How to train for a season of 12 and 24 hour bicycle races

by Merry Vander Linden

Merry Vander Linden is one of the most experienced ultra time trial racers in the country. In 2000 she took second in her age division at the WUCA 24 Hour race and she finished P-B-P in 1999.

See also part 2


So you’ve decided this is the year to try your hand at 12 and 24 hour ultra racing. Good for you! It’s a marvelous sport, guaranteed to put some spice in the cycling season, and you will meet some strange and wonderful people. Let’s start planning the season, beginning with ultra race selection. A glance at the race calendar reveals many bicycle races from which to choose, especially for riders living in the central U.S. and Canada.

However, an all-out effort in a 12 or 24 hour time trial is pretty exhausting, and you will need time to recuperate between races. Although there are a few indefatigable competitors out there – folks like Tom Buckley and Marc Pritchard, who can crank out one huge race after another – most of us need approximately six to eight weeks to recover completely. Bearing that in mind and returning to the race calendar, we come up with a three race season: Calvin’s Challenge in the late spring, the Davis 12/24 or National 24 Hour Challenge in early summer, and then another 24 to end the season, the Mississippi Valley Challenge or the WUCA Championships.

Once the races are chosen, set some goals to give your training program focus. In setting goals, be honest with yourself regarding your abilities, so that the planned effort is challenging but realistic. Try this formula for the first 12 hour race, plugging in real numbers for my fictitious ones. Think back to a century ride last summer, one in which the pace was brisk, but sustainable and which left you feeling good at the end. (We’re talking about a loop century here – not a point-to-point with a whacking 20 mph tailwind!) Let’s say you averaged 17 mph. This will be the speed you will attempt to maintain in the race. Now figure how much off-the-bike time you might need in 12 hours. Since it’s your first race we’ll give you 40 minutes, which leaves eleven hours and twenty minutes riding time, and at 17 mph that’s 192 miles. Whoa! Better start training right now!

In searching for a model on which to pattern your training program, look no further than the pages of UltraCycling. Bernie Comeau has given an excellent account of the base, intensity, peak and taper plan in his article on how RAAM riders train.

To train for the proposed three-race season, ideally you would start your four months of base training in November. The two month intensity phase would begin around March 1 and end with a 1-2 week taper into the first 12 hour race. Next you would peak and taper into the first 24 hour race, then rest and taper into the last race. If you didn’t start your base training in November, don’t skip it. Postpone your first race until June, to allow yourself time to get in shape.

Base Training

The purpose of the base phase is to prepare for the more taxing phases that follow. Two weekday evenings are spent on the trainer, working on spinning, doing isolated leg workouts, etc. The other three weekday evenings are devoted to strength training and stretching. Those who live in a climate that allows riding outdoors all winter will use weekends for longer rides, working up to a comfortable seven hour century by early March. The pace of these rides should be moderate. (Michigan coaching legend Mike Walden kept his road racers on a 42/15 fixed gear at a heart rate never to exceed 65% of their maximum until they had logged 1000 miles for the season, and he claimed a single sprint would negate all the “capillary developing” of this phase.)

Living in the north-central U.S., I don’t know too many people who do six to eight hour endurance rides throughout the winter (although the advent of the Big Dogs Century-A-Month competition and the WUCA Year-Rounder may change that.) Getting those endurance workouts done in the winter is a real challenge, and if you can sit on a trainer for more than two hours at a stretch, you’re a better woman than I am.

An alternative? Break the trainer workout into two sessions or patch it together with other activities – swimming, hiking or skating – to get those extended hours. If there’s enough snow nearby, doing long weekend workouts on cross-country skis or snowshoes is a great way to chase the winter blues. Sign up for a couple of competitive events and the season will spit you out around March 1st feeling fit – ready to jump on your bike and conquer the world! Right. Does the term “marshmallow butt” mean anything to you? Though winter sports can confer a high degree of cardiovascular fitness and mental freshness, nothing is totally cycling specific except cycling, and the next 8 – 12 weeks are going to be, well . . . intense.

Intensity Training

The base training phase is complete. What are you going to do about that 12 hour race this is only nine weeks away? Here’s what. Find 75% of your mileage goal for the race. Using our 192 mile example, 75% would be 144 miles – the length of your longest training ride, to be done two weeks before the event. Next, count down by 10% per week for the preceding weeks: 144, 130, 117, 105, 94, 85, 77, 70 – the distances, in reverse, of your training rides for these weeks. Again, plug in your own numbers. Those who have been riding all winter and can ride a century comfortably at the beginning of this phase, or those whose first race isn’t until early June, can reduce the weekly mileage increases and add a couple of recovery weeks to lessen the risk of overtraining.

