Training for Your First Century


A century. Even the word brings to mind images of grandeur, of a long, enduring and epic journey. A nice round number; 100. The distance from Chicago to Wisconsin and back.

A century ride, in a way, is cycling’s marathon: six plus hours of pedaling circles, trying to keep energy levels up by eating and drinking enough to stay ahead of the looming bonk that wants to force your body into submission, to make it stop. However, completing a century ride on your bike is an attainable goal for even the most recreational of cyclist. Your body will hurt and ache, but with no pavement to pound, you may be able to push beyond limits you could experience in running. But where to begin?

Start by planning with time on your side. Pick an event at least two to three months in the future and work backwards. You need to have a schedule that allows you to devote at least five to 10 hours of training time a week on a consistent basis before ride day. You do not need to devote all of these hours to ride time, but after the first month your training should focus most on riding. A month before the ride, you should have enough time to do three hour rides at least once a week, most likely on the weekends.

Second, you need to own a decent road bike. You will spend a lot of time on this bike and will grow to know it intimately. From its fit and feel to changing a flat, it is your vehicle for pain and suffering as much as joy and accomplishment. Treat it nicely and it will carry you far distances. Check out your local bike shop and talk to a salesperson about your century plans. Focus on a good saddle and pair of cycling shorts with a good chamois, as saddle time will be a very important aspect of your training.

There are many training plans out there to follow to increase endurance and power on the bike and each one will work differently for each individual. You can train alone or with a coach, but know that if you choose to create your own plan, you will need to exercise a bit more discipline and willpower to get in the right workouts.

Start with easy to steady rides of 30 to 60 minutes three times per week with some cross training two to three times a week on non-riding days. After three to four weeks of this, change one of the rides to a long interval workout. Shoot for 3×20 minutes hard (80 percent of maximum effort for 20 minutes) with five minutes of rest in between.

After a week of this, change one more of your easy rides into a long distance ride of two to three hours. You can accomplish this on one of the many group rides in and around the city on a Saturday or Sunday morning. Check out for times, distances and general effort information for each ride. Continue to cross train at least two to three days per week, with at minimum one day completely off, exercising with light stretching or walking only.

“If you are really timed crunched, core work off the bike and relative power and intensity on the bike,” Mike Farrell, Prairie Path Bicycle shop owner and Athletes by Design cycling coach, says of how you should structure your training. “If you only have 90 minutes in any day to workout, it’s much more efficient to train hard during that time.”

Three weeks before your century, start to ease off both the hard riding day and the cross training, perhaps taking an added rest day. Keep up the long ride once a week to help keep soreness at bay during your century. By ride day you should have good endurance, power from the 20-minute intervals and enough saddle time to feel comfortable on your bike for the long duration.

Also remember to practice your pacing and draft-line technique. You can do this on your long ride in a group setting. Most group rides will form a double pace line which will allow you to simulate how a century ride creates group formations along the route to allow for quicker paces.

To feel comfortable on your century, you should know how to change a flat tire. Carrying a saddlebag with tire irons, a spare tube, patch kit and multi tool will help with this. While the ride will most likely be supported with aid stations, there could be long stretches where you may be on your own to fix your tire if needed.

“If you own it, bring it,” Farrell says. “There are so many different scenarios that could unfold on the morning of the ride. Weather alone could dictate 10 different items.”

Nutrition on and off the bike is important given the length of the ride. The night before, eat a decent sized meal heavy in carbohydrates, but do not go outside of a normal meal for yourself. Trying something new at the last minute with nutrition can be the kiss of death for a long day in the saddle. Follow the same guidelines the morning of the ride, eating a full breakfast of familiar foods.

Bananas, energy bars and gels are all good choices for nutrition while riding. Experiment in your long training rides beforehand to find what works for you. Practice eating on the bike during these rides, as this task can be harder than it seems. In general you should eat at least one energy bar or equivalent and take one to two bottles of liquid, preferably with a light energy mixture in it, every hour. This should provide the necessary fuel to get through the day. Again, there will likely be aid stations, but some might run out of food and drink or stock different items than what you are used to eating or drinking while riding.

“On the day of your century choose a nice relaxing pace and enjoy the day,” Farrell says. “The most fun part is owning the road. A popular century that has been going for a few years will have the local drivers avoiding the area for most of the day. It feels extremely relaxing being able to ride along with only fellow cyclists in sight.”

In the end, this is a journey that you get to take with hundreds of others around you.

“Before the ride starts there’s energy and excitement in the air, but it’s not intense or competitive because Swedish Days isn’t a race, it’s a ride,” Swedish Days Ride—one of the area’s most popular century options—committee member Beth Greenlee says. “During the ride there’s a sense of community and encouragement. We have a shared passion and goal. At the end of the ride, there’s camaraderie in the shared accomplishment, satisfaction in achieving a goal and a sense of, ‘Wow, we did it!’”

Pick your century ride, set your goals, write down your training, nutrition and preparation plans and get ready for an amazing experience riding your bike a century for the first time. And don’t forget the sunscreen!

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Bryan’s athletic career started as a member of his middle school’s state winning cross country team, he was hooked on endurance sports. Competing in cross country, indoor and outdoor track for 10 years, his running culminated with three years of division one racing at Virginia Tech. He then switched from running to road cycling in 2007 and was key in his team’s successful pursuit of the ACC championship. After graduating college in 2008 with a BS in Mechanical Engineering, he further cut his teeth racing in Belgium before returning to race the Pro/Am Domestic circuit, traveling the US for another 6 years. As a contributing member and cycling correspondent of Chicago Athlete since the summer of 2014, Bryan has also recently been concentrating on his artistic and commercial photography practices in Chicago and beyond.