Monday, September 8, 2014

Can You Train for Distance Without Going the Distance?

That a Way
The longest ride I have done to date has been a 300K brevet. To train for it, I basically did a whole lot of cycling in the month preceding the event, working up to increasingly longer distances week by week. This worked well enough for me. I completed the 300K within the time allotted and with surprisingly little bicycle-related discomfort.


Pleased as I was with this outcome, I was far more impressed by my friend Keith. We rode the brevet together, but trained for it separately. And while I focused on miles, Keith - not having that option time-wise - focused on fitness. He did frequent, short and intense rides that included intervals and plenty of hills. To be honest, this had me a little worried. Keith had been a bicycle racer (road and time trial) for decades, but he had never been a distance cyclist. Would his approach to training allow him to cope with nearly 200 miles in the saddle? Well, clearly it did. Whereas I had merely survived the 300K, for Keith it seemed a piece of cake. And sure, his background had him at a slight advantage to me. But I have witnessed others with that same background quit long distance rides, while the flabby weakling that is I managed to carry on and finish.

Fascinated as I was by this, my interest in it was purely academic - until, some months later, I too found myself with a long ride looming on the horizon and no time to put in big miles. So this time around, I'm trying Keith's method. I am nervous about it, but optimistic, as a few things are different for me this time around. Namely, my overall fitness is better, and I have been doing other forms of exercise - including running and hill walking - that have increased my muscle tone. Whether it'll work out for me or not I will soon find out.

In the meanwhile, I was curious what some of the experienced long distance cyclists I'm acquainted with thought on the matter. Can you train for long distance rides with a focus on intensity rather than milage? Here is a sampler of their thought-provoking answers:

Pamela Blalock, The Blayleys:
Short intense rides, also known as speed work, are definitely useful. I think that with a good solid base of fitness, but not necessarily long rides (> 30 miles), one can knock off a 200km without much bother. But beyond that distance, I suspect butt soreness will come into play, regardless of how well the bike fits. But if you have years of experience doing 1200kms, that you canget away with a lot less. And some people are athletic prodigies. The other exception is youth. Younger people seem to be able to get away with a lot less training than those of us longer in the tooth.

Chris Kostman, AdventueCORPS:
There is no valuable training adaptation beyond riding about 75 miles. That said, the purpose of building up mileage in training for an endurance event is not training adaptation, per se, but other, important reasons, such as: learning to pace oneself properly, learning to eat and drink properly, learning which body parts will succumb to injury or discomfort over greater lengths of time, and learning to ride without any, or with minimal, sleep. That said, for cyclists with an extensive endurance riding background rides over 75 miles are rarely necessary because they already know how to pace, eat, drink, forego sleep, and ride well in the dark. Training to ride fast is harder to do than ride far, and reaps far greater rewards in terms of cycling fitness and adaptability.

Dave Smith, Ffflow
You can train successfully for long rides by doing shorter more intense rides and interval training sessions. There are a few aspects to consider. By doing repeated intense efforts you can recalibrate your tolerance for suffering - you can ride when feeling in discomfort. Intense efforts boost cardiovascular capacity much more effectively than long slow rides. Short intense rides also help with body fat loss, something that will help delay fatigue on longer rides. I've trained many people for endurance events who are time poor but determined. Long hours in the saddle are desirable rather than necessary.

MG, Chasing Mailboxes:
The larger question when I train and plan for rides is “What kind of ride do I want to have?” My goals are generally to enjoy the ride while it’s happening and to finish it without any lasting pain or injury, not just to endure it. To my mind if a person sets a 300K as the goal, he or she needs to work up to riding a century, a 200K, and then do at least a couple of back-to-back century rides with hills (in addition to weekly mileage and cross-training) to meet the goals I describe. I suppose a person could make it through a 300K doing short but intense rides. But I don’t know how much fun it would be or if he or she could finish it without lasting aches and pains. It’s a gamble I would not want to take. After a certain point, there is no substitute for time in the saddle.

