This article was published in 2020, in Magazine 146.
In 2013 I knew I was unfit and needed motivation to start fitness training so I signed up to the Nightrider – a 100km cycle ride around London at midnight. My first training rides didn’t last more than 15 minutes because I was so out of breath. I was worried as I had only three months before the event. I kept riding, slowly increasing time and distance, and I’m glad I did as the fitness did come. I cycled the Nightrider itself in six hours and still felt OK the next day.
I wanted to keep this hard-won fitness so I kept cycling two or three times a week for a couple of years. However, 40 was soon approaching and my programming job, requiring umpteen hours in front of a computer each day, wasn’t helping to stop the middle-age spread. So I decided to sign up for a cycle ride from Land’s End to John O’Groats. This would involve cycling 100 miles on nine consecutive days. I had a year to train for this ride, which was just as well as it started badly.
I cycled a hilly 75-mile route – the longest I’d ever cycled – with a single 500ml bottle of water and a hangover. If you’ve ever cycled that far, you’ll know how ridiculous this was. It took me 7 hours to cycle 75 miles and the last 10 miles were the worst I have ever known. Pro tip: carry lots of water and don’t cycle with a hangover. I needed to get a lot fitter and faster and to learn how to sustain my energy levels. I needed a plan.
I was using Strava Premium, mainly because I had a free trial (new cycle computer!) but also so I could record my progress. It turned out they also had a training plan so I started following that. The plan involved two 90-minute interval sessions in the week, alternating between fast cycling and hill climbing, and a longer ride at weekends. There was one ‘rest week’ of slower-paced cycling every month. The best way to recover from cycling is more cycling, apparently. My fitness did improve remarkably quickly. It improved further when I learnt the difference between high-cadence and low-cadence cycling.
Cadence is the rate at which you turn your pedals, measured in Revolutions Per Minute (RPM). High cadence is anything above 80 RPM, with 90 RPM the target for training. Lower cadences put more stress on muscles and joints, higher cadences put more stress on the cardiovascular system. Your cardiovascular system recovers much quicker than your muscular system, so using high cadence means you can cycle fast day after day.
High cadence has another benefit. The act of bending the legs during the revolution of the pedal helps to push the blood back towards the heart which in turn helps to clear the body of the metabolites and lactic acid that are generated during cycling. So, the faster you pedal, the quicker the legs clear themselves of the things that cause muscle fatigue. When you crest a hill from a low-cadence slog, don’t stop, keep the gear low and get that cadence back up as soon as possible. This will help to clear your legs of muscle fatigue-inducing nasties and mean, hopefully, less cramp. It’s another instance of more cycling helping recovery from cycling.
Even armed with this training and technical knowledge, the ride remains one of the hardest things I have ever done. The hills and mountains of northern England and Scotland just seem to go on and on. Gale-force winds sap energy and hours of rain sap spirit. I was tired after three days, and there were still six days to go. By the same token, though, it was one of the most satisfying things I’ve done – being faced with such bad weather and huge distance, yet still being able to complete it. I also learned to appreciate the fleeting moments when everything went well – coasting downhill, sun poking through the clouds or catching up with a group and working together as a team to make it through the day.
Ride Land’s End to John O’Groats
1) Decide whether to do a supported or unsupported ride
The first thing to decide is whether you want to do it supported or unsupported. On a supported ride your belongings are carried for you and food and drink stations are provided along the route. You also need to decide how long you want to take. The company I used (rideacrossbritain.com) did the route in 9 days, so I was cycling over 100 miles each day. There are other companies which have routes that take 2 or 3 weeks so your daily distance will be reduced.
2) Build up your fitness
You do need to train for it, but don’t get bogged down in the technicalities. Just start slowly and each week increase how much you are doing. I highly recommend following a highintensity interval session training plan. Start with one long ride at the weekend and build up to doing two as you get closer to riding across Britain.
Sign up for at least one multi-day sportive, like the Dragon Ride in Wales. That way you know what it’s like going to sleep tired, not feeling much better in the morning, and still getting back on the bike
3) Practice mental endurance
Note that cycling long distances is as much mental as it is physical. When setting out on 50+ mile rides, the voices in my head would shout about what a stupid idea this was. I would plead with myself: ‘just another mile then you can rest’. As I got fitter, it took longer for those voices to start.
However, even now those thoughts still raise their voices occasionally, particularly on steep hills. Let them have their say and they’ll quieten down soon enough.