Originally Posted by Hookflash
But I can't help but wonder: What are you getting out of long rides that you couldn't get out of shorter sweet spot rides? Don't get me wrong, I'm not criticizing your training method (I'm way too new to the sport to be critiquing anyone). I'm just genuinely curious about this whole sweet spot thing.
1. Saddle time ... getting used to being in the saddle for long periods of time. My long distance rides start with the imperial century (100 miles) and go up from there. Roughly 10 days ago, for example, my husband and I rode a 300K randonnee (312 km). I like to do a long (or longish) ride just about every weekend to maintain the endurance. If I let that go, the next time I do a really long ride, it is more of a struggle than it needs to be.
2. Bicycle fit. You can ride around the block or for an hour or so on just about any sort of bicycle, even if it doesn't fit very well. But if you're going to be in the saddle, as you say, for 15-20 hours ... on a Saturday or Sunday, you want a bicycle that fits very well. The long rides I do in preparation for the really long rides ensure that everything fits properly and is comfortable. And just because you've locked in a good fit one year doesn't mean it will always be a good fit ... your fitness level makes a difference, as do things like body weight, injuries, or the way your saddle is breaking in.
3. Bicycle familiarity. Carrying on from bicycle fit is the process of becoming very comfortable and familiar with the bicycle and its unique little quirks, and all the gear on the bicycle. Included in this is the process of trial and error as you decide what equipment to bring, and what to pack the equipment in, and how to best carry it all. Have you got everything you need to change a flat on the road? Is your jacket choice the best one for the conditions? Do you need better lights for the night portion of the rides? And again about the familiarity, I discovered early on that it was best for me to pack my things the same way all the time so that when I needed to dig out a particular thing in the middle of the night, I knew where it was.
4. Nutrition and hydration familiarity. If you ride for 2 hours or less, you really don't need to worry too much about nutrition and hydration. It's good to have a bottle of water on board and maybe an emergency energy bar, but other than that, you can eat normally and be fine. But once you start riding more than 2 hours, you need to start thinking about when to refuel and what to eat, and about your hydration. The longer distances you ride, the more critical that becomes. For some (like me) the longer the distance, the greater the struggle with eating ... the digestive system starts to shut down. So there can be quite a bit of experimenting required to find out what simply won't work, and what will work.
We have people coming in here telling us that they are planning to ride their first century on Saturday ... and asking what they should bring to eat. That puzzles me because in the process of building up the distance in order to ride a century, they should have been experimenting with nutrition and hydration and should know exactly what to eat and drink.
5. Experiencing a wide variety of conditions. My long rides take me up and down hills, along flat ground, into the wind, through storms, into the heat of the blazing sun and into the chill of the dark of night. Because randonnees and 24-hour races often run right through day and night, and because riders will encounter whatever nature throws their way, it is a good idea to get out there on a long ride to experience some of that before the actual event. By experiencing it in training, riders can work out what they need in the way of lights, clothing, etc.
6. Adventure, exploration, seeing new places, getting away from it all. Yes, this is
in answer to the question, "What are you getting out of long rides that you couldn't get out of shorter sweet spot rides?" One of the main reasons I ride long distances is to go places, to see things, and especially to see different things. I bore easily if I ride the same route too often. We have a shorter evening route we do most evenings in the week, and that's OK. It's convenient for recovery spins, or faster rides, or whatever. But on the weekends, I like to go somewhere else, and being able to ride long distances allows me the freedom to be able to cycle quite some distance away from the usual. And that's good for my mental wellbeing.
So for me, riding long distances is not about training to be faster ... my hill climbing rides and shorter evening rides help with that. Instead, I get a lot of other beneficial things out of it.