Thursday, September 6, 2012

Ride Fast or Ride Far?

Covered Bridge Lunch Stop, D2R2
When I first started trying to increase the milage of my rides, I was advised to keep my average speed down on longer distances. "You can ride fast, or you can ride far," I was told. This advice seemed perfectly logical. The faster you ride, the sooner you'll get tired, right?

But my own experience stubbornly contradicted this piece of wisdom. I grew suspicious when, over the past two years, intentionally keeping my speed down only seemed to make me miserable on longer rides. So this summer I experimented. On some long rides I rode at whatever speed felt natural in the moment (whee!). On others I intentionally kept my speed in check. I felt better after the rides where I maintained a higher speed.

At first this discovery confused me. And then all at once, it made sense. The "fast or far" dichotomy fails to account for one crucial factor: time spent on the bike. Let's say you are doing a 100 mile ride. At an average rolling speed of 14mph, you will spend 7.14 hours on the bike. At an average rolling speed of 12mph, you will spend 8.33 hours on the bike. That's more than an hour of extra bike time! An entire extra hour of pedaling, of leaning forward, of gripping the handlebars, of chafing against the saddle. These things can wear you out just as much as the pedaling effort itself.

My point here is not that one should attempt a century ride with the zeal of a racer, but that it helps to look at a situation from multiple angles and to factor in your own strengths and weaknesses. As it turns out, I can ride faster than I've been giving myself credit. And as my body struggles to cope with longer times in the saddle, riding faster is getting me further. YMMV.

35 comments:

  1. Hunh? What? Izzatso? Sez who?

    Go ride your bike. That's all you need to know about "training". Just go ride your bike. 99.9% of all 'scientific' training verbiage is unmitigated BS. Just go ride your bike. Anything that prompts "wee!" will encourage you to ride your bike more. That's the whole idea anyway. Go ride your bike. Is that clear enough? Go ride your bike. Someone wants you to ride your bike and not have fun??? Omigosh better go ride your bike.

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  2. for me its all about speed. i spend so much time in the saddle for transportation that when i exercise by bike the last thing i want to do is ride long distances. at 20 mph i burn close to a thousand calories an hour.

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  3. Your mileage may vary?

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  4. Dear Velouria,

    This is the paradox at the heart of randonneuring: it is far easier to ride long distance if you travel quickly. The body knows time in the saddle, not your average speed. A 400 km brevet is a calvary done over 23h, and the same ride a satisfying romp under 16h.

    It is even better when that 16h ride is spent in the company of a few like-minded and competent fellow-cyclists. The workload is split, and shared workload sits lighter on us all.

    Best Regards,

    Will
    William M. deRosset
    Fort Collins, CO

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  5. Whee Velouria, not wee.

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    1. Sometimes riding fast casues 'wee' which is usually the threshold between riding at a good clip resulting in 'whee' and riding too fast producing 'wee'. :-)

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  6. I think these things can only come with experience, and that it's better for inexperienced Audax riders/randonneurs to moderate their pace so that they can finish a 200km ride (for example) rather than burn out 50km from the finish through pushing too hard.
    Another thing is that if you have ridden 200km once, as long as maintain a level of fitness you know you can ride it again. You develop confidence and that can inspire you to ride faster.
    My own experience is that I discovered - much to my surprise - that I found it much easier, faster and more comfortable to ride long distances on a fixed-wheel bike: I felt like I was exerting myself more but was much less fatigued (if that makes sense) than on a geared bike. Of course, other people's experiences may not tally with mine.

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  7. Yes! Great post!

    It just feels good to go fast, doesn't it? I get off the bike feeling great - I have more seratonin, dopamine, and endorphins floating around in your brain from the ride. This leaves me feeling alert and relaxed, so I'm less stressed and less vulnerable to aches and pains.

    I hope to go as fast as possible on the Whistler Gran Fondo tomorrow!

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  8. Could not agree more!! I figured this out while training for my first marathon, but unfortunately ran it with someone that did better with pacing. It was ok, be for me too extra time on my legs makes a huge difference in terms of hitting a wall, so I like to start fast even in distance activities. Such good advice!

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  9. You make a good point about slower rides = more time on the bike, which itself can be tiring. This becomes proportionately less important on shorter rides, of course. In fact, I often coax myself into a few extra miles by telling myself it'll just take a few more minutes. An additional benefit of riding faster, for me, is that getting into "the flow" is part of what I find so liberating about biking. Doing what your body wants to do (sometimes that's going ridiculously fast) is simply energizing, and often (not always) compensates for physical fatigue. This sense of augmented bodily freedom is at the heart of the love of cycling, right from the first spin around the block as a child.

