Managing Cycling Fatigue and Dead Legs – Something I Rarely Write About but Adhere To Without Fail. The Key to Unlocking Your Top Speed
When I got home from the office yesterday I wanted a nap. I was tired, my legs a little sore and for the first time in a long, long time, I wanted to just take a day off. It had rained an hour before so not only was it quite hot (90 F), it was ridiculously muggy.
Last week was a 250 mile week. 235 the week before. July 11th was my last real day off the bike. I had 56 miles in as of Tuesday and I should end up with another 150 between Saturday and Sunday… Surely a day off wouldn’t hurt?! Now, for some folks 250 miles isn’t all that big a deal, but for me it is. Full time husband, full time dad, full time job… Pulling thirteen hours a week from that to ride a bike isn’t easy. On the other hand, a fella’s gotta stay fit somehow.
I suited up anyway. Pumped up the tires, ratcheted the shoes down and rode. Slow. I kept it around 16-17 mph and took almost a full hour to ride 16 miles. High cadence, easy gear, and I just rolled on down the road. There were several points along that ride that I hoped nobody saw me because I was going so slow. I had to constantly battle the thought that I should be pedaling just a little harder – surely 18 or 19 mph would be better, I was already feeling a lot better after all. I almost lost that battle in my melon when I dropped down to 15 mph on the way up a small roller.
I didn’t lose though. I kept it slow and steady, kept my cadence up and my speed down. My breathing was steady and easy and I barely needed my mouth open to draw enough air to maintain the pace. In fact, that’s often my test for whether or not I’m rolling out too fast… I’ll close my mouth and just breathe through my nose. If I can’t do that for a half-mile without coming up short of breath, I’m going too fast. On returning home I ate a great dinner and ended up falling asleep before 8 pm on the couch, watching a movie with my daughters. I slept till 3 this morning and woke up recharged and ready to tackle another day. My legs (and attitude) having completely turned around.
I don’t write in much depth about riding slow, other than to include it as something I do so I can ride daily without smoking my legs, because it’s really kind of boring. On the other hand, it’s an integral part of my being able to ride a lot and really fast when I want to. I’ve tried going all out too often and once I get to those spots like yesterday, where all of the miles finally catch up to me, my ability to maintain a decent speed slides drastically.
Starting at the beginning, two years ago I was pretty crazy with the notion of being fast. I thought taking a slow day, a really slow day (or three), in a week was wasting an opportunity to get faster. I thought that, because I could ride so much faster than the average person, my slow days should still be relatively fast. If I wasn’t breathing heavy, even on the slow days, then I was wasting my time. I tried to adhere to the “easy gear, fast cadence” ideal but my idea of slow was way too fast. To make it worse, this desire to always get a “workout” out of a bike ride made me insufferable to ride with for my wife. I was so concerned “getting my workout in” that when my wife couldn’t keep up with my easy pace of 18-19 mph I would become agitated, thinking I was squandering an opportunity to get faster. Eventually I’d come up on some dead legs syndrome and have to take a day or two off to reboot them. My best consecutive streak of cycling back then was thirteen days in a row before I had to rest. Now I’ve been over 22 and currently have an 18 day streak going.
Last year, I tried to do things a little differently. I kept my speeds the same but I took every Monday off, whether I needed it or not. I let a lot of nice days go by so I could “rest up”. I worked on lightening up on my wife a little bit but still harbored a bit of a resentment that she wouldn’t try a little harder – and I’m sure she could feel what I was feeling, even if I tried to hide it. I have no doubt that I was a pain in the ass, at least a little bit, to ride with. I did get faster though. My best Tuesday night average went from 21 mph to 22. A fair jump.
