Wednesday, 6 March 2013

So you entered your first sportive or long charity ride?

Spring is just around the corner, we've had a few sunny days, the temperature is warming up and quite naturally it now feels OK to start planning and dreaming about, what we want to achieve this season.

For some it will be completing more sportives than last year, it might be achieving better times over a certain distance or on events that have been completed previously or it might be entering and finishing one of the major sportive events such as l'etape. 

This year I suspect their will also be a significant number of people who will be planning to enter their first sportive or long charity ride. Interest in participating in these events is already high at the moment, with events selling out within days/weeks of entry opening. Events such as Ride London 100 will be introducing a significant number of people to the delights of riding a 100 miles on a bike for the first time, some of whom may not have ridden a bike for many, many years.

So how do you prepare for your first sportive or other long distance ride of perhaps 100 kilometers or 100 miles duration? 

There are many training plans and guides written by far cleverer and experienced individuals than me, that can easily be found on the internet which provide varying levels of detail as to how an individual could train for one of these events, so I'm not going to reinvent the wheel by detailing my own training plan or by putting another generic plan out there in Google land. What I can is perhaps share some of the things I have learnt in my very short sportive career in the hope that other sportive newbies can avoid some of the mistakes I made or simply prepare a little more effectively for their first event.

Credit for some of the things that I have learnt and more effective practices I have subsequently adopted must go to Simon Vincent at Total Cycling Performance who set me off on the path to training enlightenment with the 16 week training plan that he designed for me in 2012.      

Chances are that for a new sportive rider their first event is likely to involve  riding a century, whether this is a 100 kilometers or a 100 miles, in one day. Riding 100 miles in a day may sound extreme, however what I now know is that almost any leisure cyclist is capable of completing either of these distances if they prepare for the event in a structured manner.

Preparation for that first century can probably be broken down into the following categories;

  • Bike and equipment
  • Training
  • Nutrition
  • Attitude
Over the coming weeks I will share in more detail some of the Pixies experiences and thoughts on each of these subjects, however lets have a little introductory look at each one.

Making the right choices with equipment will increase your comfort on the bike and being comfortable will mean that you are not wasting energy trying to make yourself comfortable and you will not be distracted from the task in hand.

A badly fitting bike was one of the biggest contributors to the pain and suffering I endured in my first weeks of trying to embark on rides of more than 20 miles. If you experience pain in the knees, hips or back and you aren’t sure what a correctly fitting bike should feel like get a proper bike fit from a professional - Google "bike fit" and the name of your county or nearest major town/city and you will find the names of some people to contact or ask for recommendations from other cyclists. If your bike is new and the shop you bought it from adjusted the seat, sat you on it and asked you how it feels, chances are it isn't going to be set up properly - just because it feels right to you, doesn't mean it is actually set up right for efficient and pain free riding over long distances.  

Many of the training plans and guides that can be found on the internet will say that the majority of training for a first century ride should focus on endurance training or "base miles". Building up base miles is something that I include in my own training, however as a new sportive rider I found that I didn't have the basic or core strength in my muscles to be able to cover distances in excess of 35-40 miles without being physically to tired to regularly increase the distance covered. Additionally my average speed remained stuck at around 10-12mph. The other problem I found with trying to simply ride further each week was that I didn't have the time available for 3 or 4 long rides per week. If I had relied on the "building up mileage" method of training for my first event I think it would have taken me so long to get to a point where I was capable of completing a 100 kilometers that I would have given up trying long before I actually completed a sportive.


The answer for me came with the integration of interval training and strength training into my regular training plan (and not forgetting that to have a "regular training plan" I needed to have a properly thought out and documented plan of what I was going to do and when I was going to do it - Obvious but easily overlooked) Why include strength training? Riding a bike at a reasonable pace over any significant distance requires muscular strength in the lower body and the core of the body and in my case I didn't have the required level of strength due to many years of inactivity. Developing muscular strength by visiting the gym has undoubtedly helped me develop more power on the bike, which means that i can go faster for longer and find climbing hills much easier. 


How long should you allow to prepare for that first sportive or long charity ride? The general consensus seems to be that you need to train in a structured way for at least 12 weeks before the ride, personally if the time is available I would look at a 16 week training window, this should provide you with ample time to prepare for that first century. 

