I remember the first time I cycled into work. It’s only just over seven miles but I distinctly recall walking down a short flight of steps feeling my thigh muscles cry out in pain. Like anything, if you suddenly subject your body to some new exercise then it certainly feels pretty tough.
But guess what ? Building up that exercise – slowly – gradually builds strength in the muscles that previously didn’t get such a good workout. This is why a structured training plan is so important for long-distance cycling. Now, after several months of following my LEJOG training plan I don’t even notice my legs when walking down those same set of steps.
I was a complete novice in terms of long-distance cycling when I decided last year to cycle 1,000 miles from Land’s End to John O’Groats. I didn’t have a bike, hadn’t ever ridden a road-going bike and was definitely not ‘bike fit’. However, I was slim, active, not overweight, I’d climbed lots of mountains and have done quite a bit of running, so I was fit in other ways. I therefore already had the cardiovascular capacity to cope with high-intensity activity but what I lacked was the power in specific leg muscles to power my pedals continuously for hours on end.
If you’re considering riding end-to-end (or any other long-distance cycle ride) it’s advisable to follow a structured plan. There are many variations, at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels, which you can tailor and use to fit your own circumstances. All, however, incorporate some important training principles:
- adaptation: training you body to get used to the physical and mental aspects of the challenge;
- specificity: most of your training needs to be cycling specific if it’s a cycle ride you’re tackling;
- progression: you’ll need to gradually build up your training so that, week by week, you become fitter;
- variation: undertaking exactly the same kind of training routine repeatedly won’t reflect the actual circumstances of your journey. You therefore need to make sure your training plan incorporates different types of activities and at different intensities. This also helps overcome boredom;
- overload: to improve, you need to push your body beyond its current limits. This process of overload is closely linked to progresson, adaptation and recovery; and
- recovery: after any intense activity you need to give your body time to recover and build to a higher level of fitness.
You’ll notice that cycling training plans all incorporate a gradual increase in mileages each week (progression); they vary the pace and type of training, and include cross-training (variation); and allow for days off for recuperation (recovery).
There are some good training plans available on the British Cycling, Cycling Weekly and British Heart Foundation websites. I developed my own by incorporating the training principles in these various plans and fitted around my own time availability. This was a 19 week plan starting in the first week of January and finishing with my LEJOG on 17th May.
It was built around one longer and one shorter ride at the weekend, three varied midweek training sessions and two midweek rest days. The midweek sessions were at different levels: ‘easy’ (2-5 mph slower than touring pace ie 12-15 mph), ‘intervals/hills’ and ‘brisk’ (2-5 mph faster than touring pace). The plan was designed to allow for gradual progression, with no more than a 10% increase in miles each week. I started at a modest 77 miles in Week 1 building up to 200 miles in Week 18, followed by a more relaxed 100 miles to conserve energy in the final week. On top of that, every four weeks was a ‘rest week’, where the mileage halved compared to the previous week then increased back up again for the next week.
All of this sounds great in theory. So what actually happened ?
In short, life got in the way. I work full time, look after a house and a family, and had other commitments (including weekends away, a family holiday and a week’s overseas work trip) during the nineteen weeks. I only met or exceeded the planned weekly mileage in three of the nineteen weeks. I severely under-estimated the amount of time that cycling up to 200 miles would take. (Training will eat up all of your spare time in the evenings and weekends and I strongly suggest you talk this over with your partner before committing to a challenge like this !)
Before you take me for a complete slacker, let me tell you that with a week to go before I set off on my LEJOG I feel fit and ready. Did it matter that my actual training miles bounced up and down like a yoyo compared with the smooth progession in my training plan ? Did it matter that I swapped training days for rest days ? Did it matter that my rest weeks didn’t occur at regular intervals ? Did it matter that I’ve never cycled more than 100 miles in a day ? Not in the least.
What I did do right was to ride regularly, starting with intensive sessions on the exercise bike in the winter evenings then moving on to longer weekend rides outdoors and then evening rides once the daylight grew longer after Easter. I kept at it, varying my rides to get good experience of all types of terrain. I had a ‘menu’ of routes of varying lengths which I cycled (created using Plotaroute.com, which I’d highly recommend) and this stopped me from getting bored. As an unexpected bonus, I even hired a bike on holiday in Lanzarote and managed my highest-mileage week simply by riding early in the mornings before the rest of the family had surfaced.
I’ve read that everyone who cycles LEJOG / JOGLE regrets not having cycled enough training miles and I would share this concern. Over the last 18 weeks I’ve cycled 1,350 miles but only cycled my average daily mileage (75 miles) once, given the number of other commitments I’ve had over the last month or two. Nevertheless, I hold on to the fact that thousands of people have completed the challenge before, and so with a good base of fitness, sufficient stamina to keep peddling for 2-3 hours at a time and the strength to climb hills with a fully-laden touring bike, anyone – even I – can do it.
I think it’s also important to remember that training is only one part – albeit a vitally important part – of feeling that a long-distance cycle ride is a pleasure rather than an endurance test. Don’t neglect the other elements which include:
- pacing yourself: it’s not a race. You’re allowed to stop when you feel tired then continue after a break, even if that means cycling into the long summer evenings. Choose a pace you’re comfortable with and keep it up (remember the hare and the tortoise !);
- taking appropriate gear: you’ll not perform at your best if you’re too cold, too wet, too thirsty or too overladen. You must take lightweight gear but make sure it’s up to the conditions you’re likely to face;
- preparing yourself mentally: be positive, you have put in the hours training, you can and you will do it;
- breaking down the challenge: a 1,000 ride, for example, can be daunting if you’re setting out to do it in one go. But you’re not, you’re splitting it into day-long rides. And each of those days is sub-divided into a couple of hours in the morning, a cafe stop, another couple of hours, a lunch stop and so on. When things get tough, just focus on the next town, the next ten miles or the next refreshment break;
- treating yourself: if a nice meal, a hotel bed or a big slice of cake is going to lift your mood, then why not ? If you’re tired then you need to take a break or catch up on your sleep;
- being flexible: be prepared to change those carefully worked-out plans. What might have seemed right when you planned your route months ago on the kitchen table might not be do-able in reality. So what ? Plans can change. Your new plans might even work out better.
As I look forward to my end-to-end trip with just one week to go I’m really beginning to get excited and itching to leave. I also look back on my training over the last eighteen weeks with some great memories – even though I cycled through rain, snow, hail, sun and wind ! I hope you enjoy these photos of some of the highlights of my training rides, including the first two taken from the same spot in Southern Perthshire four months apart.
This article forms part of my Online Guide to Cycling End-to-End:
- Why cycle LEJOG ?
- Planning a LEJOG cycle ride
- Top 10 tips for planning an end-to-end cycle tour
- Route planning and route options
- What to take – Cycling gear
- What to take – Camping and other gear