12 Tips from Our Cycling Community: The Best Ways to Build and Maintain Endurance

By Megan Flottorp

Building endurance through cycling is an extremely empowering and satisfying accomplishment. Having the confidence to trust that you can handle a longer route, keep up with your fellow riders, or challenge yourself to push your limits is a big part of the freedom that makes cycling a powerful tool for fitness, health, and life in general.

I’m sure you know the magical feeling I’m talking about. That said, you probably also know the sense of dread that can creep up when you’re staring down a particularly long ride or are starting to wonder if you’ll ever overcome the two or three-hour point that has been limiting your training and fitness gains.

This is something that every cyclist confronts. Thankfully, you can benefit from the many determined souls that have gone before you, and use their accumulated wisdom to your advantage. So, if you’re new to cycling, are eyeing up your first long event, or simply want to employ some new tactics as you wheel the hours away on your bike—this article is for you!

1. Start with a quality bike fit

Before we go any further, this just needs to be said. Worth its weight in gold, a proper bike fit will make all the difference when it comes to racking up the miles on your bike. If you’ve tried endurance rides only to be met with numb hands, hot feet, or aching in your knees, back, saddle, or Achilles—go get a proper bike fit now! Of course, that won’t necessarily solve all your problems. Still, before you employ the rest of the tips listed below, it is crucial to set yourself up for success by having a bike properly adjusted to your unique physical makeup.

2. Set mini goals and mix it up

Michelle G. has been riding for years now, but, as is the case for many of us, some nerves never go away. “I still get anxious about hills when I’m riding outside. The trick that always works for me to chill out is to break them down into sections, looking for different points like the next lamppost and heading to that rather than looking at the top of the hill! In addition, I find that a combination of the turbo (for intervals) and riding outside works best for me. I’ve gained much more fitness in a shorter time than when I’m just doing one or the other. On the weekends, I do one long ride outside, which I am trying to build up over time.”

3. Allow your body time to get used to new demands

You need both patience and determination to make noticeable progress on your bike. You’re probably not going to cruise up a new hill the first time you try it, and those long days in the saddle will always hurt in the beginning. If you’re planning a particular event or a trip to push yourself out of your comfort zone, you’d be well-advised to give your body a chance to acclimatise in advance. Do some research and find some ‘proper’ hills to train on in your area. Likewise, if you’re planning a multi-day event, try and get some back-to-back days riding with distance, so your body gets used to constantly being in the saddle.

4. Know your strengths

It can be discouraging to struggle on a ride when you’ve been putting a lot of effort into training, but remember that every attempt is a learning opportunity and the best way to progress is to figure out what exactly you are struggling with. For some people, cardio fitness isn’t going to be a rate-limiting factor at all (you can track this by paying attention to your heart rate), but it’s the muscular strength they’re missing. Or vice versa. Once you have a solid grasp on what is preventing you from reaching your goals, you’ll feel more fulfilled from the time you spend training.

If you need to build cardio, you might benefit from frequent short, fast, high HR rides that push your fitness. That means you stick to around 25 km daily but push hard. That way, when you try longer endurance rides at ease, you’ll be able to manage your heart rate and you’ll put less stress on the body overall.

Cyclist training
Studies show that the most important thing to maintain endurance during times of reduced training is keeping training intensity the same or even higher than normal. © Profimedia, Stock Budget

5. Take advantage of the training plans available

Regardless of your goals, there are plenty of great training plans available! Some of the top recommendations from our community include:

● “I’ve been working with the Build Me Up training programme on Zwift and finding it brilliant so far (I’m in week 5)! I’m sure my FTP has improved, and I generally feel significantly fitter.”

● “I use Zwift in conjunction with Today’s Plan, which provides bespoke training plans for different areas. I’m working on improving climbing, and I find the structured workouts super helpful. Plus, it’s customisable, so I can move sessions around to fit my day.”

● “I use Sufferfest and love it! You can do outdoors on it and tailor it to the road, CX, or MTB; it also has yoga and mental strength training.”

6. Remember that sometimes it really is mind over matter

Tyler F. explains a recent experience on the Alpe du Zwift turbo trainer that gave him a whole new appreciation for his endurance: “I was aware that it was more muscular strength that limited me. I was grinding out in cadences of 50-60 to average 9km/hr up it. Yet, although it felt challenging, I could maintain it for the whole climb without stopping. This made me realise I have more endurance than I thought I did. I think some of my difficulty with climbing is headspace—mind over matter. It also helped me think differently about my local hill, which at 5%, is something I could be going at a lot harder!”

7. Keep your mind occupied

Speaking of mind over matter, part of endurance cycling is about training your mind and knowing how to distract yourself when the going gets tough. Different strategies will suit different riders, but some good tricks to take your mind off the pain (if you’re riding with a group) include quizzes and word games. Shout out short questions to each other—capital cities of the world, letters of the phonetic alphabet, types of coffee, etc.

If you’re on your own, those middle school math skills you thought you’d never use may come in handy. You can mentally calculate miles to km and back again, the percentage you have left, possible times for arrival home depending on speed, etc.—you get the idea! The more exhausted you get, the more time this absorbs.

8. Go inward

It doesn’t always have to be about distraction, either. Mindfulness is a powerful tool, and your bike can be the perfect place to tap into it. Being totally present on the ride paradoxically allows your unconscious mind to wander and go to places long forgotten. As an avid distance rider, Carolina P. put it, “hours into a solo ride, it’s not unusual to see me riding with tears streaming down my face or singing my heart out with joy. Anything can happen.”

9. Cross train!

Winter is just around the corner, and many of us fear losing our hard-earned fitness gains during the colder months. As such, this is the perfect time to up your cross-training game! Find where you’re lacking strength and flexibility and stick to weights or a yoga programme that can help you improve.

10. Eat, eat, eat

You need to up your calorie intake if you’re going to excel on endurance rides, plain and simple. There’s nothing wrong with tracking your intake and output, but try not to get too hung up on numbers, especially in the beginning. Make a point of eating easy-to-digest, calorie-dense foods. Learn to listen to your body and give it fuel when it’s asking for it.

11. Don’t worry about weight gain after a big event

It is also essential to be aware that temporary weight gain is totally normal after a big endurance event. Our potassium and sodium levels get a little wacky after an intense effort like a century or Gran Fondo, primarily if you fuel with a lot of carbs. When our muscles are “damaged” from a challenging workout, the body retains water and sugars, and this looks like weight gain. The body uses our excess fat (and recently digested sugars and proteins) to repair and strengthen the muscles. Then the weight is lost in the form of CO2 from breathing. Give yourself a few days to recalibrate before hopping on the scale. Any added weight will go away if you stay on top of your electrolytes and water intake.

12. Never underestimate the power of recovery

And finally, don’t let yourself get run down in the pursuit of an unrealistic goal! If you sense that your body needs a break, take time out to rest and recuperate. Experiment with less intense forms of exercise, and remember that rest is key to improving. Tiredness and being rundown can seriously affect your immune system, and pushing things too hard might leave you unable to ride at all. Be patient, have faith, and stick with the “slow and steady wins the race” mindset!