A 100-mile bike race might seem daunting to noncyclists, but serious riders know that a century is nothing like a marathon or triathlon. Nearly any regular cyclist can complete a century without the months of intense training required by other endurance events. Sure, your butt might be screaming bloody murder at the end, but you will finish.
On the other hand, it's no fun simply to finish a century. You want to kill it. With bike-racing season under way, the good news is that you don't have to train like a maniac to crush that century that crushed you last year. "A cyclist should be able to ramp up from a general level of fitness to the fitness required for a century within about seven weeks," says Chris Carmichael, the two-time U.S. Olympic Cycling team coach and founder and CEO of Carmichael Training Systems.
How best to maximize those seven weeks, while still keeping your day job and marriage intact? The key, says Carmichael, is to go hard on short rides during the week that "focus on intensity," while slotting at least one weekend day for a long endurance-building ride.
For the midweek rides, Carmichael suggests spending the first three weeks of training working on power production at your lactate threshold – the point at which your muscles start producing more acid than your body can neutralize. He prescribes what he calls "steady state" intervals: rides lasting 60 to 90 minutes, but broken up into 10- to 15-minute sprints. For the next three weeks, work on your VO2-max threshold – the ability to consume as much oxygen as possible. "Go as hard as you can go for two to three minutes at a time," says Carmichael. Rest for about two or three minutes, and then do it again.
Meanwhile, the weekends are all about building endurance. Your first week, ride for at least three to four hours on a mix of hills and flats that resembles the course you'll be riding. Add a half hour each additional week. But as race day approaches, be sure to taper. Your last really long ride, says Carmichael, should be two weeks before the event. Indeed, the week before the race, cut back your overall training volume to about 50 percent of your peak.
Allow ample time for recovery after hard rides. You need to give your broken-down muscles time to come back strong. Carmichael suggests interval training on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with rest days on Mondays and Fridays. If you're really gung ho, throw in a recovery ride on Wednesdays, at a slow, easy pace.
When the weather is lousy or you simply don't have the time to get out on the road, be sure to exercise in other ways. Any time on a stationary bike is well spent. Most coaches recommend high-intensity intervals on an electrical trainer that can simulate the resistance of a tough grade. If you have access to a CycleOps trainer, grab it. Just 30 minutes a day of hard, fast sprints alternating with easy pedaling delivers tremendous bang for the buck.
Seven weeks of training – all for that endorphin rush when you cross the finish line at a new personal best? It'll totally be worth it.