Cycling Marathon Distance – What It Is + How To Do It


When I first got into long-distance cycling, I wasn’t surprised that I heard people talk about the concept of a ‘cycling marathon’. I found out this was something that didn’t technically exist as a structured competition, but is definitely a concept out there.

But what distance is a cycling marathon?

It is generally accepted that a cycling marathon is 100 miles, also known as a ‘century’. It is understood that it generally takes about the same level of energy and time to run one mile as it does to cycle 4 miles. So the 26-mile running marathon is equivalent to 100 miles cycling.

The cycling marathon is a beautiful yet intimidating prospect.

In this article, I’ll talk about what a cycling marathon is, how to prepare for one, and lots of advice about to actually take on the distance itself.

Cycling marathon distance

What Distance Is A Cycling Marathon?

Most people I have spoken to accept that the concept of one hundred miles is as close as possible to that of a running marathon.

In general, in the competitive field, long road races are usually somewhere in the vicinity of 50 miles to 200 miles.

Many of the Tour de France stages are in the 100-140 miles range.

You also get some charity races that are anywhere between about 10 miles and 100. (and some may be longer).

Cycling a mile takes around a quarter of the energy and time required to run a mile, and this is definitely a factor in how to conceptualize a cycling marathon.

Iron Man And Cycling Marathons

An Iron Man is the race concept that best taps into the idea of a marathon. This is a three stage race, comprising a ‘marathon’ in each of the disciplines of swimming, cycling, and running.

The running stage is a true marathon – 26.2 miles.

The cycling stage is pretty close to the 100 mile mark. Most competitions have the cycling stage at being 112 miles long.

So, all in all, pretty in keeping with this concept of 100 miles of cycling roughly equating to 26 miles of running.

Distances Of Long Cycling Races

Here’s a table with an idea of the length of many long cycling races:

RaceDistance
Iron Man Cycling Leg112 miles
Olympic Triathlon Cycling Leg24.8 miles
Tour de France average leg94 miles
Race Across America3000 miles
Indian Pacific Wheel Race3400 miles

Here’s a video of 6 of the longest bike races from around the world:

The Aim of a Marathon

The aim of cycling this 100-mile marathon is the same as the running equivalent. It’s not meant to be easy!

The intention here is to be able to push both your body and mind to new distances. If it was easy, then everyone would do it, but not everyone is capable of covering a marathon distance.

It is intended to be something to work towards. It’s a goal that needs some dedication and a lot of hard work. Setting this target of 100 miles is not something everyone can do, and that is why it is something to aim for.

Your Body and Riding a Century

 So what happens to your body when you are riding a century?

Well, quite a few things.

As you will be aware, it’s something to build up to. You need to work on your stamina or your body will be unable to cope. However, there is also a specific way in which you should tackle this feat of endurance.

Car with bikes on roof as entourage for professional cyclists

Getting Started With Marathon Bike Rides

In the early part of your century ride, it’s often all about the mental side.

You need to feel good about the prospect of riding 100 miles, and it should be something you have trained for and built up to. 

It should be the case that you have already covered 50-mile distances on a regular basis followed by moving up closer and closer to that 100 mark. However, there is something a little bit different to cycling for the century.

Talk to any marathon runner and they will tell you that there’s a huge shift in the mental side of things when doing a half-marathon compared to a full marathon. There is so much status attached to a marathon distance that we overthink it. 

You need to avoid doing that. Overthinking leads to problems, and an increased risk of not being able to perform to the standard you were hoping to.

Being Bored Helps

Now before you start to wonder why we have mentioned the concept of being bored, and that it’s a good idea, we need to explain.

People can become excited about the idea of achieving something such as cycling a marathon distance. It gets the adrenaline flowing, and while that can undoubtedly be a good thing, it’s also bad.

So, what we mean by being bored is to stay calm and not excited about it all. Sure, you can enjoy the ride and what you are doing, but staying in a bored state means you are not wasting energy.

By stopping your body and mind from becoming overawed by what you are doing, it means you will be preserving some of your reserves.

This will become particularly useful later on in your ride when you need to dip into your reserve tank.

Pushing Hard Early is Bad

You may be familiar with the concept of hitting the wall. It’s a horrible thing where you feel as if you cannot carry on. You even see it with professional cyclists who give their all and then are hanging on for survival.

This is often due to the individual using up the more easily accessible stores of energy. The body will always opt for the easy approach, first of all, to get the energy to carry on. But once those are used up, then you have a problem.

But people aiming for the century can often push out at a fantastic pace. They have all of that energy to burn, and can easily become caught up in admiring the clock rather than anything else.

But pushing hard early is not good. It will exhaust you, and may even make it almost impossible to achieve your end goal, which is to cover that marathon distance.

By getting excited, you increase the chances of pushing out maximum power in the first third of the ride. While that does mean you will power through the early stages, it has a negative impact in the latter half. 

Pacing yourself is everything, so while you may want to push out hard, know your limits.