Based on these and other conversations, I would say it's generally agreed among distance cyclists that speed work and some degree of cross-training are important supplements to building up milage. There is less consensus as to whether they can function as a replacement. More than anything, I suspect a great deal depends on individual differences. There are those for whose bodies milage is essential, and there are those for whose it is not - or at least less so. And while it's tempting to think it a simple matter of muscle tone and overall fitness, my own observations suggest it is not that straightforward. For instance, I have a friend who is a cyclist, runner, and weight lifter. He has excellent muscle tone, is cardiovascularly fit, and amazingly fast on the bike on short rides. In theory, he should be just the sort of rider whose body can withstand time in the saddle without much ado. But in practice, he falls apart on long rides unless he builds up to the distance very gradually - like in 10 mile increments. Any bigger leaps, and he experiences all the same discomforts associated with unfit riders - including hand, neck, back and butt pain.

I know randonneurs for whom day-long rides are the standard distance; they simply will not bother to get on a bike for anything under 100K. And I know randonneurs (Jan Heine and Emily O'Brien come to mind) who ride big miles mainly during official events, their cycling otherwise consisting mostly of training intervals, hill climbs and commuting. Both categories of riders seem to do well. But only experience can tell which category we will fall into - or more likely, where we will fall on the spectrum between them.

The reality is that most of us, be our jobs 9-5 or freelance, will have difficulty sustaining a training schedule that relies on frequent long distance rides. It may, therefore, be tempting to seek out methods of training where miles can be replaced with intensity. But whether that approach will work for us, only trial and error will tell.

44 comments:

  1. I commute a fairly long distance (26 miles roundtrip) and find that is sufficient training for randonneuring. I do nothing else of significance.
    A few years ago, when I started doing randonnées, I couldn't finish in time. I gradually eliminated my problems one by one -- got a GPS so I wouldn't get lost, got a faster bike, got more fit. Now I can do it. I'm fast enough. When I get passed on the roads or trails it doesn't bother me any more; I know I'm fast enough.

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    1. I ride about 10-20 miles a day for transportation, but find that it does little for my ability to tackle long hilly rides. Of course bike type, speed and terrain play into it. After all, some combine their commutes with training intervals.

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    2. I have a paltry 5 miles round-trip commute which, in theory, should not contribute much to my ability to tackle long, hilly rides. That's what I thought until I switched my commute route. I used to incorporate one short (2/10th mile) but relatively steep hill (Central Street), sometimes going up it twice for good measure. One day early this spring when I was ill and didn't have the energy to tackle it, I found an alternate route that avoids it, and instead goes up a much more gradual, longer hill (Summer St). Sadly I started taking the alternative route regularly. Well, this year I've suffered on my long, hilly rides (I had to walk one segment of Kearsarge two days ago... in both previous years I did fine on it)! All else roughly equal, the only major change to my overall routine was eliminating that one short hill on my daily commute.

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    3. A good chunk of my riding is commuting and while I don't go fast, 15 miles a day, 3-5 days a week is a lot of exercise, at least for me. It helped my on my recent longer rides.

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    4. Somervillain - That I believe. Anyone who commutes through your hood is doing hard core hill climbs by default!

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  2. Hi lovely iron woman,

    According to my knowledge, a good training depends on the way to manage with good stress.
    I practice short intense 10-15 minute workout every day: it provides good shape and sustains the ability to ride for long distance too.
    L.

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  3. Like others said, shorter, more intense training is fine for building the fitness you need for long rides. But I do think that overall saddle time is important. How else will you know if your saddle will still work for you after ten hours as opposed to just four? And there are mental challenges to staying on your bike for that long, too. Some riders who only do short, intense rides start long rides and keep riding at the same intensity that they train, and eat the same stuff, but that doesn't work if you're going for much longer. It isn't that they don't have the fitness, it's just that they don't know how to modify their habits for longer distances.
    Plain old fitness is important, and you can get that in shorter training sessions. But experience and mindset matter too.
    But everyone is different. My favorite story about that was a time when a friend of mine wanted to ride from where we were studying in Karlsruhe, Germany home to where she was from, in Bregenz, Austria - about 280 km give or take, and hilly due to going across the Black Forest. We'd thought we might stay somewhere in between and ride over two or three days, but that got too complicated and time consuming and we decided to do it in one day. She had a decent flat bar hybrid/city bike, and the longest ride she'd ever done was one time when she came with me for about 60 km about six months before. But she's also a really energetic, determined, active person with good overall fitness, and who rides her bike around town every day. It took us maybe 17 hours, but she didn't get discouraged, didn't complain, and made it to the end in pretty good shape.
    There aren't many people I'd consider doing that with, if all they'd done before was ride around town, but it can be done.

