Friends and clients often ask me if ultra-cycling events are good training for ultra-cycling events. The answer is yes, and no. It depends on your experience level, confidence, and your speed. In discussing training here I will address 2 aspects. The first is physiological adaptation. See this article for an explanation of the physiological adaptations that occur in humans from various intensities of work (training). These adaptations will increase a riders FTP and CTL. One thing should stand out immediately from Table 2. There is a lot more benefit from riding in zones 3-5 than riding in zones 1-2. The second aspect of training is not about your body, its about your mind. Its about gaining the knowledge, skills, and abilities it takes to ride an ultra. Much of this is experiential learning, meaning you have to ride long at some point to learn some things.
Next let’s draw a line, and say that anything that takes you over 6 hours to complete alone is an Ultra Event. For some riders and/or tough courses this makes a metric century an ultra event, for some a double metric, or 200K on a fast course, can take about 6 hours. Notice that I am defining the effort from the rider’s point of view, mentally and physically. To do this you have to accept the premise that your body does not have a GPS or an odometer, it doesn’t know distance. It knows how hard you worked (intensity) for what duration (time). It could be 20 miles up a 10% grade or 100 miles dead flat. If you put out the same power at the same cadence for the same duration, your body did the same work. Even more importantly, it will also be tasked with the same recovery time before you can do it again. If you are rested and pace yourself evenly for 6 hours, by definition, the intensity of your effort will put you squarely in zone 2. As events get longer, your intensity drops into zone 1.
There is a concept in training known as the Principle of Specificity. That principle says that if you want to excel at riding 200m sprints, ride lots of 200m sprints! If you want to do well at 40k time trials, ride lots of those. Of course the program will include rest and other intensities but the focus will be on the event duration you are targeting. The point I’m making in this article is that, physically, that principle falls apart at around 6 hours worth of work! That means that physiologically speaking, if you want to be a fast 24hr racer you should not do lots of 24h races! The intensity zone you can ride those in results in very little physiological adaptation, and the recovery time needed between them means that even though each one will result in a big increase in CTL, it will drop just as much afterwards, so it retards the rate at which you could be building fitness, if you can build at all.
Next let’s talk more about the physical side of training. By training we mean periodic and increasing stress, and recovery, that results in increased FTP and CTL. The more the FTP the faster you can ride aerobically. The more your CTL the quicker you can recover for the next intense workout. From a physiological point of view, I'd put a cap of six hours on your longest training effort. Most rides will be less. The reason for this is that in order to achieve most of these adaptations, you need to ride with some intensity, and fairly regularly. That means 3-4 hard days per week, for multiple weeks at time. The hardest days require a rest, or better yet a short easy ride the following day. Longer events take more recovery time and disrupt that regularity. Longer rides thus prevent you from doing the regular work needed to achieve and maintain the physiological adaptations crucial to success. If the weather is very hot, or you can't/don't fuel yourself on a ride, this increases recovery time, in which case 2-3h maximum ride length makes a lot more sense.
Looking at longer events, if you are doing something that will require you to sacrifice your sleep schedule, subject your body to a lot of thermal variation, in addition to the caloric debt and dehydration that are normal in these events, then the toll on your body is so high as to not be worth what you might gain from it. Beyond the toll on your body, there is a bigger issue. After such an event, you might not want to even look at your bike for some time. This is a not good in terms of training and fitness. The longer, and less well-supported the event is, the greater the risk of more recovery time and of post-event motivation loss.
Recovering from your last hard training effort so you can perform the next one is the key to becoming well trained, reaching a high chronic training load. Having a high chronic training load means you are ready to go your hardest and longest and recover the quickest from the effort. Lots of riders can go on a hard ride, but what you need to be able to do them regularly, and that requires rest and recovery. Put simply, the more you do, the more you can do. Rides over 6 hours cost more in recovery time than they gain you in physiological adaptation. Once rides get over approximately 14 hours (assuming you wake up and start riding), they start to interfere with your sleep time. Sleep is a crucial component of recovery. The balance we have to assess is just how much are you detracting from your ability to train by doing ultra length events due to the extended recovery they entail. Training sessions over 6 hours are detrimental to maintaining a steady training load. Sessions over 15 hours are really detrimental. On average, I have seen riders take 2-3 weeks to fully recover from a 24hr event, and as long as 4-5 weeks from a 40-90 hour event. That’s time you cannot spend training for the next event. Its time you spend losing fitness, and FTP.