During this phase you will need four rides per week:

  • one speed workout (intervals or time trial) of around 25 miles
  • one hill workout, also approximately 25 miles
  • one tempo ride (30-50% of the distance of this week’s endurance ride and done at least one mph faster than race pace, which makes race pace feel so much easier by contrast)
  • one endurance ride at race pace

Don’t worry when you can’t hit the target speeds during tempo and endurance rides early on. Normally we wouldn’t push this hard until the peaking phase, but there is the matter of that race in a few weeks. Remember, baseballs and bicycles fly farther and faster in warm weather, so as the temperatures climb, so will your speed.

That takes care of four days of the week. What do to with the other three? You could hop on your bike for an easy spin, but how about a little weight-bearing exercise instead? All cyclists need to work to build and maintain bone mass, so on recovery days stay loose with a brisk walk, adding ski poles for a bit of upper body work.

Hopefully, you’ve devoted a lot of time and effort to improving flexibility during the winter. Be sure to continue stretching a minimum of three times a week, or you’ll be back to square one within a month. The benefits of stretching – better bike position, fewer injuries, and less muscle tightness on long rides – cannot be overemphasized. Yoga can add a little variety to a stretching routine. In addition to improving flexibility, balance and breathing, it teaches visualization techniques that can be most helpful in ultra racing. Check out your community education program or local health club for classes. Excellent instructional videos are also available.

General Preparation

There’s more to racing than training your legs to push the pedals for hours on end. Two riders of roughly equal abilities will be separated at the finish line by their level of preparedness. During training rides, constantly work on all the factors that will make or break your race. Remain conscious of keeping the arms relaxed elbows slightly bent, shoulders down and away from the ears. Practice changing hand position frequently. Regularly scan the neck, back and shoulders for areas of tension, create a space around these areas, and release the tension into it.

Nausea, heartburn, and the resultant lack of adequate intake are major factors in good riders turning in poor performances. When you are dehydrated and underfed, many other physical problems – from saddle sores to joint pain – occur sooner and with greater intensity. The longer the event, the more important this becomes, but nutrition and hydration can’t be ignored in even a 12 hour race, so use endurance rides to work on this area, too.

As Steve Born points out in his article “Fueling for Endurance”, the stomach can only process a finite number of calories and ounces of fluid per hour, but you can maximize that number by training your digestive tract while training your legs. Experiment with various foods and drink mixes to find out what is most sustaining, then use a heart rate monitor to discover the level of exertion at which you can maintain an intake that will maintain your effort. Also, you might try this great tip from Lisa Marie Dougherty, “During my first season of ultracycling, I spent many mornings on my trainer eating breakfast while cycling. This taught my stomach to deal with eating substantial meals while performing an aerobic activity.” (Your First 24 Hour Race)

Just as legs don’t perform as well when your seat is too low, a stomach that is compressed between ribs and pelvic bones won’t function at peak potential, so flatten that back, stretch out, and give your digestive tract room to do its job. If heartburn is a problem, eat just before turning into a tailwind, then sit up and let gravity aid the cause.

This is also the time to address the mechanical aspects of your race. Is your bike fit perfect? Are those new shoes thoroughly broken in? Does last year’s gel saddle need to be replaced? Do those century shorts still feel good at 150 miles, or are you going to have to grease your fanny? Don’t be caught messing with this stuff the night before the race. Do it now.

As you ride outdoors from late winter to spring, fine tune your ability to dress for the full spectrum of weather conditions. Racing in early spring, you may encounter anything from a 45 degree downpour to a 90 degree heatwave. Knowing how to dial in clothing needs can eliminate a lot of unnecessary misery. Add to your wardrobe lightweight, time-saving accessories that are easy to get on and off – arm warmers, knee warmers and glove liners (to be worn over cycling gloves).

One weather condition you are almost guaranteed to encounter in a spring race is wind, so get out there on cold, blustery days and haul into a headwind until that whining sound disappears. This bring up another issue, namely, whether to race alone or in company. Riding in a group, drafting and sharing pulls, undoubtedly allows a faster ride for a given level of effort than riding solo. If you can find a compatible group with which to ride, it might be advantageous to do so. And if you have a bunch of buds who agree to ride the entire race with you, you’re on velvet. Just be forewarned that many a staunch alliance has undergone rapid meltdown in the heat of competition. Doing a portion of your training rides solo will give you the fortitude to continue alone, should the group be forced to disband for whatever reason.

Still, if you plan to ride in a pack during the race, do some long rides in a similar situation to assure that conversation and concentration on the riders ahead won’t disrupt the rhythm of eating, drinking, etc. Also, learn to keep a close eye on your heart rate monitor to avoid being carried to a level of effort that is too high to sustain.

Finally, if at all possible, ride the course ahead of time and take notes. Previewing the course allows you to visualize the race as you train and to choose training routes that are similar to the race terrain. Knowing where the tough portions of the course are and how long they last will help you to determine how much you can afford to give to every part of the race. And energy won’t be wasted on anxiety produced by the unknown.

Well, that’s our homework through the end of the intensity phase. In the next issue, your old pal Mer is going to talk about peaking, tapering, and race tactics.