Training for long-distance cycling is really important if you’ve got a long-distance cycling event on the horizon or are booking a multi-day, back-to-back cycling trip.
Cycling a long-distance – particularly over consecutive days – isn’t for the unprepared. You’ll want to put in place a long-distance bike riding training programme and you’ll need to consider nutrition, hydration and your kit. This will ensure you’re ready and raring to go!
In this article we interview John Dewey, who back in 2017 recorded the 3rd fastest time over 25 miles (here) and also successfully completed an Everest up Alpe d’Huez a couple of years ago. He shares his tips for getting ready for endurance riding and taking on many of the kinds of tough, long-distance rides we talk about elsewhere on this website.
Our aim is to help you with preparing for long-distance riding and perhaps even help you create your own long-distance cycling training plan. Whether that’s for the holiday of a lifetime, or your biggest challenge yet!
Read this for our top tips for preparing for long distance cycling.
What is a long-distance cycling training plan?
Cycling any distance that’s beyond what you’d normally tackle requires planning and preparation. If you’ll be taking on a multi-day cycling trip or a long-distance sportive in future, then you need a plan that will ensure you’re up to the challenge. Knowing how to train for long-distance cycling is the key to becoming fit and fast enough to cope with your upcoming event.
Before you start training for long-distance (or even ultra-distance) cycling, you’re already likely to have a decent base level of fitness. You might already be cycling several times per week, for instance, but training for cycling a long-distance will involve ramping this up on readiness for your endurance objective.
A good long-distance cycling training programme will make sure you’re ready to take on those mountain climbs, multiple days spent in the saddle or many miles more than you’ve ever ridden in that time frame before.
Benefits of having a training plan
- You’ll be faster when it counts
- Your overall fitness level will improve
- You can perform at your absolute best when you really want to
- You’ll be able to make the most of every moment of the cycling sportive or holiday
First step: what’s your goal?
When considering how to train for cycling a long-distance, the first thing is to focus on the event or ride that you’re planning to tackle. Preparing for a long bike ride – or a series of shorter ones spread over a series of days – involves thinking about the target.
What is the overall aim you have in mind? If it’s a sportive, do you simply want to complete it – or would you rather set yourself a time goal?
When you’ll be tackling rides over consecutive days, your aim may be more general. You might simply want to keep up with the pack. If you’ve spent a lot of time and money on a cycling holiday, then you don’t want to be spending your days struggling.
Getting your training volume right is important. In addition to how many sessions per week to schedule in when it comes to training for distance cycling, you need to weigh up training duration versus intensity. Active recovery and rest days also must be factored into the equation.
How much to train per week?
If you’re used to riding three or four days per week in the normal run of things, then you may be tempted to head out training every day. One of the key tips for long-distance cycling, though, is that you need to pace yourself.
What you’re looking at is a training programme for long-distance cycling. Not a sprint, but rather a marathon. Five days of training per week factors in a couple of rest days, which are important when you’re working towards an endurance goal.
Training intensity vs. duration
When working out how to bike a long-distance, it’s not only about the amount of time spent in the saddle. The intensity of your training also counts for a lot. Any endurance race or multi-day cycling trip is likely to involve different levels of intensity, and your training programme ideally needs to reflect this.
The higher the intensity, the less time you’re going to be able to sustain it for. A mix of shorter, harder rides plus longer, slower ones is ideal. Some cross training will also give your cycling muscles a rest while strengthening others.
Rest days and active recovery
Another of the long-distance cycling tips you might want to bear in mind is to factor in active recovery as well as rest days. Gentler, lower intensity exercise such as swimming or walking can help to stabilise your muscles while releasing tension.
Allowing time for rest and active recovery can allow your body to reset, making it more ready than ever to take on the next training session.
So when training for a long-distance cycling trip, it’s all about mixing it up as much as ramping it up. Rides of various intensities and lengths plus rest days, cross training and active recovery can all play their part.
Base phase of training
Base training is the first stage of any cycling long-distance training programme. This can be seen as the foundation or introductory phase. It’s all about preparing for the more intense workouts that will come later.
Your base training phase may last for six weeks to three months. This phase is about building a strong aerobic base to build on later. Four to six hours of training per week is average during the base phase, but this will depend on how much time you have at your disposal plus your existing fitness level at the outset.
Interval sessions for endurance rides or races
Undertaking some interval training can be a powerful tool when you’re working out how to increase cycling distance. Intervals are something no one tends to look forward to (they hurt!), but they can be one of the fastest and most efficient ways to build endurance. Intervals are also ideal for those short on time, and twice per week can be enough to really reap the benefits.
Interval sessions involve going for the burn. But for a very limited time only: we’re talking between just 30 seconds and a full five minutes each time. Begin with just 30 seconds at the start, building up to one and then several minutes as your fitness levels improve. Don’t forget to factor in a minute or two of recovery time for every intense burst.
