This season I had the pleasure of participating in a handful of weeklong high-mileage cycling events. It was great to see a lot of cyclists challenging themselves, but it was unfortunate to watch many of them make mistakes that hurt their performances. Everything you do before, during, and after a long ride today affects performance tomorrow. As the days pile up they amplify the effects of small mistakes early on, leading to dramatically diminished performance in later days.
Here are a few things you can do the day of a big ride to have an even better ride the next day.
Eat and drink in the final hour of Day 1
Many cyclists eat and drink less in the final hour of their rides because they figure they’ll be home soon and don’t need those calories to ride the last 10 miles. That’s true, but you’re not eating for those 10 miles. In the last hour you are eating to get a head start on the recovery process. When you ration food and fluids toward the end of a ride, all you are doing is digging a deeper hole to climb out of.
Make sure to eat enough carbohydrate
Over the past several years I’ve noticed cyclists shifting away from big carbohydrate-heavy post-ride meals. That’s not a bad thing, especially because they’ve been shifting toward smaller post-ride meals and more carbohydrate from fruit and vegetables than processed grains in their overall diets. In the long run those are great changes, but when you want to perform well during consecutive days of cycling, it’s time to find concentrated carbohydrate sources.
To have a great Day 2, 3, and 4 on the bike it’s important to consume adequate calories and sufficient carbohydrate. If you ride in the morning, plan for a post-ride lunch and dinner that both feature lean protein and a concentrated carbohydrate source like pasta, rice, potatoes, or quinoa in addition to fruits and vegetables. To optimize recovery it is best to spread your protein intake across the entire day, rather than focusing it on meal. Big back-to-back days are also a time when protein shakes and/or recovery drinks can be more valuable.
Take a Nap
Short naps can be very beneficial. They have been shown to improve skill acquisition after you learn or practice something new. After a 20-minute nap people have improved cognitive performance, better reaction time, and greater focus and patience. (Read more on the recovery benefit of napping.) These are important effects because athletes who are dead on their feet make poor decisions during the rest of the day, like forgetting to hydrate and making bad food choices.
Use Recovery Aids
Depending on time and availability, there are some recovery activities that can help you have a great day tomorrow. You can spend 30 minutes in pneumatic compression boots, get a sports-specific massage, do yoga, take a dip in the pool, or go for a light walk. Olympian Mara Abbott wrote this great three-part series (here, here, and here) on yoga for athletes. If you opt for the massage, be sure to communicate with the therapist about your cycling plans for the following day so he or she can address your specific needs. Along with using any of these recovery aids, continue consuming fluids throughout the day. It is better to consume moderate amounts of fluid (250-500ml) more frequently than to guzzle a liter once or twice.
Get a good night’s sleep
Of all the things included in this list, a good night’s sleep is the most important. However, many athletes struggle to sleep after a strenuous or long day on the bike (more on that here). Everything above should help set you up for a good night’s sleep. You want to be well fed and hydrated so your body has the materials needed for recovery. You want to be relaxed and less sore so you can get comfortable. And hopefully a short nap helped you have a productive afternoon so you don’t have to stay up late getting things done.
As you’re getting ready for bed, there are steps you can take to get to sleep more quickly and achieve more restful sleep. A drop in core temperature is a key component of falling and staying asleep, and cooling the room helps facilitate the drop in core temperature. Make the room dark, and stop working on your laptop or playing on your phone at least an hour before going to bed.
Fuel up in the morning
By fueling and hydrating well during the previous afternoon and evening, you should wake up in the morning with replenished stores of muscle glycogen. Your liver glycogen and blood glucose levels will be lower due to the overnight fast. A good breakfast improves performance on Day 2 by increasing alertness and focus. As the days pile up you may find you’re hungrier as you head to breakfast. Some athletes make the mistake of eating too much and then feeling sluggish and bloated on the bike. Often, a better strategy is to eat a small to moderate-sized breakfast and then start eating on the bike earlier in the ride.
Try to include a balance of carbohydrate, protein, and fat, but skip greasy foods like bacon and sausage. Wake up early enough to complete your meal at least an hour ahead your ride, preferably two hours ahead if that doesn’t cut your sleep too short.
For multi-day training blocks, camps, stage races, and bike tours, repeat as many of these steps as possible each day.
CEO/Head Coach of CTS