Consistency, goal setting, and resilience training: How to best prepare for your multi-day cycling event

Rouleur speaks to cycling coach Rob Lee about how to train your mind and body for back to back days in the saddle

A multi-day cycling event can be a huge challenge, no matter your cycling experience or fitness abilities. Many involve lots of kilometres, plenty of elevation, and a number of days in the saddle, meaning cycling on tired legs, and while none of these events will be as hard as races like the Tour de France or even Paris-Nice, we want to make sure we are as prepared as those pros who line up for such monumental races. And as the age-old saying goes: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

So, once you've signed up to the event, how do you go about training and preparing for one? Rouleur sat down with endurance cycling coach Rob Lee, to ask him for his tips on how best to prepare for a multi-day cycling event whether you are an experienced cyclist aiming to be the quickest rider of the bunch, or this is your first event and completing each day is the end goal.

Setting clear goals 

Knowing what you want to get out of the multi-day event is the first and most important step, according to Lee. Whether you want to be dropping everyone on the climbs and finishing in the front group or want to get the distance done each day, then each of those training plans in the lead-up to the event, as well as what you will be doing after each day, will be different for each of those riders. That’s why he states how important it is to establish your “core values” before even taking on your first training session. 

This helps remind you of what you want to achieve throughout the entire training phase, especially during difficult training sessions when you’re feeling tired and start questioning why you are doing this. “If you are a person who wants to go faster, you’ll be willing to accept a certain amount of discomfort,” he said, noting that not everyone is so resilient to this factor. “But not every session is going to be fun, and you’ll probably reach a point where the sessions you don’t want to do will be the ones you probably need to do the most.”

Embracing this discomfort to reach your goal will be a vital part of whether you successfully achieve what you set out to, and being able to reflect on your goals will keep you motivated along the way. “If I wanted to get on the podium, for example, that could be a possibility, but it would maybe take a certain degree of me not eating as much food as I would like to know to be in good condition to reach that goal, and for me, that would be uncomfortable. I would have to embrace that discomfort if I valued that goal high enough,” said Lee. That is why he stresses the importance of having a clear goal set, rather than just taking your training session by session. 

Once the goal is set, this, in turn, makes you more motivated and more consistent, the most important factor that Lee hopes for when coaching an individual – consistency. 

Read more: Why I ride - Lael Wilcox

Understanding your training and keeping it consistent 

There are two factors that play into how successful your training will be, and that is consistency and enjoyment – both of which are interlinked. If you’re not enjoying your training, then you are not going to be as consistent and if you’re not consistent, training will feel harder when you come to it and in turn, not as enjoyable. 

This is particularly true for those who are new to structured training for an event and need a bit more persuading that continuous training will make a difference to your performance come the event, as well as not training too hard too soon and skipping workouts often. Lee added: “For these people, you’ve got a small timescale and the event may be the end of their cycling journey, so you’ve got to get in as much training as you can in that three or six month window and get the most out of each session in order to help them reach their goal. 

“Whereas a ‘lifer’ (someone who has been training on the bike for a long time), you’ve already got say 270 sessions behind them, so is it absolutely critical they get every single session in? Probably not, but you probably won’t have to convince them as much that they must do this training – they’re always going to turn up and do the sessions they need to do.” 

But Lee said that the focus on their training plans will be different. For example, someone who has already developed their aerobic system will have sessions based on holding the wheel of the rider in front or perfecting their position on the bike, which is a much more dynamic use of their fitness, tuning in on factors specific to their performance at the multi-day event. Whereas, someone who is starting from scratch with cycling, the focus will be on building their engine size and learning things such as how to pace themselves back to the group if they get dropped. 

Time management is also a factor to consider for keeping consistent and enjoyable throughout training, especially for those who will be juggling training, work and home life. If someone has limited time, instead of skipping a workout, fitting in a short, high intensity workout is shown to improve your fitness and performance just as much as long endurance efforts, producing similar results in exercise capacity and selected muscle adaptations, while also high intensity efforts being far more time efficient.

It’s not just about the body 

When aiming for your first multi-day cycling event, you may think replicating the whole trip will be an important training session – cycling many hours at a time on back-to-back days. However, Lee highlights that this might not be beneficial for everyone, especially if performance is something you are aiming for. “If you start riding 300km on the weekends, is there anything to prove this will actually make you faster?” questioned Lee. “Probably not,” he answered himself, but noted that the maximum distance or endurance days he recommends to his clients depends on their current fitness levels and the level of competition they will be facing or what they want to achieve – referring back to those core values. 

