After years of riding, struggling, and giving it my all, I can finally say that I understand how to “go the distance” on the bike. It all boils down to tools and experience. Of course, that sounds easy. Just two thing? I can remember that! Even without tools, knowing your own body is the key element.
After all of the hard training rides, epic climbs and long flat stretches of road where we haul a$$ at a time-trial pace, it has finally occurred to me, that being able to sustain any effort, regardless of the grade of the road, has everything to do with how long you want to maintain that effort, how much food/water you have, and your heart rate.
Easy stuff first. Know where you are. If you are at the base of a mountain and the ride goes to the top, you have a lot of climbing ahead of you. Similarly, if you are the middle of Florida, there is a good chance you won’t be hitting any mountains today. Know how long your ride is. Are you out for a 10 mile ride? Are you on a century ride? Know how long you THINK the ride will take before you start out. That will help you gauge how much food/water you will need.
Speaking of food and water. These go almost without saying. I am going to say it anyway. Water first. When cycling, you are putting forth more effort than you would be if you were sitting on the couch in front of the air conditioner. You are sweating. You may not notice it as much because your own movement on the bike causes wind, which will evaporate your sweat quickly and keep you feeling cooler. You are losing water though, I promise. Drink. How much? That depends on your effort, but based on current research, listen to your thirst. Are you thirsty? Drink.
Food. You are exerting yourself. You are burning calories. Cycling is in the top 5 of the most calorie-expending exercises. You will need to eat food that is easy to digest, easy to carry and has a high carbohydrate content/Glycemic Index. For a lot of techincal reasons I won’t get in to here, your brain operates on carbs mostly. It needs them to keep your body going. Your muscles and endocrine system need it too. Eat often. How often? Well, a good minimum is at least 150 calories per hour. There is a scientific formula to make this more accurate, but gauge what you eat based on how hard you are working on the bike. Hammering out a time-trial over mountains? Eat more. Going for a 10 mile spin down the boardwalk on a beach cruiser? Eat less.
Lastly, know your body. Listen to what your body is telling you. A lot has to do with heart rate. When I climb a long steep hill, I know that I can sustain a heart rate of about 170-175 for about 30 minutes. After that I start to fatigue. I also know that if I get my heart rate up to 180+, I am going all out, and can’t maintain that for very long. That being said, if the hill is 10 miles long, keep it easy for the majority of the hill. Pushing your heart rate to max effort means you will be walking up the hill for 9 miles. On the other hand, if the hill is short and you can see the top, push yourself to get there. It’s ok if you don’t have a heart rate monitor. Feel your heart. Listen to your breathing. Are you panting? Your muscles are starved for oxygen and your heart rate is increased to get the oxygen to the muscles.
Knowing your limits, how hard you can push yourself, and for how long is key to being able to ride any distance or hill. Being prepared with food and water will keep you going, and knowing what lies ahead will give you the will power to continue.