How to Train for RAGBRAI

How to Train for RAGBRAI

Before the Ride Across Iowa, many people fearfully beg the question “how much do I really need to train?” There are many answers out there, which I’ll try to sum up. The main thing that gets me on my bike when I’d much rather be sleeping in is what I’ve learned before: the more I train, the more I will enjoy all that RAGBRAI has to offer. Most humans can survive the trip. But if you have the energy to go to all the concerts and lasagna dinners and ‘World’s Largest…’ exhibitions, the trip becomes an actual vacation, instead of a chance to experience a small portion of hell.

Do I Really Need to Train?

The answer depends upon if you enjoy pain and suffering. It is certainly possible to complete RAGBRAI with little or no training. One year, we went with a family friend who did just that. But, if I recall correctly, he spent most of his off-bike time hobbling to free Gold Bond stands, instead of exploring the fun that the towns had to offer. When considering whether or not you should train, ask yourself this question: “On day three, would I rather be watching the laser show or lying down and praying to not move for the next twelve hours?”

How do I Train Enough to Have Fun?

The problem with this question is that everyone is different. There are some people who are naturally athletic and can get by without much training. But the chances are if you’re looking for how much training to do, you aren’t one of those blessed few. First, even if you are in amazing shape you should still ride! Your derrière will thank you. I won’t go into details, but truly: certain body parts need to prepare for hours of constant movement, under a lot of weight, on a very small, hard seat.

Try out the 500+ Miles Idea

Some suggest the 500+ mile method, which I have done in the past and which seems to work. However, if you are not in relatively good shape to begin with, or if you are unfamiliar with cycling, you should get a base before starting the official 500 miles by taking spinning classes and/or riding shorter rides for a few months to get your body used to the basics.  Once you start, the idea is simple. Just get in 500 miles. This can be achieved riding 20 25 mile rides, or 5 100 mile rides (not recommended.)


This sort of simplicity has a few pitfalls.  First, if you only ride once or twice a week, you won’t know what it feels like to get on the bike with truly tired legs—the kind of legs that, when asked to stand up for the last climb, politely but firmly respond ‘no’. This can be scary, especially if you have never ridden a days-long ride before. And building up endurance is necessary in order to enjoy the entire ride.  So, here are my suggestions for training well:

  • For at least one week, hopefully within a month of RAGBRAI, try riding a full seven days. They don’t have to be long rides, but it will do your body good to understand what everything starts to feel like after a few days.
  • Do some longer (50+ mile) rides. You’ll get an appreciation for what your saddle will start to feel like, and how your muscles will start to remind you, through lactic acid, that they don’t really appreciate this sort of abuse. (It’s ok, they’ll get used to it!) At first, plan to not be doing much the whole day, since the ride and recovery take up most of your waking hours.
  • Try to plan rides with a lot of challenges – it could be up and around tough hills, and/or during the hottest part of the day, and/or when you are already tired and sore.  This way, even if Iowa is 90° and humid, you accidentally stayed late at a beer garden, and you are cursing every person who merrily said ‘oh, Iowa is flat!’ you will have experienced that type of riding before, and you will know you can survive it.
  • Prioritize cycling. Start yawning and heading toward the door at 10:00 pm when out with friends. Does this make you a social pariah? Not really – Dinner can be cool! Going to bed at 4:00am with a 50 mile ride planned for the next day? Not so cool.  

When prioritizing for the 500+ training method, you can ask yourself this question: “On day six, would I rather be making new friends at the awesome polka concert, or bonding with my favorite Advil bottle?” That’s what I thought. Polka always wins in the end.

Finally, remember that it’s not a race.  It’s difficult, and there will probably be times when you loathe anything that spins. But remember – people complete RAGBRAI on unicycle! They complete it during their 90th year! They complete it wearing nothing but a kilt! The only trick is to train enough to be comfortable, so you can fully enjoy all RAGBRAI has to offer. You’ll be fine.