Over the winter I had a change of heart. Part of the blame went to Tour de France coverage from last year (a couple of blogging friends who cover the Tour [thanks Sheree] and backed what I’d heard up) when it was let out that a typical rest day included three hours on the turbo trainer to keep the legs spun up… This made a lot of problems I’d had on Tuesday nights the year before make sense. I was taking a day off at exactly the wrong time – Monday, the day before the club ride. Not only that, I figured if the pros can ride that hard every day, surely I could do the same at a much easier pace, no? The final straw came in the form of a tip from a pro cyclist. I read an article in which it was stated that the problem with most amateur cyclists is that their hard efforts aren’t hard enough and their easy efforts aren’t easy enough. I could completely relate this to the way I’d been cycling for three years. I would have argued that my hard efforts were hard enough back then but when I really looked at it without emotion, they couldn’t have been hard enough because my easy efforts were too hard and always pulling from the reservoir.
And that was the perspective I needed. All of a sudden, 16 mph rides could be enjoyed rather than viewed as time wasted and cycling hasn’t been the same since. My wife and I can enjoy slower rides together and because of those slower bike rides she’s gotten a lot faster, to a point where she can hang with the boys on all but our toughest, longest days. I keep my legs spun up, I have more in the tank when I need it and I’ve actually managed to surpass some of the guys who I used to rely on to pull me around a route. I am becoming the horse I always wanted to be, by riding slower – and I enjoy the sport a lot more for it.
Finally, there is a flip-side to that coin. This isn’t perfect or infallible… If I want to stay fast and continue to get faster, I still have to put in the work on the hard days – but that’s never been my problem.
My big ride for August is coming up in just a few days. Normally it’s the Assenmacher 100 but I’m heading up to Boyne City for the Mountain Mayhem 160 km. With 7,000 feet of climbing over the 104 miles, that’s going to be my big ride this year. The fun little fact here is that, if I’m lucky, in my neck of the woods we might top 3,000 feet on a century, though most gain only 1,000-1,500 feet in elevation. Take the Hoppe 100 we did last week, less than 1,200 feet and really there was only one decent hill the whole ride. In other words, we’ve got some work cut out for us. My friends Mike, Chuck and Phill will be going along as well and thankfully, we’re fairly equally matched when it comes to fitness (we ride together a lot).
So, I’ve been signed up for this ride for a few months now – I knew it was coming up, how tough it would be and I’m more ready for this ride than I’ve ever been for a ride since I began using clipless pedals. Here’s how I got there (and it’s not as tough as you might think):
First and foremost, this is not rocket science: The Number One, most important way for me to get ready for the big ride is lots of saddle time. This year has been especially awesome as my best cycling bud moved just two short miles from my house so we’re riding long miles every weekend – and really, other than my weekend rides being a lot longer (last year was 35-50 miles on Saturday and 16-20 on Sunday, this year is 50-100 miles each day) I’m not doing much more that I did last year.
Second, my overall speed fitness is about the same to slightly better than last year – and I achieved this by riding slower three or four days a week. Seriously. Slower. Monday is a slow day, Wednesday, Thursday and even Friday are slow. The short weekend day is a medium/hard effort and the long day is harder. My only all-out “I’m cooked” day is Tuesday evening. Last year was all hard miles all of the time. My “recovery rides” last year were often more than an 18 mph average and my hardest days were topping out around 22. This year, the recovery rides are more like 16 to 17 mph and the medium efforts are only 18-19… The end result is that I have a lot more gas in the tank when it counts.
Third, Hammer is my friend:
I use the Perpetuem for long ride fuel and Heed for shorter efforts and to go along with the Perpetuem on long rides. They are exceptional liquid fuel alternatives and I don’t leave home without them anymore. On a century, I’d rather have a full complement of Hammer products over an American Express card any day of the week and twice on Sunday.
There’s one other all-important cog that fits in here – and because I’ve done all of the above, because I’ve put in the miles and hammered some really hard rides (the Horsey Hundred to name just one which was almost an identical profile to MM Beat the Heat) and gotten my body in tip-top shape (at least for me, I’m not all that impressive), I’ve got the one thing that is the glue to stick all of these pieces together: I’ve got confidence.
