Newbie’s Guide to Training for a MS 150

A couple of weeks ago, registration opened for the big BP MS150 charity bicycling event between Houston and Austin, Texas. This particular MS 150 is one of the largest organized rides in the country with approximately 13,000 riders each year. It’s a two-day ride with options from 75 to 100 miles on the first day, and around 65 to 80 miles the second day.

I’ve done this event for several years now, and each year I meet folks who haven’t done the ride before and have a ton of questions about how best to prepare for the ride. I’ll try and address some of the more common questions I’ve heard over the years in this post, and give some pointers to where you can find some more in-depth information.

Most of the people that ride in a MS 150 are doing so for the charity, and haven’t been traditional athletes in the past. Alternatively, they have been athletic, but in sports such as running and not bicycling.

Q: Do I need to be in shape before I start training?

Not really, no. If you literally are starting from the couch, start with 15 or 20 minute rides, or whatever is comfortable for you, until you can ride at least 30 minutes without stopping.

I would suggest that you be able to ride for an hour on your local bike path before doing any organized training rides, as you’ll get more benefit from the training rides in this case. Most organized rides have rest stops every 10 or 20 miles – 45 to 90 minutes for most riders. If you can make it an hour on the bike already, then you have a natural progression point on the longer rides since you know you can stop and take a rest.

A large part of your training will actually be for the muscles in your core, arms, and so on to get used to holding your body up during these long bike rides. While the cardiovascular component of the training is key, most novices will find this is secondary to getting your body used to being on the bike for hours. The cardio will come all on its own.

If you don’t have the ability to get on the bicycle during this very early period of training – say, because the weather outside is frightful – then consider doing spinning classes at your local gym. They’re a great way to get bicycle fitness quickly, in a safe, warm and dry environment.

If you’re more athletically inclined and like to push your limits, the same holds true. You’ll spend more effort getting your heart rate high than the novices, but a lot of your training is still about time in the saddle. Likewise, if you’re already athletic, the training will be easier, but you are still working on training your body to sit on a bicycle, so be patient and don’t push the time too quickly.

Q: How much do I need to train?

Every year I meet riders who do absolutely no training at all for this event. Clearly you can finish an event like this without training, but these people always feel like hell: if you’ve ever heard the term “suffer-fest” than this is a prime example of that in action. Most of us would rather not suffer quite so much to participate, so some training is in order.

At a minimum, you will want to do one long ride every week you are in training. You should plan on spending 10 to 12 weeks training before the big event. At least one weekend riding two days in a row would be a big help. If you can manage 3 to 4 rides per a week you see tremendous improvement.

Yes, you can miss a few rides and still ride the big event comfortably. And yes, you likely will miss a week or two – stuff, especially bad weather, happens. It is a little hard to get the gumption to go ride in the cold and rain if you are new to riding in the first place.

For some perspective, for the first several years I rode the MS 150 I did around 600 miles of training over about 40 hours. That’s only between 3 and 4 hours of riding per week on average!

These days I do 1,200 – 1,500 miles of training over 75 to 100 hours of riding. More training has prove expectedly better in both comfort and performance, but you don’t need to ride anywhere near this much to have an enjoyable event.

Q: How long will the ride take me?

This is one of those questions that has a clear “it depends” answer. It will depend upon your fitness, how hard you push yourself during the ride, what the wind and weather is during the ride, how busy the ride is and how hilly the ride course is.

To narrow it down a bit more, though, let’s consider your average speed. Most true bicycling novices seem to average around 14 miles per hour. If you’re tall or already athletic, the average might be higher, and if your shorter or not athletic the average might be a little lower.

It takes just over 7 hours to ride 100 miles at 14 mph. Chances are good you will stop 4 to 5 times during a 100 mile ride with this skill level, so factor in another 1 to 2 hours for he breaks. The slower you are, the more often you’ll need a break, and the more sore you will be as the day goes on. On the flip side, the fastest riders usually finish the first day somewhere between 4 and 5 hours.

Don’t worry if you wind up being slower than this – a great many riders take a lot longer to finish, and you can always get a ride from the support team if you wear yourself out before making it.