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  4. This looks like a different gentleman than the one you did the 300K with, though it looks like the same bike.

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  5. this is encouraging to read. i don't have lots of time to ride on any given day to train, but "dream" of doing long distance riding. though I have a lot of options for shorter and "hilly" rides. Short, hilly being a 25-30 mile loop with 1 or 2 climbs for about 800-1600' of climbing. I guessing that's probably good enough? Just push it on those rides?

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  6. Does this also apply to touring? I am preparing for my first bike tour and have yet to complete a ride longer than 70 miles!

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    1. I rode from New Orleans, LA to Hamilton, ON this summer and none of my training rides were longer than 40 miles; however, we were only planning on doing 60-80 miles a day. My legs & lungs were fine; I just had a bit of chafing (now I know what "it chafes my ass" means) during the first few days, but I was able to sort that out. Enjoy your ride!

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    2. Unless your tour includes the most difficult rides at the start (best avoided if possible) there usually is not a reason to match planned distances pre-tour.

      Overall health and well being and good planning go further to assure a good tour.

      Hope you enjoy yours.

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    3. Never having toured myself, I am glad others are chiming in here. What I find daunting about touring is the multi-day aspect. I can push myself to do a long dayride even if the milage is beyond what I'm used to. But to do it again the next day? Mmmn not so sure!

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  7. Do your randonneuring peers ever discuss the possibility of long term cardiovascular costs associated with their distance training? I don’t know of any scientific conclusions but there is a hypothesis that we didn’t evolve to sustain a high heart rate for long periods of time and that it may cause damage that shows up later in life. (Sorry, that’s not the proper hypothesis but I’m just writing this from what I can remember and don’t have time to look things up right now.) Grant Peterson and the Primal Blueprint guy have written about anecdotal evidence from a shocking list of elite distance runners who ended up with heart disease in their 40s and 50s. The average runners muscles and joints likely break down before he can damage his heart but since mechanics allow ordinary people to stay on a bike for a much longer time than they can run, randonneurs may form an interesting study group. Aren't you a biochemist by training and trade? You should put this in your queue of things to write about.

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    1. No, I have never heard anyone discuss that aspect of things, though I've heard of the studies you refer to. I'm a lapsed researcher in psychology and cognitive neuroscience.

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    2. Keep in mind that cycling at randonneuring speeds involves much, much lower heart rates than running. I'm not a runner, but friends of mine who both run and ride and use heart rate monitors all say that they record higher heart rates while running than they ever see while cycling, even during hard sprints.
      Also, there are a surprising number of Randonneurs over 70 - some of whom have been doing stuff like that for fifty years, some of whom started later in life. There are also endurance runners who are that old, but I suspect that it is a much lower percentage of them. The fact that so many randonneurs are retirees seems to indicate to me that it is a bit gentler on the system than many other things.

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  8. I find it amazing that we come across these issues at the same time. I've recently discovered that I'm in pretty good shape as a result of doing a high intensity interval training program (HIIT). I recently did a series of long hikes and a bike ride, and not only do I feel less spent than I have previously, my recovery time is much shorter. (I am, alas, not any faster.)

    My current theory is that one may need the miles under his/her belt for the experience of riding a long ride, but once you know what to expect in terms of discomfort, fueling, pacing, etc., then the cumulative experience makes it less necessary for having to train by doing long rides. Other ways of keeping up a good fitness level can be just as effective, if not better to prevent burnout and repetitive stress problems. My friends here disagree with me, but I'll keep experimenting with this.

