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In my article “Planning a Tour” I discuss the steps related to deciding where to go, how far to ride and what type of tour best fits your needs and expectations. In this article we are going to look at how to train physically and mentally for the rigors of extended time on a bike.

Preparing Physically

Physically preparing for a long ride is a fairly easy thing to get your head wrapped around. There is no shortage of information related to bicycle specific training and general cardiovascular and muscular fitness. If you are new to cycling or are planning an extended tour and will be pushing your body hard, please do your homework. Riding a loaded bike day-after-day puts a tremendous strain on your body.

Many folks underestimate the need to prepare appropriately and suffer early on because of it. And don’t fall into the trap of believing that you can tour yourself into shape. Unless you have the time and patience to start very slowly and then deliberately increase your mileage over a period of a few weeks, this strategy can lead to physical and emotional injury that has the potential to end your tour prematurely.

There is no single one size fits all program for getting into touring shape. Due to the variables related to your current fitness level, your age, your genetic make up and the specific tour you are planning to do, I recommend that you create an individual program to suit your unique needs. Here are a few questions to ask yourself to help you choose an appropriate plan:

  • What is your current fitness level? I implore you to be honest when answering this. If you need help consult with a personal trainer who will not only assess you current fitness but can help you develop a long term plan to meet your goals.

  • Are you athletic? This is not the same as being in shape. Are you and your body familiar with the stress of athletic endeavors? Have you worked yourself into shape before? Do you know what it feels like to be in great shape? If this is unfamiliar territory you will need help.

  • How old are you? Age does matter. A sedentary eighteen year old may be able to jump on a loaded bike and ride 40 - 50 miles, avoid injury and still consider it fun, but a 50 year old cannot. I don’t recommend that anyone do this but keep in mind that the risk of injury rises dramatically as we age.

  • How far do you want to ride each day? If your tour involves 20 – 30 miles each day carrying nothing but a credit card and smile, your level of preparation is dramatically different than if you plan to ride 50 – 70 miles fully loaded in the mountains.

  • How long is your tour? This can work both to your advantage and disadvantage. A weekend tour of 50 miles/day, even if you are not in great shape, may be doable and enjoyable. But extend the length even a few more days and your body will continue to break down and will have a tough time recovering.

  • How many hours each day are you willing to spend in the saddle? This is not only a matter of how long you are able to spend in the saddle but how long you want to spend. After all, touring does not have to be only about being on the bike. In fact, most folks have way more fun if they take time off of the bike to see the sights, engage with the locals, and relax. Seriously, it’s easy to get caught up with getting somewhere at the expense of enjoying the journey.

  • What type of terrain will you be touring in? Obviously, crossing Kansas is a lot different than crossing Colorado. The elevation and mountains make Colorado much more difficult and potentially more rewarding, but prepare appropriately. As a rough guide consider mountainous touring 2X more difficult than flat.

I am not a medical professional but I do appreciate common sense. If you have any chronic physical problems, talk to your doctor about your plans and review with her how you intend to prepare. Even if you are relatively healthy, if you do not currently regularly participate in extended strenuous activity and are over 40, see your doctor. If you are not in great shape and are planning a self supported tour over one week in duration, start this process at least six months in advance.

Working it

Again, if you are in reasonable physical condition, are regularly participating in rides at a brisk pace over 30 miles, and have toured before, you likely have an excellent conditioning base to build from. If this is you, keep up the good work and slowly increase your weekly ride mileage at no more 10% week over week, until you are able to comfortably double your anticipated daily touring average on your weekend ride. This is based on riding a fully loaded touring bike being approx. twice as difficult as your unloaded daily ride. It’s not really twice as hard, but a reasonable approximation.

If, on the other hand you are not in great shape, don’t ride often (or at all) and are not an experienced bicycle tourist, you’d better get off the stick and work it! Do your research. Join a gym and set up a program with a trainer. Contact a bicycle club about

local group training rides and touring information. Your goal should be the same as the experienced tourist above; gain core strength, flexibility and cardiovascular fitness. Ride to work, ride to school and go long one day on the weekend. If the weather in your area precludes riding in the winter take a spin class 3 days a week until the weather improves. You will lose weight, feel great and will be physically prepared for your tour.

And finally, incorporate copious amounts of saddle time as an integral component of your fitness plan. This will prepare your legs, heart, lungs and butt for your tour. As you approach your departure date and have all your equipment lined up, plan day long and overnight shakedown rides. You’ll quickly identify the areas that need attention and there will be time to make the appropriate adjustments.

Preparing Mentally

I have been riding for over 3 decades. I am by no means in the best riding shape of my life. My age and available time works against that. But I can say, without hesitation, that I can go farther and stay in the saddle longer than at any other time of my life. How can I do that? The answer is mental conditioning, mental preparation and wisdom.

My standard Sunday ride is a 35 mile loop that takes me through the redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It takes about 2.5 hours and climbs 2,700 feet. It’s a beautiful and very strenuous ride. I usually push it pretty hard and have a blast doing it.

I assure you that I am not a masochist. I don’t enjoy suffering anymore than you do. But I have learned to lose myself mentally when I ride. I avoid thinking about how hard it is. I try not to dwell on how much further it is to the top of the climb. Instead, I revel in the beauty of my surroundings, the sheer joy in riding and purge the negative thoughts from my mind. It’s the same as meditating, and in essence, it is meditating.

Everyone has had the experience while driving a car where your mind drifts and suddenly you realize that you don’t recall the last 10 minutes of your journey. You were lost in thought; not to the point of being a danger, but enough to channel your thoughts away from your immediate surroundings. It can make a long car trip doable and a tough bike ride much more enjoyable.

I can’t honestly say I know how I do it. What I do know is that it starts by thinking about something other than the fact that I am suffering. I try to solve a problem, recall a great memory or simply concentrate on all the positive things going on at the time. It may sound hokey, but it works and is a great coping technique. Incorporate it into your training and you may find that it works with many other physical activities besides cycling. Visualization is the other aspect of mental preparation that reaps great rewards.

There is a lot written on visualization, as the technique is valuable when applied to many endeavors. In the context of preparing for a tour I recommend that you imagine yourself in a variety of stressful situations. For example, you are very tired after a long day but still have 20 miles to go until you hit camp. The breeze shifts right into your face and now you are fighting a wicked head wind! Now imagine you and your partner taking turns drafting each other. You accept the fact that you are going to get to camp later than you wanted and realize that you are on vacation and it doesn’t matter! Now you can relax and stop pushing. You sit up a little and start noticing how beautiful the late afternoon light looks and you start to enjoy yourself. You may be riding slowly but you’ll get there eventually and in fine spirits.

Visualization not only will reduce fear of the unknown but will also serve as practice to deal with those types of situations if you face them while on tour. You’ll know what to expect and will react appropriately to make the best of a stressful situation.

A Brief Word about Wisdom

I mentioned earlier that a 50 year old cannot compete physically with a 20 something. This is usually the case but the wisdom that comes from life experiences is a huge advantage on tour. The wise rider will listen to their body, will plan and prepare better, will make better decisions and will react more rationally than those less mature. It’s just like the old story of the tortoise and the hare. The hare could run circles around the tortoise but who won the race? You betcha!