Do you like to ride your bike all day long? Ever wanted to race across a country—or, for that matter, a continent? If you answered yes to either of those questions, and you don’t mind eating food from convenience stores and sleeping in a bivy sack beside the road, then maybe you’re ready for “ultra.”
Ultra-distance cycling, or ultra-cycling for short, comprises several disciplines. There are traditional genres, including supported ultra-cycling races (e.g. Race Across America, or RAAM), road time trials (typically 12 or 24 hours long), and randonneuring events, which are steeped in history and include Paris-Brest-Paris.
Then there are more recent developments: Self-supported bikepacking races (e.g. Tour Divide) have recently exploded in popularity as people seek to combine challenge and adventure into one long bike ride.
Regardless of the genre, the outcome is the same: You’ll be on your bike for a long time, sometimes for days and weeks at a time. Feats of endurance measured this way take a special approach; it isn’t enough to start with a training plan built for a six-hour road race and double it. There’s much more that goes into preparing, both physically and mentally, for an ultra event then logging big mileage.
We spoke with three veterans of ultra-cycling to put together a beginner’s guide to this grueling and rewarding sport.
Matt Roy has been competing in ultra events for over a decade. He holds both the Maine north to south and west to east cross-state records, he won the TransAtlantic Way pairs division in 2018, finished the Paris-Brest-Paris in 2019, and has completed more than 27,000 kilometers of brevets since 2007. Roy was also my riding partner for my 2021 N1 Challenge, Alt Ring Iceland, during which we bikepacked the circumference of the island nation.
Nick Legan, the road brand manager for Shimano, has completed Tour Divide and the 12-hour Time Trial World Championships.
Jose Bermudez is the first and, still, the only person to have completed RAAM, Tour Divide, and TransAm, a self-supported bikepacking race across the U.S. He’s also raced the 350- and 1000-mile Iditarod events in winter.
Let’s explore the wild world of ultra, from training to pacing, from psychology to palate fatigue, and everything in between.
How to train for ultra-cycling events
You say to yourself, “I’m intrigued by ultras. But I only ride eight hours a week, and sometimes I’ll get a really long ride of six hours every other weekend…”
Does training for ultra-endurance events necessitate long hours in the saddle? Is it something only veteran cyclists who have been riding for decades can take on?
Both Roy and Bermudez emphasize that training for ultras isn’t all about slogging through slow miles. Interval training is an important part of the preparation.
“One big realization for me was doing some interval work to make sure I had top-end,” Roy says. “The more top-end you have access to, the easier those hills are.”
Roy also notes that there are often “a lot of knuckleheads at the start of these things who think they can do it at 25 miles an hour.” He suggests you let them do just that, and sit on their wheels, drafting behind them. You can only do this if you have enough top-end to hang on without wasting energy. When they blow up, you’re still fresh and can push on.
Bermudez is a seasoned veteran of ultra-cycling events as well as a coach of several ultra athletes.
“I’m interested in raising people’s power threshold, I’m looking at cumulative training load—all the metrics are the same, but the work that we do in ultra-cycling training is very different,” he says.
The major difference, according to Bermudez, is that you’re operating at a much lower percentage of your functional threshold power (FTP). Thus, if you can make improvements in your FTP, then operating at 60 percent of it is going to get you going faster, more efficiently.
In terms of hard and fast rules about how much volume you need, Bermudez hesitates to put a number on it. It all comes down to an individual’s background and experience in relation to his or her goals for the event. Just like a traditional training plan, he likes to work backwards from the event, factoring in time for a taper, a build, and so forth.
If you’re primarily a road cyclist or a mountain biker, you can do many of the same things you’ve always done. You just have to occasionally add in some longer rides.
“Not that all your rides are long,” Bermudez says. “It used to be the case that people train for things like Race Across America just by riding their bike for hundreds of miles every week. Smart people don’t do that anymore. It’s not efficient. It’s not a good use of time and it doesn’t actually make you any faster.”
Instead, Bermudez believes it’s better to incorporate threshold intervals into your plan. Not only does he believe that this fundamental component of training will lead to beneficial physiological adaptations, it also helps people understand how it feels to suffer.
“There’s a lot of suffering in these races,” he says. “Suffering comes in lots of different varieties, and it’s good to practice lots of different types of it.”
Ultimately, the longer the race—Bermudez, Roy, and Legan agree—the less important the physiological aspect becomes. That’s not to say that training isn’t necessary. However, the mental strength it takes to get more out of your body is an acquired skill that is critical to ultra events.