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  9. This is a very interesting subject and I'l be interested to hear more about two points in particular: how much training for long distances one can get from shorter but relatively hard rides (P Blaylock writes if I read her rightly that longer rides are ">30 miles"); and the idea that short, hard rides train your body to use fat, which helps with longer rides: per Grant Petersen, if I recall, it is long, slow rides that build this.

    At any rate, as someone who for 30 years has ridden short (<35 miles) distances at (relatively) high intensities (most of my riding is fixed), both of these assertions would affect any capacity I have for longer but slower rides. I have no desire whatsoever to ride a 300K brevet, but I'd like to do some modest touring at 60-70 miles a day, on a geared bike, of course.

    I'd also like to learn more about distance riding as you age -- I'm 59, and I know for certain that recovery is far less quick than it was as a youthful 40-something. How does an older person prepare for, say, a 5 day, 65-mile-a-day tour in hilly terrain when his daily rides are usually 10-20 miles of rolling, often loaded, riding in a 70" gear?

    Segway (tm) to the earlier gearing post: for a long while ("ever since I was a wee lad") I've always held it a point of honor not to use my lowest gear. It's either a point of honor or a pathological scruple to save something for that never arriving "just in case". But, to move on, I've long since found that one's body adapts to one's gears and I now find, oddly, that sitting and spinning makes me short of breath, whereas I can stand and grunt at 40 rpm, slowly, up a mile long incline, at 5-6 K feet in a 70" or 75" gear. But I recall taking a mtb tour around Aspen where we topped out at 11K feet near Independence Pass. Never have I been so forlornly hopeful for just one lower gear; and never have I been so glad of full front-and-back indexing: just shove the lever and it goes!

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  10. This is a great post something I've wondered about quite a lot. The nice thing about a brevet series is that they start with the manageable 100k and go up from there through the season, so a safe bet is to just ride brevets sequentially through the season.

    I did a hilly 300k earlier this summer after roughly six weeks of not riding even 30 miles in a single ride and managed pretty well. I was a little anxious beforehand, but it was fine. I had ridden a 100k and 200k early in the season.

    My super loose rule of thumb for distance is that I'm good to ride double the distance I've ridden in the recent past. In other words, if I've done a 50 miler sometime in the last few weeks, I wouldn't sweat doing a hundred miles, and likely more. So far, my fears of my legs "giving up" on me have never materialized on any of the long brevets I've done. In fact my umph factor has always been less an issue then my overall mental exhaustion from just going going going for hour after hour. Company helps in that department. The times where I have suffered is when I've ridden above my natural pace for too long.

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    1. That's an interesting rule of thumb. I've heard a number of people say "take your weekly total - you can do a single ride that length" (with a day or two's rest of course). That has certainly been true for me, but then there have been times when I've done more. I've put that down to simply being able to handle the extra Time In The Saddle. And provided the bike fit and comfort is good (and factoring in levels of sleep deprivation), TITS is more a mental game than a physical one. For me, at least.

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  11. I do a lot of high intensity 25-30 mile rides on the run up to a Brevet or other long distance events as I've got a 30-40 minute commute home. It seems to work as I've been able to complete all my 100-200 mile rides this season in well under the time limits (formal Brevets and personal rides done in the self supported Brevet style).

    It did take a long time to figure out what to eat/drink and how frequently to do it while on the move. Controls/water & food reloads also took some effort to get those tightened up. My last formal Century (around Seneca Lake) i manged to stop for a measly 10 minutes for the entire 101 miles. Outside of fighting a brutal headwind, I felt pretty good coming off the ride, ready for more.

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  12. Good lord! I can't even imagine riding that far... mostly because I think my butt would fall off! Seriously though, I'm thinking that being significantly better fit would allow one to ride faster, which would ultimately mean less wear and tear on the tuchus!

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    1. Ah but the tuchus is resilient, adapting to increased milage with swiftness. Have faith in the tuchus, and anoint it with Boudreaux's Butt Paste generously.