One key point to take away from the the expected time for the ride: when you train, you are really training more for time than you are for miles. If the most you ride in training is 3 hours, but it takes you 10 hours the first day of the event, you will be very sore and grumpy when you finish.

If you aren’t happy with your average speed you need to approach getting faster in two ways: training that is focused on improving speed and power, and riding in a group, or pace-line.

The training aspect involves training more days per week, usually 3 to 4, for a short-duration but at a high-intensity. If you know what interval training is, this is what we’re talking about, and we’ll discuss further in this post.

As far as pace-lines, that simply means riding closely behind a group of other bicyclists as it gives you a significant aerodynamic advantage. You will spend a lot less energy going fast than  you would as a solo rider, and pace-lines typically rotate so that riders never spend too much time at the front, doing extra work. You may be able to add 5 mph or more to your average speed simply by riding in a pace-line. Pace lines are tricky and dangerous, however, so you need to be confident in your bike handling skills before doing so – please.

One final key point about speed: aerodynamics starts to play a big role once you go over roughly 15 mph. Above this speed threshold you will need a more aerodynamic position and lots of leg power to increase your average speed significantly. If you are a novice rider, don’t be discouraged if you don’t see average speeds much about this threshold, it is not very uncommon for recreational riders to speed most of their time at this speed or below.

Q: How should I actually train?

Training for an athletic event uses a technique called periodization. Big word, but a simple concept: train, and then take a break. This concept applies to your day to day training and to how the training is structured into weeks. Likewise, if you are a more serious athlete, your entire year is broken down this way as well.

The idea behind periodization is that you stress your body by training and then let your body recover with rest. Your actual grains from training occur not during the actual training time, but during your rest time. Rest and recovery is really, really important for athletes. As a novice, getting enough rest will likely not be an issue but just keep in mind that is an important part of the whole training process.

Training is usually broken down into 4 week blocks. In the first 3 weeks of each block you increase the time and intensity you spend training, slowly. In the 4th week, you do a recovery week where both the intensity and time are reduced. This cycle repeats so that you arrive at your event date in both peak fitness and with little fatigue.

Let’s consider a simple 12 week training schedule with only rides during the weekend:

Week Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
1 2h
2 2h
3 1h
4 2.5h
5 3h
6 3.5h
7 2h
8 3.5h
9 4h 2h
10 4.5h 2.5h
11 2h

If you have more time to train, you can consider adding 3 to 4 total rides per week, such as this schedule shows:

Week Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
1 1h 1h 2h
2 1h 1h 2h
3 .5h
4 1h 1h 2.5h
5 1h 1h 3h
6 1h 1h 3.5h
7 1h
8 1h 1.5h 3.5h
9 1h 1.5h 4h 2h
10 1.5h 1.5h 4.5h 2.5h
11 1h
12 1h .5h EVENT EVENT

These sample training plans are just that – samples. I am not a professional coach, so there are likely numerous differences in the training plan compared to what a professional coach would provide you. However, they are very similar to training plans that you would receive from a coach or find elsewhere online.

The more hours you spend riding, the more important those rest days and recovery weeks really are. Up to about 6 hours a week, you will naturally get enough recovery time just by taking days off. But, if you only do your riding on back-to-back days, or do other work-outs besides cycling, keep in mind that your body needs recovery to improve.

Another real factor in your training plan is that life happens, and often schedule conflicts arise. That’s okay – as long as you don’t miss too much, and do most of the long rides, you will have an effective training season.

If you are more athletically inclined than the average novice, and interested in boosting your speed and power, then the workouts I’ve suggested for during the week will change in their structure. You will need to do intervals of various finds to increase the intensity of your workouts.

For those so inclined, I would recommend checking out The Time Crunched Cyclist: Fit, Fast, and Powerful in 6 Hours a Week by Chris Carmichael. This book is a quick read and will give you a great way to gain a lot of fitness very quickly. If you need more, I’d consider finding a coach that can help you create a training plan tailored to your individual needs.

Q: How can I make time for all this training?

A single long ride a week is all you need to do in order to finish the MS 150 comfortably, so your time commitment isn’t great if you view it from that perspective.