Working with power meters, heart rate monitors and turbo trainers
If you want to fully understand how hard you’re working during training, then a power meter could be a very sound investment indeed. This can help you to understand your strengths and weaknesses better. It can also help you to see the tangible effects of your preparation for long-distance cycling. Find out more in our guide to power meters for cycling.
A heart rate monitor can also be a useful tool when you’re facing long-distance cycling challenges. This can help you to measure your training intensity – and can tell you when to take a break. Fitness tracking watches can be used for this purpose, or you can buy chest strap versions.
Turbo trainers are another part of the cycling tech equation. Using one gives you a way to train indoors on your own bike, so it can be a great time saver. It’s also good when you don’t want to deal with inclement weather. (On a side note, turbo trainers can be hired rather than bought if you want to test the water before committing – read all about hiring a turbo trainer in this article.)
Off bike training
When preparing for long-distance cycling races, core strength can be a formidable weapon in your armoury. When we talk about the core, we mean the centre of the body, minus the limbs. A strong core can improve your posture, assist with power transfer and even reduce your risk of injury.
Off-bike training is the key to developing good core strength. Push, pull, hip and knee dominant movements are ideal, and these can be done at home or in the gym. Ab rollers are also an excellent tool to increase your core strength.
Increasing the training volume over time
The build-up to long-distance cycling events involves preparing for the marathon ahead. Slowly but surely. Once you’ve covered the base phase, it’s all about increasing how much time and intensity you pack in per week. Consistency over the weeks is key – don’t fall into the trap of pushing too hard for too long on group rides if it will take you three days to recover!
Rest days are equally important, though, and you’ll need to allow a couple of days per week to let your body recover. Once you’re in the training phase, around nine hours per week is a good volume to aim for. As outlined above, this should include a mix of intensities and activities.
Plan your training rides
Vary your routes
One thing I find essential for long-distance cycling training is mixing things up. With that in mind, a simple way to achieve this is to vary the routes you take when training. Including a variety of terrain – and gradients – will ensure you’re ready to tackle a range of these during the event itself.
One of the key benefits of long-distance cycling training is that you can get out there and explore while maximising your fitness levels. Switching up your routes can therefore help to keep you motivated.
Take the long way home
If time is of the essence, then it might be about fitting in some long-distance road cycling wherever you can. Could you, for example, take a longer route home from the office? Perhaps covering a steeper incline or longer stretch of smooth tarmac en route?
Try multiple days
It’s also sensible to include consecutive days of riding on your long-distance cycling checklist. It’s no good booking a long cycling trip or signing up for a multi-day event if you’ve never done any multi-day cycling before you go. This will also help you iron out any problems with your kit set up.
Training camps and coaching
A dedicated training camp can form an integral part of preparation for long-distance cycling event.
A cycling training camp involves training on your bike for a set time period. They’re ideal for those preparing for any kind of endurance event. During a typical camp, you’ll become familiar with spending hours in the saddle while improving your speed, stamina, strength and fitness.
Nutrition and fuelling for long-distance cycling
A key factor in how to ride long-distance cycling is to get your hydration and energy levels just right. You can read our in-depth blog post on nutrition – but here are some of the key of the points to consider.
Hydration strategies to maximise performance
Keeping hydrated is vital. A good rule of thumb can be to take a drink every 10 to 15 minutes while on your bike. Take two or three sips each time to avoid dehydration. So make sure you have a good water bottle, plus a spare, and have found out in advance where you’ll be able to refill this along the way.
Your performance will soon suffer if you don’t get enough fluid on board. The symptoms of dehydration include overheating plus decreased sweating, and less effective use of muscle glycogen. A good sports drink will provide energy, improve absorption and provide salts and other key nutrients.
Your performance will soon suffer if you don’t get enough fluid on board. The symptoms of dehydration include overheating plus decreased sweating, and less effective use of muscle glycogen.
Hydration in the run-up to a big ride is also critical, so pay particular attention to this during the 24 hours before setting off.
Energy bars and gels for sustained energy levels
Getting enough fuel on board is critical for endurance riding. When you’re pushing yourself to the limit, the last thing you want is to hit a slump.
It’s easy to underestimate quite how much energy is required. Depending on the conditions and your physiology, intensive cycling may require as much as 1,000 calories per hour, with the body quickly depleting its reserves of readily available glycogen. That’s more than four Mars bars every hour (this is not a nutritional recommendation!).
On-the-go sources such as energy gels and bars mean you can keep going without getting off your bike, though it requires focus and effort to remain well fuelled for long periods.
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Tips on when to eat during long rides
There’s no need for carb loading the night before a long ride. Fish or poultry are good, light sources of protein, and you can add some carbs such as pasta, potatoes or rice.
A breakfast such as an omelette or porridge can ideally be eaten 90-minutes to two hours before setting off.