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    2. I've never felt the need for embrocation for the butt department. My butt used to get really sore after a 60-100 mile ride, but the first thing my fitter told me after I told him this was that I wasn't using my legs enough. Meaning, I was resting my butt too much and not putting enough weight on my legs. He was right. Now at any given time during a ride, the saddle is just something of a placeholder for my butt, there to orient my body in a proper plane. Sure I let it sag for a few seconds at a time when I need a break, but otherwise, my legs are supporting me about 95%. Only about 5% of my weight is supported by the saddle. (or that 5% is split between the saddle and the handlebars). Sure enough, my butt no longer gets sore!

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    3. Ha! "Have faith in the tuchus..." Oh my! Seriously though, shammy butter is just yucky. I think I have a low slime tolerance. I'm not actually getting sores, just tired sit bones after about 4 hours in the saddle.

      Somervillain, I'm in awe at your 95% weight ratio thing... but how do you keep your feet from going numb?

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    4. Somervillain - so, was it a matter of changing your position on the bike? Because I was under the impression it had a great deal to do with the rider's strength and muscle tone - meaning, that some people's legs just aren't strong enough to get their weight off the saddle in the manner you describe.

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    5. My one and only meeting with a fitter improved my endurance by double. The position and ability to breath was immensely helpful and, yes, weight distribution played a huge role.

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    6. Hey Somervillian,

      I don't think I quite achieve 95% but I know exactly what you're talking about. I grew up riding BMX bikes, you don't really need a seat on one of those except to pass tech and to have somewhere to place your butt when lounging between motos. We used to ride those bikes for miles(4 1/2 miles to school each way) without ever sitting and pedaling at the same time. When I started riding roadbikes I was already used to doing this. Even at the end of a long day in the saddle it's easier and less wearing to float over the perch. Maybe that's why the Brooks Professional I got in 1979 is still intact and ridable...

      Spindizzy

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    7. Spin,

      Not to mention, if you do sit and pedal on a BMX, your knees hit your chin :-).

      When I first went in for my fitting and was told about supporting my butt with my legs, I thought I was being asked to do the impossible. He kept telling me "sink your body into the pedal. Let your body fall into the pedal". It took a long time to re-train myself not to just sit on my butt, but to support it with my legs (and it took a long time to develop the muscle tone to do so). Granted, after 30,40,50 miles depending on how challenging the ride is, I have to rest my legs more frequently by letting the saddle take the weight. I do this while coasting and pedaling at a very leisurely pace.

      The other thing this technique taught me was that it's possible to descend much faster when the weight of your body is supported by the pedals and all four limbs are bent. With all the weight on the bottom bracket and pedals at 3:00/9:00, and the bent limbs acting as shock absorbers to minimize suspension losses, it's possible to achieve higher speeds during descents. The bike is most stable with this weight distribution, and high speed bumps aren't jolted through you via your sit bones!

      Basically I was doing a ton of things all wrong prior to seeing a fitter. But the biggest game changer was keeping weight off the saddle as much as possible.

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    8. Yes about descending and handling in general.

      Every time you raise your weight off the saddle you instantly shift your center of gravity forward and down, it takes a short, but very real, measure of time for things to settle down. Drag your brakes a bit in a big fast sweeping turn and get in and out of the saddle a few times if you want a little thrill...

      Spindizzy

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    9. Am curious - would you be willing to explain a little more about how you re-trained yourself? Did you shift your weight forward, and if so, how (e.g. tilting pelvis further forward?)? Also, how did you do it without putting too much weight on your hands? I'm afraid I'm probably too new to cycling to instantly understand the idea of sinking the body into the pedals. :/

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    10. Sarah,

      It's like the lyrics in that Laurie Anderson song: "you're always falling. with each step you fall forward slightly. and then catch yourself from falling. over and over, you're falling. and then catching yourself from falling. and is how you can be walking and falling at the same time."