Cycling is almost entirely mental until you get into the anaerobic zone. Once you hit that, you’re pretty much smoked, but leading up to it isn’t all fun and games either. I know exactly how hard I can push, when I can push, and when I have to back off a little bit – because I’ve done it over and over again. There’s a mountain of difference between going into a ride knowing I can do it and hoping I can. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t give it a whirl and challenge ourselves – this ride is going to be a challenge. The trick is, when it really starts to suck (I’d say between 46 and 86 miles looking at that profile), I know I can push through a lot to get to the finish line. I know I can climb, I know I can ride and I’m certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that I can do the distance. Confidence is everything.
If I don’t have that seemingly elusive confidence, it’s because I skimped on one of the items above – usually the first one. In that case, I deserve what’s coming…
The thermometer read an even 90 when Mrs. Bgddy and I pulled into the school parking lot. The wind was probably out of the northwest but at less than 3 mph it was hard to tell. We really don’t consider it a breeze if it’s below 7.892 mph.
One negative is usually good for us slower guys: Wind. If it’s windy, it’s going to be a relatively tame ride. Sure taking our flogs up front sucks at 23 mph into a 20 mph headwind, but once we drop back in the draft, it’s all good. Recovery is quick and relatively painless. However, no matter how hot it is, if there’s no wind, it’s going to be a fast night.
I started up front as usual, second bike. The second mile was mine and I took the tempo from an easy 19 to 23, and that’s the last time we saw 23. Hey, if you can’t beat ’em…
Mrs. Bgddy was riding with us tonight so I was worried for her as soon as we passed 25. I was feeling fantastic and took quite a few turns up front. Fortunately every time I dropped back from the front I could hear my wife talking a few bikes back (I rarely drop all the way to the back of the pack anymore – too many chances to get dropped back there).
We took every advantage of the lack of wind, hammering down the road at upwards of 28 mph. I managed a look back at 12 miles and heard her talking at 13… From there it got crazy though. We hit the hills at an easy 24 mph and though the speed fluctuated, we hit speeds above that on the way up the last one in the series. After we crested that last hill, we were too fast to risk a glance at the computer. We had to be faster than 28.
Then came the second set of hills and we slowed down considerably, just slowed… I’ve heard of this happening in races, where nobody wants to do the work so the pace momentarily lags, but I’d never seen it up close. So there we were, and I had a fantastic time resting up for the next surge. It was great. I was ready when the pace picked up but I was on my bcb’s wheel and he slipped off as they pulled away. I pulled up alongside and asked if we were done, and he nodded to the affirmative. I was okay with that as I’d noticed my wife had dropped and we’d completed 15-1/2 miles in under 40 minutes. Seriously, do the math… On open roads, a 20 mph average is 46-1/2 minutes (open roads means we respect traffic and traffic signs so we stop when traffic is present.
Mike and I decided to turn around and backtrack to pick up my wife and bring her in. A half mile later we passed Big Joe who said she’d turned back for a shortcut back a couple of miles earlier. That meant we were free to go.
We turned around and set to finishing our ride. I formed up behind Mike and Joe behind me. Mike set the pace at 19.5 but I noticed Phill off the back about 3/4’s of a mile up ahead so I said, “There’s Phill, go get him” but Mike was spent. I took the lead, Joe followed me and I upped the pace by 2 mph and we started reeling him in. We picked up Dave along the way but on the way up the third hill, and this one can actually called a real climb, I dropped everyone but Dave. I slowed down when I saw a full group waiting at the shortcut turn waiting for us. We formed up with a decent group of about 8 or 10 guys and set out to finish the last ten miles.
The heat had a pretty profound affect on a lot of the guys so we dropped a few along the way with our 22-23 mph pace and we ended up finishing strong, managing an overall average of 22 mph. This was far better than I’d expected with all of the turning around and stopping we did throughout the ride but when I think back on it, we really did hammer pretty good – even considering the heat. We were only off our best finishing time ever by less about 30 seconds.