Some things that are worth considering when training for that first sportive include; 

  • Aim to increase mileage on your long ride by around 10% each week
  • Aim to hit at least 70% of the target distance of your chosen event no later than two weeks before the event
  • Be aware of any minimum speed requirement for your chosen event and train with a view to achieving that average speed during training
  • Think about cadence (pedal revolutions per minute), what cadence suits your style and physique best? 70-90 revolutions per minute seems to suit most newcomers to sportives
  • Plan to reduce your training mileage in the week before the event and consider limiting riding to one or two short easy rides

How much time should you devote to training each week? How long is a piece of string? With the right training plan it is entirely possible to train for that first century devoting as little as 8-10 hours per week to training. Currently I would say that I average around 10-12 hours of  focused training per week.  

What does my training plan currently look like? At a very high level it contains the following;

  • Four sessions of specific core strength exercises e.g. press ups, planks etc 
  • Two sessions per week in the gym concentrating on building my upper body, abdominal, lower back and leg strength
  • Two sessions per week which focus on completing speed and power interval training either on the bike or on the Wattbike
  • One or two sessions on the bike or Wattbike of 1-2 hours duration which concentrate on maintaining a specific % of maximum heart rate 
  • Two rides at the weekend, one of around 2-3 hours duration at a relaxed pace and another which is of longer duration and focuses on completing a set distance whilst maintaining a specific % of maximum heart rate (it is this ride that I currently use to gradually increase my mileage each week)
  • One recovery day per week with no exercise or an easy spin on the wattbike   

The content of each persons training plan should be specific to them and based on a proper assessment of their current abilities and physical performance and I would say that enlisting the help of a professional cycling specific trainer has lifted my performance on the bike far beyond where I thought I would be at this point in time. I guess if the thought of engaging a coach seems like a step to far or maybe funds won't allow it, a training plan based on the structure I follow will probably provide better results than simply going out for a ride 2-3 times a week hoping that each week fitness will improve.

One last thought on training, it is important to understand the distinction between a training ride and a leisure ride and don't let a training ride inadvertently become a leisure ride. A training ride has a purpose and objectives that need to be achieved e.g. cover 75 miles in 4 hours and 30 minutes with one rest stop of 5 minutes. A leisure ride is simply a ride with no fixed objective or target, a ride undertaken simply for the pleasure of riding and with no real focus on fitness improvement. Allowing training rides to become leisure rides is a sure fire way to make any training plan ineffective and probably why the building up base miles method of training does not work for most newcomers to the sport.  

As the day of the first sportive approaches, what you put in our body becomes of critical importance for a successful sportive. In the days prior to the sportive you should start hydrating. Drink plenty of water and consider cutting back on caffeine and alcohol. 

In the days leading up to the sportive you should consider adding additional carbohydrates to your diet to ensure that your reserves of energy are completely topped up. There is a limit to how much carbohydrate the body will store as an energy reserve before it simply turns it into fat, but we'll save the details of that topic for another blog post. 

On the day of the sportive, eat a light breakfast of low GI high-carbohydrate foods and drink lots of water. If your sportive means that you need to travel to the event by car for a few hours before the event, consider taking your breakfast with you to eat when you arrive at the event HQ (When I find myself in this situation I always take an instant porridge and a flask of hot water, which I eat 2 hours before the scheduled start time and I also take a banana, honey and peanut butter sandwich which I eat about 30-40 minutes before the start time).   

On the ride keep sipping your drink and try to avoid becoming thirsty. Water or a sports drink are the options here.Water is easy to obtain and top up during the event at feed stations if you run out, sports drinks can provide a source of electrolytes and easily absorbed carbohydrates and can be used to replace energy/carbohydrate whilst riding.

Don't under estimate the importance of consuming some solid foods, eat easily digestible, high carbohydrate food including energy bars, bagels, fruit or sweets. Personally I have found that jelly babies and flap jacks work well for me and they are now my food of choice for rides over 50 miles. 

Whilst it is important to eat while you are riding, try not to over indulge as it is possible to have to much of a good thing and ruin that first sportive by having an upset stomach, being sick or simply being bloated and lethargic. Use your training rides to fine tune your feeding strategy and once you know what works for you, avoid disrupting your routine on the event.  

One last thought on nutrition, try to avoid consuming food and drink that you haven't tried during training, to avoid an upset stomach or cramping.  

