Which is Better: Two Shorter Rides or One Really Long Ride?

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We received a great long ride question from an athlete and thought the answer would make a good post for everyone. Here’s the question:

“Would it be preferable to ride 6 hours in one day with a day off following, or 2 days back to back for 3 hours? Obviously a person can ride harder each day for 3 hours but if the objective is staying in the middle of the endurance zone and that can be maintained for 6 hours is there a difference in benefit?”

There are a lot of training aspects we could focus on just from that short paragraph, but the crux of the question is whether it’s better to ride at a higher power output for two shorter rides, or a lower power output for one steadier ride. The short answer is that both scenarios have a place in your training, but for different reasons. Here’s what I mean:

NOTE: This specific question is about 3-hr and 6-hr rides. “Short” and “long” are relative based on your fitness and experience level, but for simplicity sake I’m going to stick with the 3- and 6-hour example. It is also important to realize these are generalized recommendations meant for moderately-fit amateur athletes. Ideally, all training is designed specifically for the demands of your goal event, your current training load, experience level, and fitness level.

Two Back-to-Back “Shorter” Rides

Generally speaking you can ride at a higher average power during a 3-hr ride compared to a 6-hr ride. Even if you’re aiming at staying in an endurance training zone, you will still have a higher overage power over 3 hours compared to 6 because fatigue will cause you to slow down in the final hours of the longer ride. But what does that mean for your training?

Endurance is rarely your limiting factor

Even if you’re training for a long endurance event, aerobic endurance is rarely a limiting factor. A moderately-trained athlete can reach the finish line of almost any endurance event. Your training will affect how fast you finish and how enjoyable the event is, but for the audience reading this blog, you have the endurance to finish already. More generalized endurance won’t improve your performance; specific energy system work (particularly lactate threshold) will.  This means I prefer to focus training on maximizing training quality (higher power output, more time-at-intensity) so you can get to the finish faster, more comfortably, and achieve your performance goals.

Shorter sessions are easier to recover from

Even though you’re going to go harder during a shorter ride, you will be able to recover more quickly from that session compared to a much longer ride. Your overall kilojoule count will be lower. You’re going to be able to replenish your hydration status and caloric expenditure more easily, and you’ll be more functional for the remainder of your day (a valid concern for amateur athletes who have a long list of things to accomplish on weekend days). Of course, this is not always the case. You could go ballistic for 3 hours and come back as shattered as you might be from a more moderate 6-hr ride. You could suffer from heat stress and hydration issues in a hard 3-hr session, too. But in most typical cases, the shorter sessions are easier to recover from. This means your ride the next day can also be a high-quality training session.

Shorter rides are just as effective for improving power and speed

If your goal is to get ready for a great performance at a goal event, only do as much work as you need to do. It has been proven time and again that improved power at aerobic, lactate threshold, and VO2 max intensities can be accomplished as effectively with relatively short rides compared to longer “epic” rides. Improving lactate threshold power will make your performance in long – even ultradistance – events better. As I’ll explain below, the long training sessions are necessary, but for a different reason.

One Long Ride

The fact you can develop the fitness for great performances in long-distance/duration events with shorter rides doesn’t mean I think you should avoid huge rides. Not only is the all-day ride a big part of the reason we love cycling, it is also a necessary component of training for big events. It’s just that while there are some performance fitness benefits from long rides, they are similar to those from shorter rides and they aren’t the most important training benefits of those 6-hour rides.

Nutrition/Hydration Strategies

One of the biggest benefits to your 6-hour ride is the opportunity to test and hone your nutrition and hydration strategies. You can make some pretty big mistakes in a 3-hour ride and get away with it. Those mistakes will be a lot more noticeable and detrimental when you go long. If you’re preparing for a really long event (100-mile MTB race, Ironman, Gran Fondo, Dirty Kanza 200, etc.), it is crucial to learn what foods work for you several hours in. Just as important, you need to learn how to eat and drink in the first 3 hours when you’re going to be on the bike for another 3-6 hours after that! You can’t learn that in the shorter training sessions.

Bike Fit and Contact Points

Just as your nutrition/hydration strategies need to be tested and honed in long rides, so does your bike fit. A riding position that is powerful and comfortable for 3 hours might be utterly unbearable after 6 hours or more. You may not have a sore neck, numb hands, or hot spots on your feet during short rides, but if you’re event is a long one you need to make sure your position and contact points (saddle, bars/grips, pedals) are still comfortable and effective many hours later.

