How To Ride Long Distance on Your Mountain Bike

If you’re a mountain biker with decent fitness, you’re probably capable of extending your mileage and doing an epic ride with eye-popping stats. It doesn’t require a special diet or a 12-week training plan, but it does requires you to think and ride differently.

For a long time I was satisfied with my usual 8- to 12-mile rides that lasted from an hour to an hour and a half, and a long ride for me was about 20 miles and two hours. But as my 50th birthday loomed, I decided to try a 50-mile ride. Previously, my longest ride ever was about 35 miles, and I wondered if I could crank out those extra 15 miles.

For a little background, I’m not a racer, and I don’t train. I ride. I also have no history as an endurance athlete, and I’m not a regimented person. But I’ve always been curious about my potential, and I strive to improve my riding, despite my sometimes-slacker nature. Skipping to the punchline, I cranked out 52 miles with 6,000 vertical feet of climbing in 5 hours and 20 minutes of riding time, with another hour or so of rest stops and food breaks in between.

Doing a long ride obviously takes a little more fitness, but you don’t have to be an Olympian, just prepare and pace yourself.
Doing a long ride obviously takes a little more fitness, but you don’t have to be an Olympian, just prepare and pace yourself.

Adding Miles

No shocker, the first thing I did in preparation was ride more, but nothing extreme. I tried to get out a few times a week and build a bit more endurance. Instead of loading the bike in the truck and driving to a trailhead, I rode pavement to it. This added mileage and saddle time, but they were manageable miles. The ride home got me used to riding while tired and cranking out extra miles without the psychological hurdles of grueling trail climbs or technical descents. All I had to do was stay in the bike lane and turn the pedals.

I also added trail miles to my usual rides, including extra climbs and out-of-the-saddle intervals. My goal was to stress my body a little more than usual, both in intensity and duration, but not kill myself. I didn’t wear a heart rate monitor, I just used common sense. If I got lightheaded during an interval, I backed off. Too sore the next day? Recover and try again later.

Rather than doing a 50-mile backcountry loop, I settled on multiple laps on my local trails that are linked by short sections of road between them. The goal was to stay on dirt as much as possible, and riding locally meant I was familiar with every section of trail I would ride and have no surprises with the terrain.

Gearing Down

I got a lot of help from my friend, Dan Kouba, who has trained for and competed in endurance races. He coached, encouraged, and rode with me.

Riding partners can talk help talk you through those moments of low-energy and fatigue, and bearing a little suffering seems easier when you add camaraderie.
Riding partners can talk help talk you through those moments of low-energy and fatigue, and bearing a little suffering seems easier when you add camaraderie.

The most valuable thing he taught me was to keep my heart rate low by gearing down and riding slower. I mentioned that I didn’t wear a heart rate monitor, and our rule of thumb was if I couldn’t speak in complete sentences without gasping for air, I was pushing too hard. That’s become my most valuable rule of thumb for longer rides, which makes sense. It’s like the difference in effort between walking and running.

Hills were more challenging, and our route included some steep and prolonged climbs. I stashed my ego in my backpack and dropped into the granny gear on stretches where I would usually ride in the big ring of my 2x drivetrain and stand on the pedals if needed. The first 15 miles were slower than normal, but physically, they felt like a warm-up ride around the block.

Black to Blue

Take the technical sections easy when doing a long ride. You can clean them later. The goal is to keep pedaling and avoid crashes.
Take the technical sections easy when doing a long ride. You can clean them later. The goal is to keep pedaling and avoid crashes.

Like most mountain bikers, I love riding downhill–the faster, the better. It’s common for me to be as winded after a hard-charging downhill as I am after a steep climb. But on this ride, I used downhills as a chance to catch my breath and rest my legs. I knew I would be physically and mentally tired during the long ride, and the difference between cleaning or crashing in a technical section is often a split-second decision and response. I wouldn’t be as sharp as usual, especially in the second half of the ride, so I rode at about 80 percent of my usual downhill speed. Where I usually attacked a downhill like a black diamond run, I cruised like it was a blue-level groomer.

Beyond the halfway point, I started to feel the miles, but knew I had more in me. Would I have enough? At the time I didn’t know, but I was confident that if I continued Dan’s riding strategy, I could do it.

It’s All Temporary

I also leaned on the experience of fellow Idahoan and pro mountain biker Rebecca Rusch, who was my unknowing muse on this ride. She’s known as the “Queen of Pain” for her super-human feats of endurance riding. In her book, Rusch to Glory, she imparted this gem of wisdom: “No matter how good or how bad you feel, it won’t last.”

The “bad” part was counterintuitive to me. I figured when you get tired, it’s a downward spiral from there… but not necessarily. You can ride through fatigue until your body finds the next well of energy.

Doing a long ride is not a race, it’s an experience. Take breaks, eat, and relax. It helps your mind and body prepare for the next leg.
Doing a long ride is not a race, it’s an experience. Take breaks, eat, and relax. It helps your mind and body prepare for the next leg.

That also coincided with Dan’s advice about food. He told me to fuel for what I was about to ride, not what I’d already ridden. A common mistake I make is to rest and eat at the top of a climb as a combination of replenishment and reward. He also advised me that at some point, I would need some “real food,” not my usual subsistence of GU packets and Clif Bars. A balanced mix of food kept my stomach happy and my mind looking forward to the next rest stop.

Gutting it Out

I won’t candy-coat it. There were moments toward the end when I was hot, tired, and thirsty regardless of how much I drank. It was my body saying, “are we there yet?” like a fussy school kid. The snap in my legs was long gone, and lactic acid turned my quads to mush.

This was the part I dreaded. My body and brain considered tapping out. It’s when you have to turn off the rational part of your brain and tap into its reptilian core. Am I tired? Yes. Would stopping feel better? Yes. Can I keep spinning the pedals? Yes. Then keep riding and tell the whining voice in your head to shut the hell up.

I also ignored the bike computer on my handlebars, which taunted me with its slow turn over of the miles. Dan had a GPS that was more accurate than my bargain-basement model. As we pedaled in sober silence, he broke it by announcing “that’s 50.” It woke me from my stupor because my computer showed I was still short of the mark. As much as I would like to say Dan’s declaration brought a surge of elation and joy, a sigh of relief is more accurate. I also knew I still had a couple miles of pavement to get home, so while I had met my goal, my ride wasn’t over.

Arriving home was anticlimactic. All I wanted to do was sit and stare, then take a hot shower to wash away the dust and sweat. But a cold beer and a comfortable chair brought it all into perspective: 52 miles and climbing 6,000 vertical feet seemed like someone else’s stats, but they were mine. I had earned them.

When you know your route, you know what to expect, where to conserve your energy and where to push a little.
When you know your route, you know what to expect, where to conserve your energy and where to push a little.

What I Learned

You don’t have to be an Olympian to ride long distances, but you can’t treat a long ride like your after work sessions or your weekend fun rides. It takes preparation and a willingness to endure some discomfort.

By pacing myself, consistently eating and drinking, and taking rest stops as needed, I could pedal through my “pain cave,” which was more of a dull pounding than a sharp stab. I also learned that I could bore through multiple walls of fatigue and mine layers of energy behind them.

Most importantly, I tested my physical limits and recalibrated my mental gauges. A 10-miler now feels like a spin around a pump track, and the psychological hurdle of a 20-miler is hopped like a curb. When the miles drag on and the end of the ride seems beyond the horizon, I know that all I have to do is gear down and keep pedaling.

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