Train Now for a Summertime Family Cycling Trip

by Julie Rains on 31 January 2011 0 comments
Photo: Julie Rains

Winter is a great time to get ready for a summer cycling vacation with your family. (See also: Summer Freebies and Bargains for Kids)

A couple of winters ago, I convinced my husband that taking the kids, then 15 and 12, on an organized cycling trip was a great idea. Actually, I persuaded him to sign up for the trip and withhold judgment on our family’s capabilities (individually and collectively) to ride over 150 miles in 4 days. My job was to prepare the family for this adventure. I discovered that there are really four components to getting ready for a cycling trip (or similar outdoor vacations involving moderate physical activity):

Create a Trip Evaluation

Before you get ready, you'll need to know what you are getting ready for, so start with a trip evaluation. Note your trip's:

  1. Distance
  2. Average speed
  3. Conditions

Getting the distance of a trip should be straightforward. I’ll mention, though, that the mileages for our trip were updated periodically as trails and road safety were evaluated and re-evaluated. There were also some optional miles for side trips.

For a casual trip, you may not receive information stating the average speed of the cyclists, but you can calculate this number using the schedule of activities. For example, if the start time is 9 a.m. and lunch is served at 12 noon at a site 30 miles from the starting point, then cyclists should average 10 mph to arrive on time. 

Assessing conditions is the most difficult task. Look at:

  1. Surface: Will you be riding on a trail where cars are prohibited? What type of surface is the bike path?
     
  2. Support: Will you need to transport your own gear, such as tents and clothing? Are meals, snacks, and water provided by organizers? What type of overnight facilities are available — hotel, bed and breakfast, campsite? Will cell phone service be available if you have problems?
     
  3. Climate: What is the average temperature? Will you need winter gear or rain apparel?

Having participated in cycling events with friends, I had the knowledge to get the family ready. However, finding time to train was a challenge with winter weather, short days, schoolwork, and real work persisting as interferences to a fitness regimen. Plus we had some false starts.

Our first training ride has become part of family lore in the “disaster” category: My youngest son collapsed (figuratively, though he did feign a near-physical collapse) after cycling about five miles on a multi-use trail. My husband, then 49-years-old and an occasional exerciser, wasn’t feeling energized either. I ditched my dreams of idyllic family outings in which we harmoniously enjoyed each other’s company as we pedaled happily, steadily, and swiftly. Then I developed and activated Plan B.

Fitness

To get ready for a cycling trip, ideally you and your family should take rides together on weekends, early mornings before work, or evenings after work (or during the day if everyone has a flexible schedule). Steadily you’ll progress toward your fitness goals and trip readiness. Specifically, you should try to attain the average speed for the longest-mileage day.

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As I mentioned, my total-family approach didn’t work smoothly for us, so my Plan B was to get each person ready separately, even though we’d progress at different rates. My husband and I started by taking long bike rides on a greenway near our house on Saturday mornings and occasional evenings. Whenever possible, I took my 12-year-old during the week. Eventually, my husband and younger son rode together to take on more challenging distances. (I’ll note that this son was working toward a Cycling Merit Badge and was motivated to complete a series of rides including the capstone 50-mile ride.)

My oldest son didn’t take many rides with the family as he was working out with his high school football team. His physical strength, mental toughness, and youth — along with the right gear — allowed him to complete daily distances easily.

Here’s my approach:

  1. Create and follow a plan that builds your mileage to the longest daily distance. Work out a few times each week, talking a long ride on the weekend and a couple of shorter rides during the week. Progressively increase the longest ride of the week, adding 15-30% in miles if possible until you reach your goal. If you are not able to ride during the week, do something: walk, take an indoor cycle class, swim, run outside, or lift weights.
     
  2. Add speed. You don’t need to cycle 30 miles at an all-out pace to improve your fitness level. Quicken the pace slightly or put forth short bursts of intense effort and then slow down instead of stopping so that you’ll get used to continuous effort (and avoid sudden drops in heart rate).
     
  3. Rest. Take breaks during the bike rides every 10-15 miles or so. Recover between workout sessions. If you are relatively new to regular exercise, you may need to take more than a day of recovery between rides. If you feel tired, slow down or cut your distances, or take an extra rest day.

As a note of encouragement, even if you walk a mile or so daily now, you have a better base level of fitness than you might imagine; getting to the next level is more attainable than you might realize. As a note of caution, don’t overdo workouts. Build up slowly, and don't try to set speed records.

