Endurance Cycling:
Living La Vida Ultra:
Five More Steps on the Endurance Path

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in Ultra Cycling, V14.3, May-June 2005

For Part One of this article, click here.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose.”
(Ecclesiastes 3:1, sung by Pete Seeger, then by The Byrds.)

For twenty-three years, I have seen people get into cycling, quickly make the jump into ultra-distance events and training, then pile on the miles and the finish lines, only to wind up back on the couch, never to be seen again within a few short years. That’s a long sentence describing a short career as an ultra cyclist. Don’t let this be you! Whether you are fresh out of college (or high school) or an empty-nester looking for a new challenge, developing as an ultra rider takes several years.

Don’t Be A Burn-Out

There’s no better way to get sick of something than to do it too much, too hard, and too often, to the exclusion of other pursuits and activities. Yes, endurance sports require time and commitment, but they do NOT require that one take on the monastic or ascetic life. Regardless of the age at which you start in the sport, take your time and don’t hurry things. There’s no need to do a full brevet series in your first year of cycling, or even in the second or third year. Likewise for overnight races, RAAM qualifiers, and such. A few solid years of centuries, shorter brevets, club riding, and exploring what the sport has to offer will serve you well in the long run. Building layer upon layer of quality training, quality rest, quality information-seeking, and quality experience is an integral part of a healthy, fulfilling, balanced lifestyle. With that approach, you’ll be rolling across finish lines for many decades to come!

Progress, Intelligently Planned

One of the beauties of ultra sports is that the various events are measured in specific and consistent distance or time increments. This creates a simple, logical, and SMART path for progressing through a season and through a career. Thus centuries lead to double centuries and even triple and quadruple centuries, brevets grow from 200km to 1200km, plus there are 12- and 24-hour events, 500-mile races, and beyond. When I first got into long-distance riding in the early 80s, my theory was that one can always go twice as far as one has gone before – and this proved true over time. Doubling your cycling distance doesn’t involve the same risk to connective tissue as it would in running. Running requires adaptation to the pounding on the pavement and such, thus requiring training runs at 80% or more of the intended race distance. In cycling, training at near race-distance is hardly necessary and often counter-productive. Use the doubling rule of thumb cautiously, over time, and you’ll find your ever further horizons still within your reach.

Think Seasonally

It’s impossible to maintain maximum fitness year-round, year after year. That’s why top endurance athletes build their seasons (years) around one or two key events and vary their training in cycles of weeks or months at a time to reach their peak fitness when those events happen, a concept called periodization. There are many reasons such an approach is beneficial and productive. Each cycle brings new challenges, and rewards, to you. Then the next cycle builds upon the one before to make you better, faster, stronger, and hopefully happier. Then at season’s end, you can take a break physically, emotionally, and otherwise to recharge your batteries. (Just don’t get fat in winter.)

Chill, Would Ya’?

There’s no need to adopt Olympic Team training methods in order to have a fulfilling career as an endurance athlete. Time and again, I see cyclists taking things WAY too seriously, downloading every workout into their computer for scrutiny, stepping on the scale every day, keeping mammoth training logs, and never missing a workout under any circumstances. Most egregiously, I fear that most cyclists do the same ride on the same day of the week, week after week, year-round. BORING! Where’s the adventure in that? How does that develop adaptability? Where’s the challenge, the taste for the unknown? The life of a cyclist should be fun, first and foremost, and should open up the world in a literally awe-inspiring way. So use that bicycle for exploring the inner and outer universes, as a tool for self-discovery, for exploring all the geography of your life. Bring diversity to your training and it will bring you a wide panorama of experiences AND greater fitness. And don’t forget the all-important rest days, both pre-planned (weekly) and spontaneous (If you’ve got dead legs as you head out for a ride, head for a café instead).

Get Off The Bike

I harp on this all the time, but it’s always worth repeating: You must get off the bike and into yoga and Pilates class, the weight room, the pool, and out on foot to become a better cyclist and a fitter, happier human being. Piles of miles on the bike will cause your shoulders and spine to round forward and your upper body to emaciate. If you want to be riding centuries when you’ve been around for a century, then create and follow a training regimen and lifestyle that will get you there. Getting off the bike is a prerequisite for that, I guarantee it!

Just as growing into adulthood takes years, maturing as an endurance cyclist also takes time. You’ll have more fun, and become a better athlete, if you don’t try to rush it!

Chris Kostman has competed in ultra sports continously since 1983. Besides producing the Furnace Creek 508 each October since 1990, he also produces a five-day cycling training camp with yoga called CORPScamp Death Valley, plus the Death Valley Century, Ultra Century, and Double Century in March and October each year, Hell's Gate Hundred, Mount Laguna Bicycle Classic, Rough Riders Rally, and the world-famous Badwater Ultramarathon.