If you want to be faster and more comfortable, you’ll want to train more per week. The best bang for your time is 4 rides per week. More than that and you will improve, but at a much reduced rate of gain (if you’re mathematically inclined, you’re looking at a classic logarithmic scale).

For most of us, finding time to ride during the week can be tricky. If you’re training for a springtime ride you’ll be dealing with a lack of daylight hours in which to ride. Riding before or after work hours may be the only time you have, but doing so can be dangerous given the lack of light. Additionally, if you ride on the roads, keep in mind people are much more tense and distracted when commuting to and from work, not to mention commute times simply have a larger number of cars out on the road. If you can, ride during lunch time or on a bike path.

Another option for your intra-week rides are spinning classes at your local gym. Spinning can be a great way to get an hour long bicycling workout with very real dividends to your performance. However, not all spinning instructors know what they are doing. You’ll want to find an instructor that understands road bicycling and interval based training. If his or her spin class is all about going as hard as possible for an straight-hour, look for another instructor. If the instructor doesn’t understand that very low and very high cadences are bad for your knees, find another instructor.

Q: I’m really nervous about riding a bicycle on the road. How can I be safe?

It’s perfectly normal to be nervous about riding on the road. In fact, it’s quite a healthy thing to be so. There are a tremendous number of resources available online that discuss the safety issue. See this one from the National MS Society, for a reference.

From my perspective, the key points about this issue are:

  1. Ride on a bike or multi-use path instead of on the road during the week until you gain experience.
  2. On the weekends ride early. Traffic starts earlier on Saturday compared to Sunday, so plan for that.
  3. Organized group rides are typically in rural areas and the numbers of riders increase visibility for all, but don’t get a false sense of security from this.
  4. Ride on roads that have plenty of room on the shoulders, or have low enough traffic that sharing the road is not an issue for vehicles.
  5. Realize that YOU are ultimately responsible for your own safety.
    1. Take a safety class.
    2. Ride defensively. If you’ve ever taken a defensive driving class, you know most of the key points, and they apply just as well to riding a bicycle.
    3. Pay attention!

Ultimately, it is important to know that statistically you are pretty safe riding your bicycle, but always, always keep safety in mind.

Q: Do I need to eat on training rides?

Yes, you will. Nutrition and exercise is a huge, complex subject, but as with most things the basic rules are pretty well understood so you don’t need to over-think it too much.

If you are riding for an hour or less, then you really don’t need any extra calories or food. Ideally, you will have eaten a meal or snack no more than about 3 hours before the start of your ride – yes, that means you should have something for breakfast before those long weekend rides.

Once your ride time exceeds an hour to 90 minutes, you’ll want to take in some sort of calories. Yes, you can ride without doing this, but your body will naturally cause you to perform at a lower intensity if you do this. You’ll want to plan on consuming between 100 and 400 calories an hour of energy, depending largely upon your body size and how intense you ride.

The basic reason for this is that at higher intensities your body requires more carbohydrate based energy sources than fat based. Your muscles contain a substance called glycogen that is good for about 90 minutes of carbohydrate based fuel, whereas everyone’s body contains enough fat to provide energy for a really, really long time. If you’ve heard the term bonking what that is referring to is your body getting low on glycogen reserves and your brain deciding to shut down other activities so that it has enough energy to function. It sucks when it happens and you’ll know it if it does.

It takes a little time for your body to process food or drink that you consume and provide it to your muscles. This is one reason why fast-absorbing sport drinks are effective for high intensity exercise – they don’t take long to get into your system. On the flip side, there is only so much of that stuff you can drink before your body starts to disagree with it.

You’ll have to experiment a lot to find out what works best with you. Some people are just fine on sports drinks alone. Most people, though, like to have some solid food the longer they ride. The longer you are planning to ride, the more important it is to take in food earlier in the ride than you have expected. You’re eating for 2 or 3 hours from now, not for the next 15 minutes (that’s what sports drinks or gels are for). I personally am a huge fan of Clif Bars and Hammer Nutrition’s Perpetuem products for my longer rides.

As a habit, I always carry a couple of gels or bars with me when I ride, even if the ride is fully supported. It’s nice to have a backup. Any organized ride is going to have an amazing assortment of snack foods at each rest stop, but always have a backup.

