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Long-distance bicycle rider discovers that routine change is good

Jim Verhulst after completion of the 2010 RAGBRAI in Iowa.

Photo courtesy of Jim Verhulst

Jim Verhulst after completion of the 2010 RAGBRAI in Iowa.

I'm in good shape. I ride my bike a lot, 6,000 to 7,500 miles a year. But twice in recent months, the wheels fell off — not my bike. Me. Blame middle age.

Every July since 2006, I've taken my bike to Iowa for RAGBRAI (the Des Moines Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa), a seven-day, nearly 500-mile trek of more than 10,000 bikers.

I was determined to make it this year, too, and learned some lessons to share along the way.

Regimen derailed

Like many 50-something recreational athletes, I had worked out a system over the years to balance family, work and workouts. For me, that meant biking to work, then riding 20 to 25 miles at lunch and not working out at all on the weekends.

Lunch hour became my fitness time, so I could exercise without alienating my family or my boss. RAGBRAI was my motivation.

The system worked great until this year, which began with oral surgeries that kept me off the bike for a month. But I gradually built back to where I wanted to be, expecting to start doing tougher, faster rides in June as usual.

Then in early June, I scratched a cornea. So I was off the bike again — for two weeks.

Now I was worried.

Make a new plan

What to do? First, I had to avoid trying to do too much, too fast. I had to accept that I couldn't make up for lost time — and I still had to balance family, work and workout.

But I could maximize the training time that remained. Here's what I did; maybe you can adapt my ideas to suit your own needs.

• Set goals. Know what you're trying to achieve and why. I thought my fitness goal was to be able to ride fast across Iowa in July. But I lost sight of a larger reason: to combat a family history of diabetes and also to gain the mental sharpness and general feeling of well-being that comes from endurance fitness.

• Draw on your history of what has worked before. Years ago, I used to run at lunch and go for bike rides only on vacation. (Issues with my back, since resolved, had made me switch from running to riding.) I could ride 60 miles a day on vacation even though I had only been running beforehand.

But the opposite was not true. My focus on bicycling had turned me into a weak runner. A few years ago, right after RAGBRAI, my body was in top cycling condition. Running? Not so much. By the mile and three-quarters mark of a road race, my legs were a remarkable combination of rubber and lead. This should have been an epiphany. But that light bulb didn't go off until I was scrounging for ways to get ready for this year's RAGBRAI.

• Make a plan. I realized what I needed to do: Combine running and cycling in the weeks I had left. Running would help my cycling. I needed to be cycling hard — tough intervals, speed work, spin drills, strength drills, riding into headwinds, etc. — all things that can't be done every day because they stress the body too much. But I could ride one day, then run 5.5 miles the next to allow for recovery.

Best of all, it brought me back to the original purpose of solid aerobic exercise: cardiovascular fitness and overall endurance conditioning.

Train hard, but smart

So in the five weeks leading up to RAGBRAI, I worked out a rough and ready training schedule: four weeks of steady training and a final week to taper.

I vowed to run or ride 45 to 70 minutes every weekday and ride three Saturdays of 85 miles each. The promise kept me honest. Some days, my "lunchtime" run came after 5 p.m. when work pressed, but I did it even if I had to return to the office later.

A few caveats: A little muscle soreness is okay, but joint pain is not. To guard against overtraining, make sure that your resting pulse is not rising, a sure sign that the body isn't recovering enough.

Training in Florida's summer heat means drinking incredible amounts of fluid — for me, an 85-mile ride required 1.5 gallons of water and a half-gallon of sports drink. On the upside, I arrived in Iowa well acclimated for the sun-baked roads of RAGBRAI.

Live and learn

The upshot? My seat-of-the-pants program not only worked, it has changed how I train.

I rode RAGBRAI last month as fast and as strong as last year, even though training was interrupted twice. Better, I went on only three really long weekend rides instead of six or eight as in years past.

An unintended benefit is that my running times have improved. So I'll be riding less and running more, but I might be cycling better than before. Sometimes it takes a mini-crisis to discover another way.

Jim Verhulst is editor of the Times' Perspective section and can be reached at [email protected] To see his diary about RAGBRAI and stories about previous rides:

What is RAGBRAI?

Nearly four decades old, RAGBRAI (the Des Moines Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa), is a seven-day, nearly 500-mile trek across Iowa. More than 10,000 bikers of all shapes and sizes bestride bikes of all sorts make their way across an entire state. It's a ride, not a race. I like to ride fast most days, but people can ride at whatever speed they like. And they do. They come to Iowa from every state and from many other countries. Lance Armstrong has done it, but so have old men on tricycles who carry their crutches along with them. Riders bike during the day and camp each night in a town. Trucks carry their baggage. It is part travelog and exposure to the gentle culture of Iowa and part great fitness. Go to for more.


Here are summaries of the ways I trained for my first four RAGBRAIs.


Before my first RAGBRAI, I was freaked out by the sheer mileage I would be riding. I was working a night shift for a couple of weeks that summer, which allowed me mornings to train. So for a week in late June and early July, I would look up the RAGBRAI mileage for Day 1, Day 2, etc., then go out and ride that same distance for each of seven days. I was well prepared.


Before my second RAGBRAI, my family and I visited my in-laws in Michigan in mid summer. I took advantage of some beautiful routes along a small, hilly peninsula jutting into Lake Michigan and rode 60 miles early every morning for five days straight. That worked out well, too.


My family was out of town in June, so weekends were free for rides. I rode the length of the Pinellas Trail every weekend — and often twice. I was ready for RAGBRAI, even though I did not have a single weekday long-distance ride.


I largely mimicked what I did in 2008, riding the Pinellas Trail (85 miles from my house) every Saturday.

Long-distance bicycle rider discovers that routine change is good 08/13/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 12, 2010 5:10pm]
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