Training, Performance, and Recovery for Multi-Day Cycling Tours and Events
Challenging multi-day cycling events are one of the fast-growing categories of cycling for amateurs. Some are competitive; others are not, but most feature big mileage, lots of climbing, and incredible camaraderie. If you’re planning on riding one of these challenging multi-day events, here’s an essential guide to training, managing your efforts during the event, and recovering between stages.
Training for a Multi-Day Cycling Event
Preparing for a multi-day event is different than preparing for a Gran Fondo or one-day road race. Everyone will start Stage 1 with fresh legs, meaning that day will be very fast as riders scope out the competition and test each other. The key to having great legs for subsequent days is preparing your body for the rigors of back-to-back days in the saddle.
When preparing for a multi-day event it is imperative to reconfigure your training schedule to incorporate blocks of back-to-back training. This begins with simple 2- and 3-day blocks of endurance rides. You are training your ability to recover and perform at an equal level the second and third day.
It is wise to take two days of recovery following these blocks so you are ready for more high-quality work. As you progress, endurance blocks should give way to Tempo blocks and blocks of lactate threshold intervals. When incorporating intervals into block training, complete your hardest work or greatest volume-at-intensity on the first day of the block.
Dialing in your nutrition strategy is the second key to preparing for multi-day events. You can make big nutrition and hydration mistakes in a single day of training or a one-day event and still perform well; you often reach the end before suffering significant detrimental effects. With block training or during a week-long event, those mistakes will catch up with you.
Most athletes find they need to increase their calorie and fluid intake during each day of block training and multi-day events. The additional energy is not to finish today’s ride, but to be better prepared for the following day. The food and fluid you’re consuming in the final 90 minutes is more to set you up for better recovery than it is to get you to that day’s finish line.
Maximizing Performance During Multi-Day Cycling Events
If you remember nothing else, remember this: Energy you expend today is energy you won’t have tomorrow. Everyone is affected by fatigue during multi-day events, so managing your efforts is the key to riding strong in the middle and end of a multi-day event. Here’s what I tell the athletes to do to thrive during a week of consecutive days of long rides:
Go in as fit as you can be:
Sounds self-evident, but fitness itself is an often-overlooked component of recovery. A multi-day event is likely 2-3 times your normal weekly training load, measured by hours, miles, or Training Stress Score. The greater your fitness going in, the less each day takes out of you. If you’re shattered after 5 hours in the saddle and 3000+ kilojoules of work on Stage 1, it’s going to be very hard to start the next day feeling fresh.
This is even more important for multi-day events at higher elevations. You can read more about preparing for events at altitude here and here. The short summary is that altitude reduces everyone’s sustainable power output. When you are more fit, you have more power available after the reduction.
Only burn matches when it matters most
Multi-day competitions are rarely won on the first day. Rather, they are won by allowing the miles to wear down athletes and eliminate them from contention. Typically, the “Queen Stage” or hardest day, is in the middle or even last third of a multi-day event. Whether you’re competing or just riding for fun, this is where you want to have the power and stamina to ride well. In the early days, ride conservatively. Sit on wheels, avoid the temptation to test yourself or indulge your ego. Save those matches for the challenges that really matter.
Eat with tomorrow in mind
When athletes are used to big single-day rides and events, they think of eating for today. As mentioned above in regard to block training, you can’t afford to get behind in caloric intake or hydration status. If tomorrow’s another big day, then on the bike and after the ride you must remain focused on energy intake.
Don’t get lazy when you start smelling the barn
In the last 60-90 minutes of big days, a lot of riders stop drinking. They figure they don’t need to bother since they’ll be off the bike soon. Don’t make this mistake, because it takes much longer to recover from a hydration crisis than it does to come back from a caloric deficit.
Your day’s not over at the finish line
Get out of your cycling gear, get cleaned up, get into the shade and get cooled off. Grab some fluids and get some food. Don’t stand around in the sun in your nasty chamois. The longer you remain overheated, hungry, thirsty, dirty, and on your feet, the more you’re hindering your recovery.
Recovery during multi-day cycling events
During pro stage races, the racing only takes up 3-6 hours of the day. That leaves 18-21 hours of off-the-bike time that needs to be managed. For amateur events featuring back-to-back 5- to 8-hour days, you have less time to recover between stages. Good off-bike strategies are imperative because you spend far more time off the bike than on it. Here are a few things to remember:
Proactively cool down
Core temperature can stay elevated long after you’re off the bike, and that impedes recovery. Being overheated also makes it more difficult to get to sleep. Proactively cool yourself with cold towels, a cool shower, cold drinks (even an ice slurry drink), or a refreshing dip in the pool/pond/creek. Read this guide to post-exercise cooling.
Start recovery nutrition/hydration immediately
When you’re training 4 days a week, rapid post-ride recovery isn’t as crucial because you have more time to rest between training sessions. When that recovery interval is shorter, you must start sooner. Although post-ride recovery drinks aren’t necessary after every ride, a post-stage recovery drink or shake is a good idea during multi-day events. This is because glycogen stores are likely depleted every day, and you will be on the bike again in less than 24 hours. Whether you have a recovery drink or not, consume a full meal within about 60-90 minutes. Focus on carbohydrates, but don’t overload on carbohydrate to the point you displace protein and fat. Remember to consume protein (aim for about 40 grams at a time) throughout the day and evening, not just in one big serving after a workout.
Focus on Fluid Intake Throughout the Afternoon/Evening
In multi-day endurance events it becomes impossible to replace all your fluids during each stage, leaving you at least somewhat dehydrated at the end of each ride. Once off the bike, rehydration should be your first priority because it can take many hours for your body to absorb fluids and bring levels in muscles, blood plasma, and intracellular fluid back to normal.
