Understanding that it takes about a week and a half to three weeks of reduced training (known as tapering) to reach your full potential for a ride makes a big difference in how you exercise. Some people say that if you just ride, ride, ride, that you will improve. Although this is very true for beginners where simply increasing the frequency of exercise will create rapid improvement since there is a lot of improvement possible at a low levels of fitness, advanced cyclists at greater levels of fitness need to increase intensity as well as frequency and duration of exercise in order to gain further, albeit, smaller improvements in fitness. When you are already near your maximum potential, there just isn't much more of a gain possible. The average cyclist is often not willing to put everything in their lives on hold to gain a few more percentile of improvement. The closer one gets towards their maximum ability, the more likely over-training is to occur and the more important it becomes to increase recovery time.
The philosophy of doing more exercise to gain greater fitness eventually reaches an impasse where more exercise causes less fitness. This is known as over-training and its philosophy is that of increasing more training time and effort to create improved fitness. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say, First ride, then rest until your resting heart rate returns to normal. Then ride again to create further improvement but even this can lead to misunderstandings. How much rest and how much exercise is enough? Or too much?
If your sleep becomes significantly disturbed, shortened, or is frequently interrupted after an increase in training, that's probably an indication of too much training. Training should always progress in small increases of less than 5-15% intensity/duration/force increases to allow time to adapt to increases from exercise and for more normal sleep patterns to return.
Why not read a good book by a reputable author who is a coach in the cycling industry? There are many such books and authors. Although reading these books will not guarantee success, it will help steer you in the right direction with training concepts and how they work so that you will understand how fitness is improves, and why. If you prefer to listen rather than read, check out iTunes Podcasts for “The Every Day Cyclist” by Graeme Street. Although this podcast often contains advertisements for Graeme's coaching business and training aids, there is still a great deal of good information provided for beginners and seasoned riders alike which is available for free in the podcast.
Joel Friel, author of the Cyclist's Training Bible, says that not understanding the importance of proper recovery and rest is often to blame for a lack of improvement. I decided to buy Joe's book so it would be available any time that I had a question about my own training, specifically, how to make my own training schedule which at present, seems to allude me.
I'm expecting this next summer to be cooler than average due to the low sunspot activity which has been linked to the climate cooling trend this past decade. There should still be some decent cycling weather and the local terrain provides a wide assortment of grades to test my mettle, including short 13-16% hills for climbing practice, long 8% grades for endurance climbing, and level terrain to improve speed and high cadence skills. Before I even knew anything last year about how to improve at cycling, I was doing what most people do... get out there with other cyclists and experiment. Although this is a good way to start, continuing to do the same thing may lead to mixed results and slower improvement.
If you have read my past articles, you will know that I allow two whole days before and after long cycling trips for rest and recovery. Having stumbled upon rest as a significant contributor to cycling performance for mature cyclists, my ability significantly improved by the last ride in November. The first year was to explore what was possible for me and this brought many pleasant surprises. Even with just two training days per week plus one longer ride, I managed to complete my first Metric Century ride with an average of 21 kph. By the end of the season I was putting in more training rides, an average of one hour per day with two days off before and after the long ride.
It was exciting to see how much had been accomplished with so little after-ride discomfort while pushing my beginner fitness into intermediate levels. I learned that it was possible to create significant performance improvements without significant suffering through training smarter, not harder.
The point is, doing too much exercise is self defeating, exhausting and leads to a lack of motivation. Doing only what you need to do to reach your “core values” makes a lot of sense. Eventually one discovers what their “core value” is in cycling and goals which were once a philosophy of “try everything” begin to naturally focus on a specific purpose for why we cycle. Out of this “core value” we gain motivation and enjoyment.
Was my purpose to ride faster and longer? No. My “core value” was to reduce weight by 15-20 pounds and learn to breath again after an illness. Having done this, this year's goal is to lose another 10 pounds and to increase muscular endurance which will lead to better performance on the hills and higher speeds on level ground, both of which help to create sufficient time to participate in cycling events.
Through increasing muscle mass it will be easier to maintain a healthier weight. The fact is, core values build on core values much the same as truth builds upon truth. The closer you get to “your truth”, the more you tend to experience that tingling sensation running down your spine. Its as if you are rediscovering your whole purpose and reason for living, all over again.
When one starts focusing one's “core values” in cycling, other related purposes attach themselves to this “core value” and bring further benefits, hence the continuing motivation to improve.
This process of gaining one's “core values” from cycling has lead to significant reduction in stress, further increasing the motivation to cycle long distances regardless of how other aspects of my cycling performance increase or decrease over time. Knowing what your “core value” is will generate further enjoyment regardless of the outcome in other areas of your cycling endeavors. This is important, for it increases the possibility that we will continue to improve.
Even after a long ride, we still have to be able to walk and take care of daily responsibilities like work. Knowing how to make that possible after a hard ride is of paramount importance. Cycling can limit and impact other areas of one's life and this needs to be considered. This is why it is vitally important to take at least ten minutes at the end of a long, hard ride to cycle at a moderately high cadence with very low effort to increase circulation through the muscles in order to remove toxins and by products of exercise that can lead to discomfort. Light effort in a low gear with high cadence has been show to reduce muscle pain and aid recovery by rapidly contracting muscles and allowing them to relax through light force against the pedals. The effect is much the same as using massage to loosen up sore and tight muscles. One can also augment recovery by massaging tight muscles during a ride. Both stretching and massaging warm muscles can help to relax muscles and improve circulation which aids in a less painful recovery.