The question arises, however, is physiological adaptation the only thing we should try to accomplish in training for ultra cycling events? The answer to that for less experienced riders is no.
Training includes experiential learning. To succeed in events lasting more than 6 hours, you need to really have a good sense of your fueling needs such that you can formulate a plan, and then actually follow that plan. It is amazing what you can get away with in a 4 to 5 hour event that simply will not work as you get into 12h, 24h, or even longer events. You need to be able to recognize the signs from your body and respond correctly, and that implies you need to experience and experiment a bit in ultra events at some point to in order do well in ultra events.
You need to experience the sensations of being low on calories, or low on electrolytes, or getting dehydrated, or of overheating, or getting drowsy. You need to experience and then recognize these feelings in order to devise and then follow a plan to cope with them. Your perception of these sensations will be different after 12 hours on the bike. Your ability to keep focusing and take care of yourself will also be diminished. You need to learn steady pacing. If you are riding self-supported events, you need to learn how to handle your own logistics, and how to coordinate that with your navigation. If you are riding supported events, you need to learn how to take advantage of the benefits a crew can provide, in addition to recruiting a good support crew.
Perhaps the most important experiential attribute you will gain from practicing ultra events is the confidence you will gain once you develop the skill and knowledge to get the most out your body. That confidence will be in both your physical and mental capabilities. Do not underestimate this. Once you have this confidence, you can go into an event not only well trained physically, but knowing that you have done this before, and knowing how you did it. You can go into an event focused on how hard and how steady you can go, not worrying whether or not you can complete it.
This leads to a lot of conclusions. If you are new to ultra events, a coach can help a lot. In addition, you can read a lot, and learn from some of the more experienced riders. But, eventually, you have to just do some and experience it on your own. You may fail to finish a few, but the goal is to learn from all of them!
Now the conundrum: Once you have the knowledge and skill to perform well in ultra events, and the faster you want to go, the fewer of them you should do. Pick a few and space them so you can get some good training cycles (5 weeks or more) in between events, allowing as many weeks as you need for recovery from the last event, and also allowing 10-14 days to taper before the next one. If you do really long events, it could be 3 months between events if you are trying to stick to a schedule that has you more trained for each successive event.
If you are chasing Ultra Cup points, the prior scenario is not really feasible. You will have much less time between events, and full recovery and retraining will not be possible. The best you can do in that case do is come into the season at the highest CTL you can get too, and then do your best to recover between events, training when possible. This means 3-4 months of hard training before the first event of the season if you are starting from scratch. This means hard training in the winter, which is harder even in the best climate. If you go all out in each event, trying to set records, training load will drop, you will lose fitness, and recovery will take longer with each event. If you are only interested in a points total, you can ease this by carefully studying the points structure of the series, and maximize the points you get for your effort as a result. Only go as hard as you need to. Either way its a very tough season to pull off mentally. Much respect to those who can do it well. Its is not often you see someone try to do this type of series two years in a row.
If you are doing a full brevet series in one year there are other issues. You will likely not have 2-3 months between events. One way to deal with this is to pick which distances you really want to do well in, and target those as your “peak” performances. If you are strong and just focused on a 600k or 1200k, or both, get the shorter ones out of the way as soon as you can, and use all the time allowed riding at an easy pace and sleeping. This will leave you time to train for the important one(s). If you are challenged with completing these under the time limit, space them out as evenly as you can in the year.
Once you have the skill to complete ultra events you can train for them very successfully on as little as 10-12 hours a week with high intensity work (zones 3-5). This also leaves more time for other parts of life. It also makes it easier to stay active in ultra racing for years without burning out as a result of all that time spent on the bike.
As some proof of this, note how well professional and high level amateur road racers do in ultra events once they have the skill and knowledge. Their training only changes slightly. Less focus on shorter supra-threshold efforts and sprints, and more on the bread and butter of aerobic training: 20-60 minute aerobic threshold work, 2-4 hour tempo rides, and some VOMax intervals to put the frosting on the cake.
Lastly, no matter how well trained you are physically, and well prepared and schooled you are mentally, to perform at your best involves a desire to push the limits just a little bit. This means coming into an event rested and hungry for the bike. In the last few days before the event, you should really be looking forward to going out and doing it. If your preparation does not leave you feeling like this, one or more ingredients are missing.