Training for a century but not that seriously
March 7, 2012 9:24 PM   Subscribe

What sort of training plan would you recommend for a cyclist who has ridden 70 miles in six hours quite comfortably and would like to ride a five-hour century, preferably in the next twelve months? Note that it'll be hard to fit more than an hour's ride into a weekday. I've seen a lot of century training plans call for 25 or 35 mile rides during the week, and that's probably not realistic unless I learn to ride a lot faster first.

Cyclists on the internet seem to like talking about equipment, but I'd rather focus on the riding. I guess I'd be willing to buy a bicycle computer if people tell me it'll really help, but I'm perfectly satisfied with my old steel touring bike and I would really like to avoid the heart monitors and Gu.
posted by d. z. wang to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Are you set on achieving a 20 mph rolling average speed? That's pretty ambitious, in my view. I've ridden a number of centuries based on about an hour's worth of riding per weekday, and little to no riding on the weekends, and have ended up with at most about a 16.5 or 17 mph average speed (not including rest stop time, mind you). The centuries are enjoyable and not a problem to ride and finish, but feel like to push that average up to 20 mph would be quite difficult. Trading off pulls with other riders or riding in a paceline would be pretty important, which is a skill in itself.

Anyway, if you're focused on making the most of your riding time, I think intervals are the way to go. I have a nice hill on my commute home that takes me about 2 and a half minutes to climb, if I'm pushing myself. If I make a point to really charge up that hill every day, I definitely feel the increase in my fitness level.
posted by chinston at 9:40 PM on March 7, 2012

Yeah, the five-hour century is some hard, hard work.

I did it once. I started with a pack of people which rolled about 28mph for the first twenty miles or so. Then I had to stop, lost the peloton, and rode like hell using anyone I came across with any kind of speed to work on catching up, and doing significant portions of the ride alone because there just weren't that many people ahead of me after a certain point. About twenty miles from the endpoint, I came across the original pack rolling out of a rest stop, and joined in for the final bit. In the end, I ended up on my back for about three days because I'd run myself so hard into the ground.

Prior to this, I had worked for a year as a bike messenger on a cargo bike (so extra strength training!). Then I moved, and started training with the university cycling team, doing solo rides about three times a week and group rides once or twice a week. I was in probably as good of shape as I had ever been when the century happened.

So my main advice is to ride with a strong peloton. And train a lot, but not too much.
posted by kaibutsu at 10:18 PM on March 7, 2012

Response by poster: Actually, no, I'm not all that set on any part of this whole plan. The five-hour century is a totally arbitrary goal that I picked because it sounded possible but hard. (Glad to hear I got that part right!) Feel free to suggest something else. Among other things, I didn't realize that you'd have to paceline just to average 20 mph. I've pacelined just often enough to be scared of doing it with strangers.

Also, I'm happy to take longer rides on the weekend; it's only the weekdays when I'm short on time.
posted by d. z. wang at 11:21 PM on March 7, 2012

You realize that 70 miles in 6 hours = 11.67mph, right? Going from that to averaging 20mph over 5 hours is a HUGE jump. That's Cat 3 territory. Better to rein in your expectations than to set yourself up for failure.

I would suggest that you get in touch with your local randonneurs club. That would be a very good group to gauge yourself against and train with. They will be able to provide detailed advice that is appropriate to your current ability, innate talent, goals and level of commitment. It is hard for us to assess any of that based on the short blurb that you've written.
posted by wutangclan at 1:17 AM on March 8, 2012

I'd take a look at Joe Friel's book The Cyclist's Training Bible. The most recent edition provides a good overview of the principles of training, along with advice on how to put those principles into practice depending on your goals and how much time you have to train each week. If your weekday time is limited, focus on speedwork and hill intervals during the week, and longer rides on the weekend. You may not attain your goal, which is reaching pretty far unless your 70-mile outing was really the cycling equivalent of a leisurely Sunday stroll, but you can certainly improve quite a bit.

To finish a flat century in 5 hours you'll need to average 180-200 watts, depending on how aerodynamic your position is and the rolling resistance of your tires. For comparison, your current 70 miles at 12 mph requires more or less 60 watts on a flat course.* You're talking about tripling your average energy output. If the course is hilly, the average will be higher. For most cyclists riding alone, that's a tall order. Riding in a peloton can reduce your energy requirement by 15-20%. Weekend club rides would be good for refining your ability to ride in pacelines, and possibly also for finding a group to ride the century, so you wouldn't be riding in a paceline with strangers.

*Wattage estimates courtesy of These numbers assume a flat course with no wind.
posted by brianogilvie at 2:01 AM on March 8, 2012

Piling on to what everyone else is saying, there are three scenarios here for riding a sub-5 century. Scenario 1 is to do it solo. Let's set that aside for now. Scenario 2 is to do it with a group of friends with the same goal, working in a pace line, and scenario 3 is to do a group ride where you are sometimes riding in a well formed paceline, sometimes just drafting in a pack, and no one is going to wait for you if you fall off the back.

