How Long Should Your Longest Training Ride Be?

How many miles do I need to ride in training to be ready for my event? I get asked some variation of that question all the time from cyclists getting ready for a century, gran fondo, gravel grinder, or endurance mountain bike event. Do you need to ride 60 or 75 miles during a training ride to be ready for a 100-miler? Does the length of my longest single training session matter?

Yes and no. There is nothing magical about achieving a specific percentage of the race or event distance in a single training ride. Marathon runners religiously use a 20-mile training run as a marker of preparedness to complete the event. Some cyclists and coaches insist on completing a 75-mile training ride in order to be ready for a century. Both are approximately 75% of the total event distance, but neither makes a significant difference in finish rates. So, then, what does make a difference?

Fitness trumps mileage

The development of your aerobic engine matters more than the miles you have in your legs. You can absolutely develop the fitness necessary to complete a challenging century or gran fondo with training rides that never exceed 3 hours. This is an important point for many cyclists who feel that longer events are out of reach because of limited training time. Cycling is a non-impact sport and you have a wide range of gears, so the physical capacity necessary to ride for 12 hours is not that much greater than it is to ride for 3 hours. As a result, with focused training within the time you have available you can develop the aerobic fitness necessary to successfully complete a 6-12 hour event. Would you go faster if you had more time to devote to training? Sure. But even with more time available for training, very long individual training rides are a very small component of what would make you faster.

The vast majority of your cardiovascular fitness and power output results from your shorter training rides. This is where you’re doing intervals that apply specific stress to energy systems and create a training stimulus. Relatively short and medium-distance group rides also build fitness because everyone in the group can maintain a higher power output and keep the group’s speed higher. If you’re preparing for a long endurance event and have limited training time, the best thing you can do is use your shorter rides to increase your power at lactate threshold and VO2max. Aim to go into your event with the highest fitness possible so you are better armed for the battle against the distance.

What very long rides do and don’t do for you

Individually, one very long ride (4-8 hours, depending on your fitness and experience) doesn’t impact your fitness or power output very much. The primary benefits from long training sessions are experiential. They are important for developing good fueling and hydration habits, for developing mental toughness, for learning how to pace yourself, and for physically adapting to sitting in the saddle for a long time.

For a lot of people reading this blog who are long-time cyclists, particularly those who are coming back from a period of diminished fitness or time away from the bike, the most important of these benefits will be reconditioning your backside for long hours in the saddle.

A side note about bike fit

Along the lines of physically adapting to long miles, keep this in mind: If you typically ride 1-3 hours you should expect some discomfort at the end of a ride that is 2x (or more) longer than normal. It doesn’t mean you weren’t fit enough for the ride or that there’s something wrong with your bike fit. When you dramatically increase your time on the bike, whether in one ride or in a block of training, there will be discomfort even when your bike fit is perfect. If you’ve been riding that position comfortably for months or years, don’t change it because you were stiff or sore at the end of a long ride. The ride caused the discomfort, not the bike fit.

When big rides cause problems

When athletes ask me how long their long ride needs to be in order to be ready for a big endurance event, I tell them it should be as long as they can realistically fit into their training schedule. The downside to big rides is that they require a lot of recovery, but don’t individually improve your fitness all that much. So, when an athlete with limited training time schedules too many big rides, those rides can actually get in the way of more purposeful training that would have a greater positive impact on fitness and power output.

In the end, go big when you can because big rides are fun and challenging and great learning experiences, but don’t stress about the length of your longest pre-event training session because that ride only plays a small role in your overall fitness.

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

Comments 25

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  4. Hi,
    What about triathletes doing sprint (bike split 30 minutes) and Olympic distance (bike split 60 minutes)?
    How long should their longest sessions take?
    Ronald

  5. Totally agree. I did the Hotter ‘N Hell 100 this year, and my longest ride was 62. Once. Lots of shorter, hard group rides, and intervals. Averaged 23mph the last 5 miles and felt great, which I didn’t think was bad for a 58 year old guy who was totally out of shape 5 years ago. Do really long, slow rides, you’ll be slow.

  6. Thanks for the insight and wisdom. I have to say that rest is a crucial factor along with fuel in a long event. I finished an 85-mile ride in NM, at a slightly higher elevation than where I live, and at mile 60 or so, although I had been eating everything available at the rest stops, I just wanted to get off and take a nap! Keep sleep in your recovery regimen.

  7. It’s interesting this 1 throughout winter lots of shorter rides to maintain fitness speed weight etc. Now spring approaching some Endurance events we have been building into longer and longer rides and pushing the speed up and the climbing. It’s a process and it continues……

  8. If you can comfortably ride a century, then you have the form to ride a double century. And have fun doing it. What you may not have developed is the psychological strength to put those miles in the saddle. A longish ride, one that will induce muscle fatigue but yet leaves you with the energy to ride “just a bit more” can help you over the barriers you may have built in your mind. Is that going to be 50 miles, 75, 100? Gonna be different for every rider. But when you believe you can, you can. Unfortunately, those who say they can’t are usually right

    1. Well put. Even if you don’t feel like you have the conditioning for an extra long ride, give it a go with an exploratory mindset that says, “I’m going some place new, on the map, with my body, with my mind, and (hopefully) with some good friends. I’m just going to enjoy a long, nice day on my bike!”