      If you can think of walking as a constant cycle of initiating a fall and then catching yourself with a forward step, you can apply a similar principle to the pedaling cycle (except that it's the pedal catching you as it reaches the 6:00 position). I don't know any other way of describing it other than that. But yes, it also involves moving your weight more forward, directly over the crank, and lowering your back angle (less vertical). Because the more vertical you are, the farther back your weight is and the more it wants to direct onto the saddle. This also requires training and increasing the strength of the lower back muscles. I guess this means that your pelvis is also rotating forward more; I hadn't thought about that way.

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  13. If I were riding 10-20 miles, daily, plus running and hiking regularly I would not worry too much about this upcoming distance ride. Don't know how you do it all!

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    1. Not much else to do around these parts. If you're not into drinking.

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  14. For the first Century I completed, last year's Seagull starting in Salisbury, Md., I think the longest one-day ride I had time to pull off was 30 miles. I was able to do a fair amount of every-other-day 10-mile sorta interval training, where I'd push really hard, ease off to catch my breath, and then go at it again. I was able to complete it, despite insanely hot and humid weather that day, but I babied myself with rest and pace, and the Seagul is only slightly hillier than a tabletop. This year I'm attempting the Back Roads starting in the Berryville, Va., area, and I've only been able to follow the same training regimen again. I'll be happy with 50 miles and then we'll see. Oh, I'm 58, if that helps anyone.

    I just have to add V's earlier post about saving your low gear cracked me up because just the day before, having installed a nice low-range cassette to get me below the 1:1 ratio, I was thinking exactly about that and wondering about the psychology of it. Incidentally with the little hill training I have in my neighborhod, I alternate between nice easy spinning, as in "this is how you do it if you're facing 100 miles," and mashing furiously up (to the extent my knees can handle it) to get a feel for what, for me, will be the inevitable monster hills.

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    1. Christopher Fotos: thanks for posting your experience. I'm your age (59) and my quotidian riding is rather your sort; so it's very reassuring to learn that you did your first century with no problems.

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  15. You didn't elaborate on this upcoming ride. Is it something one has to complete in a certain amount of time? If so, there are many levels to being smart about it.

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  16. Bertin, it definitely can be done, but certainly at our age it's critical to listen to your body and if it's telling you to quit, you quit. On some of my training rides I cut things short because I just didn't feel up to it that day. And I agree with statements above about the difference between one big push and a multiday tour. If I were doing "short" intense rides of under 35 miles on a fixie, I'd be super-confident of doing say a mildly hilly Century. I would personally be much less confident of a multiday tour of 60-65 miles per day, precisely for the reason you mention--it takes longer to recover as we get older.

    On the subject of long-distance riding health effects, I do in fact buy the idea that it's not a great thing to do for many years, for most of us. Lots of us probably know overweight cyclists who travel prodigious miles. It's not a great idea to rely on biking as your only physical activity, though it's a heckuva lot better than nothing.

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    1. I agree that we need to engage with other forms of activity - I am 58 and have ridden bikes all my life. In order to provide additional exercise I walk, though I take my bike with me, riding and then walking through bush tracks, then riding again - a little variety does much to exercise muscle groups other than those used in cycling.

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  17. This post is really encouraging.

    I'm doing my first 200k this Sunday and trying to do at least a 300 before the end of the year. I know I can grind it out in the limit but I want to have fun and not "Suffer As The Damned". I did a double century once a million years ago and enjoyed every part of it till about mile 175. It stopped being fun and the next few days were tres miserable, but we were trying to set a club record from Lanc. Pa, to Ocean City Md. We did it and I'd do it again, but not anymore if you know what I mean.

    You and Jan Heine, The Blayleys and all the other Rando Propagandists make this look like so much fun but it can be intimidating when you haven't actually spent more than 5 or 6 hours on a bike in a while. I'm thinking hard about how to eat and set a useful pace that keeps me comfy and alert. I've never done much long road stuff that wasn't a race or with racers so it's going to be different...

    Spindizzy

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    1. Oh I'm hardly a rando propagandist. It's hard work to get to a point where the rides are actually enjoyable; can't decide whether it's worth it ...but whenever I lean toward "no" I somehow end up doing another ride.

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