When I signed up for my first multi-day, I wanted to be prepared. The ride was Answer to the Challenge 2013, and truthfully, nothing can REALLY prepare you for your first multi-day, criterium, tour, or other milestone race.... except just doing it.
But I made myself a "training guide" anyway, and it turns out I was on to something. I showed it to my more experienced riding buddies, and everyone was super-impressed. It turns out people pay Big Bucks to have a professional trainer set up the plan I will now share with you.
1. Goal Setting: Planning for Base Miles
First, get out a piece of paper or notecard and write out how many weeks you have until your Big Ride - it's important that you can see the whole timeline at once, so avoid flip-page calendars for now. Next, consider what your main goal is: getting faster, riding farther, etc.
What is it that you need to accomplish by the end of your training? Write that goal at the bottom of your training chit. For me, it was being able to ride 130 miles in a single day.
What do you need to do to get to that goal? Next, set goals for your weekly and daily riding goals. You can figure out reasonable mileage goals by guestimating the shape you are currently in ("Eh, I think I can ride 20 miles in a day"), and seeing how much work you will need to do before the Big Ride. These training miles are called BASE MILES.
Keep track of all your base miles in a calendar or planner and make sure you're meeting your goals!
Check out my FIRST ever training guide below (I saved it because it was so incredibly helpful!). I needed to get myself into good enough shape to ride about 130 miles per day for 3 days straight. I started with a goal of 65 miles per week, with one "Long Ride" of 20 miles - that way I wasn't getting those 65 miles in with a lazy 10-mile-per-day week. Each week, I planed to up the ante a bit. (The check-marks indicate I met the goal, the circles indicate I didn't... be patient and gentle with yourself. This is your training, your ride.)
2. Goal-Specific Training: Interval Training
Soon, your body will adjust to training (stronger muscles and joints, better nutrition, deeper sleep). As you feel yourself getting stronger, and as the Big Ride approaches, it's time to add Interval Training. Interval training prepares your body for the exact challenges the Big Ride poses: typically either climbing or sprinting. To incorporate Interval Training into your workouts, on the "Long Ride" Days, start adding bursts of speed and/or climbing intermittently into your ride. This may mean switching up routes to accommodate for uphill terrain or speedy sprints. Start small, with 2 or 3 bursts for 20-30 seconds and each week, add more Intervals into your rides until you are at a point when your training intervals meet the intervals of the Big Ride.
Currently, I'm training for a 2-week bike-packing trip around Lake Michigan... so my intervals will be focused around carrying weight, along with climbing with weight (ugh).
3. The Fun Part: Cross training & Milestone Rides
To get your body and mind into tip-top shape it is really important to switch up the workouts, which is where cross training and "Milestone" rides come in to play. Cross training should focus on three things: (1) give the legs a break and focus on stabilizing muscles (arms, abs), (2) increase cardiovascular capacity, and (3) be fun. As part of my current training program, I am going to Zumba, yoga, hiking and jogging once per week. All together, these activities are about 4 hours of my week and still give me a great workout, while giving my butt a break from the saddle.
Milestone Rides are those fun rides, tours and races that you've always wanted to do... but weren't sure you could handle. But now that you're in training, not only can your body handle them, you NEED to take those rides to gauge your success (and see where you could use some improvement). When training for Answer to the Challenge in 2013, my "milestone" rides included completing my first century and participating in two day-long tours (Tour de Tucson and Tour de Mesa). These all helped in my training goals, plus were huge confidence boosters. For my current bike-packing training, I am planning my first unsupported overnight, which will be fun and probably a huge learning experience, as I'm going to have to carry all my camp and food stuff with me!
NOTE: This last part, #3, may not be "FREE." You will probably have to buy gear, pay for a class or race entrance fee. But like I said in the veeeery beginning: nothing can REALLY prepare you for your Big Ride other than actually doing it. Milestone Rides will be really helpful in preparing you for the nitty gritty reality of sprinting, climbing, climbing with weight, or camping.
Good Luck, Everyone! Training should be fun - strengthening the body, mind, and even relationships. Enjoy the Ride!