Endurance Cycling: Five Mistakes to Avoid

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in Ultra Cycling Magazine, September-October, 2004, then in Tail Winds, April-May, 2005.

For part two of this article, click here.

Centuries, double centuries, and brevets are the bread and butter of most endurance cyclists. They provide a good challenge, great training, an opportunity to test the efficacy of training and nutrition, and a nice day (or more) on the bike with fellow riders. But they’re not easy and are not to be taken for granted. Here are five mistakes to avoid as you train for, and ride, endurance events.

Mistake 1: Not Using Speedwork

One common endurance training mistake is just “putting in the miles.” The mentality is that if you put enough miles in the bank in your training, you can withdraw them later as endurance, maybe even miraculously fast endurance. But this approach is boring, a waste of time, and you won’t get substantially faster!

Many cyclists overlook the fact that the majority of the top RAAM racers over the past twenty years were, or are, also competitive cyclists in the traditional sense (i.e., USCF racing). Pete Penseyres, Michael Secrest, Rob Templin, Danny Chew, George Thomas, and Franz Spilauer are just some of the top RAAMers who raced at a national level (and were competitive there, too). Others, like Michael Shermer and Seana Hogan, train with a racing club at least once a week. High intensity training is an important, or even critical, part of endurance training.

You only get faster by riding faster! In practical terms, you need one or two days a week focused on high intensity speed training. Though hill repeats, interval training against the clock, or even a spinning class can be effective speed training, the best way to increase your speed is to ride with those who are much faster than you are. Joining a weekly racer club workout or weekly crit series is the ticket here. Get out and hammer with the big boys and girls in the pacelines, sprint for the city limit signs, and do your best not to get dropped. Be forewarned, though: it can be humbling for a while, if not for a long while. But you’ll get faster for the long haul.

Another bonus is that, on event day, you won’t get dropped right from the get-go when the lead pack of riders takes off like they’re doing a 40km road race, as they inevitably do. You want to hang with them in the first hours so that you’re not breaking your own wind, and setting your own pace, all day. It’s a shame to get dropped: don’t let it happen to you!

Mistake 2: Doing Long Slow Miles

Don’t confuse “steady” and “slow” and just put in the long miles at an easy intensity. This is a waste of time because the only thing accomplished on physiologically by riding slowly is learning how to ride slowly. “LSD” doesn’t stand for “Long Slow Distance,” it stands for “Long Steady Distance.” Some endurance riding is necessary to train for endurance events, but while you’re putting in those miles, do so at a good, steady intensity and keep these additional goals and benefits in mind:

  • “Keep it steady and keep it moving” should be the mantra while riding LSD: Don’t dilly-dally while refueling, fixing a flat, or reading the route sheet. Don’t bog down while riding, either, whether on the hills or flats. Use your bike computer to push yourself to maintain an average speed; use your heart rate monitor to see how low you can keep your heart rate while maintaining a challenging average speed. When quicker riders pass you, pick up the pace; riding steadily doesn’t mean you shouldn’t push it sometimes, too.
  • Base Fitness Training: LSD rides will allow you to slowly, but surely, rebuild your body from the inside out. You’ll increase the efficiency of your cardiovascular system and get in touch with your heartrate and breathing patterns. This is particularly important in the early season, when you’re laying the foundation for the year.
  • Equipment Testing: If you’re not comfortable on your bike, you won’t ride far. Use your LSD rides, not events, to test saddles, shoes, pedals, aerobars, and such, plus variations on their position. What seems comfortable for 30-50 miles will not necessarily be so after 100 or 200 miles.
  • Nutrition Testing: Food and drink choices also won’t reveal their effectiveness until you get way out there. Use your long rides to see which fuel and hydration systems work for you. Whatever you eat and drink, it should be portable, go down well, provide consistent energy (no highs and lows), and keep you hydrated. If you don’t want to carry 100 or 200 miles’ worth of food and drink during your events, find out what the event promoters will serve and train on that. Then when you do the event you won’t need to carry all your own fuel. (But if the event is going to serve Danishes and hot dogs, as some do, you’ll want to carry your own fuel.) By the way, essentially all top distance cyclists use a primarily, or exclusively, liquid-based (or liquid-, pill- and gel-based) fueling system.

Mistake 3: Doing the Same Thing All the Time

The third common mistake is doing the same workout on the same day, week after week. This is boring and unnecessary, so lose those crazy “Tuesdays are for speed work, Wednesday are for hill-climbing” kinds of rules or club ride schedules. As long as you get in the variety and intensity of training necessary, it really doesn’t matter which workout you do on any given day, as long as you recover in time for the next workout or event. Finally, don’t skip training days during the week with the intention of making up for it on the weekends. Use your lunch hour, bike commuting, and even night training so that you are training, on the bike, four or five days a week, no matter what.

Many riders put in their big miles every weekend, because more time is available then. But it’s also important to mix your weekends up and avoid ruts there, too. Some weekends should be back-to-back long rides. Some should be a long ride one day and either a recovery ride or speed work on the other. And some weekends you should just relax with your family after doing a fast club ride on one of the mornings.

Mistake 4: Not Allowing Recovery

Hey man, give it a rest! The complimentary ideas of “rest days” and “recovery rides” are lost on most athletes. In training, you’re either improving by pushing yourself or recovering by resting or going easily so that you’re ready to push yourself again. Training at a mid-level intensity is only useful during LSD rides. The rest of the time, either hammer or go very, very easy (or don’t ride at all). Each week should include one true recovery ride and one day of complete inactivity except perhaps a walk after dinner (a good habit every day).

If you’re not recovered, your resting heart rate will be elevated and/or you’ll feel listless on the bike. If that’s you, park the bike and rest another day; training on tired legs is a waste of time. Make your training time count, but also make your recovery time count. The point is to keep building, ever higher!

Mistake 5: Staying on the Bike All the Time

Common mistake number five is never getting off the bike to work out. All cyclists can improve their cycling comfort, endurance, and speed by training off the bike, as well as improve their overall health and fitness.

I’m amazed at the number of overweight endurance riders I see. Either the extra weight is a result of poor dietary habits (fast food for breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner?) or these riders are stuck on a plateau, no matter how many miles they train, or how many long events they finish. They need to incorporate more intensity into their training and they need some cross-training to shock their bodies into pushing itself to a higher level. So do the rest of us!

As discussed on other occasions in Ultra Cycling magazine and my website, off-the-bike training should include yoga, Pilates, and/or strength training (i.e., weight lifting). Think of it as filling in the blanks that are left by the huge volume of sports-specific training done on the bike. Swimming and running are two other great compliments to cycling that will not only increase your overall health, but also your cycling ability through increased muscular endurance, strength, and overall joint, muscle, and connective tissue health.

On-the-bike cross-training variations are great, too: mountain biking and spinning classes can do wonders for your road riding. I cross-train in all of these manners regularly and they pay off for me, not only when doing an Ironman Triathlon, but also as I ride doubles, and even as I sit at my desk writing this article.

Avoid the five mistakes outlined above and you should be able to say “make mine a century” or “make mine a double” with a smile and confidence. Enjoy!

For part two of this article, click here.

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.