Mental Toughness

To be 100% Prepared for your event you have to train your mind as well as your body. Can you remain focused 6 hours in? 12 hours? During the Dirty Kanza 200 one year I remember riding into a stiff headwind, almost entirely without a draft, for 70 miles. Physically, it wasn’t that terrible. I just maintained a power I knew I could maintain and let the speed be what it would be. But mentally it was awful. Even with 40+ years of cycling experience in all kinds of races and conditions, there were times when I wanted to quit. I had to call upon mental skills and reserves of determination to keep plowing forward. Long training sessions – especially solo training sessions – are essential for developing the mental toughness to make it through the rough times in endurance events.

What You Should Do

The best solution is not a choice between short and long rides but a combination of both. You could, for instance, devote some weekends to back-to-back 3-hour rides and focus on developing fitness (power and speed). Other weekends commit to one big, long ride and focus on the skills, techniques, and habits that make long rides successful. Your goal is to finish those long rides tired but not so shattered that the last hour is a death march. The important thing to remember is that it’s not the individual comparison between two short rides and one long ride that matters; it’s the how the two scenarios impact your fitness and performance over the long term.

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS


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Comments 25

  1. Pingback: Benefits and Risks of Two-a-Day Training for Cyclists - Chris Carmichael

  2. Pingback: The Best Sports to Gain Endurance — Fit People

  3. Great article! I love how there are a lot of reasons why we should ride a bike.
    I’ve been thinking of buying my kids and my husband a bike as a way to bond,
    and it’s good to know that it can also boost our immune system.
    I should definitely consider this. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I’ve read that usually you can ride 1.5 x 2 your normal training distance. But you can also feel like you’ve left the solar system in terms of your orientation. It’s pretty easy to dial in the mental toughness for 3 hour rides, the hydration and fueling but when you start pushing 2 x that it becomes uncharted territory. I agree for fitness a little more power for shorter rides is good but you need your mind/body to go where it hasn’t been before too.

  5. Mental toughness part of this is relevant to me. I am learning, with the assistance of Coach Jason, that I can do more than I thought I can do. Ward B

  6. Great article CTS. Has put in great perspective for me a point I have pondered over quite often – especially, as stated, given limited available time in week ends.

  7. when are you guys going to include numerals in your posts? On my screen it says that a -hour ride is longer than a -hour ride. That’s less helpful than it could be. Besides, this is CO Springs, where 25 minutes on North Cheyenne Canon feels like 2 hours around the Hanover loop.

  8. I do 1-2 hour training intervals which really help me to increase my aerobic capacity, speed and form. I also ride in a moderately fast paced group to hone my group riding skills, I am 71. The longer 5-6 hour rides are normally charity rides, Grand Fondo’s etc. I swept all 3 medals in last years Delaware Senior Olympics and set a 40K record held for 15 years. This program works for me along with the great advice I get from CTS.

    1. Very impressive. I like watching the pros but the older crowd’s accomplishments, like this poster or a 50yr old guy that takes 1st place in a Cat 1/2 race is just more motivating to me.

  9. A 3 hour ride IS a long ride. This is not where you can develop speed and power. 90-110 minutes is a ride on which you focus on speed and power. I think CTS is imagining we are all elite riders getting ready to ride for Quickstep at Paris Roubaix tomorrow, just like Chris C used to be. Sorry Chris I never made it beyond Cat 3 amateur.

    1. Post
      Author

      Though it was in the question we originally received, we struggled with whether using 3 and 6 would be problematic. Near the beginning of the article there’s this: “NOTE: This specific question is about 3-hr and 6-hr rides. “Short” and “long” are relative based on your fitness and experience level, but for simplicity sake I’m going to stick with the 3- and 6-hour example.” The principles are the same whether your long ride is 3 hours and your short rides are 60-90 minutes. We coach everyone from beginners to very time-crunched athletes to ultraendurance athletes and professionals. No matter where you fit on that spectrum we strive to provide actionable advice you can use and we hope that you continue to improve and love your sport! – CTS

  10. very interesting my understanding that long endurance rides work a different part of the heart which is very much needed to increase your overall performance. Also you are right about hydration which most people mistake for bunking . The right stuff product that I market is really important for those long endurance rides. It has saved me in cents like the Everest challenge and my baldy. You can read about its benefits on the web under the right stuff hydration prodicts

    1. so you don’t know how the “heart works” and training benefits of endurance exercise, but you know all about hydration and fueling for endurance exercise? brilliant.

    1. Summary: If you want to get stronger, two 3 hr rides is better than one 6 hour ride. But, if you are planning on doing an Endurance race, it is helpful to do the occasional 6 hr ride to test bike fit, hydration, and eatting plan to make sure you don’t run into problems you won’t know about by just doing 3 hours rides.

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