It’s one of the great mysteries of training and racing: how to turn up on race day with the perfect blend of enough of the right kind of training in the legs, but also enough freshness to be absolutely pinging?
Disclaimer first – I’m not going to attempt too much sports science. My history degree won’t get me far down that road. And very importantly, YMMV – your mileage may vary, or to put it another way, everyone’s different. But I’ve found that after eight or nine years of racing, I think I’m just starting to work out some answers to that mystery that I started with – I’ve managed to turn up to the last few big events I’ve done and been really pleased with how I’ve felt. And that’s a big contrast with some past races; I’m sure we’ve all had those ones where we know we’ve done a lot of training, but as soon as the start gun goes, we know something’s just not working. So I thought it worth musing a little on how to strike that balance of training and freshness.
What can go wrong?
First, what happens when it doesn’t work? I’m certain it’s possible to be “too fresh”. A couple of seasons ago, I went through a building period with some decent rides, but without having really rested brilliantly; I told myself that it was OK, because I was going to rest properly for a big road crit, and then all that riding would kick in and I’d be flying. So what happened? Well, I rested up nicely. The only problem was that when the race started, my legs had utterly forgotten what it was like to go hard, and I felt like a bag of spanners all race.
And of course the converse is possible – it’s definitely possible to turn up to a race insufficiently well rested. It’s not great when you’ve got sore legs from the start. I use my commute to tell me when I’ve done enough backing off. I never ride to work and back quickly – I find London traffic requires a calm demeanour and stopping distances which are as short as possible while keeping up decent forward motion. But while cruising to work and back, I can keep pretty good tabs on how the legs feel. When they’re sore just pulling away from the traffic lights, I know there’s still some recovering to do.
It’s important to keep in mind the simple stuff, or at least the stuff which should be simple. Like sleeping. Getting eight hours plus a night in the lead-up to a race can only help. As can eating right; but I’m increasingly against any notion of “carb-loading”, even if it’s just sub-conscious – “I’m racing tomorrow, so I’d better have a second helping”. I’ve had a couple of races where eating too much the night before a race, or eating different stuff to what I would normally eat, has led to digestive rebellion mid-race – never comfortable. Much better just to keep the body doing what it’s used to; a normal supper the night before, then a sensible breakfast with plenty of time before race start.
And it probably does help not to spend the day before a race standing up. The maxim of “don’t stand when you can sit, don’t sit when you can lie down” is worth keeping in mind.
Priming the engine
Some people abide by rules of thumb – I always quite like the approach of having a relatively easy week, probably by reducing the quantity rather than the intensity, then an easy day two days before a race. The day before a race I try for a proper hit out, in order to get things moving. And that means going pretty hard. I used to think an easy spin with a few 1-2 minute blasts would do it; but now I’d rather do two hours, with a few decent efforts, ideally up a hill or three. Enough to hurt, but not enough to leave lots of fatigue in the legs.
I suspect single-day events might be different again from stage races though – in stage races where I’ve felt good, I’ve done about 2-3 hours or more on the bike on each of the days in the week leading up to it (except for maybe two days before – see above). I can only assume it’s just helping get the legs used to the day-in, day-out effort. To be able to do this, however, I’d want to have the week before the week before the race pretty easy, so that you come into that last run feeling fresh.
Or just go with the flow?
Having said all that, sometimes it’s just unpredictable, and as an amateur, you just have to go with the flow of normal life if you don’t want to turn into a cycling hermit. My only road race win came the day after I’d been to a wedding, stood up chatting most of the afternoon while drinking copious quantities of champagne, then danced until the early hours, before sleeping six hours in an unfamiliar B&B bed. And lo and behold, in the race I felt a million dollars. Which just goes to show that some of this will remain a mystery…
What’s your tapering / race prep regime? And what’s the best result you’ve had with a non-ideal run-in?