A protein drink at the end of the ride will help you to recover, and during the ride you can also refuel en route by taking on energy bars and gels. Research also suggests that some protein during prolonged exercise is beneficial to recovery.
Real food too
Many riders tackle long events relying on the same type of energy bars, drinks and gels they would use for shorter events. There are good physiological and psychological reasons why you should plan for variety in food and drink during long events.
Under heavy exertion and unpredictable event conditions, your body may not want or be able to ingest one particular form of nutrition. This could result in reduced appetite for nutrition or gastro-intestinal problems, a dry or sticky mouth, sickness or other discomfort, ultimately reducing performance as well as enjoyment. You don’t want to accidentally lose a bar from your jersey pocket to find that this leaves you short of fuel for your ride.
Having options of natural, protein rich, caffeinated or sugary snacks will help you meet your nutrition needs and achieve your best performance irrespective of unpredictable factors like what your body is craving or if the event conditions are different from expected (heat, cold, wind, length, etc.).
Train with your ride-day fuel
How much to take on board during a ride varies enormously. So it’s important to try out the fuel you plan to use on the ride day when training. This way you can tweak what works for you in terms of what to take along – and how often to consume it.
Wear in your gear
Pushing yourself physically of course involves some discomfort. To ensure this isn’t overwhelming, our advice for long-distance cycling has to cover your kit. Is your bike itself as comfortable as it could be? If not, could you adjust the height, or replace the saddle?
Though it may be tempting to wear box-fresh clothing and footwear on the first day, old faithfuls are a more sensible choice. Comfortable clothing that fits like a second skin is the way to go. Rather than contending with surprisingly scratchy fabric, or cleats that rub every time your foot turns.
It’s not only about preparing for long-distance cycling. What you do afterwards can also be very important.
Tips for recovery
Once your big ride is complete, taking on a protein drink is the ideal way to kick-start the recovery process.
A dinner rich in important nutrients will also help your body to heal after being pushed to its limits. If you’ll be back in the saddle the next day, plenty of light protein can help your system to rebalance as you sleep.
Quantity and quality of sleep is important – professional cyclists sometimes sleep in excess of 10 hours per day. Try taking a nap in the afternoon if you have this luxury!
Avoiding too long in the bar is wise if you’ve got to be riding again the next day!
Preparing for a long cycle ride is so much easier when you plan well ahead of time. Things to think about include what to wear, how to refuel, the weather at your destination and of course making sure your bike is in tip-top condition.
Plan your kit and fuelling
As touched on above, choose clothes and shoes that are comfortable and worn-in rather than opting for the unknown. Try out your energy gels and bars in advance, making sure you stock up on plenty before your trip.
If you’re taking a cycling holiday with a tour operator or are taking part in a sportive, then it may be that the route is already taken care of. When this is not the case, you’ll want to weigh up your options and pin down the best routes before you go.
Gearing is something that is often overlooked. However, if you’re tackling an event or multi-day ride in the mountains, you want to make sure you don’t run out of gears!
Think ahead and consider whether your bike needs a trip to the bike shop for a new cassette or chainrings to give you some more gears. If it does, make sure there’s still time to practice using it before the big day.
If you’re taking your own bike to the sportive or on holiday, then having it fully serviced before you go is surely a no-brainer. Why take the risk of running into avoidable mechanical issues? If you hire a bike, tell them you’ll be tackling long-distances. Don’t be afraid of asking – politely of course – whether the bike you’re renting is up to the demands of the job.
Weather and climate
Lastly, no list of long ride cycling tips would be complete without some mention of the weather wherever you’re headed. This could make or break your holiday or sportive, especially when the climate is very different from where you live and what you’ve been training in. Take this into account when planning where to go for your ride, during your training and packing.
In the mountains, in particular, temperatures and weather conditions can change rapidly. Allowing for a drop in temperature of 1 degree Centigrade for every 100 metres climbed is a helpful rule of thumb. A sunny 25 degrees Centigrade at the start of a sportive can easily become rain and freezing temperatures crossing an alpine col a few hours later, even in mid summer. You could be descending on wet and icy roads, soaked with sweat and depleted after a long climb. In this scenario, a thin long-sleeve shell can be a vital necessity , even if you’re determined to carry the minimum on your ride. There’s more on Alpine weather in this article.
While the long-distance cycling benefits are huge, preparation is crucial. Whether it’s a cycling holiday to discover somewhere new over multiple days or the challenge of an as-yet uncharted sportive, the only way to get the best out of the experience – and yourself – is to train and plan ahead during the months leading up to the endurance event.
We hope this article has provided some useful tips for long bike rides.
If you want more info on cycling training camps, check out our guide here.
If you want someone to guide you through the process of creating a tailored training program just for you and your event, professional cycling coaching is definitely something to look into.
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