It is very possible to ride a sub-5 and even sub-4 century in that third scenario, especially if you have a couple of tandems in the mix who are willing to pull at the front. For the century-in-a-group scenarios, there are a couple of skills you'll need to develop (in addition to being able to put out enough power to keep the bike moving at 20mph+).

1. Ability to eat and drink while on the bike and maintaining a 20mph+ pace. In a big group century, you might get one or two "planned" stops but even those might not be predictable in advance. So plan to get your nutrition while on the bike. This is something you can practice when you are riding on your own. You'll want to have jerseys with pockets and think about investing in a camelbak.

2. Can comfortably ride in a group for hours on end. This is just something that comes with practice from doing a lot of group rides. You can't zone out, people do weird things or hit the brakes or whatever, and you really have to be paying attention all of the time. This is what you should be doing on weekends (group rides). Look for established weekly training rides that do the same route every Saturday or Sunday. A pretty typical distance for these is 50 miles.

3. Can accelerate up to about 25mph (solo) and hold it for a minute or two. Inevitably you'll get a flat or there are hills or stoplights or left-turning cars that break up the group and you'll need to "bridge up" to the main group or be left behind. The best training for this is doing intervals: riding a mile as fast as you can (call it about two and a half minutes of effort), then recovering for a couple of minutes. This is what you can be doing on your weekday rides. I know you don't want to invest in a cycling computer, but here is where one comes in really handy.

While there are centuries happening all of the time, in my area the really big, well established centuries are in the fall -- September/October. You've got plenty of time between now and then to get ready. Good luck with your century!
posted by kovacs at 3:50 AM on March 8, 2012

Frankly I have to say in a year that you'll be able to get up to averaging, say, 16-17 mph over really long distances and every mph after that will be a big struggle. Not being able to do shorter rides will hurt your ability to gain speed. I think it's difficult to get better at doing long rides faster by doing long rides slow.

I saw big improvements in long distance speed when I started doing shorter rides as fast as I could - say 15 miles. I went from about where you are now (12-13 mph) to 16-17 mph pretty fast and then gradually eked my way up to 18-19 mph over that 15 miles. I have approached 20 mph over 20 miles just a few times. My average over long distances is now right around 17 mph if conditions aren't too bad. It took me about a year to get there.

For me, running also helped I think. I run for 30 minutes twice a week (work up to it if you don't run, i.e. try couch to 5k or something like that)

Getting a few rides in during the week is really much more helpful than most people think. It can be hard to fit them in but maybe you can find a way. Ride to work, or ride to a form of transportation that's far enough away to be a good short ride (say, 10-15 miles). In the fall and early winter I ride before work, in the winter and spring I ride after work. While you're working on getting up to speed consider 10 mile rides, just balls out. I guess aim for rides that are 50-60 minutes at a high effort.

A bike computer is very useful. They are not expensive, you can get something basic for $30 or so. The reason it's useful is that if you want to average, say, 18mph, you need to be going over 18 almost every time you check your speed. If you're on a flat piece of ground and you look down and you're not doing 20, you need to pick it up.

Gear is not that important, with a few exceptions. Proper riding clothes make a big diference (cycling jerseys and shorts) in both comfort and aerodynamics. Clipless pedals are extremely useful. As you get faster, aerodynamics are the most limiting factor for speed, so learning to ride in a very aerodynamic posture will gain you a LOT. For me, getting down into the drops will give me a minimum of a 1.5mph boost in speed with no extra effort (or the same speed, with much less effort). Don't spend a lot of money on super light wheels or titanium bottle cages, etc. But every dollar spent on streamlining pays off.
posted by RustyBrooks at 5:34 AM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have done this. I was 27 at the time, but I rode a century solo averaging 20.5 mph. I was in the best shape of my life and was competitively racing. I set out with a goal to do this that day. The things that made it possible were:

1) I had a great day. It was one of those days that I just had wings.
2) The weather was excellent. Low wind really helps and reasonable temperatures are nice.
3) The terrain wasn't hilly, but it wasn't flat as a board either
4) I was used to riding 250-300 miles per week already
5) I trained smart, mixing intervals, tempo and endurance riding most weeks
6) In my race training I was used to killing myself to hold wheel on some scary-fast people

When I was able to do it I was living and breathing the sport and riding a sub 5 hour solo century was on my bucket list. It was a great accomplishment but I share this to advise that it could take 2-3 years of vigilant training (unless you are particularly blessed with a high VO2max) to get there.

Now, if you are talking about doing it with a group then the matter is quite achievable. If you can average 16mph solo then you can solidly do 20mph with a group.
posted by dgran at 6:45 AM on March 8, 2012

I would agree with dgran. I've done a couple long rides solo at about 19 mph average, but they were under perfect conditions and after focused training. I also used aerobars, which are probably good for 1-2 mph.

