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Cycling is an endurance sport, and in the English-speaking amateur cycling world a “century ride” is seen as a significant achievement.
Normally, when people talk about a century ride, they’re referring to a bike ride of 100 miles (160.93 km). A “metric century” of 100 km is also a fair achievement, but neither distance is easy without training.
This article tells you how to train for a century ride, and the principles are much the same whether you’re aiming for 100 kilometres or 100 miles.
How should you prepare for your big ride?
Preparation And Training For A Century Ride
Training for a successful century ride requires careful planning and dedication. Whether you’re gearing up for an organized event or tackling the challenge solo, there are key considerations that can significantly impact your performance and overall experience on the bike.
Structured Training For Your First Century Ride
Structured training plays a useful role in preparing for your first century ride. However, since everyone’s schedule and fitness levels vary, it’s essential to tailor your training plan to suit your individual needs.
Below are three types of training that will help you to complete the century ride.
Base Miles & Polarised Training
Building a solid foundation of base miles is fundamental to your success. Long rides are ideal for developing the confidence and endurance required for a century ride.
Read more: Surviving long bike rides
Aim to perform one long ride per week and gradually increase the distances and times by 5% to 10% each week until you’re riding for at least 2-3 hours.
After about 2 hours, the body starts to use fat as its main energy source, which helps it to become more efficient over longer endurance rides.
These long rides should be low-intensity rides. If you’re using a heart-rate monitor or power meter and have worked out your zones, spend most of these rides in Zone 2 (Z2). People living among hills might want to ride indoors on a trainer for low intensity training.
For those that don’t have a bike computer or heart rate monitor, you should be able to hold a conversation in Zone 2. Test this by talking to yourself if necessary or singing a song under your breath. As soon as you’re into Zone 3 (e.g., when climbing a hill) or above, breathing and talking fluidly become harder.
Note that a polarized training model uses only three zones, so if you’re strictly adhering to that regime a Z2 ride becomes a Z1 ride. Check out the link further down for more details.
Polarized training advocates an 80/20% proportion (approximately) of low intensity riding and high-intensity interval training.
In preparing for a century ride, low-intensity riding over increasingly longer durations is a valuable cornerstone of training.
Sweet Spot Training
Incorporating sweet spot training into a regimen is useful for cyclists with time constraints. This type of training allows you to increase aerobic fitness without the need for hours and hours on the bike.
Sweet spot training involves maintaining a level of intensity that is challenging but still below your functional threshold power (FTP), which represents the maximum effort you can sustain for an hour.
Typically falling between 84-97% of your FTP or 75-80% of your maximum heart rate, this training model improves your ability to sustain an elevated effort without pushing you into high-intensity intervals.
Combining sweet spot intervals with low-intensity Zone 2 rides can accelerate your progress and provide a well-rounded training approach.
Cyclists without a heart rate monitor or power meter can simulate this type of intensity by just doing hill repeats at a steady pace on moderate gradients.
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
If you stick strictly to a polarized training model, around 20% of your rides will be high-intensity interval rides. High intensity is usually defined as being above your FTP, and an interval at this intensity might last anything from 20-30 seconds to 5 minutes. Start with shorter intervals if you’re unfit.
If you’re training by heart rate, high intensity is usually Zone 4 (threshold), which is where your FTP resides. Or, in a 3-zone polarized training model, you’d be in Zone 3 (above LT2 – see polarized training zones in cycling for more details).
Typically you’ll do 4-6 high-intensity intervals in a session.
Scientific studies suggest that physiological adaptations to low-volume, high-intensity training might be comparable to time-consuming endurance training.
Video: Which Training Model Works Best?
How Long Does It Take to Train for a Century Ride?
Training for a century ride takes longer for some people than others owing to varying levels of fitness.
If you’ve only ridden 20-30 miles before (or fewer), you have a big leap ahead of you and need to build up training miles slowly. Someone who regularly rides 40-60 miles can afford a shorter training span.
Most people should allow 12-16 weeks of century ride training before the big day.
Another factor that influences the amount of training required is the terrain of the proposed ride. Any century is a milestone, but if it includes a lot of elevation, more aerobic fitness will help.
Start Slowly If You’re New To Cycling
For beginners or those with limited cycling experience, a longer training duration is necessary to gradually build endurance and strength. Your weekly training hours should be few at first.
Starting with shorter rides and progressively increasing distance and intensity helps prevent injuries and allows the body to adapt to the demands of long-distance cycling.
Gradually Introduce Longer Rides
During the initial phase of training, focus on building a solid aerobic base, incorporating longer rides at a comfortable pace. As the weeks progress, you can introduce interval training and/or hill work to improve speed, power, and climbing ability.
Additionally, longer weekend rides help to acclimate the body to the distance and conditions you will face on the event day.
Mental preparedness plays a significant role in tackling a century ride. Setting realistic goals, visualizing success, and developing a positive mindset can make a big difference.
Rest Days Are Part Of Your Training
It’s crucial for cyclists to listen to their bodies during training and incorporate rest days to allow for recovery and reduce the risk of overtraining.
