Riding long distances, whether in a triathlon, road racing, Gran Fondo, duathlon… or just for fun, can be great endurance training but also a serious challenge for the body to adapt to. That’s because you’re training your muscles and your cardiovascular system to deal with being on the bike for a long time, but other key aspects are at play, too (like nutrition, hydration, logistics, etc.). Here’s a guide about how to build bike endurance beyond the obvious.
Doing long rides every week and incrementally increasing the duration of your rides by 7% to 10% at a time is the golden rule of endurance cycling training. But what if, like so many other athletes, you’ve been following this build-up rule and still find it hard?
You might be bonking from lack of energy, you might be feeling sore, or both might be hitting you at once. What do you do if you’re following your bike training program and still can’t build cycling endurance to the level you’d like to be?
In this article, we’ll cover:
- How the “golden rule” of incremental bike rides works;
- Why going long is not the only answer;
- How to problem solve muscle fatigue;
- Dealing with improper fit on the bike;
- Riding at the right intensity.
Building Bike Endurance: Long Rides and the 7-10% Rule
When you’re training to improve your bike endurance, you’ll come across the rule of incrementally increasing your long ride distance by around 7-10% each week. This is a general rule for all endurance sports, including running and ultra-running or marathon swimming, and it aims to keep athletes progressing gradually.
The advantage of this so-called golden rule is that it helps your body adjust to long rides incrementally, rather than going super long too soon and burning out, or worse, risking an injury. You should also look to periodize your training, so you have two or three weeks in a row of increasingly long rides, followed by a recovery shorter ride (approximately 60% of the previous longest distance) in the fourth week. Again, this helps your body adjust, recover and be ready to build again.
For almost any cycling event you prepare for, I recommend riding longer than your expected race distance. This is called an “over-distance” ride and helps you turn the actual distance of your bike race into a piece of cake on race day.
For example, let’s say you’re training for a triathlon; you would want to build up your longest long ride to the following “over-distances:”
- Sprint: 35-40 km (bike leg is only 20k)
- Olympic: 60-70 km (bike leg is only 40k)
- 70.3: 110-130 km (bike leg is only 90k)
- IRONMAN: 6 hours (bike leg is 180k)
As you approach ultra-long distance races, like 180k or longer, I don’t feel it’s necessary to build up to a massive over-distance ride. Once you’ve trained your body to be able to ride 5.5 to 6 hours or longer, you’ve built the majority of the bike endurance you’ll need for any long-distance bike race.
Building Bike Endurance: Why Incremental Long Rides Are Not Enough to Build Your Endurance Cycling
Now, you might want to tell me that you’ve been religiously sticking to your bike training plan, increasing your rides by 7-10% every week, taking your rest weeks seriously, and still, you can’t seem to make your long rides feel any easier. You’re either burning out, or you’re finding it too painful to keep riding. Or, even worse, you simply hate those rides.
Jumping on your bike and doing endurance cycling should be fun, not something you dread. Plus, you simply won’t make progress if your heart isn’t in it. So, why are the incremental long rides not the only answer if you’re looking to build cycling endurance? There are three possible reasons:
- Muscle fatigue;
- Improper bike fit;
- Riding too hard on your long rides.
All athletes go through one, two, or all of the above when they first start out building bike endurance. The good news is that you can address each of these and come away with a plan that will help you reach your endurance cycling goal. It just takes a little problem-solving.
Building Bike Endurance: Muscle Fatigue and Endurance Cycling
When you’re doing any endurance sport, your muscles draw on the existing muscle glycogen as their predominant source of energy. Glycogen is so important for endurance athletes: if you don’t have enough, your capacity to keep exercising decreases and you’ll simply find yourself unable to continue.
Provided you’re well-fueled before your long ride, you’ll start off with 1500-2500 calories in muscle glycogen (most people have the capacity to store around 2000-2500 calories’ worth). If you’re burning 700-1000 calories per hour, you’re going to burn through most of this muscle glycogen in just a few hours.