I think that if you've got limited time to train, you'll want a bike computer to keep yourself honest, and you'll need to do extremely high-intensity workouts. They won't be fun. I can't give you a specific workout plan, but I do know that just going for a brisk ride won't get you there.

Also: good tires are worth it.
posted by adamrice at 7:32 AM on March 8, 2012

Response by poster: It sounds like people are telling me I should dial back my expectations, which I'm happy to do.

Maybe it would be better to phrase this question as, what can I do to improve my speed? And we'll just see where I end up a year from now.

Sounds like, right now, what I should do is,
- get a copy of Friel's book
- find a randonneuring group nearby
- buy a bicycle computer and use it to keep myself honest during rides
- ride faster over 10-15 mile distances
posted by d. z. wang at 7:51 AM on March 8, 2012

Just a note here since I don't have any speed training advice.
This is a perfectly fine computer. It says how fast you are going, and how far you've gone, and what time it is. I mostly use it to see how slow I can get away with going without arriving late.
This is the chart you'd need to find your wheel size to calibrate it.

I have had fancy computers, but this one has all the information you need to see how you're progressing in your training. You will not cry if it is stolen.
posted by Acari at 7:54 AM on March 8, 2012

Maybe it would be better to phrase this question as, what can I do to improve my speed?

I assume you still mean in the context of the distance of 100 miles, right? The key there is to build a base of endurance such that you can ride 80 miles on Saturday and ride at least 50 the next day without feeling like a wreck on Monday. After endurance is built up start to change your rides so that you do the first 1/4 at slightly over your target speed and do the remaining 3/4 a bit slower. Over time change the proportions to 1/3 and 2/3 and eventually 1/2. Get used to riding half the distance at 20.5 mph and the full distance at 20 mph will feel remarkably more manageable, just to use the original target numbers.

There is a world of things that can be said about good hydration and eating properly during long rides. I'm rather simplistic. I use straight water and non-aerospace food (figs, bananas, sandwiches, etc) and fare just fine. I wouldn't get taken in much by the energy drink/food stuff.

I also wouldn't get particularly hung up on matters of equipment. If your wheels spin true and the chain is reasonably lubricated on a road bike you will be fine. At the end of the day the legs and lungs determine the outcome of the ride. Lance Armstrong can hand me my ass riding my sister's bike. I just mention this because when you want to get faster there are a thousand siren songs from vendors promising extraordinary results for considerable money, but for most of this stuff the results don't pay dividends until the difference between 25mph and 27mph is critical. A full aero kit when moving sub 17mph is an astonishing waste of money.
posted by dgran at 8:28 AM on March 8, 2012

Two words: interval training.
posted by wutangclan at 8:38 AM on March 8, 2012

Sounds like, right now, what I should do is,
- get a copy of Friel's book
- find a randonneuring group nearby
- buy a bicycle computer and use it to keep myself honest during rides
- ride faster over 10-15 mile distances
That sounds good. The Long Distance Cycling forum on is a good resource. Edmund Burke and Ed Pavelka's book on long-distance cycling is also useful, but maybe not so much if you're already doing 70-mile rides. I worked my way up to doing a 200K ride with about 6500 feet of vertical climbing at 12.5 mph moving average (9:55 on the bike), 11.2 mph total average including stops, without any speed training, but after that I reached a plateau; I got Friel's book in order to make more progress. I hope to do so once my knee has completely recovered from a crash two weeks ago....
posted by brianogilvie at 1:30 PM on March 8, 2012

wutangclan nails it. Intervals are an excellent way to build up your speed. If you're already doing 70 mile rides, you've got a base of endurance, and should work on building up strength and general badassedness. Intervals typically work like this:
You have three qualitative levels of exertion, low-exertion, medium-exertion, and high-exertion. If you go overboard, you can tie these to heart rates, but you can approach these qualitatively as well.

Low Exertion (LE): You could keep riding like this basically forever.
Medium Exertion (ME): You're doing some serious work, but not going all out.
High Exertion (HE): Imagine there's a hungry, flying tiger behind you, gaining on you by the second, and ride accordingly.

I seem to remember my interval trianing running something like this:
* 15 minutes LE warmup
* Repeat a bunch of times: 5min ME + 1min LE
* Every third repetition or so, do 1min HE + 1 min LE
* 15 min LE cool down... Basically the ride home.

It's best to do interval training two or three times a week; you can set aside an hour on the bike for a work-out. Then on the weekend, get in a longer ride with at least three hours on the bike. For the long ride, make sure you're working hard, but it's mainly to be an LE/ME type ride, don't worry so much about HE.

And yeah, read the training bible.
posted by kaibutsu at 12:40 PM on March 9, 2012

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