Sunday, October 5, 2014

Century One: A Few Things You May Not Hear Elsewhere

100 miles! (and .7 bonus)
There are lots of articles out there about preparing for your first century. And there are some really good training plans out there too, that give good advice worth following.

Why Do It? Because It's There. Like a marathon.
Riding a hundred miles in one day - also know as a "century" - has a few things in common with running a marathon. Folks can't seem to resist comparing the two. And having done both, I'd say a marathon is a bit harder for a couple of reasons. First, it's a race and most people do it at race pace the whole way. Second, there are no scheduled rest stops, nor can you "coast" downhills. It's running (or walking) or not. That's it. But for these same reasons, most people who do a marathon prepare more systematically than many who attempt a century. And so more first-timers fail to complete a century, in my experience, than fail to complete a marathon.

But there is one very, very important way that a marathon and a century are very much alike. And it takes folks who are new to both distances by surprise (not in a good way). They are both long enough efforts to require a whole new level of energy management. Both are dramatic breaks from the next shortest distance that folks have usually done (i.e. the half-marathon or the metric century: 100,000M). For both of these shorter distances, it's possible to gut them out.

There is NO WAY to do that successfully for a century or a marathon. You will suffer badly without making and sticking to an "energy budget" for these distances, which is precisely what makes them special. Even for well-trained athletes, a marathon and a century requires some income (energy in) and it absolutely means the athlete has to spend wisely (energy out). 

A Century Is Your Goal, Some Basic Things to Know
  1. It is a long effort. Around 6ish hours or more for most first-timers.
  2. There will be rest stops. You should rest at them. And eat and drink.
  3. There will be other riders. They will have different levels of ability and experience, so be careful when you decide to ride with folks you don't know well. Stick to your own "energy budget" (more on this below) even if it means letting them go. 
  4. Carry food and water with you. Always have some. Take more so that you are fully stocked after each stop. Even if you don't need it, someone who you are with just might.
The Good Stuff: Advice You (May Not) Hear Elsewhere

1. Your Ride Begins at Mile 60
You'll be taking inventory throughout the day, and making choices about how hard to ride, when to eat and drink, etc. for hours before you get to the point where you know how good those decisions actually have been. At mile 60 or so, the bills will start to come in. If you are sticking to your energy budget, you'll feel some leg fatigue and a bit saddle sore, but otherwise ok. If you have overdrawn your account, you'll start to feel bad around this time. With 40 miles to go, you'll start doing some impaired math and your brain will begin sending alarms. Some will be explicit and conscious: "oh shit, we've still got 2 or 3 more hours to go!" and some will be unconscious and sneaky: brain: make him nauseous even though he really should be eating! muahahaha!

What To Do: Ride smart in the first 60 miles. Go about 2-3 miles per hour slower than you can sustain on a normal hour long effort. If you can average 20, go 18. There will be plenty of time to pick the pace up in the last 40 if you feel great.  If you can average 18, go 16, etc. Enjoy the route. Talk to folks. And don't get drawn into a group going your 20 mile pace for the first 60 miles. You will suffer mightily if you do.

2. Eat. More.
Eating on ride day is part of preparing for the event. This is no time to eat as you usually do in terms of volume. Eating in the first hour of the ride is something you do to prepare for hour four. Eating in the second hour prepares you for the second half of hour four and first part of hour five. Eating in hour five helps you make it to the end.

As I alluded to above, your brain does funny things to make you stop when you've overdrawn your energy account. One of these things is make your stomach upset *precisely* when you need to put food into it. Early warnings may be gurgling, burping, etc. You must have nutrition, though. It will seem like a bad idea. But you'll soon feel better if you do eat (some people find liquid nutrition supplements to work better than food, but I find that real, actual food is best for me). It's really quite amazing. If you don't eat, or can't eat, you may as well get into the SAG car. Your day will be done. You are out of gas.

What to Do: Eat at every stop or at least once an hour. Practice eating on long rides before your event to know about how much you need. Once you know your limits and know what it feels like to bonk, you will get better at knowing when to do something about it. But until then, it is a good idea to ride with someone who has this experience and let them know what you are feeling. They can help you through it.

3. If you feel bad, you can feel better. Trust this. Rest, eat, and keep turning the pedals. 
There are two things that happen on a long ride or run that cause people to stop. One is a bonk - running out of fuel. This happens more often on a bike than on a long run because the bike's mechanical advantage lets people run out of energy before they hit their fatigue point. This is very hard to do with running alone, though you do see it often with triathletes due to the fact that the run comes as the last event. When you bonk, there is only one way to recover: eat.

I have a lot of these. 100 miles!
The other limit folks reach is their lactate threshold. This is a point at which it feels like your muscles stop working. They are out of available fuel and they are loaded up with waste products. Cyclists sometimes call this "cracking" - reaching your limit, particularly on a climb - where you simply can't go any more/faster. When you crack, there is only way to recover: rest.

But here's the cool thing. If you rest, you will recover! Your mitochondria will catch up and produce the energy your muscles need to go again. Resting at the rest stops and going a sustainable pace in the first 60 miles will help to ensure that you don't get behind in the first place. Eating will help too because - you see - that energy is what your big muscles need to keep going.

What To Do: Tell your brain that just because you feel bad at mile 65 doesn't mean you are in for 35 miles of hell. You can and will feel better. Shut up brain.

4. Ride Your Ride With Your Body
Ok, here's the thing about cycling in particular. The longer you do it, the better your body adapts to make long rides easier. First, those mitochondria I was telling you about. It takes a while to build up volume & density, but when you do, you keep them for a long, long time. That's why the 70 year old woman who has been riding centuries for 35 years can kick the 20 year old first-timer's ass when we get to mile 80.

The second adaptation is about using energy reserves. A cool thing happens when you train for endurance events that require more energy than you can get from, say, your daily meal. Your body has to shift to using energy it has stored up - in glycogen in the liver and in fat. This is sometimes called "system 2" where "system 1" is food energy, converted to blood glucose and then to ATP to drive skeletal muscles. But you have to train your body to shift smoothly into fat-burning from the ATP-CP system which uses available food energy in your bloodstream.  This is a big topic for another post, but suffice to say that you can get better at it. And over time you can sustain harder efforts for longer times without as much risk of bonking or cracking because you train your body to use energy from fat more efficiently. It's a good thing. But it doesn't happen overnight.

What To Do: More long rides. The more long rides you do, the more adapting you will do. You needn't do them fast. But long is important, because you have to force the changeover into system II. I find, these days, that this happens for me around the two hour mark. So if I'm preparing for 100 mile efforts, I simply need to do 3 hour rides more often to get ready. And I can ramp up the distance pretty fast. If I do eighty this week, I'll likely be ready to do 100 next. Really. And once you've done 100 a bunch, you'll always be able to prepare and complete the distance again.

A Final Thought
100 miles is a big deal. For most people, it means you are using up almost twice as many calories riding your bike as you would normally eat during a single day. Be proud of yourself for setting this as a goal and be especially proud for achieving it! If you try, let me know how it goes for you!