How to Train for an Ultra-Distance Bikepacking Race
With the racing season approaching, we ask three Apidura Ambassadors how they prepare for ultra-distance bikepacking races. With their combined experience of how to ride – and win – these epic events, we can think of no better trio than Kristof Allegaert, Sarah Hammond and Josh Ibbett to ask for advice on the three pillars of race prep: Body, mind, and bike.
Mastering the Body
Sarah: ‘Until you are in race situation, you won’t know how your body is going to react. However, there are steps you can take to train and prepare.’
Josh: ‘From six months out, I would advise focusing on general fitness. Yes, you need to start doing longer rides – ideally with the bike and position you will use for the event – but the main focus should be on building up your threshold and riding at tempo. Training at threshold improves your speed, and riding at tempo (just below threshold) makes you more efficient. The key thing to remember is: Any pace you ride at is a percentage of your threshold power, so if you raise your threshold, then your endurance power will also improve.’
Sarah: ‘It’s a bit of a misconception that you need to ride ridiculous distances every week. Yes, do it every now and then for good measure, as once you have experience with ultra-endurance, your body won’t forget it, but most of the time it’s not necessary. During the week, I’ll do two strength sessions (hill reps in a big gear), three sub-threshold efforts (20-60 minutes riding just below my threshold), and two core sessions in the gym. Weekends are for riding long; back-to-back days, lots of climbing, and lots of kilometres. Mondays are rest days, and I’ll always try and roster it off work so I can just lay still!’
Josh: ‘I think the biggest mistake people make when training for ultra-endurance rides is to only do really long rides, all of the time. Yes, you need to do some, but by doing loads of really long, slow rides, you’ll just become good at riding slowly for a long time! In order to be more efficient over a long distance you need get used to riding fast too, so your endurance pace will feel easier. Being able to go harder up hills, and recover quickly, will give you an overall improvement in recovery and efficiency over the course of an event.’
Kristof: ‘It’s is a tricky question because endurance training is really a process that takes years. But at least six months before the start date, I will begin targeting an event. Because I ride my bike a lot in any case, my basic fitness level is already pretty good, but I will aim to do a mixture of different rides; short and fast rides, long and slow rides, short and slow rides. There is a structure to it, but generally speaking it’s a case of increasing the numbers the closer I get to an event.’
Sarah: ‘Before the start of a race, I’ll back off the training. Then, one week out, I’ll stop riding completely, start eating loads, and wait for the word “Go!”‘
Josh: ‘Directly before a race you don’t want to do very much on the bike at all. Just tick over and let your body recover. You can never be too fresh for a multi-thousand kilometre bike race!’
Mastering the Mind
Sarah: ‘For me, racing is ultimately about going for a bike ride. I love riding, being away from the day-to-day norm, and seeing new places, so in some ways racing provides a mental break. But of course, there is a mental strain involved too, and if your head is not in the game then it’s not going to happen for you.
Finding out what you are willing to endure for a long time is only truly learned by racing – and training for that isn’t always possible. The race starts when everything starts to fall apart, and it’s how you deal with it that counts.’
Kristof: ‘How to prepare mentally is such a difficult question. When you’re outside on your bike for so many hours, all year round, you just find solutions. It’s especially tough when you’re on your own, and there’s nobody around to share your suffering or your laughter with, so it’s really important to stay focused and motivated. Personally, I practice yoga to keep focus – both before, and during races.’
Sarah: ‘I need to make sure my head space is healthy and ready for what I’m about to undergo. Making sure I have at least seven days off before a race to rest my head, forget about stuff like work, and focus, is important.’
Kristof: ‘The moment you lose focus, your race will be over.’
Mastering Bike Setup and Routine
Sarah: ‘You’re going to be spending a lot of time on your bike, so it goes without saying that it needs to be dialled to what works for you. Testing your position and set up with all your gear on the bike is just part of the training. Some weeks I’ll even train with my loaded bike.
Practicing navigation, packing, and sleeping in the dirt should all be part of your race prep too. In my first race (TransAm, 2016) I rode 100km off-course because I was useless at map reading, and I paid the price.’
Kristof: ‘My bike has got to feel like a sofa. When I finally climb off after a 400km ride, the only place I want to feel any tiredness in is my legs, which means that my bike has got to fit like a glove. It must be an extension of your body – not just to ensure a good position, but so you get a good feel for all of the components, and how everything works. The more you go out and ride, the more you find out how things work.’
Sarah: ‘Make sure you have the right saddle, and riding in some varied weather is a good idea too. You should also learn how to ride with minimal stops, so try this: Pack enough food for a whole day on the bike, then only stop for water or calls of nature while you’re riding. It’s about getting used to that feeling of always being on the move.’
Josh: ‘As you move closer to the event, when you’re building up the miles and doing some specific training, it’s also a good idea to include some multi-day or overnight rides. I always try to do a four-day ride about a month away from a big event, making sure I ride all day and sleep for around six hours a night to simulate a race situation.’
Kristof: ‘You’ll encounter many different obstacles in the preparation process, but dealing with them is the best, and only, way to learn.’
Sarah: ‘Once the race starts, don’t be stubborn with the position you’ve been training in if it starts to cause you pain. You might find that you need to alter your position to manage injuries and niggles.’
Words of Advice
Josh: ‘Don’t be scared or overwhelmed with all the planning that goes into bikepacking races – just make sure you do it. The hardest part is the preparation phase, but once that’s over and the race starts, it’s time to enjoy the easy part of pedalling. It’s just riding a bike!’
Sarah: ‘Ask yourself, “Do you really want to do this?” I think many people are caught up with the buzz, and treat ultra races like any other long, awesome bike tour. While this is true, and you do see some amazing sights, it is also one of the hardest things you’ll put your body and mind through. It’s about managing the highs and lows that come with that, and understanding that they will happen. Having that perspective is invaluable.
Kristof: ‘To be in perfect shape for an ultra-race, everything has to come together: Physical fitness, mental strength, your luggage, and your bike. If there is one thing that’s not right then there won’t be a balance, and the higher the level you want to perform at, the more balanced these factors need to be.
It’s very simple though really – just be sure to have fun and enjoy it.’