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Top tips for preparing for your first endurance race

Updated: Apr 12, 2020

Having written my previous blog(s) on my TP experiences I've had loads of people tell me they've been inspired but lots also saying 'that's amazing, I could never do that'. Well I don't believe that!

We're getting towards the end of the year and thoughts inevitably turn to new years resolutions and goals for the coming year so I thought it would be a good time to start planting some seeds. 

In no way do I claim to be an ultra racing having just done one race! But I have many years experience as an endurance coach (mostly triathlons such as Ironman) and therefore the fundamentals of training, as well as the wider but vital factors such as mindset. Plus I'm someone who is passionate about the positive impact of exercise and encouraging people to realise they can achieve more than they thought. I've gone into more detail on my own learnings from the Transpyrenees here, but this is meant as an easier introduction. If you've got other suggestions, please do add them.

Choosing your goal

If you're not sure if you're ready to take on a big race/ride yet then don't just cross the idea off. Try getting started on some of the ideas below, especially building up the miles. See what you think, whether you enjoy it, and who you meet along the way - it's a really friendly community and people will be full of suggestions about local rides and races, and then take it from there. But then make sure you set a goal to focus your training.

Once you've decided on a goal race, check the entry requirements (for some of the big ones you need to start the process in a previous year), have a plan B if there's limited spaces, and enter some smaller races in the build up as practice and motivators towards the main goal.

Build up your mileage.

Some of the easiest ways to do this are:

Pick a destination - it can be a bit uninspiring to do a loop from home, especially as you probably already know all the good roads. How about picking somewhere on the train and cycling back (better to cycle back so you're not too cold and sweaty by the time you get on the train). As your routes get longer are there friends you want to catch up with who you could cycle out to, stay, and cycle back?

Go out with a cycle club. If you're not already a member, see if there's one near you and join. It's so much easier to motivate yourself to get out if someone else is going, and better still, has already sorted the route and the cake stops! If you're already a member of a club/ group of mates who ride regularly, see of some people would be up for increasing the distance. Or if not, just add on an extra ride after you've done the loop with them (try and peel off before you get to the end, you'll find it harder to head out again if everyone else is finishing).

Audaxes are brilliant for building the distance. If you're used to organised sportives or races, they're quite different. Firstly the price is a welcome change - they only cost a few pounds to enter (plus the cost of some snacks along the way to prove you've followed the route), and they're self sufficient so there's no route arrows (usually you're given a set route to follow at the start), marshalls or feed stations etc. But I'd happily swap that for the relaxed and friendly vibe, sandals (even in winter) instead of over-priced aero race gear, and emptier roads. And they're a good introduction into being more self sufficient, but with other riders around for company. Plus having the date in the diary will make you commit, and get you used to starting at unsociable times of day, whereas it's all too easy to press snooze if you're doing it by yourself. They range from 50k up to silly distances. As you get into the longer distances you need to start thinking about pacing, but for the shorter ones the minimum speeds are fairly unpressured.

Building up the mileage steadily

You also want to make sure you're sensible when building up. It will depend how far you currently ride and what distance you want to get to, but you want a steady and consistent build, where you gradually build up the distance/ number of days, with sufficient recovery time between each big ride. Remember, you don't get fitter from training, you get fitter from recovering from training. Don't over do it, or leave it to the last minute to build up the distance. You want to get to the start line fresh and ready, rather than with an over-use niggle that turns into an injury that stops you finishing.

Know what distance you need to get to by when and plan out how you'll get there, and aim for about one long ride, of increasing distance/ days per month (again, depending very much on where you are now and where you need to get to). You'll probably realise there's less time than you thought to get to your goal! And there's a difference between what is ideal and what is practical. Yes, ideally you'd do lots of multi-day training rides, but you also have a life and a job. So see if you can book in some long weekends, and do the best you can with the remaining time. Plot out the main rides and put them in your diary so they actually happen and add in some Audaxes and friends to visit etc to keep it interesting.

Riding with kit

Once you know what you're training for, you need to make sure that you've got the right kit for that event (e.g. weather appropriate clothing, lights, right type of tyres etc) and then you need to train with it, making sure you're happy carrying the total weight and that it works for your conditions.

