The legendary world of ultra cycling – typically defined as endurance challenges of 200 to 300km or longer – is often seen as the preserve of super-fit semi-pro athletes and extreme amateur racers. However, with the right training and mindset, any amateur cyclist can conquer an ultra.
The annual sportive calendar is now studded with epic one-day ultra events, while the World Ultracycling Association also oversees a calendar of ultra events worldwide.
Because ultra challenges are even longer than the Queen stages of the Tour de France, every heroic finisher is guaranteed lifelong cycling kudos.
Neil Kelsall, 52, from Surrey, began road cycling in 2010, but after completing a few cycling jaunts to the Alps and the Pyrenees, and a 150km sportive in Yorkshire in 2019, he tackled his first ultra – the Mallorca 312 – last October.
“I had dabbled with road cycling but never really committed,” admits Kelsall. “But I was due to take my son Tom – who has learning difficulties and Type 1 diabetes – to Mallorca for a Special Olympics training camp, and the 312 was moved from April to the Sunday we were there. So with three months’ notice, I decided to give it a go, knowing I might not make the 14-hour cut-off time. I did it in around 11 hours and it opened my eyes to what’s possible.”
Liane Jackson, 39, a member of Kingston Wheelers in London, bought her first road bike in 2015, but she has swiftly upgraded her goals from the 46-mile Ride London sportive in 2017, via the 135km Étape du Tour and 150km Étape Morocco in 2019, to the 296km Dragon Ride this year.
“When I did the 46-miler, it sounded super-far, and I thought ‘how can people ride hundreds of miles?’” she laughs. “But when I finished it in two and a half hours, I thought: ‘I can do 100 miles’. Then I just increased my distances over time. A lot of this is psychological. When you’re fit and loving it, even big distances don’t feel so far.”
How to train for ultra distances
According to coach Richard Rollinson of CPT Cycling, who trained Neil Kelsall and other riders for their first ultra events, the secret is to build up your mileage slowly. “Start small at the beginning of your base training and remind yourself that your fitness now is not where it will be at the time of the event,” he says.
“Increase your training volume gradually and progressively each month,” Rollinson adds. The general advice is to up your volume by 10 per cent each week.
Gary Hand of Espresso Cycle Coaching says new ultra-riders will benefit from working in blocks.
Although it’s possible to take a more casual approach for a standard sportive, preparing for an ultra requires more planning and recovery. “Structure your riding with three weeks on, one week easy,” he suggests.
“Then at the end of your easy week, when you are fresh, do a large endurance hit with one big day ride. Don’t be scared to test yourself with a ride of 130 per cent of the distance of the longest ride you have done in the past eight weeks.”
A safe way to build up your endurance rides is to do loops of a set course around your area, so you always have an escape route. “If you’ve been over-ambitious, you’re never far from home,” adds Hand.
Pacing for ultra-distance cycling
What pace you sustain on your endurance rides will depend on your fitness, but Rollinson suggests you should strive to develop Zone 3 power (76 to 87 per cent functional threshold power, or moderate intensity) up to around two hours, Zone 2 power (56 to 75 per cent FTP, or easy to moderate intensity) up to around six hours, and Zone 1 power (under 55 per cent FTP, or recovery pace) on any longer rides.
“As amateur cyclists, we get obsessed with FTP – the power you can sustain for an hour – but that’s not right for an ultra,” says Kelsall.
“Richard wanted to train my endurance engine to sustain a lesser power but for a longer time. That means more time in the saddle, not smashing myself for an hour.”
Because ultras are much longer than traditional sportives, your big weekend rides should eventually nudge as close as possible to the distance of the event, to avoid any shock on race day.
“If you only have seven hours to train each week, build up your longest ride to 80 to 90 per cent of your expected finish time,” advises Rollinson. “But if you have more time, build your longest training ride to the same finishing time as your goal.”
One of the big challenges is keeping these long training rides fun. “I’ve seen people who train hard then take weeks off because they get fed up,” admits Jackson.
“So I went out training with my club and I did social rides. Go somewhere interesting, like the Peak District, to enjoy the scenery. Even when I use Zwift, I have Netflix on.”
