Training and Preparing for Your First Century Ride

By Chris Carmichael, Founder and Head Coach of CTS

Long rides can be intimidating for newer riders, but they don’t need to be. Training for a century ride is one of the most common cycling goals. With some patience, practice, and consistency on the bike, anyone can develop the fitness, skills, and confidence to tackle your first century ride.

How Long is a Century?

A century ride is 100 miles. If you have your cycling computer set to kilometers, aim for 161. There’s also a ‘metric century’, which is 100 kilometers (62 miles). Although you can ride a century on your own or with a group of buddies, 100 miles is a commonly featured distance in organized cycling events. To appeal to a larger audience of cyclists, most cycling events also offer two shorter distances, typically a metric century or something similar (55-65 miles) and a beginner-friendly loop (20-35 miles).

How long does it take to ride a century?

Many factors determine how long it will take a cyclist to complete a century ride. A pack of professional road cyclists can do it in less than four hours. In optimal conditions (flat route with a tailwind), that can be closer to 3:15 to 3:30. Amateur cyclists who are accustomed to the distance often pursue the milestone of a sub-5-hour road century (20 mph average). Depending on your level of preparation and experience, your first 100-mile road ride may take 6 – 8 hours to complete.

Of course, your speed during a century ride is not only determined by your fitness. A hilly or mountainous course, favorable or challenging weather, riding with a group or solo, and the decisions you make around fueling and hydration all make a difference. Compared to road riding, gravel centuries and mountain bike centuries can take 50-100% longer to complete (or more).

Because there are so many variables, a goal time isn’t the best approach to training for your first century ride. Rather, develop the fitness, skills, and fueling and hydration habits to maintain a sustainable pace for at least six hours. Aerobic endurance is rarely the limiting factor for finishing a century ride. When cyclists fail to finish a century ride, it is more often a consequence of poor pacing, nutrition/hydration mistakes, or gear that’s inadequate for the conditions.

How long does it take to train for a century ride?

There is no universal training plan duration to prepare for your first century. It depends on a cyclist’s baseline fitness, cycling experience, available weekly training hours, and other factors. However, planning on 12 weeks of structured training is a good starting point for a cyclist who has been riding regularly (approx. 3 times per week) for 6-12 months. With 12 weeks of training, a first-time century rider’s goal should be reaching the finish, not setting a speed record. Starting earlier allows you to build greater peak fitness, which creates confidence and provides more capacity to recover from mistakes.

How long does my longest training ride need to be?

A common misconception is that completing X miles in a single training ride means you’re ready for a century. It is a good idea to incorporate long rides into your training, but there is no magic to the distance or duration of your longest training ride. The longest long ride doesn’t do much for your fitness. If anything, too many long rides can hinder fitness because they must be balanced by so much recovery time.

The purpose and benefit of especially long rides in training is largely experiential. These rides are important for honing nutrition strategies and getting used to sitting on the bike for several hours. Issues with bike fit may not be an issue during a 2-hour ride but make a 6-hour ride painful. Foods that work well for you in shorter rides may be unappealing or nauseating after several hours. Typically, a handful of 4- to 6-hour rides interspersed in your training are more helpful than a single extremely long ride. For more on this question, read this article.

Training for a century ride

Aerobic endurance is the essential component of training for a century when the goal is to successfully finish a 100-mile ride. The good news is that many pathways to improving aerobic endurance. If you have a lot of training available, long rides at lower intensity (Zone 2) are very effective. If you are a Time-Crunched Cyclist, shorter rides at higher intensities can yield similar results. You can even ride indoors, outdoors, an on roads, trails, or gravel paths.

There are a ton of free and paid pre-written century training plans available for cyclists. For instance, you can find two in “The Time-Crunched Cyclist” and as part of the Trainright Membership. No matter whether you design your own plan, work with a personal coach, or use a pre-written plan, here are some of the keys for successfully training for a century ride:

Focus on consistency

It takes time for individual training efforts to manifest as physiological adaptations. No single workout is as important as working out consistently. Today’s ride creates a training stimulus, but repeated bouts of training stress – over a period of weeks and months – are required to improve performance. It is important to recognize that the time course for training adaptations is in weeks and months, not hours and days. The takeaway is that getting on your bike regularly matters more than the specifics of what you do during any particular ride. So, don’t worry about messing up individual workouts, shortening a ride here or there, or shuffling your schedule sometimes.

Most of your rides should be easy

You may hear it referred to as ‘polarized training’ or ‘80/20’ or ‘time-crunched training’, but the concept is roughly the same. You can’t train hard all the time. The most effective distribution of intensities favors low-intensity training most of the time and limits high-intensity training to 15-25% of total training time. New cyclists preparing for a daunting challenge like a 100-mile ride often think riding harder will accelerate their progress. Adding somestructured intensity, in the form of intervals, will help, but turning every ride into a suffer-fest will not. That’s a recipe for burnout and injury.