Attitude is everything. There will be days when you are training and it seems like nothing is going right, its a fact that this will happen, accept it and move on. There will also be days when everything clicks into place and progress will come easily (these days are the payback for the tough days) understand when these days are occurring and delight in your new found cycling prowess.

Preparing yourself to arrive at the start of that first sportive in the best possible condition is actually not very complicated but it will probably require some planning and will require some will power to stick to your training plan.

 A first sportive of either 100 kilometers or 100 miles is well within the grasp of most relative newcomers to cycling if they are prepared to commit to a structured training plan and invest some time in increasing their cycling specific fitness.Time invested in training prior to the event will mean that on the day you will be able to sit back and enjoy the experience of your first sportive (and you will probably be able to have an inward laugh at those people that didn't train very well as you pass them on the first significant hill of the day)

What is that "they" say "fail to plan - plan to fail"

Crikey, this has turned into a long blog post! I hope some of the above is of use or interest to somebody and if you are entering your first sportive this year, enjoy your day, don't worry everybody will be really friendly and hopefully you will make some new friends while you out on the ride.

As always thanks for taking the time to visit my blog and read the ramblings of the Pixie. Hopefully you will be able to find the time to visit the blog again some time in the future.

Dha weles diwettha


  1. Excellent. For a newbie, on the London 100, how many, and for how long, would you expect to have rest and refuel stops?

    1. Lets assume that the Ride London competitor has trained to the extent that they are regularly riding 65-75 miles and are comfortable to do this sort of distance on one feed stop. Even if they haven't managed riding 100 miles before the event, they should be able to complete the full 100 miles and could probably do it on two (maybe three) stops of around 10-15 minutes each.

      I will be aiming to get around on one stop, but won't be stressing very much if I decide to have two stops.

      It's very much dependent on how you feel on the day, but it would always be best to plan on making more, rather than fewer, stops. Use training rides during the summer to test how far you can go between rest breaks and what effect having fewer breaks has on energy levels.

      Let me know how you get on and please always feel free to ask if you think I can be of help in any way.

      Best of luck for your training and the ride itself.


  2. Great blog.
    I'm doing my second sportive in exactly a month, the 47 mile Meon Valley Riser. I'm a bit apprehensive as its very hill and I'm doing it on my own. Hoping to sneak on the back of a few groups for a tow.

    I'm comfortably doing 30 miles at the right sort of speed, so I was happy to read the bit about being able to do 70% of the distance, I thought I would have to be doing more.

    I'm taking nutrition more seriously than my first sportive, where I nearly bonked. My brother recommends fig rolls, which I'm going to try this weekend to make sure they work for me.

    I'm also planning to have a couple of breaks to stretch. On the last sportive I tried to keep going, but when I finally did stop things got easier when I started again. I'm going to listen to my body more this time.

    Wish me luck as it lives up to its Riser name.

    1. Don't worry about the fact that you are doing the sportive on your own, its always possible to find someone to ride with for a while, if that's what you decide you want on the day. Twitter a good place for finding other people that are doing an event and maybe arranging to start the event together.

      Nutrition during the ride is really important, it is the difference between finding the last 20% of the route almost impossible or finding it perhaps tough but very do'able. Dates that have had the stones removed (the sort found in bags in the home baking section of a supermarket are a great natural energy source. The key is finding a food that you can nibble on while riding, so that instead of "refueling" when you stop, you are actually eating small amounts fairly constantly throughout the ride. To do this the food really needs to be inbite size portions and not require unwrapping. I tend to put the jelly babies and dates in a large sandwich bag, which I then either put in one of my jersey pockets or on long rides I use a "Tri bag" which is mounted on the top tube just behind the head set.

      Take as many breaks as you need, don't forget that certainly on the first few sportives, the achievement will be in finishing the route and feeling that you have progressed since the last one. Ride at your own pace, don't get sucked into going off at breakneck speed at the start, ride the hills at a pace and cadence you are comfortable with and you'll be fine.

      Best of luck with your training and for the Meon Valley Riser.


    2. Wise words Pixie.
      Did one of my longest rides this morning, 38 miles, with a pocket full of fig rolls, had one every 6 miles. Also had a couple breaks to stretch and went at a comfortable pace, especially up the hills.
      Made a difference, my first long ride where my average speed was 13mph according to Strava. Including stops it was over 12mph, I need to do 11 mph to get a bronze time on the Riser.