After doing many years of mountain bike cross country racing, I decided to try out MTB endurance racing in 2006. The National Ultra Endurance Series started in 2006 and I was excited about the idea of doing a series of 100-mile off-road races. Unfortunately, I missed the entire series in 2006 because I suffered a serious racing related injury the week before the first race of the series. I eventually recovered from my injury and by 2007 I was ready to give the NUE Series another try. I did the first two years of the NUE Series with a geared bike, but switched over to racing it on a singlespeed in 2009. In total, I have done 41 NUE Series Races and have won the overall Singlespeed division the past three consecutive years.
I’ve learned a lot from doing all of these long races and I’d like to share some of my endurance racing “secrets” with the readers of Salsa Cycles blog. My intention with this writing is not to go into specific training programs, but to give the reader a better idea of what I do to make this type of 'long' race easier for me. Basically, I want to discuss what I do to make the completion of an ultra-endurance race less taxing on my body and mind. I think the two most important aspects of being successful at endurance events are being efficient and comfortable during the race. These two goals go hand in hand, and when they come together doing a long race seems a lot less brutal.
Efficiency, as it relates to cycling, is being able to get the most out of your body and bike with the least amount of energy. During an eight-hour race every ounce of energy needs to be rationed prudently for there to be enough fuel in the tank to have a strong finish. Being as comfortable as possible during a long race is also important because of the length of time spent on the bike during these races. Personally, I know it’s hard for me to concentrate on going fast when there is something bothering or hurting me. There are a lot of factors involved in making a rider more efficient and comfortable before and during an endurance race. For this writing, I have condensed the factors I think are the most important into what I hope can be used as a “Cliff Notes” type of help guide for endurance MTB racing.
Bike: Since this is a bike race, one of the most important things to have prepared for a long race is your bike. This might seem pretty obvious, but I’ve seen many bike problems occur during these races that could have been avoided with proper planning. I like to have my bike prepped for the race at least two days before the event. I also do a ride on it before starting my travels to the race and another ride the day before the race. That way I know if it is functioning properly or not before the race starts. I make sure my drivetrain in clean and lubed. I check over critical bolts and make sure everything is tight. I also go over my tires to make sure there are no issues with them. I check my tire pressure the morning of the race and gauge it on the conditions and the expected weather. I use parts on my bike that I am familiar with and have used often. I also tend to choose stronger parts over lighter parts. Riding 100 miles in the dirt is hard on the bike and it’s important to use equipment that can withstand this abuse, rather than using a part that might be a little bit lighter.
Body: The only thing that is going to take more abuse than a bike used for a 100-mile race is the body of the person riding the bike. It’s important to know what to expect from your body when it is being pushed to the limit. The only way this is going to happen is by doing many long rides before the race. Not only will this help with physical conditioning, but it will also help you learn what works best on long rides. Find out before the race if you have any pain that develops during a long ride. It might be a bike fit issue that can be fixed with a visit to a professional bike shop that does fitting, or by doing some stretching on the bike during the ride/race. For instance, I have found that if I stretch my quads and hamstring occasional during a long ride, it helps reduce any leg discomfort I may develop. I also like to stretch my neck and back muscles in every direction I can during a long ride. I have learned to do all of my stretches while riding, so I don’t lose any time stopping. I have also found it is important to incorporate regular stretching into my daily workout plan, which seems to do a great job in preventing injuries or pain from developing in the first place. I find that doing core body work, like sit-ups and push-ups, is as important for endurance racing as doing long rides. Having a strong core body will help support the upper body and will also help prevent injuries during a crash. I do core body work every morning in addition to my daily bike rides. Another important thing to mention about keeping the body pain free during a long race is the use of a chamois cream or anti-chaffing balm. I always use one or the other on my chamois and I also like to use it on my inner thigh area. There is nothing worse than having one of these areas becoming sore from the constant pressure of being seated or from the constant rubbing caused by doing so much pedaling.
Food: Knowing what to eat during a long race is what helps me keep my energy high for the whole day. I start off by eating a large dinner the night before the event. I like to stockpile as many calories as I can for the long day ahead. I also eat a large breakfast in the morning about two hours before the race starts. I find eating about 1000 calories for breakfast is what works best for me. It seems everybody is different when it comes to consuming fuel before and during a race, but food consumption for a 100 miler is different than preparing for an XC race and I would again recommend finding out what works best for you by experimenting on long training rides. I find that solid food is a better choice for me than energy gels or liquid-based caloric intake. I usually start each race with two regular energy bars, a flask of gel, and 8 Fig Newton cookies. This combination will get me through the race, but I will also grab a banana at a couple of the checkpoints and maybe some salty chips or nuts if I have time. I try to shove something in my mouth at least every hour, even if I don’t feel hungry. It’s very easy to ride for a couple of hours and feel fine, but that feeling can disappear quickly and it might be too late to add calories once the body feels like food is needed to prevent bonking. Fluid consumption is also very important and I typically drink a minimum of 6-8 large bottles of fluid during a 100-mile race. I carry one bottle of a sport drink and another bottle of plain water at all times. I think it is important to use a mix of water and sports drink because my body seems to crave each of them at different times. Also, water can be used to flush dirt or other debris from the eyes or for other purposes where a sports drink would not be a good choice.