If your body can’t burn fat as fuel -- this is the case for most new endurance athletes who eat a typical Western diet -- you’re simply going to run out of energy (even if you’re eating sports nutrition products).
This means that you’ll hit the proverbial wall: bonking and not being able to refuel yourself in time to actually help the muscles carry on. Luckily, there is one solution to this: becoming metabolically flexible and burning more of your body fat as fuel. The ability to use fat as fuel is essential for powering you through endurance cycling, so you need to become better at fat burning.
Building Bike Endurance: How to become a better fat burner
Teaching your body to use more fat for energy is done in two ways: riding at low intensity (Zone 1-2) for longer and fueling with a mix of fat and protein before and during your ride to keep your blood sugar low and allow your body to access fat as fuel.
Low-intensity bike rides are also the answer to another key issue, that of burning through your energy stores too soon because you’re riding too hard. Basically, stick to the saying, “Keep your hard days hard and your easy days easy.” Don’t overdo it on the long rides and focus on keeping your effort levels in that easy, fat-burning bracket. This teaches your body to use fat for fuel and helps you during your endurance rides.
Look at fueling with a mix of protein and fat to help your muscles use the fat for energy before your endurance ride of the week. This can be achieved by eating something like eggs and vegetables before your long ride, instead of highly refined carbohydrates. You could also have a protein bar or a pre-workout snack of 2 tablespoons of all-natural peanut butter without added sugar.
You should also focus on riding your long rides without refueling with high-sugar carbs. However, this doesn’t mean going out without any carbs at all! Instead, you should ease into this approach. Start by holding off carbs until 2 hours into the ride, then 2.5 hours, then 3, and so on. Eventually, you’ll get to a point where you can go out for up to 6 hours with just fat, protein, and some low-sugar carbs as your sources of calories.
When it then comes to race day, by burning fat in addition to carbs, you’ll end up having nearly unlimited fuel supplies. Here’s an example to show you the math of using fat for fuel with an athlete that has optimized their fat burning for fuel:
Assuming this person completes a 12-hour Ironman triathlon, here’s what would happen:
By contrast, someone who has not optimized their fat burning for fuel would have the same energy expenditure numbers, same glycogen stores and same potential to ingest 240 calories/hour from carbs, but let’s assume they can only access 0.4 grams of fat per minute (typical of new athletes eating a Western diet).
Then, their equation would look like this:
Dialing in your nutrition during an endurance cycling event, triathlon or any other race can be tricky. It depends on the effort levels you’re expected to perform at and your weight. You should be practicing with a variety of fueling options before race day as well. We have a lot of information on this in our Triathlon Nutrition Foundations book, which provides details of pre- and post-event nutrition and shows you how to schedule what you eat on race day.
Finally, if all of this sounds complicated, and you just want a simple calculator to help you schedule your nutrition for long rides and races, you’re in luck: we offer a free calculator to guide you here.
Building Bike Endurance: Optimize Your Bike Fit to Ride Longer
Another big reason why athletes get too tired or uncomfortable to go beyond 2 to 2.5 hours on the bike is the way your body reacts to being on the bike, a position that’s potentially hurting you for that length of time.
If you increase the length of your bike rides incrementally but do so on an improper bike fit, you’ll essentially create lots and lots of micro-injuries - pain points that start off small, multiply and grow. What this means is you might not notice it at first, but if your bike isn’t fitted well, in time, you become really sore on your long rides, not knowing that’s the cause.
Think of this as sitting at your regular desk chair or on your favorite comfortable couch. If suddenly one of the chair legs was shortened or you put a couple of books under the middle pillow of the couch, you wouldn’t think it was comfortable. You may sit there for a little while, but not for too long.
The same goes for your bike. It needs to fit your body. Even if you switch to burning fat and stick to incremental increases for your ride, you’re still not going to feel good, and you won’t want to ride for that long.