“Certainly, you’ve got to be in really good shape,” Bermudez says. “But you’ve also got to have a mental strength that not many people have, or be able to maintain a kind of intensity of activity for literally weeks at a time.”
Furthermore, Bermudez adds, you need to be efficient on your bike. As he puts it, there’s no point in hammering for six hours at 20 miles an hour, and then taking an hour off your bike. You’re much better off using a more controlled pace and only taking infrequent, 10-minute breaks.
The brain likes bite-size chunks
By definition, ultra-cycling events take a long time to complete. Many times, they take place over intimidating distances, so having a mechanism to reduce that mental burden helps turn one really long race into several much shorter, more digestible races.
One common strategy for helping the brain cope with such an event, whether a 12-hour gravel race or a six-day bikepacking race, is a concept called chunking.
“I always think about breaking things up incrementally,” Roy says. “So, 100K, with stops and a lot of hills takes four hours. Anybody can ride four hours. You get to the next control or checkpoint, you hit a reset button. That reset button is mental. You get full bottles, you get some fresh snacks, and you’re starting a brand new ride. And the only thing you need to do for the next four hours is get from that checkpoint to the next checkpoint. And if you can trick your brain into believing that, then that’s half the battle.”
It’s not possible to ride or race for 12 hours without having some emotional ups and downs. It’s inevitable that you will have moments when you feel terrible—physically, emotionally, or both. How you address that moment—how you work through the struggle and get to the other side—is part of the challenge of ultra-endurance events. Some would go so far as to say that element is part of the beauty of this niche sport.
An athlete’s ability to compartmentalize the suffering, to rationalize the emotions surrounding that moment and put it into a greater context, is critical to staying calm and forging ahead during those lonely, challenging moments.
“When I get to a checkpoint or a certain place along a route, it becomes a new ride,” Roy says. “And then I don’t have to worry about those ghosts from 20 minutes ago. That compartmentalization is the key for me. And I will even break it up into smaller chunks. If I’m on a long, long, miserable steep climb, then the next telephone pole is my goal, and then the one after that.”
Roy also suggests other logistical tricks to help reduce the intimidating nature of these events. First, map out the route into smaller segments. For example, create route files for your navigation device that display only the day’s route (or even two per day, one for the morning and one for the afternoon), rather than one map for the entire event.
Another trick Roy suggests is to use a timer as a reminder to eat on a set schedule. That “dinner bell” not only will help you to stay fueled, it can break up the monotony into bite-size increments.
To focus or daydream?
You might think that in a 12-hour time trial you would be able to tune out, shut off, and put yourself on autopilot. Not so, according to Legan.
“If I’m really pushing, I never shut off,” Legan says. “I’m the kind of person that’s doing the mental math all the time. I’m hitting the lap button to get a sense of, ‘Am I on pace? Am I behind pace?’ And I have a grid taped to my handlebar to refer to. And I’m asking myself, ‘Am I eating enough? Am I pushing up the hill as hard as I should be? Am I looking at my power to pace.’ So, it’s a lot of mental work in addition to physical.”
That said, on the other end of the ultra-spectrum, in a race like Tour Divide, you can tune out to some degree, especially if you fall into the “completer” category rather than the “competer” group.
Still, cautions Legan, you need to stay switched on.
“You need to keep your head in the game, and that’s to take care of yourself, to take care of your bike, to do the preventative maintenance, whether that’s taking advantage of a restaurant’s bathroom to clean your saddle interface, or lubing your chain, staying on top of your tire pressure, things like that.”
The risk is, if you stop paying attention, little issues can slowly, steadily turn into race-threatening problems. This is especially true when it comes to self-care—you don’t want to let that weird sensation under your butt go too long before you take care of it. Likewise, that slight numbness in your pinky, which is slowly spreading to your ring finger, needs to be addressed. Try something: Take a glove off or put a glove on. But never ignore the small stuff.
“That preventative maintenance goes a long way,” Legan says. “It seems like you’re wasting time, but these are things that pay off in the long run. And again, this is all about the long run.”
To sleep or not to sleep?
If you’re taking on an ultra-endurance event, then sleep will likely be on your mind—as in, how much do you want, how much do you need, and how much will you get. Often, there is strategy involved in the decisions you make around sleep—how far can you safely push without it, where is the best place to hunker down for the night, and so on.