Training: There are many different training plans out there about how to best prepare for a long race. I’m not a coach and I don’t use a coach, so I doubt my training information would be very useful for someone looking for a specific training plan. As mentioned above, the most important thing about training for an ultra-endurance event is doing longer rides of four-plus hours. Personally, I ride my bike between 15-25 hours each week from early spring until the endurance-racing season ends. It is the only way I think the body can get used to riding for an extended period of time and it is the best way for a rider to learn what food, clothing and level of effort to use during the race for the best possible finish. When I do my long rides, I do not stop to take breaks. I feel that stopping for 5-10 minutes during a ride gives the body time to recuperate, which is a luxury I don’t have when racing. I also recommend training on the same type of bike you will use for the race. It never made much sense to me to train on a road bike or dissimilar mountain bike for a long race. For instance, since I race in the singlespeed class, so I almost always ride my singlespeed mountain bike. Riding a singlespeed is different than riding a bike with gears, so I want to know how my body will react after pushing one gear for an extended period of time. I also train with a heavier bike setup and a harder gear than I would use during the race; however, everything else on my training bike is kept identical to my race bike. I feel like my body becomes completely accustomed to my bike this way and I am sure this makes my riding more efficient and comfortable on race day.
Clothing: The clothing used during a long race must be comfortable. The most important items to me are my shoes and shorts. Riding in a pair of short with a cheap chamois is not a good idea. Do yourself a favor and buy the nicest pair of shorts you can find and do at least a few long training rides in them before the race to make sure there are no issues with how they feel. I also think that it’s a good idea to spend money on a nice pair of shoes. But, no matter what the cost of the shoes is, ensure they have a good fit and cause no pain to the feet. In addition to using good shoes, I like to use a good pair of Merino wool socks during long races. They seem to wick away moisture well and provide the most comfort to my feet. I’ve even had issue with a helmet during a long ride, where the rear retention strap came down too low and caused discomfort by rubbing the top of my ears. During a shorter ride, this issue would not have bothered me, but it sure was noticeable after being on my head for eight hours. It's little things like this that can be distracting enough to take my concentration away from the race and cause me to lose valuable time. I know now not to overlook or use any untested piece of clothing for a long race.
Other Odds and Ends: Here are a few other tips I use to make a long race a little easier for me. I recommend using a reliable computer or GPS unit to track time and distance. For me, having this information directly in front of me helps get me through the race and it helps gauge my performance. I also like to stick a piece of medical tape on my top tube showing the distances for where each checkpoint is on the course. This way I can judge how far it would be to get assistance if it was needed for anything. I use a saddlebag on my bike to carry my repair items. It carries a multi-tool that has an included chain tool, a minimum of two CO2 cartridges, a tube, at least two quick-connect chain links, a couple of zip ties, and a tire lever wrapped in duct tape. I carry the duct tape to fix ripped tires or to do other creative repairs. The zip ties are also carried for miscellaneous quick-fix repairs. I also recommend traveling to races with a front tire frame fender. Having mud splash in your face for 100 miles is no fun and having one of these fenders makes racing in wet conditions much more bearable. For some, the mental hurdle of doing or finishing a long race is the most difficult part. I like to break the race down as four 25-mile cross country races rather than looking at it as one big race. Doing this keeps me focused and motivated to continue pushing hard for the entire race. Another thing I always try to remember, if I am suffering during a long race, is that the pain and discomfort I’m feeling is only temporary, but my finishing result will last forever.
In conclusion, I’m not saying the ideas I mention in this writing are the best or only way of doing things. The stuff I mention here is what works for me, which I have learned through much trial and error. What works for me may not work for you, but what I mention here should provide some guidelines or new ideas to try. I hope this information will be useful to other racers already doing endurance racing and to those who are thinking about giving it a try. I'm happy to answer any specific questions regarding this writing, the NUE Series, or anything else relating to MTB endurance racing, so please don’t hesitate to ask.
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