Each year, new multi-day bikepacking races pop up on the calendar, luring adventure cyclists to test their endurance, grit, and self-sufficiency.
While the appeal of bikepacking events may be long hours in the saddle and the great outdoors, most athletes don’t have the opportunity to replicate this experience in training due to work and family commitments.
If you have an adventuring soul, but find yourself limited on time to prepare, utilizing a functional plan specific to ultra-endurance cycling can help build your confidence for events. This type of plan includes more than just a training program and organizes your time into three main categories: physical fitness development, gear systems, and mental preparation.
Physical Fitness Development:
All About that Base
In the realm of bikepacking, the aerobic system is king. If you’re familiar with heart rate or power-based training, the general rule of thumb for aerobic activation is “Zone 2” training, or that window around 60-75% of your max effort capability. Having a solid aerobic foundation improves cardiovascular efficiency, increases mitochondrial function, and boosts blood distribution to muscles. But beyond the science, in a bikepacking event, you must keep pedaling for days toward the finish! Developing the aerobic system helps you resist fatigue for the long haul.
Think of your available training time as split 80/20: spend 80% of your time on the bike base training (Zone 2), and 20% of your time interval training. The intervals are to prime your body for harder situations on your bike and develop stamina for sections like hard climbs. Plus, throwing in some intervals may help develop the mental toughness to handle the discomforts of pedaling days on end.
Even if you’re limited on time, you can practice the flexibility of cadence within a very short, one-hour training ride. Having a flexible cadence range means you can comfortably pedal at low and high rpms.
When pedaling a 30-40lb packed bicycle for days on end, cadence varies significantly. Long climbing rpms may average out well below 60. Lower rpm and a weighted bike can be hard on the skeletal, muscular, and joint structures — so you’ll want to simulate that type of training load at home.
And while you want to practice low rpm, or “strength endurance” intervals, also invest time into developing higher cadence range so you avoid fatiguing your muscles when pedaling on flatter terrain.
Here is a great example of a Cadence Flexibility Workout:
Warm up: 10-15 min building intensity from Zone 1 to 2
Main Set: Start with 3×7 minutes @ Tempo Zone 3 (power or heart rate), spinning at 60-65 rpms, while remaining seated in the saddle
Recover 3 minutes back to Zone 2, but targeting upper ranges of 100+ rpm
Cool Down: 10 minutes Zone 1
Total time: about an hour
What About Crazy-Long Training Rides?
Plugging away daily, and consistently, will pile on heaps of benefits physically. But it is important to set aside a couple of dates to practice long miles, just so you can experience that feeling of fatigue on the bike. If you can’t log a 6, 7, or 8-hour long ride even on a weekend, consider this creative overnighter solution:
Jay Petervary, multi-time champion of Ultra Iditarod, Tour Divide, Dirty Kanza, and numerous other ultra-distance cycling events, says, “The most valuable thing somebody new to bikepacking can do with limited time is the ‘sub-12 hour adventure’. Leave your house at 7PM, ride an hour into the dark, sleep outside with your gear, and get up to ride back home before dawn. This is not about the miles; this about processes and getting your kit dialed!”
Most athletes can make this “sub-12 hour adventure” happen with some creativity, and it will lend loads of confidence to rehearse with gear. Which leads to the next point…because preparation is not about fitness alone!
Bikepacking Gear Systems
In bikepacking events, fitness doesn’t account for much if you don’t have what you need when you need it! Weather, terrain, and wildlife can throw some gnarly curveballs, so part of training for events becomes riding with and using your gear.
Ride with your bike bags fully loaded on your 2hr ride to practice getting into your packs while on the bike. These are systems only experience and time will perfect.
Riding with your gear also helps you understand how this heavier, loaded-down bike handles. Take your packed bike down descents, around corners, and up climbs so you are confident in the way it performs.
Last, but perhaps most important of all: mental preparation. At the end of the day, bikepacking events come down to perseverance. There must be a willingness to keep on moving, despite heavy fatigue. You most likely won’t be able to replicate this high level of fatigue at home, so it’s important to visualize how you’ll handle mechanicals, a health concern, a major weather system, or an untimely crash.
Look at the event you’ve entered, and visualize the possible obstacles you may face in that particular event. For example, will you need to ride through the night to make checkpoint cutoffs? Are you equipped if a major storm moves in while you’re at altitude? Do you know how to handle your body’s response to dehydration and extreme heat?
These are critical questions to you can think through and prepare for without necessarily having those specific experiences yet. Visualize scenarios and how you’ll handle them. Even the most time-restricted athlete can prepare mentally by looking carefully at the terrain, the maps, resupply points, and challenging sections of a course.