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  10. Marathon runner, Bill Rogers, once said about folks running 4 hr. + marathons, "I don't know how they can run that long." (then and now, elite marathoner's are running a little over two hours)

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  11. About three years ago I left the "Roadie" tribe and joined up with the "Tourists". I like moving a long but hate the face down in the drops gotta get there fast all else be damned style of riding. I enjoy the scenery, interesting architecture, farms and their animals, historic cemeteries, etc. It's a balance but I too have noted that longer rides >50 miles require a bit more speed for full satisfaction. That being said, when out on a multiday tour I find that 50-60 miles is just fine leaving enough time for a pleasant lunch, photo ops and meeting folks.

    Speaking of longer day rides, will you be doing the Narragansett Bay Wheelman's "Flattest Century In The East"( that's really a misnomer. The Seagull Century on the Eastern Shore of Maryland is THE flattest) this coming Sunday? I think it's the 41st year. It would be a great one for your style of review. Pretty ride and not far from home.

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  12. I think there's a lot of truth to this. Also, by keeping up the torque on the pedals by going faster, your are reducing the amount of weight on the saddle (your butt is still on the saddle but it's not supporting all the weight of your upper body). When I go slower, I notice that my butt and lower back eventually ache from resting on the saddle. If I ride swiftly, my butt and lower back never seem to tire, even after a long ride.

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  13. I think this is probably an easily misinterpreted piece of advice. "You can ride fast or you can ride far" sounds like "go slow to ride farther" but probably a more accurate, if less pity way of saying it would be "if you're going for long distance, ride at a comfortable pace rather than trying to go all-out, if you want to push your speed, don't count on going farther than normal."
    Time in the saddle is definitely a factor, as well as the fact that deliberately slowing down affects your natural cadence and riding style, causing further discomfort.
    I think this is one of the causes of frustration between friends and significant others with widely differing speed and skill levels (for example, a cycling enthusiast with a casual cyclist spouse), as the slower rider will feel like they're being pushed and resent it, while the faster rider will be coasting and soft pedaling more than normal and start to feel the extra strain in the ol' "contact points" and resent it.
    This case, of course, is why owning more than one bike is absolutely essential! If I'm riding, for example, with my daughter or one of my friends who are slower than I am, I'll switch to my upright commuter or my fixie while they're on a road bike or flat-bar. If I'm riding with one of my friends who are faster than I, on the other hand, I'll surreptitiously adjust the centering screw of their rear brake so it drags slightly the whole ride, evening out our speeds a bit.

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  14. Ride as fast as you can - that way you'll enjoy the after ride ice cream sundae (burning more calories, as it were).

    My mantra: Ride Fast - Take Chances - Burn More Calories

    My personal choice: Baskin Robbins Brownie Sundae w/extra whipped cream.

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  15. This post should be tagged: How I Stopped Asking So Many Questions and Just Figured It Out.

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  16. Velouria,

    You are discovering what avid cyclists have discovered since the days of Velocio, the pioneer of long-distance cycling. Riding fast usually is easier and more fun than riding slowly.

    However, the advice "pace yourself" should not be underestimated, either. I often am surprised how fast some group rides start, and how slow they end. In PBP, you see riders completely shattered after just 100 km, because they tried to hold onto the lead group.

    However, it is by pushing the pace that you learn what your body can do. When you surpass your limits, you can pull back a bit and thus ride at your "optimal" pace.

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    1. However, the advice "pace yourself" should not be underestimated, either. I often am surprised how fast some group rides start, and how slow they end. In PBP, you see riders completely shattered after just 100 km, because they tried to hold onto the lead group.

      However, it is by pushing the pace that you learn what your body can do. When you surpass your limits, you can pull back a bit and thus ride at your "optimal" pace.

      I agree. After years of mostly riding on my own, I started riding brevets this year. On the first three rides (two 200km, one 300 km) I rode fast, with several people of a similar fitness level--faster than I would've ridden when on my own. All those ride were pretty pleasant and I was glad not having had to spend more time in the saddle. After a vacation with not much riding I then did another 300km brevet. The people were the same but they had done a bunch of rides while I had been lazy. I was able to hang on to the first control, but after that they further increased the speed and I exploded. The rest of the ride I did all by myself, in varying states of being miserable. While riding to fast in the beginning was probably not the only reason for this, it certainly did contribute. So the lesson is: don't ride too slow, don't ride too fast.

      (If anybody is interested in a more detailed account of my suffering, here is the ride report.)

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    2. While I am sure everyone is different in this respect, what I've discovered about myself is this: If I ride too fast and exhaust myself from the aerobic/pedaling effort, I can recover by simply slowing down. However, if I spend more time on the bike than I can handle, it's game over. So for me, it makes more sense to err in the direction of pushing the speed. Again, this is just me. H&B, thanks for the link - I will read it tonight.

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    3. Have you ever bonked, V?

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    4. In my first summer of cycling, I bonked mildly a couple of times. After that I've been very careful about preventing it. For me it is mostly a matter of eating and drinking steadily and the right things. I do not bonk from speed alone, though I may feel pukey if I go too fast.

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  17. However, the advice "pace yourself" should not be underestimated, either. I often am surprised how fast some group rides start, and how slow they end. In PBP, you see riders completely shattered after just 100 km, because they tried to hold onto the lead group.