      And October is one of the very best times of year to do this. Enjoy!

  9. My apologies but I must respectfully disagree. I distinctly find through plenty of personal experience that training for fitness and training for distance must go hand in hand and one doesn’t provide the other. I find that fitness training makes you faster for some ride time but without distance training you run out of gas (aka matches). Complementing fitness training with distance training give you both the stamina to use that fitness for a longer period of time and increases your “depth” to widthstand longer and repeated efforts (aka more matches).

    1. When you say “matches”, are you referring to fuel? If so, the longer rides are good to test how to keep your body fueled for that long. You do need more matches for longer rides but with the right fuel, it becomes effortless!
      I’ve completed multiple centuries this year including the Hotter n Hell 100 in Wichita Falls where I finished in 4.5 hours with zero carbs! This catalyst allows me to burn my own body fat which is much more efficient than glucose with high and steady energy throughout the event! One of my team mates just finished the NCOM 208 mile race this weekend in Texas and she won the whole event fueled on this stuff! It really is phenomenal! If you want true, clean energy that will go the distance, let me know!

        1. Hey Jessica,

          I found it is best to experiment. Everyone is different. Some gel/food will upset your stomach. Others will not. You might need to fuel differently if you are going in slightly fasted/fasted or fully carbo loaded. Are you on a ride that is a hammer fest where you will need to pull or are you working on your own stopping to take some pics? With that, let’s assume you are going on a group ride where you will need to pull for 3-5 minutes above your FTP 10-15x over 4 hours. Thus, you are going into the ride fully loaded (nice carbo dinner and healthy carbo, two egg white and a splendid cup of black coffee breakfast). On the bike fuel every 500-750 calories. Alternate between something like Jelly Bellies and Stingers. For me, I don’t need to consume the whole bag of Bellies nor the Stinger Waffles (I don’t do Gels unless I can’t stop to fuel). Towards the end of the ride, I will back off refueling knowing I am not terribly worried I will bonk nor need the energy to finish. Thus, my last onboard nutrition will be the rest of the waffle (given it doesn’t reseal) or something from the feed zone that is starchy. Perhaps, even take in some caffeine. Again, know if you will be able to stop and refuel or if you will be on the bike, therefore, you want your nutrition in your jersey pockets. With your gloves, sweat and all that good stuff you don’t want to deal with unsealing and resealing food if you are not getting off the bike. Grab the Gel Goo if you are refueling on the bike. Suck a portion down and keep on pulling (I still don’t believe you need all of it once if you fueled the night before). For me, I like to have one bottle with 2-3 nuun tablets and one with plain water. The nuun is like a treat for myself. Take a little swig for working my bottom off. The nuun provides sugar (my treat, yes riders are tad off) as well. I have alerts on my Garmin for calories and I lap my pulls. I try to keep everything exact and measured. I know what happens if I get behind. If you get behind don’t take your pulls until you can catch back up. Hope my blathering helps! Try what works for you. Write it down and stick to it. I know what works for me by pushing my limits on an empty stomach. Then trying again “fully loaded” (yeah not that kind of loaded). What works for me doesn’t work for my brother-in-law. He thinks I have spent too much time in Boulder and Seattle! Enjoy your bike!

    2. High level blog post w/o much nuance. Kind of like junk miles. Perhaps, just a filler blog post?
      If you have put hours in the saddle, you know how longer rides impact your overall performance. You are tracking how much TSS you have absorbed throughout the week and previous weeks. You have experimented with fasted riding, when to refuel based on calories, how many bottles you should have gone through in warmer conditions, when to fuel on gels/beans v eating something like a waffle stinger. You know the impact of riding in a fast group v working on your own during a long ride. In short, get on your bike and ride. Know what your body can and can’t do.
      If you have followed a structured training plan that has included hours on the Turbo; your century event will be no big deal. Especially, given feeding zones and etc. Going in without conditioning long and short events will be problematic. Pretty simple, without base fitness you are likely not going to perform well.
      RR

  10. This is how my coach trained me for “Death Ride”. My Longest training ride was only about 4hours. However, after 10 hours of riding with 130 miles and 15,000 feet worth of vertical in the saddle, I could have done more.

  11. Do you have any special or general training recommendations for very short events where a rider would go as hard as possible for anywhere from 1 to 30 minutes? I am referring to things like short velodrome TT & Pursuits, 5 & 10TT and 20K road races.
    I am a late comer to racing, participating mostly in senior events. Based on my overall results and testing with a power meter, I don’t seem to be a candidate for being competitive in longer races. Thanks.

  12. So right there with you. I am a MAMIL and happy to be riding as much as I have time for. I have realized over time, the main aspect to long rides for me was just saddle discomfort, and maybe neck/shoulders.

    Plus, age is affecting my recovery time, and ‘some’ speed.

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