Use interval training to develop energy systems

As mentioned above, you can’t go hard all the time, but you do want to ride hard some of the time. Interval training structures bouts of exercise at specific intensities and durations designed to accumulate ‘time-at-intensity’ or ‘time-in-zone’. When athletes spend sufficient time training at intensities that challenge aspects of their physiology – like sustaining a power output at the upper limit of muscles’ ability to break down fat and carbohydrate aerobically – the body responds by adapting to that stress. When bouts of intensity are random or stochastic, there is not enough concentrated stress to drive adaptation.

Not all intervals need to be hard. This is a key misconception about interval training. When training for a century ride, one of the most important interval workouts is called Tempo. The intensity is moderate – a challenging aerobic effort well below Functional Threshold Power. The training stimulus from Tempo workouts comes from the duration of the intervals, which can be 15-60 minutes long.

Prioritize training and recovery equally

Training only works when bouts of training stress are separated by adequate period of rest. Training applies stress, rest provides the time and opportunity for adaptation. That’s why it’s important to respect the rest days or easy days between endurance rides and interval workouts. Here’s an article on my top 10 most important rules for post-workout recovery.

Recovery periods between interval efforts during workouts matter, too. You’re not adapting to the training during these short rest periods. Rather, the duration of the easy period between harder efforts affects your ability to repeat high-quality efforts and accumulate the necessary ‘time-at-intensity’. Here’s more about the effect of recovery periods during workouts.

Eat to support your training

Most times, training for your first 100-mile ride leads to an increase in weekly training volume (miles and hours). This means an increase in energy expenditure. For those hours of training to manifest as improved fitness you must consume enough energy to support your activity level. A mistake many cyclists make is to attempt to lose weight and increase training workload at the same time. Most cyclists – particularly beginners ­– have more to gain by improving fitness rather than through losing weight.

Learning Skills and Strategies for Century Rides

Fitness is only one component to having a successful century ride. The longer the ride the more your habits and skills matter for managing energy and arriving safely at the finish. Preparation for your first century ride should include the following:

Learn to ride in a group

Drafting is an essential skill for long rides. Regardless of how aero a bike may be, the rider accounts for more than 80% of the aerodynamic drag. Drafting reduces the work of maintaining a given pace, compared to riding that pace on your own. Riding with friends and joining the local group ride are good ways to get comfortable in the draft. Read more about drafting skills.

Develop your nutrition strategies

During shorter rides you can make fueling and hydration mistakes and get to the finish before they cause problems. During centuries and other long rides, those mistakes can prevent you from reaching the finish at all. In addition to learning what to eat and drink during rides of any length, it’s important to experiment in training to find out what foods and drinks work best for you.

Learn to eat and drink while moving

When you’re riding with a group you can’t always wait for a stopping point to have a drink or snack. And even if you’re riding solo, eating and drinking on the move saves time. For more on how to eat and drink while riding, along with other skills, read “9 Essential Cycling Skills All Riders Need to Master”.

Learn to pace by perceived exertion and breathing

Power meters, heart rate monitors, GPS units, and other devices are great training tools. When used correctly they help cyclists learn to gauge efforts without any data at all. Gauging intensity by Rating of Perceived Exertion is remarkably accurate, even as conditions change. Heart rate can be affected by caffeine, fatigue, dehydration, body temperature, and stress. Sustainable power output is affected by previous efforts, ride duration, and altitude. Your target power output for a 10-minute climb in training may be unsustainable 75 miles into a hilly century. That’s when perceived exertion is your best pacing tool.

Similarly, your breathing rate can give you an idea of your current intensity level. Even without equipment you can use a “talk test” or monitor your breathing to help you gauge your efforts:

  • Talking casually = recovery pace/easy
  • You can speak 1-2 sentences at a time = endurance pace/moderate
  • You can only get 2-3 words out between breaths = at/near lactate threshold/hard
  • Grunts and single words (especially the 4-letter variety) = well above threshold/very hard

At or below threshold, your breathing will be labored but deep and in control. If you’re breathing shifts to out-of-control panting, you are above ventilatory threshold and riding at an intensity level you will not be able to sustain for long.

Final Preparation for Your First Century

As the day of the big event draws near, it’s important to remind yourself that training takes time. Your fitness won’t change much in the last two weeks before your century ride. So, if you didn’t train as much as you wanted to, there’s no point in ‘cramming for the exam’. And if your training went perfectly to plan, it’s equally important that you don’t squander your fitness by overdoing it. The best things you can do in the week leading up to your first century ride are: get good quality sleep, adjust your ride frequency and intensity, and plan a good pre-ride meal.

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