It’s helpful to weigh yourself before and after a workout or event so you can estimate how much fluid you lost and how well you stayed hydrated during the ride. Following a stage you want to consume 150% of the fluid weight you lost within the first 4-6 hours afterward.
In other words, if you lost 2 pounds (32 ounces), you want to consume 48 ounces in those 4-6 hours. These fluids should include both plain water and drinks containing electrolytes, and should ideally not include alcohol.
Consume Concentrated Carbohydrates
Many athletes have reduced carbohydrate intake in their general day-to-day nutrition. They are eating more fruit and vegetables (which is a good thing) as primary carbohydrate sources. Often, this means eating less bread, pasta, rice, and potatoes. During multi-day cycling events, the energy demands are higher than during normal training weeks. Concentrated carbohydrate sources are now necessary to replenish depleted glycogen stores. So, if you’ve been skipping potatoes and rice and pasta at home, fuel up on them during events.
A big thing to remember during multi-day events is that your long day in the saddle today doesn’t give license to gorge on crappy junk food between stages. Yes, you burned a lot of calories, but you want to give your body good fuel it can use for recovery and replenishment. This means focusing on whole food sources of carbohydrate, plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and limited desserts.
Get More Sleep
Multi-day endurance events induce a higher level of muscle damage than a normal training week. This increases your demand for recovery, much of which happens while you sleep. At the same time, many athletes struggle to sleep after hard days on the bike.
Deep sleep is crucial to an athlete’s recovery because this is when human growth hormone is released, which stimulates muscle growth and repair. For optimal recovery, most athletes need between seven and ten hours of sleep a night.
It’s also imperative that you get quality sleep as disruption to deep sleep can hinder the release of human growth hormone and subsequently hinder your recovery. To help avoid interruptions to your sleep, try to sleep in a cooler environment (set your bedroom temperature between 65 degrees and 72 degrees Fahrenheit), limit your exposure to light (especially backlit screens) before going to sleep, eliminate as much light as possible during sleep, and avoid consuming alcohol before going to sleep. Read more about optimizing sleep.
Utilize Compression and Proactive Cooling
In an earlier article, we dispelled the myth about elevating your legs to help drain lactate and prevent blood from pooling in your legs, however, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any benefits at all. Elevating your legs, using compression garments, and pneumatic compression may help with reducing swelling from extracellular fluid and lymph.
This may be especially true during multi-day events because they tend to bring on more swelling in the first place. Research on compression for recovery doesn’t provide complete agreement on whether it is helpful or not. You can find studies on both sides, including one from Born, et al. that looked at the effect of compression garments on recovery. They showed a reduction in muscle swelling and perceived muscle pain, and observed a positive effect on recovery of maximal strength and power. One thing is certain, however: pneumatic compression boots make you sit still and rest, which is good for recovery and something many athletes simply don’t do or won’t do for long enough.
Cold water immersion and ice baths
Some athletes have asked about the efficacy of ice-baths between stages of a multi-day cycling event. The science is even more divided about ice baths than it is about compression.
Our current stance on the issue is that immersion in cool water may be beneficial for recovery, especially in terms of bringing core temperature down following a long, hot day in the saddle. However, because cycling is not a weight-bearing sport there is far less acute muscle damage and consequent inflammation compared to distance running or ultrarunning. Some of the studies around ice baths has shown it can inhibit recovery by blunting the physiological response to hard exercise (inflammation), which may be necessary for stimulating optimal recovery and adaptation.
While the science around ice baths is equivocal, there is little doubt elevated core and skin temperatures hinder recovery and diminish sleep quality. Sitting a cool bath, relaxing in a cool hotel pool, or finishing your shower with a cooling rinse is probably more useful to a cyclist during a multi-day event than a full-on ice bath.
Van Cauter E, Plat L., “Physiology of growth hormone secretion during sleep.” J Pediatr. 1996 May;128(5 Pt 2):S32-7.
Born DP, Sperlich B, Holmberg HC., “Bringing light into the dark: effects of compression clothing on performance and recovery.” Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2013 Jan;8(1):4-18.
Boy, did this bring back memories! I did a San Diego-Charleston (SC) PACTour ride waaaaaaay back in September of 2000 (the dark ages) yet some of the training/recovery methods certainly hold true today. The tour was 25 consecutive days with an average of 127 miles per day and 5K feet or so of daily climbing. Training ramped up over the course of the summer to the point where I was doing 200-300 miles per week. The week prior to the tour, we were advised to ride enough to get the blood flowing but not to expend too much energy. After all, we had 3,100 miles ahead of us, which included the desert SouthWest, the Rockies, Ozarks and the hills and dales of Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia before we made it to the Atlantic Ocean.
Breakfast and lunch were included and we were on our own for dinner. What most of us found to be the best routine was to get into town, head to McD’s/BK/Sonic, etc. for some quick grease, get to the hotel, clean the bike, take a shower, hit a real restaurant and get back to the room for a good night’s rest. Hardly scientific but it worked…I actually gained six or so pounds and my endurance never suffered. Doubt that it would work for me like that today, being 22 years older. But we didn’t really have the benefit of the science available nowadays.
Anyway, the information shared in this will certainly help should I attempt another long-distance ride at my advanced age…keep up the good work…and as the miles (and years!) roll by…
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Thanks for the reminders. We’re training for a hilly late April tandem tour. Did our first back-to-back this weekend. Went hard as we could the first day, moderate the second day but didn’t eat nearly enough and bonked near the end of the ride. We’d treated it like an ordinary day ride. Wrong. Ate and slept well that evening and legs feel OK the next morning. We’ll do better on the next block!