Adequate sleep and a balanced diet are essential for the body to adapt and respond positively to the training stimulus.
Read more: Is it bad to cycle every day?
Video: The Importance Of Rest and Recovery In Cycling
Regardless of the timeline, consistent, progressive training, combined with dedication and determination, will increase the chances of successfully completing the century ride. You’ll enjoy the great sense of accomplishment that comes with conquering such a challenging cycling endeavor.
Century Ride Training Plan
Below is a training plan you can stick to or adapt to suit your own needs. It assumes you’re starting almost from scratch and are not used to riding “long distances” (a vague term at best).
This is a 12-week training plan, but you can extend it if necessary or jump in at a later week if you’re already used to riding moderate distances. A moderate distance might be 30 or 40 miles.
- Ride 1 (weekday) – ride for 6 miles (10 km) at a pace you’re comfortable with. Choose a low gear that helps you to turn the pedals easily and focuses on building aerobic fitness.
- Ride 2 (weekend) – attempt a ride of 8 miles (12 km) after at least one rest day. Take as long as you need to do it and don’t attempt to ride quickly, especially when you set out.
If you think these bike rides will take you much longer than an hour, take a water bottle filled with diluted fruit juice. This will give you energy as well as keeping you hydrated.
Take water or a drink with you on all rides. Eating a banana (not too ripe) before bike rides also helps.
One thing you should never do is attempt huge leaps in distances and time spent on your bike.
- Ride 3 (weekday) – ride for 10 to 12 miles (16 – 19 km) over easy terrain and/or in an easy gear. Again, don’t worry about how long this takes you, though if you envisage it taking over 75-90 minutes, take some food or an energy drink with you. Fruit juice works as an energy drink.
- Ride 4 (weekend) – ride for 15-18 miles (24 – 28 km) over easy terrain where possible. Anyone living in a very hilly area is well advised to use a home trainer for low-intensity training.
You’re starting to reach distances now where problems with bike fit and saddle comfort may manifest themselves. It’s always a good idea to get a bike fit, especially if you’re experiencing discomfort.
At week three you’re still just building your distances and the time you spend on the saddle.
- Ride 5 (weekday) – ride 20 miles (32 km) over easy terrain and/or in an easy gear. Your speed at this point is unimportant; you’re gradually improving your endurance and aerobic fitness in readiness for a long distance ride, which in turn will make you faster later on.
- Ride 6 (weekend) – ride 25 miles (40 km) over easy terrain. If this is likely to take you longer than 90 minutes, take fast-energy food with you like energy gels, fruit juice, a ripe banana, confectionery.
It’s time to start adding a little structure and intensity to your rides in addition to building distance. This accelerates aerobic fitness.
- Ride 7 (weekday) – ride 25 miles (40 km) to consolidate your fitness gains so far. Keep the intensity low, as low-intensity exercise efficiently increases mitochondria in the body whilst avoiding fatigue. Mitochondria delivers energy to your muscles for endurance exercise.
- Ride 8 (weekday) – ride 25 miles (40 km) and introduce some “sweet spot” training into the ride. In terms of intensity, this will be 75% to 80% of your max heart rate as mentioned previously, or 84-97% of your FTP. Sustain this for 10 minutes. Alternatively, ride steadily up a modest hill for 10 minutes.
- Ride 9 (weekend) – ride 30 miles (48 km) at an easy pace. Weekend rides will always be your long, low-intensity rides, which are Zone 2 in most heart rate or power training zone systems.
Video: How Zone 2 Training Affects Mitochondrial Health
- Ride 10 (weekday) – ride 20 miles (32 km) and do a 15-minute sweet-spot interval within the ride or hill repeats at a steady pace for 15-20 minutes. Always give yourself at least a few minutes’ warm-up at a low intensity before launching into intervals, and take it easy afterwards.
- Ride 11 (weekday) – ride 35 miles (48 km) and incorporate 2 x 10-minute sweet spot intervals (you’ll always need a heart-rate monitor or power meter for these). Alternatively, do two sets of hill repeats over a modest gradient, or a bit less modest if you’re a lightweight rider.
- Ride 12 (weekday) – ride 40 miles (64 km) at a low intensity.
Note: you’ll have to start paying attention to food by the end of this week, even if you’re a quick rider.
- Ride 13 (weekday) – ride 20 miles (32 km) and do a 20-minute sweet-spot interval using HR or power zones, or do 20 minutes of steady hill repeats. The rest of the ride should be low intensity.
- Ride 14 (weekday) – ride 30 miles (48 km) at an easy pace. You’re still building aerobic fitness while allowing recovery for your longest ride yet, to follow. Higher intensity begins again next week.
- Ride 15 (weekend) – ride 45 miles (72 km) at an easy pace. A HR monitor helps as it reassures you that you’re riding within yourself. Consider buying one and calculating your training zones (you’ll also need a bike computer to make use of it).
- Ride 16 (weekday) – ride 25 miles (40 km) and do a 20-minute sweet-spot interval using HR or power zones (or 20 minutes of steady hill repeats).