Lee used the example of an ultra-endurance runner he is currently training. “He can absorb a massive amount of training and at his level, with the competition, in his discipline, they are pretty much all the same physically, and you cannot put anything else into that bucket of training to give one of them the edge. So, it comes down to the head. 

“Some massive back-to-back days, which are physiologically probably detrimental to his performance and probably detrimental to his health, are going to give him the edge mentally, having been through what is basically three sh*t days. That could then be the difference between winning and losing.”

He said that a ride that is five, six, or seven hours long probably won’t be any different physiologically for most people, but it may have more of a greater impact mentally as endurance training is much more of a mental challenge than a physical one. In particular, Lee noted the toughness of a 12- or 24-hour endurance event and how practising your resilience training by doing some of your training rides into the night or throughout the night will be highly beneficial if you are not a mentally resilient person. These unique factors are something to look out for and train for when taking on an event because these will be the toughest moments. Lee noted that most people drop out of such events after seven hours of racing because it is getting dark, and most people would not have trained for that factor.  

“The event usually starts at 12, in the middle of the day, and they get to seven hours of riding, and it’s now the longest they’ve ever ridden. It’s the worst time of day also, and mentally it is getting hard, so they withdraw,” he said. “So mimicking this type of race condition may not be beneficial physically, but will help you mentally during the actual event.” Ultra-endurance rider Cynthia Carson recommended this type of training session during an interview with Rouleur, saying that she practised numerous times in the dark before her races to ensure she felt comfortable with it come race day, as well as being able to practise with her kit that she would need in the night such as her lights. 

With a multi-day event, therefore, riding back-to-back days for a couple of hours will be a good experience and provide you with the mental resilience to get through this element, similar to what you will be experiencing during your event. Anything further than that, question why you are doing it, Lee said. Is there a reason? Remember to take a look at your core values and keep in mind what you want to achieve. 

Longer rides are good for being able to test hydration and nutrition or just getting used to several hours in the saddle, but Lee added: “For most athletes, a four-hour ride kind of shows you if there is anything wrong. Four hours onwards, it is pretty much the same every hour physically.” 

It’s all about what you do in between the stages 

For many, taking on a multi-day cycling trip requires time off work, money and a lot of time around work and family life preparing for the event, so when the event arrives, and the riding part is out of the way, the “holiday” mentality kicks in. “This is a treat for people,” Lee said. “Therefore, people want to enjoy it." 

This is fine if your goal set at the start of the training phase is just to enjoy it, but this mentality will need to be different if you've come to the event with the aim of performing well. 

Lee added: "If your goal is to perform really well, then as soon as you finish on the bike, your goal is then to recover, spending the least amount of time on your feet, and the least amount of time wasting energy. Usually, on these trips, alcohol is involved – sometimes excessive amounts of alcohol – and none of these things lead to performance. 

"It makes me sound like a killjoy, but it depends on what you want out of the trip. If you are there to be the first crossing the line first every day, then you will want to refuel as soon as you can, clean the body, get warm, and lay down for as much time as possible. But if you are at the event to enjoy the experience and want to socialise, not bothering whether you cross the line first or last, then you can allow yourself time to relax and enjoy the post-ride beers.” 

Numbers don’t have to be the be-all and end-all 

We know it is easy to get caught up in the numbers, especially when you can see your friends' watts, speed, FTP and every other stat you can think of on apps such as Strava or Zwift. However, Lee said that this is one of the biggest pitfalls he sees his clients fall into when training for a multi-day event. He added one stat in particular is the focus on many of his clients, stating: “There is too much belief that FTP is the be-all and end-all.” 

Read more: What is FTP and how do I use it?

Instead, he urged that those training for a multi-day event take a more well-rounded view of all the metrics. He noted the number of people who train with him who state that they want to increase their 20-minute FTP, but this is only beneficial if each stage or day of your trip is 20 minutes long and, therefore, this is going to be something to focus on. However, most multi-day cycling trips are three to four hours, so training your 20-minute effort may not be the best metric to focus everything on. 

“There are so many more elements involved in a multi-day trip than numbers,” Lee pointed out. “You need to understand managing your energy, eating on the go, and depending on the event, the temperature. If you are in a group environment, you might also be stopping up to three times to refuel.” 

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