Of course, there are different answers to those questions depending on the overall length of the event—and, certainly, individual preferences and strategies also come into play.
If it’s a shorter race, in the range of 24-48 hours, maybe a short nap here and there is all you need. Longer than that, and you might need to get hours of sleep every night—what that looks like and for how long is, again, up to the individual.
Roy has found through years of experience and trial and error that it is not faster to push through sleep deprivation.
“Unless you’re super jacked up on caffeine or who knows what,” he says, “it’s not sustainable. And I have found myself way faster if I just get down for a little bit of sleep.”
Identifying the right length of nap for you comes only through experience. Some people might do well with 15 minutes. Some people might need an hour. There can also be a point, given the length of the event, that you don’t want to fall asleep for too long.
Roy recommends setting goals before the race begins.
“I’ll just adjust my pace and my sleep and my stops to meet that goal,” Roy says. “So, if I lay down and I know that I’ve been averaging the right speed, I’ll say, ‘Okay, you get two hours.’ And I’ll sleep two hours. If I get to that point, and I’m a little behind, then I’ll say, ‘Okay, you get an hour.’”
What is right for you? That’s difficult to answer without experience. Experiment if you can: Break your rests and rides into a goal-oriented framework and see if you can achieve them.
Bermudez thinks in terms of the other commitments you might have at any given event. For something like Tour Divide, for example, if you are trying to be competitive, you might sleep four to five hours a night. For something like Race Across America, it might only be one to two hours.
That’s because in Tour Divide, you’re having to stay reasonably well-rested in order to remain cognitively alert. You need brain power to navigate, set up camp, and so forth. At RAAM, other people are there to do things for you. The athlete is solely responsible for riding the bike.
Tips for your first ultra-cycling event
To the unfamiliar, ultra-cycling may sound like slow torture. But with a bit of experience, and the advice of our experts, small tweaks to your routine can make a world of difference, and have you longing for even longer races.
Feed your cravings
If you walk into the convenience store and you’re craving Frito’s, go get a bag—or three. Out there on the lonely road, it’s as much a psychological boost as anything to give your body what it wants.
“I have definitely learned that you do not know what you’re craving; your body knows better than you do,” Roy says. “I have a weak spot for the cheapest sour cream and onion chips, and the one that has MSG—bring it on. It’s just what I crave on the ride. So, I’ve definitely learned to go with what I’m hungry for. But I try to eat as much real food as possible.”
A clean mouth is a happy mouth
Another pro tip from Roy: Pack a toothbrush. “This is a very non-palatable description, but your teeth feel hairy after a while from so much sugar. And just being able to brush your teeth at some point is really nice.”
Find the foods that work
It’s one thing to know what you like, and what your stomach will tolerate, in moderate temperatures after six hours. It’s another to know what you can tolerate three days into a weeklong race when it’s over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
“I encourage people to go out for training rides, maybe not a super long training ride, say 10-12 hours, to use that opportunity to experiment with different types of stuff and see what works when it’s cold. See what works when it’s hot,” Bermudez says.
Be your own mechanic
To be able to confidently repair your bike in the middle of nowhere, at least for self-supported events like Tour Divide, is a necessary part of your preparation. It isn’t enough to know how to fix a flat tire; you also need to know what gear and tools to bring so you can fix anything. And it all must be small, light, and easy to use in a downpour, if necessary.
Knowing what and how to pack is critical for ultra-cycling events. Again, this is particularly true for self-supported bikepacking races.
“There’s a big trade off, of course, between speed and weight,” Bermudez says. “If you go too light, particularly if you’re a long way from bike shops or from any kind of civilization, you need to be completely self-contained. On the other hand, you can’t ride around with a 100-pound bike either.”
Get organized, make lists, check them twice, and know how to use everything that you bring. And be efficient by bringing things that do more than one job.
“Making a list is not enough; looking on the internet and seeing what I took on my last race is just not going to help you,” Bermudez says. “That stuff needs to be an extension of your personality.”
Slow (or fast) and steady wins the race
While training might include some high-intensity intervals, race pace is all about being steady. Roy refers to the analogy of the book of matches. An athlete only has so many matches to burn. Do a sprint, burn a match. Attack a group, burn three matches.
“Essentially, when you do an ultra, you’ve lit the entire book of matches on fire and you’re just trying to let it burn as slowly as possible,” Roy says. “There’s no top-end burns on these things. But the more top-end you have, you can get a little closer to that redline the whole time without really having a negative impact.”