Goin’ the Distance: Training Notes from a Middle-Aged, Super-Feeler, Newbie Distance Cycler
I have never ridden for distance before. Well, I thought I had, having worked my way up to 30 km as a “long ride” in summers past. Finding my way to riding distances of 120 km—multiple days in a row—is a whole other challenge. Let’s be frank: given how much I sweat when exercising, how much I figured I’d have to drink when cycling long distances, and the fact that I’ve had a child (moms and middle-aged women, I know you are hearing me right now!), I must admit I immediately wondered about the logistics of where one would stop so often to pee on long rides—not to mention the impact of frequent stops on ride times!
In June 2016, I became intrigued by RyersonSA’s Road (Ride) to CACUSS, but I wasn’t really sure I could do it. I always thought it would be great to do a long-distance bike ride, but I was never really going to prioritize it. But a ride to CACUSS, organized by Ryerson, in support of mental health? How could I miss this opportunity! Our wise organizers had set a goal of being able to complete an 80 km ride by October 2016 to be eligible to participate.
I began in June 2016 by TTCing to and riding home from the first day of our 2-day staff retreat, located a little under 20k away. It was long, and hard, and sweaty, but I did it. The second day, I decided to bike to the retreat and back (thankfully, my gracious colleague and retreat host offered up her shower and I had the foresight to bring a change of clothes). It was also long and hard, and climbing the GINORMOUS hill half way home was, quite frankly, brutal, involving a lot of huffing and puffing.
But I did it.
So I set myself a series of goals:
- A single 40 km ride by the end of June;
- 60 km by the end of August;
- 70 km by September;
- 80 km by October.
I started a training document on my phone, tracking distances and paying attention to what was going on in my body. I knew research was a good idea (how to train, how to eat), but I wasn’t there yet. I just wanted to see what I could do on my own before committing further, and I didn’t want to be reading at the computer any more minutes a day than I already was. I also know that I tend to be able to improve my physical fitness and build muscle quickly when I put my mind to it (even if not so quickly as in my 20s!)
Getting to 40 km
I started riding on weekends in June, quickly finding that I could easily ride 40 km—over two days, and my butt felt it! In those first rides, the first 10 km were always brutal. My legs felt lethargic; I would quickly get out of breath. But then, if I pushed on, I found that I’d feel great for 10–15 km before ending tired. It helped that, generally speaking, I love being on my bike, and I do regularly attend pilates and play hockey so I had some fitness to draw upon.
On July 3, I hit my first 40 km ride: taking 2 hours and 50 minutes. To quote my Dad, “I’m built for comfort, not for speed.”
Journal entry, July 3: “I think after 60k in two days, the magnitude of going 400k+ starts to weigh in just a little bit more. Although I’m already ahead of where I was just a couple of weeks ago, when doing 20k on back-to-back days was difficult, I can’t imagine doing 40km three times in one day!”
As I began more regular 40 km+ rides, I realized that the 30 km mark was my first hump. My butt hurt, my two smallest toes would go numb, my beloved capris and cotton shirt were chafing, and I’d notice that heartburn was a weirdly regular phenomenon. I tended to have some persistent aching in my right hip—an old and familiar feeling. I was aware of strange bands of dense tissue in my upper quads that I was having trouble stretching out, and which I was pretty sure were not new muscle! I got a physio. I bought my first bike shorts and shirt.
Two weeks later, and feeling a bit like a sausage encased in red lining in my new biking gear, I pushed to 53 km in just over 3 hours. I was tired but it felt great! I figured it was time to go “higher tech”. No, I didn’t replace my too-big-for-me inherited aluminum-frame Gary Fisher mountain bike, now affectionately dubbed Beast, or dial down the suspension (I tried that for about 30 seconds, but hated the feel of the ride).
I didn’t buy cycling shoes or clips, but I did search out an app to track my distance and after a few minutes of searching landed on Cyclemeter, which would track my speed, distance, elevation, and calories burned—among other things that I haven’t learned to pay attention to. At around these distances, I also noticed the weird bands of density in my upper quads began to disappear with routine use of a foam roller (ouch, ouch, ouch!!!) and the cycling. (According to my physio and massage therapist, these were likely long-developed buildups of adhesions and lactic acid deposits from so many years spent sitting for long durations! Buh-bye!)
Getting Past the 50 km Hump
Trying to get past 50 km was a different kind of challenge. On one hand, I just did it, because I could, and because I set myself routes that involved getting to a destination and back. But at each ride over 50 km, I hit a wall around the 50 km mark. I’d feel tired, sluggish, and heavy for 10–15 km. Calling my partner for a ride home often seemed like it might be a kindness to myself, but I started learning ways to push through, mentally and physically.
Mentally Tackling 50 km:
I know that naming my emotions is supposed to help regulate them, so I’d start mantras going up hills like: This feels painful and horrible, adding, because I’m cycling up and into the wind implying that the hill would eventually stop and/or I’d turn a corner, and then it would feel a bit less horrible. Eventually, this mantra shortened to uphill into the wind; uphill into the wind which somehow became both a challenge to myself and a reminder of flats and descents to come—a mantra that seems to have stuck with me.