    And I think this is especially true when there is a lot of steep climbing. I've heard stories of experienced roadies who try to tackle the steep dirt grades of D2R2 by starting out hard and fast, then implode less than halfway through.

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  18. I have ridden a lot of rides with people who blew themselves up within 35 miles of a century because they tried to keep their speed up, far too high for them to maintain. Pace yourself does not mean go slow, just don't overdue it in the beginning.

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  19. I think of it as a matter of finding that sweet spot at the intersection of "don't go so fast that you crack before the ride is over" and "aim to minimise your time on the bike." Sometimes it's hard to tell where the sweet spot lies, and so we overdo it in one dimension or another.

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  20. You've a tendency to dichotomize when some things aren't necessarily an either/or situation. Is 'you can ride fast or you can ride far' really a piece of wisdom? What about those who ride fast and far? How did they get there? Interval training combines both so that one can gradually maintain a higher speed for a longer time. It sounds like you've been doing a bit of that yourself, but for you it's called interval fun :)

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  21. I've been impressed with your ability to do long distances (I consider a century a long distance). In more than 10 years back on the saddle, my longest ride was still 90 miles, and it felt like it. I'd have to be feeling super to attempt a century, and I'm in excellent shape. So there may be some natural ability involved in your case.

    That said, one thing I've found is that my pace is my pace. I don't go much faster, I don't go much slower, no matter what distance I'm riding. I go out at that pace and decide my distance based on what my body is telling me. if I don't think I can do 80k at that pace, I do 60k.

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  22. I remember hearing the same advice you were given and have also discovered it to be not particularly true once my fitness hit a certain point. I tend to do my 110km plus rides as close to flat out as I can sustain (obviously, I won't push as hard as I do on a much shorter ride, but I do find that I can push harder than I once thought). I end up going significantly faster, feel better, have a much nicer ride, and take less time. I also end up getting my mileage in that I want.

    To do this, I mentally break the ride into chunks and push as hard as seems reasonable at the time to finish one of the sections of the ride. Still feel good? Go for it again on the next section. Once in a while, I run out of "gas" before I run out of ride, but that happens rarely if I pay attention to what my body tells me as I am riding. I have found that I ignore body messages at my peril ;p

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  23. The long slow distance training method was developed by Ernst van Aaken. When he coached Fausto Coppi "long" and "slow" meant 7 days a week of 250km rides done at a 35kmh pace. Mostly solo unsupported riding on the busted up roads of early postwar Italy. The "slow" part of LSD never meant keep the speed so low you might fall over.

    Obviously few mortals could maintain Fausto's training regimen. But you get nowhere without some level of exertion. Whenever you think you might enjoy going fast just do it. The only time it's ever wrong to go fast is when you do it out of obligation to some schedule or script.

    Then you get tired and rest. It is not more complicated than that.

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  24. Good article; I've recently come to the same realization. Did a C+ group ride last weekend with lots o' climbing and couldn't believe that the lead riders were doing almost 20 on the flats. I managed to stay close on the flats and then caught up completely on the climbs. I was very surprised that I didn't cramp once on the last few climbs (I usually do) and I felt pretty good at the end of the ride. Could be the new electrolyte supplements I tried but I think riding at a faster than usual pace had a lot to do with it as well. Riding hard also keeps you from going numb, more pressure on the pedals means less pressure on the privates.

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  25. If one loves riding, why hurry to end the ride?

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    1. If that is taken to extreme, why not ride as slowly as possible? When we say "enjoy riding" each of us usually already has an ideal speed in mind.

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  26. Forms of Transportation have their ideal speed.
    A car has a speed that gives it the highest mpg. So does an airplane. So does a bike, (though the unit of measure is mpg of ice cream. MMMmmmm....). I'll bet skates do too.
    Razor scooters ideal speed? probably 0 ;-)

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  27. I think you are missing the point that 14mph is by no means fast. When more experienced riders refer to riding fast, they are often have in mind 25-30mi rides at >20mph. So, you can ride a shorter distance at a fast pace, or a longer distance at a more moderate 15mph pace. The saying doesn't actually say to go slow or to purposefully slow yourself down. It isn't difficult to figure out how much effort you hould be putting in at the start of a 80mi ride. There should not be any need to reign yourself in.

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    1. I was using the average speeds of 12mph vs 14mph as examples of what a difference in saddle time just 2mph can make. For relative beginners (at whom this post is aimed) I think these speeds are much more relatable than 15mph vs 20mph.

      I've also noticed that when cyclists say they can sustain an average of 15-17mph, they are in fact talking about their speed on flats and not their actual overall average on a hilly ride. Some in fact have never done a truly hilly ride, with sustained climbing. For a 100K ride with say 4,000 feet of climbing I would say that a true average of 15mp is by no means moderate, unless you are a strong and experienced cyclist.

      Anyhow, I only mean that the actual numbers are not that important; "fast" is an individual definition.

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