And yes, if you are trying to lose weight during your training season, you can easily overeat at these rest stops. If you drink 16 oz of sport drink per hour, and then stop and have a couple of cookies and a piece of fruit, you’re likely consuming more calories than you’re burning. Naturally, this depends entirely upon your size and how intense you ride.

Bottom line – yes, you need to eat during your rides, and yes you need to do it earlier than you think, but you probably also don’t need to eat as much as you would like to.

Q: Do I need a road bike?

No, you don’t, but it is a good idea. Yes, you can ride a mountain bike or fitness bike, and you’ll see many people out there doing exactly that. But, the bottom line is these bikes are not going to be as comfortable as a road bike for these longer rides.

Do keep in mind that road bike doesn’t necessarily mean a race bike. Yes they will look similar to a race bike, and many people that do these rides use race bikes, but there are many bikes out there with more relaxed geometries than a race bike made for the 20 year olds with 4% body fat. What they do offer, however, is multiple hand positions and a more aerodynamic riding position than a mountain or fitness bike.

If you are going to ride a mountain or fitness bike, I’d suggest at a minimum getting skinnier tires and bar-ends to provide yourself with more hand positions.

And the most important thing about the bike you use? Make sure it is fitted correctly to you.  Don’t skip this part! I see a ton of riders ever year with saddles too low or in poor positions and that can really cause you a lot of discomfort as the hours go by.

Summary and Follow-Ups

So the lighting quick summary of all this information is simply to get out there and ride. Ride every week and ride a little bit longer each week. Try and take advantage of all the organized and recommended rides in your area and make some new friends.

If you have any questions about your MS-150, or other century, training, drop a comment and I’ll try and address them. Likewise, any corrections or clarifications do the same.

Something that most people will never do…

The Houston Chronicle posted an article (one of several) about this year’s MS150. One of the statements in the article is worth discussing further:

And then there was the simple fact that in spite of all the trials — harsh winds, knotted muscles, flat tires — they still managed to accomplish something most people will never do.

The last part of this statement is certainly true. If I talk to anyone who is not a cyclist about the MS150 they are always amazed at the ability to ride such a long distance on a bicycle and the amount of effort it takes. Indeed, it is a difficult physical achievement: 180 miles split across 2 days in anywhere from 5 to 12 hours each day, depending upon the speed of the rider, and somewhere between 2500 and 6000 calories burned in a single day, depending upon the weight and effort of the rider. These are numbers that astound most people.

At the same time, any cyclist who does this type of thing, or any other athlete, knows that events like this are just the beginning of athletic achievement. The more you achieve athletically, the more likely it is that you will find yourself surrounded by people doing things that seem even more amazing and difficult to reach than the achievements you have already reached.

This is the nature of so many things in life, and in no way does it actually diminish the achievement, but it does help place them in a much more reasonable perspective. Yes, riding in a MS150 is hard. Yes, it takes a lot of effort. And yes, it is something most people will never do. But, it is something than many more people could do if they put their minds and energies to it. Cycling especially has a low barrier to entry and almost anyone can get on a bike and slowly work their way up to the level in which they could ride 100 miles or more in a day.

Get to it!

Reflections on the 2008 MS150 training season

Between January and April every year, thousands of cyclists train for the MS150 held in April. Almost every weekend has two organized charity rides that provide a great training ground for riders preparing for the big ride in April. Many of the teams also organize their own training series separately as well.

The Sun and Ski team I rode with this year grouped with the ConocoPhillips Cycling Club to provide an alternative training series. The Conoco folks and other teams provided a great set of rides that in many ways exceeded the MS150 itself in organization and fun.

Because of favorable weather, and a bit more free time because of a changing work environment, I was able to ride more this season than any other year by quite a large margin. By the time the MS150 weekend arrived, I had completed 1,004 miles of on the bike. I burned through over 40,000 calories over those miles and climbed over 16,000 ft (quite a feat considering the lack of hills in this area!). It was a wonderful, wonderful experience. In previous years, I would usually only reach just over 600 miles of training before the MS150. This year’s extra miles and saddle time has put me in the best physical condition of my life, of that I have no doubt.