You will also benefit from shorter, sharper sessions, but make sure they are tailored carefully to your challenge. “Specifically targeting intensity is essential in balancing the most effective training for your ultra-distance event,” says Rollinson.
“So if your event has multiple climbs, look at how long it may take you to complete the climbs and train to the likely duration and power. This is normally around ‘tempo’ (Zone 3) or ‘sweet spot’ (Zone 4, or 88 to 94 per cent FTP).”
Deliberately mixing up your pace on shorter midweek road or turbo training sessions can help to simulate the complex dynamics of an ultra event. After all, longer distances mean more changes in pace and geographical surprises.
“I did lots of rolling tempo rides, where I alternated between periods of Zone 3 or Zone 2 power, followed by a spurt towards ‘sweet spot’, and then back down into tempo pace, not recovery pace,” says Kelsall.
This will prepare you for holding the pace of a group, catching up the riders in front or conquering a climb.
You also need to boost your muscle strength to handle the brutal physicality of an ultra. “Muscular endurance, accompanied with tendon and muscular strength, are key factors for an ultra-cyclist,” insists Hand.
Jackson did midweek gym and yoga sessions, but strength-building low-cadence drills will also help. “Add over-geared accelerations into an evening workout,” suggests Hand.
“Do 30 minutes at 76 to 89 per cent of your FTP, at 80 to 90rpm. But on every fifth minute add a 20-second acceleration at 120 to 150 per cent of your FTP, at 60 to 75rpm. Progress this to 60-second accelerations and aim for two to three blocks in total.”
Simply working out how to fit all of these sessions into a busy week is a big enough challenge in itself. The secret is to work with, not against, your work schedule.
“You have to take it seriously, but there is a balance: I’m not a professional,” says Jackson.
“Now a lot of people have the luxury of working from home, which helps. But I would go to the gym before or after work; do a couple of hill sessions on a Wattbike or laps of Richmond Park midweek; and then do bigger sessions at the weekend: a two-hour recovery ride on Saturday, and a long, hilly hard ride for four to five hours on Sunday.”
How to fuel for ultra-distance rides
However hard you train, it’s impossible to finish an ultra without a smart nutritional strategy. Nutritionist Will Girling of EF Pro Cycling says it’s essential to carb-load the day before your ultra.
“Current research suggests you can carb load in just one day, and you should aim for 10g of carbs per kg of bodyweight to achieve maximal glycogen storage,” he explains.
“So a 70kg rider needs 700g of carbs. But go for a big breakfast and lunch, rather than leaving it all for dinner, or you will wake up feeling bloated. But more carbs doesn’t mean more food. Aim for density over volume. So for breakfast have porridge, but add some syrup and a banana, with a glass of orange juice on the side, rather than just eating more oats.”
Sports nutritionist Craig Watson says energy-torching ultra riders must learn to think differently about food.
“Doing an ultra means you are an athlete, not the general public, so when you see Government guidelines saying don’t eat white versions of food, that doesn’t really apply, as a lot of people find white bread, white rice and white pasta easier on the stomach when you’re carb loading,” he explains.
“Cakes and sweets have their place on race day, too.”
On the day of the event, fuel up with a breakfast that’s high in carbs for energy, but low in fat and fibre, which can slow digestion.
“A good breakfast will have 2 to 2.4g of carbs per kg of your bodyweight, so around 140g of carbs for a 70kg rider,” says Girling. “Oats, rice or rice pudding are easy to digest. A banana with maple syrup or honey, or bread and jam, are light too.”
Kelsall found brown toast with peanut butter, banana and honey particularly effective.
To stay fuelled during a 200 to 300km ultra, Girling recommends a mix of liquid, semi-solids in the form of gels, and solid foods.
His suggested solid snacks include bananas, Kellogg’s Rice Krispies Squares, Soreen malt loaves and Alpen Light bars. “You are looking for fast-digesting, high-GI food,” he says.
“And you need 90g of carbs per hour to maintain exercise performance.”
This should include making sure you get plenty of ‘real’ food into your body.
