Whenever a touring expedition is planned, whether it is a long weekend in the Lake District or an epic trip spanning several months and many countries, there is usually a lot of preparation involved. Endless hours are spent pondering over what routes and which equipment to take. And rightly so. However, more often than not physical fitness is looked upon with a lot less vigour. Being fit for touring not only helps avoid a frustrating mechanical of the human kind, it also makes the expedition seem less of an effort and thus infinitely more enjoyable.
Training for touring fitness differs from most other forms of mountain bike training in that the goal is not to reach a peak of physical fitness like a cross country racer would. Instead the aim of the tourer is to build up resilience and stamina which will last over a prolonged period. Those who have been touring before know that the key to being successful lies not in flat out cycling but in a slow plod (around 12-15mph). Slow and steady wins the tour as they say. This does not mean that touring or training for touring is easy. Far from it. Although your body doesn’t have to cope with high intensity effort, it does have to handle long duration cycling day after day after day. You can be sure that any fitness niggle or muscular pain, no matter how small, will magnify itself to ostentatious proportions after only a couple of weeks on the road.
The poor diet and reduced sleep, which are often associated with touring, together with the long hours in the saddle place an increased demand on the tourers‚ immune system and as such makes them that bit more susceptible to illness and injury. Being fit is the best way to offset this and the secret to proper touring fitness is to prepare beforehand and then maintain it once on the road.
The first step is to develop a sound endurance base, upon which you can build the rest of your fitness. A couple of months before your trip you should aim to be riding for about 2 hours three times a week. You should do these rides on the same bike that you will be touring on as this allows you to get accustomed to maintaining the riding position for hours at a time. It will also give you the opportunity to make subtle changes to the riding set up in order to improve comfort. Introducing a different bike to tour on at a later date will only complicate matters as slight changes in riding position will stress your muscles and joints from angles that they are unfamiliar with and thus make them prone to injury. Keep doing these training rides for a couple of weeks, each time trying to ride for a longer duration rather than riding faster.
Once these rides become relatively easy, the next step is to get accustomed to the weight. Weigh all of the equipment that you are planning to take (remember that fuel and water bottles will be full at some point – so account for this). The total weight for a long expedition is approximately 12-15kg per person). Fit the racks to your bike and simulate the weight with dumbbell discs (or bricks) or fit your panniers and fill them with the appropriate weight. Start your training rides light and then gradually increase the weight as you become fitter. Once a fully laden touring bike is moving on the flat, the cycling is relatively easy. That’s providing of course you don’t have to brake or turn suddenly! It’s a different story however on the hills. Even the slightest incline can be energy sapping never mind the soul crushing steep climbs. It is on the climbs that your body is stressed the most and it’s usually the knees and lower back that are the first casualties. It is a good idea to include hill work in your training, not as a specific workout per se, but as part of your regular training rides. As ever start easy and build up.
Not all touring injuries occur whilst riding, many are a result of pushing or manoeuvring a heavy bike. Just turning a laden bike around whilst walking requires a lot of upper body strength. A couple of times a week you should include some simple callisthenic exercises to strengthen your upper body such as chin-ups, sit-ups, push-ups, back raises, and dips.
When training for an extended touring trip it is important not to exhaust yourself training beforehand. It is good practice to have a full week off training prior to your start in order to rest and recuperate. Of course this week won’t be true rest as there will no doubt be a million and one other things you’ll have to do before you go away! Prevention as they say is better than cure, and a lot can be done whilst on the road to keep yourself in the best possible shape and minimise the risk of injury. Start the tour off easy with short days in the saddle and then slowly build up the duration as the days go by. Begin each day with a warm-up and some light stretching especially if you’ve just spent the night in a cramped tent. A light jog followed by some deep knee bends, shoulder circles, neck rolls and side bends should do the trick. You’re aiming to raise your body temperature by 1 – 2 deg C which is the equivalent of breaking into a light sweat. Follow this with a light stretching session emphasising the hamstrings and lower back. For the first half hour or so of riding take it easy, there’s no hurry, spin an easy gear and then slowly move up through the gears until you reach your normal touring pace. And of course, if you really don’t feel up to it on a particular day, then take the day off – you’re the boss! Instead, just take in the scenery and enjoy yourself.
Phase 1: (2 weeks) Easy paced long duration cycling (2hr+). 3 times per week.
Phase 2: (2 weeks) As above with added weight.
Phase 3: (2 weeks) As above plus occasional hill work
Phase 4: (1 week) Total rest.
Upper body strength:
Press-ups, dips, sit-ups, back raises & chin-ups. 2 sets of 10 repetitions, 2-3 times per week.
(c) Copyright 1999 John Metcalfe
As well as being an MTB enthusiast, John Metcalfe is also a Sports Scientist and available for MTB training programmes.