- Ride 17 (weekday) – ride 35 miles (56 km) and do 2 x 20-minute sweet spot intervals using HR or power zones. Or do 2 x 20 minutes of hill repeats with a recovery period in between.
- Ride 18 (weekend) – ride 50 miles (80 km) at an easy pace throughout. You’ve done the half century!
- Ride 19 (weekday) – ride 30 miles (48 km) and do a 20-minute sweet-spot interval using HR or power zones or do 20 minutes of steady hill repeats.
- Ride 20 (weekday) – ride 35 miles (56 km) and do a 20-minute sweet spot interval using HR or power zones. Or, do 1 x 20 minutes of hill repeats with a warm-up before starting.
- Ride 21 (weekend) – ride 55 miles (80 km) at an easy pace. Start eating high GI foods regularly after an hour.
- Ride 19 (weekday) – ride 25 miles (40 km) and do a 20-minute sweet-spot interval after a warm-up period. The rest of the ride should be at low intensity.
- Ride 20 (weekday) – ride 35 miles (56 km) and do 2 x 20-minute sweet spot intervals using HR or power zones. If you have no HR monitor or power meter, do 2 x 15-20 minutes of steady climbing.
- Ride 21 (weekend) – ride 60 miles (88 km) at an easy pace. Start eating early when you know you’re riding a long way. Consume carbs every 20-30 minutes (up to 60g per hour).
- Ride 22 (weekday) – ride 20 miles (32 km) and do a 20-minute sweet-spot interval using HR or power zones, or do 20 minutes of steady hill repeats.
- Ride 23 (weekday) – ride 20 miles (32 km) and do a 30-minute sweet spot interval using HR or power zones. If you have no HR monitor or power meter, do 30 minutes of steady climbing.
- Ride 24 (weekend) – ride 65 miles (96 km) at an easy pace. Add another 4 km if your goal is the metric century!
- Ride 25 (weekday) – ride 30 miles (48 km) and incorporate 5 x high-intensity intervals (HIT). If you have no means of measuring them, ride as hard as you can five times for 2-4 minutes at a time.
- Ride 26 (weekday) – ride 20 miles (32 km) and do a 15-minute sweet spot interval or 15 minutes of hill repeats after a warm-up period.
- Ride 27 (weekend) – ride 75 miles (120 km) at an easy pace throughout. Aim for at least 90% Zone 2.
- Ride 28 (weekday) – ride 20 miles (32 km) at an easy pace.
- Ride 29 (weekday) – ride 15 miles (24 km) at an easy pace.
- Ride 30 (whenever) – ride 100 miles (160 km) at a comfortable pace and conserve energy by drafting other cyclists where possible. Remember to eat and drink regularly – very important!
What Do I Bring With Me On A Century Ride?
Among the things you should never forget on any long ride are food and water. However, if you take part in an organized century ride, there are likely to be feed stations dotted along the course.
You need to find out where these feed stations are, then plan the food you’ll take based on that info.
Over the course of a long ride, aim to consume 60-90g of carbohydrates per hour.
Don’t forget to take tools and a repair kit, which might include a pump, spare tubes, multi-tool, chain tool, tire levers, and tire plugs for tubeless tires.
Extra clothing items are advisable, especially if the weather looks changeable or you’re riding a hilly or mountainous course (descents can be chilly).
Video: How To Carry Food On A Long Bike Ride
Century Ride Training Preparation FAQs
What Distance Is A Century?
A century is generally considered to be a hundred miles.
A metric century is 100 km, which is still a decent accomplishment, though cyclists in metric countries don’t tend to talk about century rides.
How Long Does It Take To Ride A Century?
Elite cyclists can time trial a 100-mile ride in about 3.5 hours, but most of us will do it in 6-8 hours.
Is There A Difference Between A Gran Fondo And A Century Ride?
A Gran Fondo is a long bike ride of a non-specific distance. It could be longer than 100 miles, though often it is shorter.
How Important Is Eating And Drinking For Century Ride Training?
On any ride much longer than 1.5 hours, you should think about eating carbs.
Hydration is desirable on all bike rides, and accumulated dehydration over several hours is potentially dangerous.
Should I Train With A Group For A Century Ride?
Ideally, no, don’t train with a group unless it’s to do a long, slow weekend ride that fits in with your schedule.
Interval training with other riders is not practical.
How Much Resting And Recovery Is Needed?
That depends on factors like fitness levels and age.
You’d normally aim for at least two rest days per week, or a minimum of three riding days if you want to see significant improvement.
How Can I Physically And Mentally Prepare For The Challenges Of A Century Ride?
You’ll be ready physically if you follow a regime of increasing distance and intensity.
Mentally, it helps if you’ve already ridden long rides, planned your nutrition, and pace yourself using heart rate or power.
Conclusion On Mastering Your Century Ride Journey
It’s sometimes said that anyone can ride a century ride without any training, but you’d be setting yourself up for an ordeal if you attempted it unfit.
By building your aerobic fitness in the weeks prior to a 100 miler (or a metric century), you’ll be prepared mentally and physically for the task ahead.
Pay particular attention to staying hydrated and fuelling your ride. And don’t forget to enjoy it!
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