Early Season Fitness

The first time I showed up to the 24-hour mountain bike race in Riverside State Park, I was riddled with anxiety. “Three laps? That’s 45 miles. How the hell am I going to survive 45 miles?!!” At the time, “exercise” was a dirty word to me. The fitness I did gain during the year was from goofing off in the jump park at Beacon Hill for an hour or two each week during the summer months, along with the occasional road ride with my wife.

That race, now called 24 Hours of Riverside, is on Memorial Day weekend, which is arguably early in the season—early enough that a rider needs to be thinking about ramping up fitness long before the trails are remotely rideable. The year after that, a friend talked me into entering the 700-mile Cross-Washington Mountain Bike Race (XWA), also in May; I had to figure out this business of early season fitness.

Now that I’ve raced XWA twice—8th place, both times—plus a number of other stupid-long and challenging rides and races, I can say that having a calendar of targeted events for the year helps early season training immensely. It gives you a reasonable timeframe in which to attain the necessary fitness to enjoy your event, whatever it is; if you’ve prepared well, it SHOULD be enjoyable to some degree. Whether your target is to commute to work, ride the Hiawatha, or grind out your first century, there’s a strategy to get you there. If the goal or event you’re eyeballing is early in the season (April, May, or June), you will likely run into some downright unrideable weather while you’re getting started. Here are my tips to tackle early-season rides.  

Geek out.

The first thing to do is arm yourself with knowledge. I keep my finger on the pulse of several bikepacking podcasts, and one can immediately recognize a good bikepacking podcast when butt care strategies come up in the conversation. There are plenty of podcasts focusing on the fitness aspect of cycling. A bulk of the fitness research out there studies college-aged dudes, but if you happen to not be a dude, Dr. Stacy Sims has published two very interesting books: ROAR focuses on the nuances of elite women’s fitness, and NEXT LEVEL takes a deep dive into the issues and strategies of athletes facing menopause. Whatever niche of the cycling world you intend to inhabit, there is no shortage of podcasts and YouTuber channels that focus on every aspect of your cycling fitness interest.

Find your community.

Your local bike shop is the best first place to find out who is doing whatever you’re into and when events and group rides are going down. There are plenty of reasons to avoid Facebook like the plague, but it is still a useful tool for finding riders and events in your area. Groups like Mountain Biking in the Inland NW, GASUP (Getting Around Spokane Using Pedals), Gravel Braintrust, and Washington Bikepacking Women will soon have you getting lost in the woods with folks who are likely to become lifelong friends.

Engage in off-the-bike fitness.

Phil Cavell, author of The Midlife Cyclist, says “as we approach middle age, the longer we want to ride, the more we will have to do things other than ride.” Cycling is great exercise, but it will definitely unbalance you if that’s all you do. Gabriel Benjamin’s self-named YouTube channel teaches yoga for cyclists. He’s been a guest on Pat Bulger’s Packfiller Podcast, expounding upon the benefits of strengthening glutes and hamstrings, opening hips, stretching quads, and core strengthening in a way that’s specific to the cyclist’s needs. Some riders will want more intensive training, but I get by relatively pain-free on the 30+ hour rides that I routinely end up on with five minutes of yoga, plus five minutes of other easy strength training exercises four to five times a week.

Ride inside (when you must).

Riding outside is great and all, but in mid-January it’s easy to end up at the top of a climb wearing 80 pounds of sweat-soaked clothes if you’re needing to target some high intensity efforts. There has been an explosion in the world of smart trainer technology with platforms such as Zwift, Wahoo, and Peloton that permit riders to crank out targeted efforts and download workouts from coaches. This is extremely helpful if, like local rider Tara Bakker and her husband Craig, you happen to be preparing for the searing heat of Cape Epic, a grueling 7-day mountain bike race in South Africa, and it’s single digits out in Spokane. “Heat training for us,” Tara says, “consisted of piling on three heavy layers of clothes with a space heater and a blazing fire going on while pedaling on the trainers doing a Zwift workout.”

Find training events.

World Tour pro cyclists routinely enter races they don’t intend to win or even finish just to build peak fitness for a targeted race, because no one can hope to maintain peak fitness for very long without “cracking for the season.” I learned the wisdom of instituting two- or three-week training blocks punctuated by an easy recovery week after I cracked a few years ago and was completely useless for a couple months. I sprinkle in a few early season events into my training calendar as the season progresses. Ephrara Fondo, an event produced by Vicious Cycle, is usually the first event of the season for the road and gravel racing community in mid-March, with Goldendale Fondo following in mid-April, and Leavenworth in May. It’s also a great way to explore Washington’s spectacular scenery and get some cross pollination between Northwest cycling communities.

There’s no end to the amount of gear to acquire and information to stuff in your head regarding this incredibly weird business of riding bikes, but if there’s one cardinal rule that has always gotten me to the finish line, it is this: goof off and have fun. Go turn some pedals and I’ll see you out there! //

Justin Short has been out there turning pedals in the whipping winds and driving rains of spring in preparation for a solo effort at the 24 Hours of Riverside mountain bike race, which itself is a preparation for his first colonoscopy, yet another joy of the midlife cyclist.

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