“In an ultra-distance event, you will not get away with just bars and gels like you would in shorter events, so eat plenty of real food such as sandwiches,” advises Rollinson.
Although you can’t carry 11 hours’ worth of food, Kelsall insists it’s best to be as self-sufficient as possible.
“I started with five to six drinks sachets to put into my bottles, so my pockets were bulging, but there might be a queue for the feed station, or they might not have what you need,” he warns.
“And not eating properly is the worst thing for ultra riders. According to my power meter, I burned just shy of 8,000 calories.”
Your hydration strategy for an ultra should be similar to that for a normal sportive. “You want at least a bottle an hour, with 20 to 30g of carbs in a 500ml bottle, and some sodium to improve hydration – around 200 to 400mg of sodium ideally,” explains Girling.
But on an ultra, you need to pay more attention to your body’s warning signs. “Check for white salt marks on your jersey, which suggests you need more salt, and monitor the colour of your urine to check for dehydration,” adds Watson. “Wrinkly or dry lips are also signs of dehydration.”
Ultra-distance mind games
Ultra challenges are full of surprises, but checking your kit in advance is the best way to minimise problems. “Make sure that you or your local bike shop have given your bike a check over,” says Rollinson.
Jackson recommends you get all your kit ready the night before, and Hand suggests checking the weather to ensure you get your clothing choices correct: an ultra ride is hard enough without getting unnecessarily hot, wet or cold.
When you begin the race, stick to a sensible pacing strategy. “My coach Richard worked out that my average target power should be 200 watts for the first few hours and if I stuck to that I would have the stamina to finish,” says Kelsall.
And remember to preserve energy whenever you can. “Save your legs on the downhills,” suggests Hand. “Turn the pedals when you are riding 20mph downhill and you may gain 2mph, but that’s not a huge benefit for the effort.”
During an ultra, you’ll endure plenty of stress and self-doubt, so it helps to chop the ride up into manageable segments.
“For a 300km ride, break it into six different 50km checkpoints,” suggests Hand. Kelsall says this really helped him in Majorca: “Ultra events are hard to get your head around, so I gave myself milestones: to get to that monastery, to reach the top of the gorge, to finish this climb.” Use whatever mind games keep you focused.
“My Garmin 830 has a hill profile, so you can see when the pain is coming up and when you might get a recovery,” says Jackson.
But remember that on any ultra, you’ll feel a surge of fear, whether it’s during those nervous first training rides, or on race day. But this fear should be regarded as your fuel. “You need the right amount of fear for an ultra,” adds Kelsall.
“If I’d been complacent, I wouldn’t have put pressure on myself to keep going. If you fear the target a little bit, that’s what’ll make you succeed.”
Five of the best long-distance bike rides
There are many ultra-distance events dotted throughout the year, and around the world, but here are five of the best.
The Way of the Roses (273km)
The Way of the Roses is a beautiful coast-to-coast route that sees riders dash from Morecambe to Bridlington via York and Lancaster. Riding west to east means you should enjoy a tailwind for most of the ride.
Dragon Ride: Dragon Devil (296km)
The savage Dragon Devil route of the Dragon Ride, in the mountainous region of the Brecon Beacons, is one of the most challenging one-day sportives in the UK, at 296km with 4,614m of ascent. It takes place annually on 19 June.
Granfondo Milano-Sanremo (296km)
The Granfondo Milano-Sanremo takes place on 5 June. Follow in the tyre marks of the pros by completing the lion’s share of the historic Milan–San Remo course, taking in the Liguria coastline and famous climbs such as the Poggio and Cipressa.
Mallorca 312 (312km)
The Mallorca 312 takes place annually in April. A (hopefully) sun-soaked spring challenge in the cycling mecca of Mallorca, this ultra will see you join 8,000 other riders on closed, signposted roads in the beautiful Serra de Tramuntana mountains.
Team Joe Barr 200 (320km)
The Team Joe Barr 200 is a gruelling long-distance ride that takes place in May and is a World Ultra-Cycling Association event. It takes you through the beautiful rural landscapes of Ireland and Northern Ireland and you can tackle it solo or in a team of two.