But the best part of this year’s training series turned out not to be the physical achievement but rather the social one. In prior years I made several friends and acquaintances during the rides, but only brief ones. This year, because of the ConocoPhillips push to carpool, I met a girl that lives just down the street from me. We carpooled to most of the training rides this season and wound up becoming great friends.

My friend Teri changed the way I viewed cycling. Previously it was entirely about getting into the zone and pushing myself as hard as possible. Now, I temper that with a great deal of social interaction on the rides, with Teri and other folks I’ve met this year. I still enjoy going out by myself from time to time, but during the big rides it is so much more fun to find people and stick with them through the day. This is even more true when riding in pace lines, as the social interaction provides some much needed bonding when riding so close to others and relying upon them not to screw up.

Teri and her husband John are now great friends of my wife Lori and I and I look forward to spending more time with them, both on and off the bike.

Thanks, Teri!

The BP MS 150

April 12th and 13th was the weekend for the Sun and Ski team this year after riding three years with the BMC Software team. BMC cancelled their support of a cycling team which left all of us on it looking for a new home. Sun and Ski is one of the largest teams in the event which gives them great perks for the start of the event. We started from Tully Stadium in Houston.

We showed up at the stadium at 0530 to beat the rush; unfortunately that meant 90 minutes of waiting in the cold morning. Luckily, Sun and Ski is the 2nd team out of the stadium, after the title sponsor BP led the way. The wind was around 8-10 MPH by the time we left the stadium and only proceeded to get stronger through the day. Most of day 1 is riding due West or Northwest, so the wind was to our side most of the day, but it still made for very difficult riding the entire day and greatly reduced our average speed.

We arrived at fairgrounds in La Grange at around 1730 after a very long 10 hours in the saddle. A quick massage followed by a bite to eat and a couple of beers helped to relax us after the long day. My friend Teri and her husband invited me to stay at their farm that night, which made for a very relaxing evening in a bed, rather than in a sleeping bag in the team tent at the fairgrounds.

We returned to the fairgrounds very early Sunday morning, getting in line by 0515. It was a very cold morning with temperatures at 42° F at dawn. Unfortunately my very thin jacket was not enough to keep me warm while we waited. We left our bikes in line and returned to the Sun and Ski tent to see if we could warm up, but unfortunately the coffee was already gone by that time. The announcer at the fairground kept telling everyone that the wind forecast of the day was for 0-5 MPH which made everyone excited about the coming ride.

We got underway at 0700 sharp and made it out of the fairgrounds in the third wave of rides. Unfortunately getting moving made it even colder for us and the lack of early morning Sun kept me shivering for the next 90 minutes. It wasn’t until we reached Buescher State Park that I finally warmed up. The route between Buescher and Bastrop State Park is my favorite part of the MS150 and I’ve chosen that route for every MS150 I’ve done, except for my very first. Park road 1C between the two parks can only be described as a roller coaster ride through pine trees. Those cyclists used to real mountains and hills would not be very impressed, but for those of us used to the coastal plain it is a wonderful challenge.

Teri and I cycling through the University of Texas campus

After the park we had lunch and then headed out for the last 35 miles or so of the ride. It was a tough afternoon with relatively intense sun and wind to go along with tired muscles. We made it to Austin just after 1600 after a long 9 hours in the saddle.  We grabbed a quick bite to eat and a couple of beers and relaxed with our spouses at the Sun and Ski tent before leaving town. It was a great MS150, even though it was a very difficult one. I was very proud of my friend Teri: she made it through both days with a lot of poise and chose the more difficult route through the park rather than the easier route up TX-71.

The Space Race

Today was The Space Race, a ride starting from Gulf Greyhound Park in La Marque, Texas. La Marque is between Houston and Galveston, but closer overall to Galveston. The ride is usually the last large organized ride before the annual BP MS150 in mid-April and is always one of my favorites.

It was a great, fast ride. I left with the 20+ MPH crowd at the start and was able to ride in pace-lines the entire day. Towards the second half of the ride I hooked up with a group that had us riding between 18 and 22 MPH for the rest of the ride. The end result was 104 miles in 06:21:05 elapsed with an average of 19.2 MPH.

The other great thing of the day was discovering Pickle Juice Sport for the first time. What an awesome drink!