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Pro long distance triathlete and ultra-cyclist. He coaches the USAT Collegiate Champion Naval Academy Triathlon Team.
Long ultra-cycling events are growing each year as people seek the next big challenge. Getting through such a challenge goes beyond the training – it’s about how to look after yourself so you can back up session after session and day after day. BILLY EDWARDS talks us through it.
Ultra-cycling can take many forms for different people, but generally involves at least 12 hours and can be broken into stages or relay exchanges depending on the event. Be careful – the literature out there for ultra-cycling is often more fitted for old people on tours, not folks interested in going fast for longer periods. Since my expertise is on road, many of my recommendations refer to road ultras, but there are plenty of considerations to transfer over to a 12-24hr, or multi-day MTB event or even a long gravel grinder.
When training for ultra-cycling events, there is a tendency to just go longer than you would for your standard cycling events. However, a smarter and more realistic training time approach is to maintain a regime with threshold, sub-threshold, and even super-threshold efforts.
Strength is just as important when it comes to being prepared for your ride. Depending on the distance of your ride or race, it would be good to do back-to-back long ride days. A night ride or two will help you prepare for those conditions and let you test your lights and batteries. It is not necessary to do any rides of the same time or distance of your big event, especially if that requires a 24-hour ride. Losing the sleep and recovering from the fatigue is a great experience and will teach you something about how you will handle your main event, but it could also degrade your health and you might not recover properly.
Go more than 18 hours (or 8 or 12 – depends on your level) only if you know you will have up to a month to recover and it will not cause you to miss work or skip out on your next week of rides. Your best bet is to do multiple 6-12 hour days from 12 to four weeks out. In preparation for Furnace Creek 508 last year I did a flat seven-hour day backed up by a mountainous 6 hour day.
The hardest part about ultra-cycling is taking care of your contact points (hands, feet, saddle area). It is very important to find a cycling kit that will fit you properly, suits your needs when it comes to weather and also looks good – if you look good, you feel good, you race good! I have worn my 2XU kits for both Paris-Brest-Paris (1200km) and Furnace Creek (353 miles/568km) and had great results. You don’t want a kit that has a huge chamois – look for a chamois and short area that doesn’t rub.
Personally, I think it’s best to avoid using chamois cream. Chamois cream causes dampness and soft skin and over time makes you more prone to saddle issues. I stopped using those products and now I rely solely on the great fit of my 2XU bibs. On the rare occasion I get a rub, I just use a little Aquaphor or petroleum jelly, and I use them only on that small area.
A great way to cut down on vibrations that will affect all your contact points is to make some adjustments to your bike. One quick adjustment may be to ride wider tires (25mm instead of 23 mm) with less air pressure. Gel padded bar tape and avoiding deep wheeled rims (they are light and fast but more often stiffer) will also help, as will checking/tightening all major areas of frames and wheels – a small chatter in a hub becomes a huge deal after 200 miles!
Your feet will need good pedals, shoes, and socks. This is all personal preference, but two big maladies are hot feet and numb feet. You need a shoe and a sock that provide a snug fit, but also room to expand, because on a long ride the rise in your body temperature coupled with the external heat causes the feet to expand. Add to this that your feet are usually contained in very stiff shoes and it gets even worse – the expanded foot pushes the metatarsals (a group of five long bones in the foot) together. This will also compress the nerves in your feet, which can cause your feet to go numb or it can be so painful that people ride with their feet outside of their shoes.
One way I combat this is to ball up my toes on descents and in flat parts of a ride to spread out the metatarsals. Another important point is to have multiple adjustments on your bike shoe. A bike shoe needs good lateral adjustments that allow the shoes to be loosened as the foot expands throughout the day. Ratchets and Boa closure systems on bike shoes are more accommodating to this kind of fine tuning. Maybe even get an additional metatarsal bump in the sole of your cycling shoes.
Cycling gloves are important. If you have gloves that are too spongy then there is a tendency to over-grip and get blisters. When you’re riding over multiple days, then having a few pairs of gloves with different wear (pad) patterns is ideal to avoid hot spots and blistering. Full-finger gloves are also nice for protecting your skin even in the wind and heat.
Changing hand positions and/or using aero bars cuts down on hand issues. Having a bike you can comfortably sit up straight with no hands allows you to do things with your hands but also relax your spine from neck to lower back.
If you’re riding in the dark, avoid staring in one direction as this will make your neck stiff and your eyes fatigued. Use multi-angled headlights and/or a headlamp to encourage you to move your head around.
Recovery becomes extremely important in the short time you’re not on the bike during ultra-events and multiple-day/stage rides or races.
The best way to be ready to get back in the fight is to have a good meal and clean your body if possible. Ultra events require you keep healthy, especially the largest organ of your body – the skin – so keep as clean and dry as you can. Use compression gear – the 2XU Compression Leggings are my favourite for ultra-cycling because they compress the legs and unlike full tights, allow you to air out your saddle region so the skin recovers. When I raced on the record breaking RAAM team, my favourite clothes for our off-shift were leggings and board shorts!
Do stretches that open up the chest and shoulder both before and during each day’s ride. The nerves that run to the hands begin in the shoulder/collarbone area, so stretching through here will help minimise the nerve compression that causes numb fingers during the long hauls.