Some experts say that replenishing glycogen in the muscles may lead to less after-ride pain and is important if you need to recover fast for your next ride. Others say that maximizing human growth hormone through limiting insulin levels is what is important. If you need to lose weight, there is nothing more defeating to this goal than replacing all the calories that you used during the ride and ending up maintaining your weight even with heavy exercise. Although replacing every exercise calorie will make you stronger, carrying extra weight also reduces performance on the hills and is something to be considered in your cycling regiment.
I usually do not eat two hours or more before a moderate effort ride. I eat small snacks and begin drinking regularly about an hour into the ride in order to sustain the required effort and maximize weight loss for the remainder of the day. After long duration cycling, one's heart rate remains high for many hours afterward which aids in further calorie consumption. The higher one's heart rate, the higher one's calorie burn rate tends to be.
During the last long semi-group ride on only two hours of sleep after working 8 hours, I became dehydrated and bonked a few miles before the turn around point. Several cans of iced tea and some food at the rest stop replaced enough energy to allow a dramatic increase in effort for a short while but I still bonked again on the return leg after a half hour. The only way to figure out what will work for you is to experiment and record food/fluids during your ride along with how well you performed. Food is not necessary except for a maximum effort rides or rides longer than about two hours. Replacing fluids is still essential during any ride and water will do the job in short term rides without expensive and somewhat controversial sports drinks that are supposed to be healthy but often aren't.
After 90 minutes to two hours, most cycling experts seem to agree that you need to eat enough “easy to digest calories” to replace the calories being expended or you will bonk. It is unlikely that one can fully recover after running out of energy on a ride except through rest and good recovery nutrition. As an added problem, high intensity exercise slows digestion. One is well advised to avoid significant amounts of fat which also slow digestion such as may be present in chocolate bars and restaurant meals. A side effect of bonking is that it forces further physiological adaption.
A diet of no food two to four hours before a ride and an increase in water intake in the days before and during a long ride will allow increased the levels of human growth hormone to repair muscle damage while remaining adequately hydrated. This will also help teach one's body to adapt to using more fat during the exercise which will increase your endurance significantly. Some experts say that eating before a high effort ride will cause stomach and performance issues since blood which is needed to fuel muscles is diverted to digestion.
Breaking the carbohydrate overload that often leads to weight gain by not eating four hours before and after a ride will boost initial performance since less blood is diverted to digestion. For an hour long exercise, not eating for several hours before and after will greatly aid in sustained weight loss. Long term performance will also increase through appropriate weight reduction, leading to a greater power to weight ratio even without an increase in fitness. For older riders, increasing human growth hormone through maintaining low insulin levels may reduce recovery time when followed with sufficient rest.
The reduction in eating prior to and after a ride is not for the purpose of depriving ourselves of nutrition. Nutrition can still be consumed outside of this exercise window, four hours before and after the ride. Fasting immediately before and after a ride is for the purpose of reducing weight and this means doing rides where the focus is on low to moderate intensity efforts which tend to burn more fat than attain peak performance. By depriving our bodies of sugar in this workout window, we force further adaption to burning fat. For peak performance rides, one will need to eat in advance and after a ride, especially if the effort is part of a multi-day event. Just be sure to allow sufficient time to digest the meal before exercise begins or one can face unpleasant complications like cramps and digestive issues during the ride.
The best time to plan for your Post Ride Recovery is before you start a ride. Increasing fluid intake and nutrition several days before an epic ride can help maximize recovery and performance. During a ride it is essential to stretch tight muscles before you become aware of muscle pain. I do this through massaging sore spots during rest breaks. Cycling books will offer various stretch routines to return muscles to their normal length since muscles will shorten after repeated contractions and this leads to tight muscles and pain. In my experience, the best recovery technique is high cadence with light effort during a ride and afterward to minimize muscle pain and increase circulation to remove toxins from muscles.
How do you know when your post ride recovery is completed? Increased motivation!
After a 98 minute intense indoor training session three days ago and another 60 minute session focusing on maximum speed sprinting skills to develop muscular strength the day after, I took a day off due to feeling fatigued and now look forward to today's workout. After proper recovery, one's motivation can be a key recovery indicator. If one always ends a workout feeling you could have done more, you will stack the odds in your favor to always do more when you've recovered. On the other hand, if one ends a workout feeling that you couldn't have done more, you will need to spend more time recovering before you can do more.
There is nothing more defeating to one's motivation than suffering in agony after a hard ride from sore muscles. Being proactive by developing a recovery technique before, during, and after your rides can motivate you to doing better and trying harder next time. This will naturally create additional improvement with less pain. Not having an effective post recovery routine will work against you every step of the way. Unless you prepare for your next ride by ending your current ride with a great cool down, you will limit your potential and enjoyment of cycling.