Mrs. Bgddy met up with us on the last few miles and rode back with us for two of them before the pace ratcheted up to 26 again – she’s turning into quite the cyclist having stayed with us for more than 13 miles of the ride today – at speeds up to 28 mph. I was quite stoked for her. In fact, after riding solo for eight miles, then spinning easy back to us before catching on and picking up her speed again, she still managed almost a 20 mph average for her 29 miles (which is absolutely stellar and as good as I could do in my first year).
It was a great, if tough night and I can tell you, dinner tasted extra good last night.
As a side note, special kudos to four of our club members Dave and Greg and two others who finished the Black Bear Bicycle Tour 100 miler in 3h:59m, and to my friend Winston who finished in 4h:06m and his son who finished in 4 hours flat. Also, McMike finally wore his official jersey to the ride last night:
For the longest time, this series on my blog has been about mistakes that I made. I would pass them on with the hope that the information might help others… well, this post came about through my watching a new, budding noob cut his teeth on cycling.
A friend whom I regularly ride with has a son who is just getting started and after only a month on the bike he rode his first century Sunday. He rode hard and completed the whole ride, only his fifth time on a bike, and his previous longest ride was only 55 miles. It was an amazing show of guts, with a few momentary lapses in concentration and a few errors in judgement that cost him finishing with the group. Still, I really respected the effort – going that far, that fast, that soon was some kind of gutsy.
First on my list was not a something I saw on the ride…
SUNSCREEN! Nobody in our group, including me, got burned on this oppressively hot ride (91 and sunny, no wind). We were all heavily coated long before we rolled out. A sunny century requires sunscreen. Period. Up to a metric century I can get away with 30 SPF. For a full century, I reach for the big gun… 50.
Hydration, hydration, hydration… I hydrated all day Saturday after my 50 miler, then more Sunday morning before I left. On the ride, I drank 24 ounces of Hammer Heed and 24 of Perpetuem laced water, then hammered down some water during a nature stop at a park. With lunch I drank a medium Coke and a PowerAde, then filled a bottle up with more PowerAde (at mile 57). At mile 75 I drank a can of Coke, a bottle of sparkling flavored water and refilled my bottles with Gatorade. It was enough. Barely. I drank two small Gatorades and a water afterwards too. If Gatorade or PowerAde doesn’t agree with you, there are dozens of alternatives. In seriously hot weather, water is not enough. It’s better than nothing but you need the electrolytes. I’ll make this simple: The quickest way to have a crappy experience is to skimp on hydration. It’s also the easiest way to bonk or end up plugged into an IV.
Pay Attention! If you’re riding with a group, remember that paying attention for 5 hours (or more) gets tough. In addition, if we get the hydration or fuel wrong, concentration is almost impossible those last fifteen miles. Riding in a group at speed is tough enough at the best of times, after several grueling hours in the saddle it’s easy to lose focus. Don’t. Bad things happen when we lose focus.
Be Aware of Your Energy Level. This one is exceptionally important. As the miles pile up and the day wears on, your ability to do things other than pedal declines. Precipitously. Stopping becomes something you actually have to think about. Pulling the brake levers with the proper oomph is tough and can have you overshooting your intended stopping point. I’ve seen experienced horses run into guys, turning their rear wheel into a taco. Heck, I had one such horse run into me, in a rest-stop parking lot. Fortunately my wheel wasn’t bent bad enough to call the SAG wagon but I had to open my brakes all the way to make it home. Know this will happen to you. Be prepared for it. Pay attention at stops, at intersections and in the group. When it’s time to stop, do it carefully and deliberately.
