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How to Train for an Ultra-Distance Event

By Jiri Kaloc

Ultra-distance races have been gaining in popularity in recent years. Maybe it’s our primal need to explore and travel over long distances using our muscles and brain only. Or maybe it’s that special feeling of being totally spent yet nowhere near a finish line. For some it’s a way to discover what they’re really made of. Regardless of the reason, the journey always starts with training. What does it take to train for an ultra-distance event?

Any race longer than a century ride which is 160 km (100 mi) can be considered an ultra-distance event. It’s always good to start with the shorter ones and work your way up. If you like to go for the extremes, you’ll be aiming at the Transcontinental Race, which covers approximately 4,000 kilometres (2,500 mi) across Europe, or the Trans Am Bike Race, which is currently the longest non-stop bike race in the world with 6,800 kilometres (4,200 mi). These are not ordinary races and training for them can’t be ordinary either.

Train while fatigued

You need to teach your body to keep going long past the point of exhaustion. A great tool for doing that are carbohydrate depleted rides. For example, you can go for a long ride in the morning without eating, or you can do an intense interval training session early in the day and then follow it up with a second ride before you can fully recover, or you can experiment with doing very hard training session two days in a row.

Ramp up gradually

It’s a good idea to ride at least half the distance of your race in training, or about 12 hours of continual cycling if you’re going for a multi-day event. But remember to increase the training volume gradually, no more than 10 % each week, to prevent overtraining.

“Carrying my bike across the beach (maybe 100+ yards) was one of the most physically exhausting moments of the Trans Am race.” -Mark Thompson

Learn how to pace yourself

Consider getting a heart rate monitor and a wattmeter for your bike. Relying on feel alone might be very deceiving in an ultra-distance event. It’s important to find out what is your sustainable pace so that you can stick to it. Having objective data will be a big help.

Figure out your nutrition

Ultra-distance races require more than just filling up on carbs. You have to get sufficient protein, electrolytes, and an overall nutrient rich diet to sustain your efforts for many hours or days. Test out various foods in training and see how they affect you. If your chosen ultra-event is unsupported then you should also practice going for a long ride without food and shopping for it as you go.

Practice self-belief

Everyone who finishes an ultra-distance event goes through many moments where the biggest obstacles aren’t hurting legs but negative thoughts. It’s essential to be ready for them. Worrying is a waste of energy and you can’t afford to do that. Learn to recognize these thoughts in training and practice changing focus to anything that makes you feel strong and good about yourself.


Focus on short-term goals

A great way to stave off doubt and keep up good moral is to focus on short term goals. Thinking about the distance left in the race is a sure way to break your spirits. Instead, try to think only about the upcoming hill, or make the following 10k a time-trial of sorts, the dopamine hit of completing the small task is sure to lift your mood!