A century ride — a bicycle ride of 100 miles — is to a cyclist as a marathon has to a runner: a long enough distance to be a tremendous challenge, while still an attainable goal for a dedicated athlete.
Still, preparation is key. So how do you train for a century ride to optimize your performance? Below, you’ll learn how to prepare in the weeks ahead of your 100-miler, how to prepare on the day of, and how to eat to fuel your ride.
Preparation is key with a major endurance event such as this.
The greatest gift you can give yourself is time. Even with a good base fitness level, a 16-week training plan is pretty reasonable.
If you lack endurance, kicking that time up to 6 months might be a good idea. Plan on building endurance generally with a variety of activities for a couple months before launching into a dedicated cycling program.
To design a training program for your century ride, it’s important to ask yourself a few questions:
Do you have the right kind of bicycle?
Depending on your event, you might fare better with a road bike (narrow tires), a hybrid bike (a combination between road and mountain bike), a mountain bike (heavier than a road bike, but equipped with a suspension system to accommodate more rugged terrain), or a gravel bike (with wider tires and a lower center of gravity, designed for more unstable conditions).
Where is your ride taking place?
What will the weather be like? Is there altitude? Do your research to get a good idea of what to expect from the elements on the day of your event, and train accordingly. If you are training at sea level indoors, and the ride is outdoors in the mountains, for instance, weather and cardiovascular endurance will be key considerations.
Get the right gear
You may think you’ll be cycling outdoors on your road bike for all of your training, but consider what you will do when conditions don’t allow you to ride outside. Rain, snow, ice, or smoky conditions might keep you inside. Consider investing in a well-proportioned stationary cycle or an indoor bike trainer.
There are many reputable trainers available to mount your road bike to for indoor use. You can even connect your trainer to an app such as Zwift to give you an immersive virtual ride, competing with and riding with other actual cyclists.
Furthermore, think about the other gear you might need. Not only do you need a good bicycle for the century, but you will want to invest in some good cycling shoes, some padded shorts, and a heart rate monitor. Think about storage on your bike for fuel, and water bottle holders for hydration.
Have a repair kit on your bike for mishaps on the road. Get a good helmet and make a thoughtful choice about clips versus cages or platform pedals.
Clips can be intimidating for a new cyclist, but can offer a far smoother ride. Cages, conversely, can be a bit cumbersome without feeling as locked in as a clip. Platforms allow any shoes to be worn, but don’t offer the smooth ride or secure footing of the previous two.
Once you are prepared for your century, have the proper gear, and are ready to ride, you’ll need to actually do the work. A good training plan will include various elements, such as a long distance ride, speed intervals, hill climbs, cross training, and some heart rate training.
Once you are a seasoned century rider, you can use a more personalized and sophisticated training program. For your first shot, just getting the miles in with a variety of stressors (speed, resistance, hills, etc) will prepare you well.
Here is a basic plan:
Nutrition is an important factor in any endurance event, and your success can ride (pun intended) on your attention to this vital element. Your intake of calories and macronutrients will differ in training and on race day, and knowing just how and when to eat can make a difference.
Make sure you are eating regular healthy meals and not going into any workout depleted of energy. A heavy meal of protein and fats can slow you down a bit, but as long as you are eating a variety of foods that are mostly healthy, no major preparation is necessary.
For rides or other endurance workouts of under 90 minutes, no additional calories or cabohydrates are necessary. Fueling with water, or in extreme conditions such as heat, a low- or no-calorie electrolyte drink is sufficient to support the work.
If your workout is over 90 minutes but under 2.5 hours, you will want to take in 30–60 grams of carbohydates every hour (
Keeping the flow of carbs into the body helps the blood stay flush with glycogen, providing energy for the hard work of riding. Skipping this step can provide your blood and liver of glycogen, causing the body to fail in its production of the muscular fuel adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and therefore causing feelings of fatigue and loss of energy (
It doesn’t matter how tough you think you are — when your body lacks the chemical components to create work, your work fails.
Experiment with what works for you. If excess body weight is a concern for you, play around with the low end of that equation (30 grams per hour) and see if you experience “the bonk”. If you find your energy dips even with 30 grams of carbs every hour, add a little bit and see if your performance improves.
For rides of over 2.5 hours, you need to take in 60–70 grams of carbs per hour. If that seems like a lot of eating, choose calorie-dense options so you don’t have to eat constantly.
Look for sports-specific options (such as Hammer Nutrition’s Perpetuem), but consider sandwiches such as a peanut butter and jelly (55 grams of carbs) and dried fruit (10 dried apricots have 44 grams of carbs, while 6 pieces of dried mango have 60 carbs, so do your homework).