In fact, know your limits and underplay them somewhat to allow you to get to your end goal. [Source]

Cycling marathon held on dust track
There are long races held in a variety of terrains

The Middle Part of the Ride

While the early part of a marathon distance is all about pacing yourself, and not setting off at an electric pace, things do change with the middle part of the ride.

Around the 50 mile mark, there’s a good chance you will start to feel some of the effects of the first half. How bad this is will depend on how hard you went out.

However, this is where the mental side of things can really play a role.

After you have reached 50 miles, you are coming down the other side of the distance marker. You are over halfway, and you now have less distance to travel than what you have already managed.

That thought alone is inspirational. It can push away some of the fatigue you will be suffering as you know the end will be in sight shortly.

At this point, we would even recommend viewing it as a 50-mile ride rather than completing a marathon. You will have carried out so many 50 mile rides that covering this distance should be quite straightforward, so view it like this. 

Positive thoughts and motivation are key here. It’s the best way to then propel yourself through the second half of the century. 

Breaking it Up A Marathon Into Chunks

When dealing with primarily the second half of the ride, this concept of breaking the ride into chunks will make a huge difference. I just mentioned thinking about the second 50 miles as being a ride all on its own, but you can take things to a whole new level.

Some individuals will break it up into 10-mile segments to make life easier. Others will split it into two 25 mile rides. It’s important that you find a distance that works for you. 

This is all about the mental aspect of being able to complete this ride. 

It’s easier to break the distance up into chunks rather than the time aspect. If you think that the ride will take you 5 hours, then that seems like a huge amount of time to cover even breaking it up into one-hour slots. 

Dealing with Hydration During Marathon Cycle Rides

The second half of covering a cycling marathon distance is also all about hydration. Of course, staying hydrated is something you should be doing for the entire distance, but it takes on some extra importance in the second half.

Your body is undoubtedly becoming dehydrated. You need to give it some extra fuel to cope with the energy that it is expending. 

But what can often surprise people is feeling hungry.

They are throwing down some energy gels and believe that they will make a difference, and there’s no doubt that they do help. However, that’s not everything.

As your body becomes dehydrated, it means your digestion slows down. Those energy gels you are consuming, or whatever else you are eating during the ride, will take longer to digest, and you can feel hungry as a result.

The key here is to know when it is all caused by dehydration rather than not eating.

Adding in more hydration can help get everything moving once more, and you will start to feel considerably better as a result. [Source]

The Final Stage Of The Marathon

When you get to the closing stages of the century, a pretty amazing thing is going to happen. Your brain effectively allows you to empty the tank when it knows the end is in sight. 

This is where people get the concept of a second wind when they feel they have a boost of energy to help them to get to the end.

It’s the body knowing that it has the capacity of letting all the energy go as it will be having a rest very soon.

But you cannot leave it all up to your body. Your mental approach is still going to play a significant role here.

Reminding yourself of how close you are will spur you on. It allows you to push yourself to new limits. Also, the sense of achievement can also give you something of a boost, and that is enough to help you to the end. 

Also, expect yourself to fade somewhat at the end. It’s only natural, and it is a sign you have indeed emptied that tank.

Don’t worry about fading. Simply remind yourself of how you are so close to the finishing line.

Cycling race on road
Try to break the distance into manageable mental chunks

Tips on Completing the Marathon

To make life easier, if that’s possible when dealing with a marathon distance, there are a number of tips that could help. 

First, take your time in building up to this distance. You should feel as if you can complete a 50-mile ride without it taking too much out of you.

In that instance, it may make it easier to finish a 100-mile ride when you can do half that distance without struggling.

Another tip, at least for the first time, is to really plan your route. It’s a big ask to get to that 100-mile marker, so you need to pay attention to where your energy will be used up.

The last thing you want is to have a hilly course where so much energy is used trying to get up those slopes. In an ideal world, it will be relatively flat, but if you know you heading into a headwind most of the time, then change your route.

The idea here is to avoid using up too much energy dealing with other things. You want to conserve your energy as best you can to deal with the distance being covered. Anything else is a waste and will make your life harder.

Also, consider doing this ride with a companion.

It can be quite lonely out there, and someone else can help spur you on to get to the end.

However, so much of this is still connected to your own willpower, and that is what you will need to rely on at the end of the day.

But please don’t just dive into doing a marathon distance. Think it over and plan accordingly. It will certainly make life easier for you when it comes to attempting the distance for the first time.

Overall Conclusion

And that is everything you need to know about a cycling marathon distance. We have covered not only the distance, but also tips on how to achieve it, and what to expect from your body.

But just be aware that it takes some training to get to the stage where you can go ahead and actually achieve this distance. It’s not for someone to dive straight in and hope they can get to 100 miles.

There’s no doubt that it is an achievement, and it’s one we are sure you can get to with the correct amount of dedication and training. Also, once you have achieved it once, then why not see what else you can achieve? 

Martin Williams

Martin has been tearing up all sorts of trails on a range of bikes ever since he was young. He once cycled across France, and once fell into a canal on a hybrid. He writes about everything to do with cycling on our site. You can find out more about him at bicycle2work.com/about-martin-williams/

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