The top 3 bike fit adjustments you need to make
To sort out your bike fit, there are 3 easy wins that typically make a world of difference.
Saddle height. Getting this right is finicky but so important! Make sure your heel just touches the pedal at the bottom of a pedal stroke when you’re unclipped. Start by raising and lowering your seat post until you get to that point where your heel is just grazing the pedal, not pressing on it firmly.
- Newer cyclists prefer to be closer to the lower limit of saddle height position to take pressure off the lower back. If you’re more experienced, you can have a higher saddle.
- Either way, try out your new saddle height on your next long ride and make small adjustments until you get it just right for you.
Saddle position. This is one that follows the rule of “when you know, you know.” You want your saddle to allow you to position yourself above the handlebars and pointing slightly downwards, as that makes you more aerodynamic. This means keeping your saddle level and moving your saddle forward and backward until you have it “just right.”
- Start by positioning the saddle level with the ground (without tilting) with the seat post clamp in the middle of the rails underneath the saddle. From here, move it forward in 1-mm to 2-mm increments until you reach a point that feels uncomfortable.
- Then move the saddle back slightly until you get to that ideal comfortable point.
- Remember: comfort and stability on your saddle are more important than having it too far forward in the quest for aerodynamics! If you feel good, you’ll ride for longer, and that’s what we’re here to achieve.
Handlebar position. Or your handlebars could be too far forward, and you’re reaching to hold them or scrunched in, creating additional pressure.
- For triathlon, coach and bike fit expert Matt Bottrill recommends making sure your elbow pads just touch the elbows and that your hands are at the tip of the bars so you have better control of the bike.
- To check your position on the bike relative to the handlebars, look in the mirror when you’re reaching out over the bars. Are your arms comfortable, and is your back relatively flat, with just a very slight round to it? Does this feel good enough to ride for a long period of time?
- Those are the key considerations to ensure the bars are in a good position to allow you to build cycling endurance on your long rides.
How to Ride at the Right Intensity
Finally, your long rides should be carried out at the right intensity to allow you to spend that amount of time on the bike. However, many beginner endurance athletes end up exerting too much effort in their endurance cycling rides, which leads to burning out too soon.
If you ride at too high of an intensity (Zone 3 is what most athletes commonly ride at), then you burn through your available energy stores quicker, and you run out sooner. Additionally, you’re putting too much strain on your muscles, which leads to muscle breakdown, and you return to the first issue we’ve mentioned (muscle fatigue).
Moreover, if you’re always riding too hard, you’re not teaching your body to burn fat for fuel, so you’ll never actually increase your body’s energy availability. You’re not improving your mitochondrial density, and you’re running out of calories sooner.
In a nutshell, riding above Zone 1-2 intensity levels during your long ride leads to suffering more and riding harder without getting many endurance benefits. So, it’s important to stick to doing your long rides at an easy conversational pace, somewhere under 75% of your maximum heart rate, or around 4-5 out of 10 on your scale of RPE. Think of this as an enjoyable pace, where you could listen to an audiobook or a podcast, enjoy the scenery, or go for a social ride with friends.
As you get closer to your target race, you’ll mix in some race efforts into the long ride, but when you’re initially looking to build cycling endurance, you want to be able to focus on this lower intensity work, which will help you burn fat for fuel, increase the distance you cover on the bike, and enjoy yourself, too!
Avoid the 3 Mistakes That Keep You From Building Bike Endurance
As you train for your target endurance cycling event, increasing your long ride by 7-10% every week is not enough to help you build endurance and adapt your body, your gut and your mind to the ever-increasing distance. In fact, most people struggle because of muscle fatigue, improper bike fit and body position, or simply misjudge the required effort levels during these rides. Address these three aspects, and you’ll begin to enjoy your long workouts more, which means you’ll ride longer and get fitter and faster!
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