riders may be. A stacked field will quickly decrease the chances of finishing in the top 20, or 50, and so on. Course conditions, weather, mechanical issues, and several other variables can be a thorn in the side of result-based goals.
Process-oriented goals are more achievable, controllable, and will further you along from aid station to aid station, and from mile to mile. For example, instead of a goal to finish in the top 20, you may have a goal to keep pit stops short, eat and drink every 20 minutes, and ride with a good attitude. Chances are high that if you are meeting those standards, the rest of the day is also going well. The key is to be flexible, realistic, and reasonable. But also be ambitious and courageous. Turn those pedals!
6. Taper. Don’t be afraid to rest. A couple weeks before my first 100-mile mountain bike race I culled back my training and riding. I tried to sleep more, eat nutrient dense foods, and generally relax. I spun lightly a few times a week, just to keep everything loose and light. I tuned my bike, packed my drop bags, planned my strategy and goals, and studied the course. Rest is your friend. Embrace it, enjoy it, and use it to help turn that first race into a great race.
7. I had fun! When race day finally arrived I focused on one thing: having a great time. Riding a mountain bike is fun. A hundred miler should be no exception. Ride the day with a good attitude. Be determined but flexible in your strategy. Roll with the punches. Ride with a smile, and you will most likely finish with one as well. When the day is done you will have stories to tell, memories to file away, and a whole new world of mountain biking that has opened up to you. Endurance racing really is fun… if in a masochistic, deranged sort of way.
Which is, of course, just how we like it, right?
This post was updated on March 3, 2010. This article also appeared at MTB by 198.