If you’re a normal person, and providing your goal is to do it comfortably rather than set any records, then you might just find a lot of the “training for a century” guides and advice you’ll find on-line are overly complicated – they’re written for people that are athletic, are already fit and who have a good understanding of training plans and nutrition.
That’s not me. I’m just a normal bloke with a bit of a belly that likes very long bike rides. I’m not an athlete, I’ve never been into sport, I don’t really know anything about nutrition or muscles. I have however done a lot of 100+ mile bike rides, and these are my thoughts on them.
Even in my simple world, I understand training is very important, but for me it’s just about getting miles in on the bike. 3-4 rides a week is ideal and most people can manage this around job/partners/life. 3 for most of the training schedule, 4 later on. 2 rides will be mid-week of 1 hour/20 miles or so (you decide if you prefer to limit by distance or time, though I suggest time is better), the other 1 or 2 rides will be longer ones at the weekend.
Note that my big rides are 100 miles per day for 2 or 3 consecutive days, so practising back-to-back long rides is important. If you’re doing a single century and can’t fit in 2 rides every weekend then it’s not the end of the world.
You increase the effectiveness of the shorter mid-week training rides by doing “intervals” – in other words have some bursts of high-intensity-until-you-can’t-do-it-any-more in the ride. At the start of my training I might just about manage 3-4 of these intervals and last about 30-60s each. By the time I’m match fit, I might do 5-6 of them and each lasts 1-3 minutes. I do them both on the flat and up short hills.
By doing intervals you can keep the mid-week rides to 1 hour(ish). The weekend rides should be done entirely at an aerobic pace (i.e. what you can normally maintain), increasing in distance as the training schedule goes on.
Eating on the ride
As the distance increases any newbie to long distance rides will realise that they’re not taking on enough water/food. Increase consumption of both bit-by-bit and you’ll start to learn what you need (because you’ll feel better; too much and it won’t make any difference or you’ll feel worse). In many ways learning to eat/drink the right amount of the right things and learning to predict when you need more, is the single best thing you’ll get out of your training.
Your body needs energy to process any food/water you consume so you need to learn to eat before you get hungry and drink before you get thirsty. If you don’t then you’ll still run out of energy despite eating, because you’re simply too far gone for your body to process the new fuel quickly enough. If you run out of energy completely, known as bonking, it can take hours or even days to recover usually meaning it’s ride over.
I maintain that real food is way better than energy bars and gels, for normal people. My favourite snacking-as-you-ride foods are jaffa cakes for a quick burst and high-calorie high-quality cereal bars or flapjacks to keep the energy topped up. There’s loads of really good quality cereal bars and flapjacks on the market now or make your own. I keep them in a top-tube mounted bag – some people say these “spoilt the lines of the bike”, but I’m riding it, not looking at it and I like the food easy to access, plus it gives me a great place for my phone etc.
A good starting point is every, say, 10 miles or half-hour eat something, just a jaffa cake or a couple of jelly babies and see how that helps (or doesn’t) and you can go from there.
On a long ride I stop for proper lunch if possible, I’m not in a race so why not? Especially as my big rides are usually on the continent where I find hotel breakfasts provide inadequate cycling fodder. Over the years I’ve learnt what’s good for lunch and what’s bad; spag bol is good, cheesy-chips are bad! But you need to experiment and see what’s good for you.
As for what to drink, I find water perfectly good enough, though if I’m doing a long ride and/or it’s very hot then I find using electrolyte tabs is better for me than plain water. I know some people that have found, through their own experience not marketing hype, that they need electrolyte tabs on every ride. So again, experiment during your training rides and you’ll soon be ready for your big ride.
Before the ride
There’s loads spoken about what to do leading up to an event – carb loading, tapering etc. At my level this is really simple: a couple of short, easy (spinny, no intervals) rides during the week before the event, followed by a few days off immediately prior to the event. Eat well but normally on those days off, just avoid foods that make might make you feel bloated or potentially upset your stomach. Avoid alcohol and drink plenty of water so you don’t start the ride dehydrated.
Every year on our big charity ride we get people that haven’t done anywhere near enough training (some have done virtually none), they try and blag it and it’s never pretty!
That said, I understand you might not have time to do a century ride as part of your training, so I’d say if you can do 75% of the distance comfortably, then you can probably blag the rest without too much trouble.
Hope that helps! Let me know your tips, thoughts and experiences via the comments below.