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…