Two weeks before USA Pro Challenge I got dropped. It happened about 60 miles into a 70-mile “Coaches Meeting” ride, but the trouble started long before that. I felt fine and took some strong pulls in the first 90 minutes of the ride, but started feeling flat and empty not long after that. I soldiered on through the middle portion of the ride, but finally lost the wheel on the way back into town. A lot of athletes find themselves in a similar situation a few weeks before a major goal. Instead of feeling great, you feel tired and your performance is not where you think it should be. If you find yourself questioning your form in the weeks before a big goal event, here’s what I recommend:
When you’re training properly, your final large training block will leave your fatigued and probably pretty slow. You’re pushing down on the spring with a big workload. The time between your final big training block and your event is when you stop pushing and let the spring launch your race-day fitness to new heights. But the period right at the end of the training block is an emotionally stressful time. You’re close to your event, you feel like you should be flying by now, and it’s difficult to see how you’re going to go from slower-than-dirt to faster-than-lightning in time for your event. There’s a lot of self-doubt that can creep in, and the danger there is that you’ll try to cram in more training to compensate for a perceived deficit.
Cramming is a sure-fire way to destroy your performance. Instead of allowing time for the spring to unload, you’re continuing to push down. You’ll end up going to your event physically fatigued, mentally exhausted, and emotionally distressed.
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Rest with purpose
Looking back over my training history, I was confident I had done the work required to be ready for the USA Pro Challenge. Getting dropped two weeks out was a sign that I had pushed myself as far as I should in preparation for the event. It was time to rest and stay focused. I couldn’t – and you can’t – just stop riding and then fill my time with house projects, yard work, and longer hours at the office. The overall workload – throughout my lifestyle – had to decrease. I still needed to ride 4-6 days a week, but those rides were shorter. I still spent time climbing hills (major component of the USA Pro Challenge), but rode them in easier gears. I also included a handful of short, high-intensity efforts to stay fresh, but for the most part I gradually stepped down my volume and maintained the intensity as I tapered.
One of the acute reasons I suspect I struggled on the Staff Meeting ride was due to nutrition. I didn’t eat well the day before and I had a small breakfast that morning, and I think the lack of calories caught up with me about two hours into the ride. Some people are tempted to dramatically reduce their caloric intake when they back off their training, especially because they don’t want to gain weight in the two weeks prior to competition. But nutrition is part of recovery and fuel is necessary for adaptation, so you have to be careful to supply your body with enough energy.
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Understand the difference between tapering for one-day and multi-day events
You want to be optimally fresh and rested before a one-day event, but too much rest before a multi-day event may not be your best option. For a multi-day event, like the USA Pro Challenge, a weekend omnium, or a cycling tour, it’s important for back-to-back rides to be your “normal” state. A typical taper will prepare you for optimal performance on one day, with the assumption that you don’t need to compete the next day. I needed to be ready for several back-to-back days, which meant I couldn’t afford for back-to-back days in the saddle to be a shock to the system. That’s why I didn’t reduce the frequency of my rides very much in those last two weeks; I just made those rides shorter.
Plan on a super-compensation ride
My final big ride was in the middle of the week (Wednesday) prior to USA Pro Challenge. The super-compensation ride is kind of like draining a battery before a complete recharge. I knew I was going to deplete just about every system and energy store I had, with enough time to replenish and recharge before the start of the USAPCC. The key, however, to super-compensation rides is to avoid the temptation to test yourself. Don’t go charging up every climb or trying to set a new 20-minute best power output. I rode at a steady tempo and ended up with an average power of about 180 watts, which is 65% or so of my lactate threshold of 275 watts. That type of performance will mean riding at mostly aerobic intensities, with the occasional surge to 275-325 on climbs or in a paceline.
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The good news is that it worked! I felt strong throughout last week’s USA Pro Challenge and was able to ride at the front of the group on climbs as well as on the flats. Bucket List Events like Pro Challenge, Amgen Tour of California, and January’s California Coast Ride are difficult for any cyclist, and the coaches and I have to be ready for additional work like sheltering athletes from the wind and pacing riders across gaps. Thankfully, using the tips above all the coaches and the athletes on Team CTS were 100% Ready for the challenge and everyone reached the finish line in Denver.
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