Unclip – and on the proper side. This goes back to my last point. As we tire out, even unclipping may have to be concentrated on. I saw a kid fall over the other day simply because he unclipped the wrong foot first. The end of a century is not the time for hotdogging it. The end of a century is time for damage control. Playing around is for when you feel good, not when you’re smoked and half dehydrated.
Signal Properly Till the Finish Line. As we tire out, many have a tendency to throw signaling to the wayside. Don’t. Signal properly, especially slowing and stopping, all the way till the sprint at the end.
Fully clean your bike. Before and after the ride. Cycling is an exceptionally mental sport, even more than most. Your mind can push you through hard times or leave you cooked, sitting under a tree. A century is hard enough under the best of conditions, why give your melon committee more ammo than it needs? Then, the day after the ride get all of the dried sweat and Gatorade off of it, clean the wheels, maybe even the chain if it needs it. Tighten the important bolts (I run through mine with a set torque wrench), the stem (all six bolts), the stem cap, the seat post bolts and the saddle bolt(s). I do this before and after a big ride. There’s rarely anything lose but I have caught a bolt or two that would have developed into a problem had I not taken the 1m:43s to check them.
UPDATE: I forgot one! The Tempo Cyclist adds: Eat, Santa, EAT!
I needed some mental prep to get ready for the Hoppe 100. It’s not a supported ride, just a bunch of Genesee Wanderers and their friends who show up at one of the member’s house on the last Sunday in July to ride. My friends and I are the rare few who choose the century as a warm up to the Assenmacher 100. This year there were only eight or nine of us who rolled out for the hundred (three of which had planned to ride with us for the first 40 but roll back for the shorter metric century but decided to stay with us). We were looking at a whole lot of miles with a small group and a whole lot of work. I started psyching myself up on the 20 minute ride there. For fluids on this ride I was trying something new. A three-scoop Hammer Perpetuem/Water mix and a one-scoop Hammer Heed/Water mix. I had high hopes…
It was a foggy morning, upper 60’s to low 70’s, so we ended up putting off the start for a half-hour or so and that gave us plenty of time to get everything in order. It was still quite foggy when we rolled out (though improving rapidly)…
The first ten miles were all fun and games, Chuck went out on a mock breakaway, Adam sent me out to chase him down, and we kept Phill at the back with Paul because those were the only two with flashing tail lights. As we got further into corn country conditions deteriorated, the fog grew increasingly thicker to the point that I had to wipe the mist off of my sunglasses just so I could see. The sun was trying to break through the haze but try as it might, the fog won. We spent the first 30 miles battling that. As a respite, when I got to the front I’d take my shades off and sling them around the back of my neck (an amazing resting place for the glasses btw). I was too nervous to attempt this when I wasn’t lead bike though. My eyes are just a wee bit too important to risk a stray pebble messing up my eyesight. We also held a pretty decent (easy) pace throughout, averaging 19.8 when we hit the park that signified the split between the full century and the metric. We quickly dismounted, filled our water bottles, emptied our bladders, had a quick bite to eat (of on-board fuel). Then it was northeast over the South Fork Bad River Bridge, along a ten mile stretch of rail trail. That’s where we ran into our first spot of trouble that slowed us down. First, the rail trail was fairly busy even though we were about twenty minutes away from a scorcher of a day, so we kept it at about 19 mph to stay safe. Then our youngest rider hit a rock and immediately flatted. The sun and mosquitos were out in full force and it took fifteen minutes to get the flat fixed (older equipment, we had plenty of people, including a bike shop owner to work on it, it was just a tough one). We spent the next few miles getting wound up again but once we exited the rail trail and hit the road again, we put the hammer down. At 45 miles we got a little bit lost but “Ride With GPS” got us squared away within a couple of minutes and we were back after it. The next twelve miles were the toughest of the ride. No shade, lots of speed and it felt like it was uphill the whole way.
