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How ultracycling athletes train for maximum fitness

Lounge speaks to three ultracyclists preparing for the Race Across India on how to train and manage nutrition

Learn how to train from ultracyclists.
Learn how to train from ultracyclists. (Unsplash/David Marcu)

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In 2018, Mahesh Kini picked up cycling as a hobby. He started out with short rides around Mumbai and gradually progressed to long-distance brevets, improving on his mileage and speed with time. 

In November last year, he finished his longest race—the Deccan Cliffhanger, which runs over 643km from Pune to Goa—and was now in search of the next challenge. When he first heard of the Race Across India (RAIN), it sounded like the perfect test of endurance to level up in the world of ultracycling. “Whenever I consider a race, the first thing is that it should scare me. As they say, if your dreams don’t scare you, they are not big enough,” Kini, 48, says.

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RAIN is the longest ultracycling race in India and the numbers around it are astounding. The 3,651km ride will flag off from Srinagar on 1 March and will run through New Delhi, Jhansi, Nagpur, Hyderabad and Bengaluru to finish in Kanyakumari. It features a total elevation gain of 18,950 metres while traversing some of the busiest highways of the country. Solo riders between 18-49 years have 12 days to finish the distance, which means riding an average of 304km each day. 

Over the last few months, Kini has been following a regimented training routine, spending about 12-16 hours in the saddle each week. Besides riding, he has dedicated a lot of time to strength workouts, with three weekly sessions where he’s focussed primarily on the leg muscles. 

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“There was a time when I believed in bodyweight training and was sceptical about joining the gym. But for a multi-day, ultracycling event, you have to build muscle. I do a lot of weighted squats, leg curls and core strength exercises during the hour-long sessions. Besides that, I take on hill climbs to develop my climbing skills,” he says.

Over time, the results have followed, especially during long rides. These days, he is not only riding faster, but can also sustain the effort for a longer period of time without experiencing any fatigue or soreness. “I would roughly clock 28-30kmph, but if the roads are decent, I can easily do 33-35kmph now. It’s a huge improvement,” he says.

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These days, the weather on the west coast has allowed Kini to continue hitting the highways for his longer rides. However, the winter fog in northern India has forced a lot of cyclists like Sumer Bansal, 39, to take their workout indoors. The weekly target of around 450km is a massive task on an indoor trainer, where the monotony of the entire effort can often get taxing. But he realises the importance of sticking to his training plan, given the mammoth distance on hand. 

“The idea is to not stop during training until at least 150-200km. This helps me visualise what it will take to ride about 350-400km each day during the race. So you just have to be consistent, which in turn will help you gear up for the distance mentally,” he says. “It’s such a long race that you cannot really train for it. For instance, you don’t know how the body will behave once you are a few days into the ride. The idea is to plan for the small things, which will add up to make a difference on the whole," he adds.

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After riding the Shivalik Signature, a 615km ultracycling race that runs through Himachal Pradesh and Punjab on two occasions, Bansal has understood his nutrition needs better. He has a daily intake of 3,000 calories, a combination of proteins and carbohydrates, which he increases to about 4,000 calories when he rides 250km on the weekend. During the race, he believes that the right combination of nutrition and sleep will be critical when it comes to recovery. 

“My intake is based on the amount of calories I am burning on the ride. If I consume fewer calories than planned, the recovery period gets longer. And during a long ride like RAIN, it spirals into a vicious cycle. So fuelling will be the key when it is down to riding for 12 consecutive days,” he says.

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To understand fuelling better, Manish Saini, 43, pursued a one-year course in sports nutrition. While the initial goal was an Ironman, an injury forced him to direct his efforts towards RAIN. A lot of his training off the saddle is based on strength workouts, where he prefers using his bodyweight instead of equipment.

“Indoor gym workouts using weights have just never appealed to me. I do a lot of mountain climbers, planks, push-ups and squats, with weights around the ankle and wrist at times to make the workout more intense,” he says.

These days, he’s also experimenting with food on the long ride each week and hopes to arrive at the right ingredients to fuel his race soon. The terrain around Chandigarh allows him to train on slopes, which he says has also helped him work on the mental aspect of the sport.

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“Climbing on a bicycle is extremely difficult. It happens at such a slow pace that five hours into the ride, you realise that you’ve gone less than 30% of the distance for the day. It starts playing on your mind, which is when you have to stop your thoughts from drifting and bring in discipline. This is the best form of mental training to prepare for the race,” he says. 

Over the next few weeks, Kini plans on sustaining the effort of pushing his body, before beginning the taper phase when he will take on a lighter workload. Bansal is still coming to terms with certain days when he experiences a dip in energy levels. It’s the moment he realises he must get on the saddle and simply start pedalling. 

“There’s something new to learn every single day. During the low moments, I try to think back at why I started this journey. And that is enough motivation to put in another intense session,” Bansal says. 

Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.

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