Nutrition

Novices consistently underestimate the impact of nutrition and hydration in tackling a long or multi-day ride. Those seemingly average in fitness can ride for hours when taking in the proper fuel and plenty of fluids.

Generally, eating balanced meals and healthy snacks while avoiding fast food and processed food works well. My regimen is a fruit smoothie for breakfast with bananas, blueberries, yogurt, and orange juice; trail mix or energy gels for snacks; a sandwich and chips or pretzels for lunch; and a good dinner with protein, vegetables, and carbs, plus plenty of water and some electrolyte-laden sports drinks along the way. Others like eggs and toast for breakfast and peanut butter sandwiches for snacks, for example.

Here’s my approach:

  1. Develop menus that suit your preferences (breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks). Test foods, meals, and drinks to determine which benefit your performance and what causes problems.
     
  2. Pay attention to your diet and fluid intake during the weeks of training as well as immediately before the trip, during the rides, and afterwards. Never start an event hungry or thirsty as you'll likely suffer throughout the ride. 
     
  3. Never try a new approach before or during a long ride. This idea is like #1, but important enough that it should stand on its own.

Gear

Bringing the right gear that is easily transported to the trip is a major consideration. Training sessions will give you indicators of what type of gear is essential. For more specific information, review trip packing lists, ask organizers for recommended items, and interact with ride veterans on trip forums (if available) to discover useful items that may not be mentioned otherwise.

Here’s my approach:

  1. Find a bicycle and helmet that fit you and the cycling surface (that is, use a hybrid or mountain bike if you are traveling on a rails-to-trails trail or a road bike if you are riding on the road).
     
  2. Bring a water bottle and other essentials in a bicycle bag, which should include a basic repair kit (bicycle tube, tool, and pump), snacks, and possibly a first-aid kit. Avoid carrying a daypack on your back as this arrangement becomes uncomfortable quickly.
     
  3. Acquire additional gear as needed. These items may include a bicycle computer, moisture-wicking clothing (shirts, shorts, and socks), raingear, bicycle lock, and camping gear.

Renting bikes and other equipment makes sense if you are traveling a long distance for the trip, and you are confident that you can rent the right type of bicycle that is in excellent working condition and fits properly. Our family’s disastrous experience was due partly to a problem bicycle, selected hurriedly from a rental shop next to the bike trail. The chain fell off repeatedly and seemed permanently stuck in one gear, which didn’t allow for ease of pedaling. The owner helped us and adjusted our bill, but the experience taught me to be diligent in checking out rental shops and bike rentals.

Mental Readiness

Getting mentally ready is just as important as physical fitness. You don’t have to pursue mental toughness specifically. As you train and encounter challenges, make mistakes, and survive these experiences, you’ll develop mental toughness naturally.

Things that have happened to me, for example, include times when I started to become dehydrated because a rest stop closed early, ate a hamburger just an hour before a long and fast ride, pushed myself too hard in the early phase of a ride and struggled for the subsequent 20 miles, and cycled for hours in the rain. I've also heard "war stories" that included sudden muscle cramping and extreme fatigue during an epic ride a few days after donating blood.

These things are scary but they are helpful because they...

  1. ...teach you what not to do next time.
     
  2. ....help you to encourage others to avoid these problems or recognize what’s wrong when someone repeats your past mistake (instead of panicking).
     
  3. ...demonstrate your resilience.

Another way to build your readiness is by completing the longest daily distance and doing back-to-back rides. The intimidation of a 40-mile ride and riding multiple days in a row disappears if you have managed to conquer those challenges already. You'll also learn techniques for handling such exertion.

Don’t panic if you cannot take that long ride if you are otherwise healthy and fit, and the trip difficulty level is low. On a typical day, you'll have completed a workout plus all your daily chores (such as going to work, fixing dinner, and doing laundry), which can zap your energy. During the trip, all you have to do is ride.

To find a trip that's right for your family, talk to folks at your local bicycle, outdoor shop, and bicycle club; or investigate trips offered by Adventure Cycling, hosted by state agencies (such as the Katy Trail Ride in Missouri) and organized by adventure travel companies. To find trails suitable for family training, check out maps from Rails-to-Trails Conservancy or your local parks and recreation department.

If you have techniques for getting families or yourself ready for a cycling vacation, share them in the comments.

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