Entering the town of Hemlock, I saw something that perplexed me because I’d never seen it happen… Matt, the bike shop owner sprinted off the front and raised his arms as the road surface changed from chip-seal to asphalt. He never does that. I filed it away for later because I was too busy thinking about how hungry I was. We pulled into the Hemlock McDonald’s right at 57 miles.
Folks, I don’t advise this for anyone else, but if we’re not absolutely killing it (above a 23 mph average), I eat when I stop. Yesterday was no exception. A Quarter Pounder, some chicken nuggets and a fry, along with a medium Coke disappeared in a matter of minutes. After the Coke was polished off, I filled my water bottle with ice and Gatorade and we hit the road. The Heed/Perpetuem combo was paying off. I felt amazingly good after we ate (it also helped that it took us five miles to start breaking into the 21-22 mph miles) and that drink combo was exceptionally helpful. Normally I’ll knock back the Perpetuem before we hit the 50 mile mark of a century and by the time we hit 75, I’m smoked. Yesterday, however, I saved half of the Perpetuem for after lunch and took my time draining the bottle over the next 20 miles or so. At 70 miles, when we hit a hill, I had the energy to charge up it and I was able to spend an inordinate amount of time up front. I was seriously fired up that I felt so good…
Then, about five miles from Oakley, that same kid who flatted had a slight lapse in paying attention and bumped Phill’s wheel. Phill stayed upright but the poor kid went down instantly. His rear wheel, of all things took the brunt of the fall and he escaped with a few scrapes and a better understanding of what happens when we allow our attention to drift… His wheel had to be trued on the road though – and thankfully Matt fixed him up in a matter of a few minutes. We were off again. Before I go further, none of us were too tough on the kid. He’s brand new to cycling and his dad is an upstanding member of our group. When it comes to stupid mistakes, he gets a pretty big pass – we’re all willing to do what we can to help him. Truth be told, he got big points with me just for opting to do the full hundred on just his fifth ride.
We stopped in Oakley to refill our water bottles, I used a large grape PowerAde for that, then drank a can of Coke and had one of those sparkling waters just for fun. After, we got ready to head out… and the kid promptly tipped over because he had the wrong foot unclipped. He covered all of the bases in one ride: First century, first crash, first pedal-shoe interface error.
The last 23 miles were the best last 23 miles of a century I’d ever ridden. I won’t say that I felt good, because that would be freaking nuts, but I was in excellent shape considering that I’d already ridden 77 miles. I hammered up the hills, what few there were, and was breathing easy at the 21 mph pace we’d chosen. Then, all of a sudden like, Matt sprints off of the front and raises his arms… Right at a city limits sign. Sheesh, he’d been collecting City Limit points on us all day. Shortly thereafter the Adam, Diane and the kid dropped. I took the lead and picked up the pace, 22. Two miles… Phill took the lead, 23… Matt and Chuck dropped with somewhere close to ten miles to go. I dropped back to pick them up and they said they were good so I went back up to Phill and Mike. Mike asked us to keep the pace at 21 so we didn’t drop him too.
Five miles to go, we were between 21 and 22. I’d take a couple of miles, then Phill. I can’t remember why but we broke up for a minute and when we formed back up I was back up front… Three miles to go, I only lasted maybe three-quarters of a mile and headed back. Two miles, I recovered in that mile… One mile – I hadn’t realized how close we were, these things are never 100 miles even but now I began to recognize where I was. We started downhill and I knew we had a half mile to go. I could see the driveway. That’s when I decided to win the Hoppe 100. If Matt can take the points, I can win the whole ball of wax. I knew Mike was toast so I figured him for maybe 20% chance he could keep up with a sprint. Phill had been up front for about a mile so I knew he was hurting too. With a quarter-mile to go, I put the hammer down. After forming an easy gap I looked back and I was golden, hadn’t even moved.
I won a leisure ride. A leisure ride with my friends. Ah well, if Matt gets to sprint for points, I get to win the ride.
Best I’ve ever felt after a hundred miles. I finished with a smile on my face.