Two or three small, salted red potatoes will also provide around 60 carbs and can be a nice break from all the sweet foods. There is good research to suggest that adding protein into your fueling plan for workouts over 2.5 hours can also help performance and aid in recovery (
Whether or not you choose to practice carb loading (which is not just a giant bowl of pasta before bedtime the night before the race, but in fact a multi-day nutritional preparation), it’s a good idea to keep your diet pretty bland and carb-rich the day before your event.
You don’t want to invite gastrointestinal distress into a tummy that might already be dealing with pre-race butterflies. Keeping your diet low in fat and fiber as well as high in carbs and electrolytes will start your race day with a bit of an advantage.
The hours before the race are important. You want to have a carbohydrate-rich breakfast, such as a smoothie, bagel, banana or raisin bread, watching out for anything that might upset the stomach or slow digestion (
This meal can be eaten anywhere from 4 hours to 1 hour prior to the start of the race, and can suit your digestion timeline. The glycogen stores will still be filled if it is 4 hours before the start of your ride, although you may want an additional shot of carbs at the start if that is your strategy.
Keeping hydrated is also important. Drinking an electrolyte-rich drink the day before and morning of your race can work to your advantage. Many take salt pills, but sodium is only one electolyte.
Find a source that contains also potassium and magnesium, chemicals that also work in muscle contraction. Taking a more balanced source can help you avoid muscle fatigue and cramping (
During the ride
During the century ride, you want to make sure you are getting enough carbohydrate energy to not become glycogen depleted — similar to training, but for race day, you may want to err on the side of slightly more carbohydrates.
Assuming the ride will take over 2.5 hours, you will need to take in at least the prescribed 60–70 grams of carbohydrate per hour, or even up to 90 grams per hour if it is tolerable for your system (
Start your ride with an energy gel or some simple carb, and make sure you hit your hourly target to keep your stores prepared for your higher efforts during the ride.
Much like preparing physically, preparing mentally will give you the best shot at success.
Be organized. Plan the work so that you can work the plan.
Know the route. The internet offers us untold treasures of information. You can view the route, the terrain, the number of turns and hills in the course.
You can learn way in advance the average temperature of the ride location on ride date. The weeks before the race you can stalk the weather forecast and plan your wardrobe.
Plan your clothing. Pack your gear. Are you traveling? Plan how and when to get to the race location. Know what it will take to get your bike to your destination city. Having these many questions answered way in advance can reduce your anxiety.
You may still have nerves — you are doing something huge! Prepare to feel unprepared. Know that this will happen, but know that you have done the work. For most people, finishing is the goal. Take your stress about finishing well out of the equation and focus on simply finishing the ride.
Start slow. The more you over-ride in the early miles, the more difficulty you give yourself in the final miles. Know what a steady pace will look like for you at the half, at 25 miles, and at 75 miles.
You don’t have to be perfect about it — the hill profile of the course can mess with your head a bit if it’s a highly textured ride, but tuning into that vibe of steadiness can bring you some peace.
Visualize. Picture yourself on the route, especially if you have seen it. But if not, go ahead and imagine it. See yourself riding confidently and enjoying your effort.
Picture yourself riding strong uphill. Feel the burn in your thighs and feel that as power rather than pain. Start a practice during your training of seeing yourself confidently taking on these challenges and finishing your race strong, tired, and full of accomplishment. If you can see it in your mind’s eye, you can achieve it.
- Give yourself extra time. Better to be calmly bored than waste your adrenaline on trying to get to the start.
- Pack enough fuel. Pack a variety of solids and liquids.
- Use the fuel. If you’re feeling pretty great and more than an hour goes by, you may miss your window to avoid glycogen depletion.
- Sip fluid frequently. Waiting for thirst to arrive can work against you, not only for the risk of dehydration, but also if you get too thirsty and gulp too much fluid, you may be fighting a sloshy tummy later in the race.
- Have a mantra. Think of something nice to say about yourself, like “you’re strong and confident”, or something fierce, like “you are dominating this course”, or something otherwise catchy to your own mind, like “I eat hills for breakfast”. It can be whatever lights that fire inside of you.
- Mind over matter. When you start to hear negative self-talk in your mind, refer to your well-practiced mantra. It can pull you out of a dark place.
- Have fun! This is something wonderful you will do for yourself. At the finish line, you will be able to say “I rode a 100-mile bike ride.” While people may want to hear about the trials and tribulations you met along the way, the story you tell will be one of perseverance and strength. You are an athlete!
Riding a century is a challenge and accomplishment that few take on, and fewer complete. If your head and heart are committed, you can create a stronger body, a satisfaction in your soul, and a story you can tell for life. Good luck!