July 29 journal entry:
“My tips for when I’m tired/fatigued:
- Imagine how proud I’ll feel at the end of the ride
- Notice the sights/sounds around me when in nature
- When going uphill or into a wind, saying it over and over in my head, acknowledging that it’s challenging for a reason (and will get easier when it levels out) is really helpful
- Music to distract from pain/fatigue
- Access to lots of water and snacks as needed
- Listening to my body to adjust clothes, stop, stretch, rotate hips…
- After a ride, 20 min shower alternating hot and cold, soap scrub, lots of water to drink
- Roll out my muscles (ouch!)
And it helps that I feel joy and exhilaration on my bike. I love the feel of the wind in my face!”
Physically Tackling 50 km:
Cyclemeter helped me see that I was burning upwards of 2000 calories in a 50 km ride(!!!), but had been eating about 500 calories before and during the first 50 km on each attempt. I tried stopping at 40–50 km to eat and stretch. It helped. Stopping at 25 km, before I got tired and hungry, helped a bit more. Eating too much, however, or eating the wrong foods left me feeling like I was carrying a very uncomfortable lead balloon in my stomach. I realized that I knew nothing about exercise nutrition.
I’m a bigger gal. I figured I was carrying an energy reserve with me wherever I went. I have now learned that, while that is true, it isn’t necessarily immediately accessible energy that I’m carrying with me. I talked to a friend and cycling enthusiast, I learned just a little about aerobic and anaerobic exercise, and slowed down a bit in the first 20 km of each ride when I was pedalling more enthusiastically just out of enjoyment. This change allowed me to stay solidly in my aerobic respiration zone to allow my body to more effectively use my own energy reserves (yes, fat, thank you very much). I also talked to people I know who engage in more endurance exercise. For example, my Dad likes to eat protein while hiking for a longer lasting energy, so that’s where I started. Wrong strategy! Protein + fat + higher intensity exercise = lead balloon in my stomach. Friends who are runners and cyclists said carbs are the way to go for an easily accessible fuel source, so I switched from nuts and trail mix to bananas, bagels, and fig bars.
My life changed, and the 50 km hump disappeared. I started reducing by half both my calorie consumption and my rest/food/stretch breaks.
Century Rides (Canadian version)
I first rode (almost) 100 km on August 23. I actually made it home at 98 km and decided not to round the block for an additional few minutes as my partner and 6-year-old had been quite patient with my absence that day. This was before I had my eating sorted out, and it was a really tough second half, taking 7.5 hours in all. By October, however, I was combining a 40 km ride one day with a 100 km ride the next (my longest two-day ride). 100 km is still taking me over 7 hours, but it’s far more enjoyable having smoothed out the 50 km hump.
For me, the next step is figuring out how to do back-to-back long rides for several days, maintaining energy, strength, and avoiding injury and … chafing. This spring, I believe I will be learning more about the taboo subject of chamois cream, along with the less taboo subject of muscle recovery for back-to-back rides.
Recommendations for muscle recovery and lactic acid management from my sister, who has a love of strongwoman competitions, include:
- End every ride with a long shower, alternating periods of hot and cold water;
- Drink 3–4 liters of water during and after a long ride;
- Eat protein after getting off the bike;
- Buy a foam roller and use it daily. (Yes, it hurts, but the pain reduces over time, and the short-term pain of rolling takes care of the long term aches);
- “Buy an [expletive] road bike!”
The first four points are helping with recovery from long rides so far. By the end of October, I had reached a distance of 100 km on several occasions, feeling tired, but not exhausted afterwards. I had shifted from routes with frequent interruptions due to traffic lights and/or with frequent stops, to trails with long uninterrupted stretches. I am more likely to now notice at 70 km that I need to stretch my shoulders as my friend, Beast, is a bit too long for my torso and reach.
Now, realizing that I am falling in love with longer rides (and hoping this love persists beyond #RoadToCACUSS 2017), I am in the market for an endurance road bike, cycling shoes, and clips. According to my sister, riding my current bike, without clips, is the rough equivalent to training for a marathon in snow boots. Here’s hoping. Grand Fondos, here I come!
To summarize, here are the top 12 things I have learned so far:
- From a middle-aged cyclist friend: you have to ride your own ride.
- Even though I still feel a bit like a sausage in my bike pants and shirt, I feel like a very strong bad-ass sausage after riding 100 km!
- If you’re just beginning—and if you’re cycling with a patient friend who runs half-marathons for fun and has the metabolism of a fit, 15-year-old boy—don’t compare! And don’t eat what she does on the ride!!! (See #1 above).
- Cycling longer distances can involve learning a new language. Terms like hoods, tops, drops, 105s, Ultegra, saddles, and chamois. Don’t be intimidated; take your time. Google as you go, and talk to everyone you know who rides.
- It’s as much about mental stamina as it is about physical stamina—working on both is wise.
- Music really does help when the going gets tough.
- Never listen to music when riding in an area with car traffic (no hard lessons learned here, just common sense)!
- If you need to feel in control of your own destiny, carry your own water, snacks, and sunscreen.
- Time in the saddle matters.
- I really dislike spin class (despite really lovely people). Apparently, I’d need realistic VR nature scenes, bird song, and pine-scented wind to fall in love with spinning.
- The GINORMOUS hill on the way home from our staff retreat is… really small.
- When you’re sweating, you can drink all you want… without needing pee breaks. It’s all good!
UPDATE: Since the original writing of this post: I bought a bike!!! And I love it!
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