Training for the conditions

Check what sort of conditions or challenges you might face on your race (or if you've not chosen your race yet, try out different things and see what you think you might enjoy/ want to challenge yourself with). For example:

My big issue was riding in the dark - living in London I'd never really ridden in complete blackness, so a lot of my training was doing a Surrey Hills lap once it was dark, and ideally raining so I got used to seeing past the raindrops on my glasses lit up by oncoming cars. The longer Audaxes are also good for this as they'll include riding through the night.

If you'll be riding off road then you obviously want to train for this. Even if your route doesn't officially include any off road, it's likely you'll have to go down a few roads that turn out to be 'less ideal' than you'd planned so it's worth getting some practice. And again remember to check your kit - have you got the right tyres (for on and off road), does the rest of your set up work off road (e.g. my bags only just cleared my wheels, this was ok on smooth tarmac, but they were rubbing when I went over bumps).

Rainy day when you've planned your training ride? Brilliant! Embrace it, you need to check your kit works in those conditions.

If your race will include bivvying then don't leave it until the race to try it out. It's not just testing your kit, but getting good at spotting a good place to stop (when it's pitch black and you're going 25 kph).

Riding solo or as a pair?

For most races, you'll be riding solo, and for most people this is actually a big change to what you're used to. Whilst I'm a big fan of riding with others for the company and motivation, make sure some of your riding is solo so that you know you can cope with any mechanical issues, following a route, decision making alone (harder than it sounds under pressure) etc. I deliberately rode back from volunteering at the TCR in Brest so that I knew I would be more confident riding alone in France.

And if you're riding as a pair, practice, practice, practice. Racing with someone is quite different to riding with them - learn how to ride together to keep the speed up. One of you is likely to be faster at some things whilst the other is better at others - for me and Hector (my partner, who I paired up with towards the end of the TPR) I go up fast, he comes down fast.

That means we need to regroup on the flat rather than waiting for each other on the top/bottom. He liked riding late into the night, I wanted to start early - this doesnt work! We needed to agree a compromise. Probably the most important part of riding as a pair is communication, and communication ahead of it being an issue e.g. agree you're wanting to stop for food at the next town rather than riding through before the person on the back has told the other they want to stop (not that I'm grumbling from experience!).

Route planning

Practice route planning and following your route. Depending on your race, this could be a massive factor, so get good at it now, so it takes you less time in the build up to the race when you should be out riding, and so that you know how to plan a good route that doesn't spit you out onto a motorway / unrideable farm track/ dead end. (I've gone into more detail on how I plan my routes in "Route planning and info" on a previous blog).

Build your fitness

Surprisingly as a coach, I'm putting this one last. I think the other factors are so much more important - you could have the highest FTP or other measure of bike fitness, but if you can't sit on the saddle for over 12 hours at a time, it's useless. Ditto if you can't ride at night/ on gravel/ can't follow a route or read a map/ hate riding alone / don't have the right kit etc etc. But if you have taken care of all that, then undoubtedly the fitter you are, the easier its going to be and the further you'll get.

Generally you want to make sure most of your training is long, easy riding (i.e. your weekend rides) to create a really solid base, but you can also pull up the upper limit with some short, intense intervals. So even if you cant get out an do a long ride you can achieve a hell of a lot in a short, mid week session, for example on the turbo (ideally power-based so you can train at the right intensity and hold yourself to account) or some hill reps. Aim for hard/ recovery/ hard/ recovery and avoid constant effort in the middle ground where it 'feels pretty hard'.

And don't neglect the strength and conditioning. Whether this is big weights in the gym or some body weight stability exercises at home, a very high proportion of race scratches (probably after saddle sores) are from injuries such as sore knees. Whilst building up the mileage steadily will definitely help here, making sure your body has the stability and control to cope with the miles is invaluable. Imagine, if your right knee tracks in slightly as you pedal because of a lack of glute stability or tight quads, leading the knee cap to slightly rub against the surrounding bone or cartilage, and that happens approx 90 times per minute, for 12 hours a day, for 5 days in a row.... You can see how a little niggle can quickly become very painful.

But most important, is to just get started. Dont wait until decided exactly which race you are going to do, or until you've heard if you've got a place. Or even if you want to do a race or not. Instead just get out there, start steadily building up the mileage, talking to other people and before you know it, your year will start taking shape.

So that's my list. Would you change or add anything? Let me know.

Here's my previous posts on the race if you want to read more:

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