Improving cycling performance is an intimate balance between volume, intensity and recovery. Too many cyclists hit the road for hours on end week in week out and don't include recovery. Why do we need to recover? What do we need to consider?
Training for any sport involves stressing your body to induce a training effect. Or essentially draining its resources so it has to repair itself and bounce back. The great thing is when it bounces back it does so a bit stronger in preparation for repeated physical stress. This is called "supercompensation" as your body "over compensates" in repair and this is essential for improvement. No supercompensation = no improvement. Problems arise when you keep draining your body and don't allow it to recover and then it cannot supercompensate.
Planning recovery weeks in a structured periodized program is essential for improvement as it is too easy to ride six months on end (especially if it's a good summer) and not have a break. Take a scheduled break even if you don't feel like it, and use the time to build the itch to train harder the following week. The frequency of recovery weeks or days within each week will depend on the level you are at and the intensity of each phase of your training. Monitoring recovery sessions is just as important as training or racing and do not be afraid to go slow. This allows your body to distinguish between cycling intensities. If you train at the same pace everyday you will not be able to put enough effort into hard training sessions. Put more effort into hard sessions, and more effort into easy sessions - by going slower. This is how to maximize supercompensation and therefore improvement.
Nutrition plays an important role in your body's ability to adapt to training and recovery. That is nutrition before, during and after training and racing. If you are in a caloric deficit before a hard training session you will not have the appropriate fuels in your system will not be able to train at high intensities with equally high speed or power. Instead you will be working hard, but going slow and this will teach your body to go hard, but go slow which is obviously not ideal! A recent study (Halson et al, 2004) showed supplementing with a low versus high carbohydrate drink during and after intensive training had dramatic effects on training adaptations and performance. Cyclist performed eight consecutive days of intensive training in a randomized crossover design so all subjects completed two blocks of eight intense days. The study was attempting to induce overtraining and determine the effect of carbohydrate supplementation on adaptation to training and overtraining parameters. When the cyclists supplemented with 2% carbohydrate solution before and during training sessions they experienced a significant decrease in performance and did not supercompensate even after two weeks of recovery. However, when the same cyclists supplemented with a 6% carbohydrate solution before and during training, and drank a 20% solution in the hour post training, they not only improve performance but induced a supercompensatory effect after two weeks recovery, demonstrating the importance of adequate fuel intake.
"Put more effort into hard sessions, and more effort into easy sessions - by going slower."
One of the best ways to recover from training is to sleep. When you sleep your body releases a variety of hormones that help restore glycogen levels, repair damaged muscles and help your nervous system recover. Having a regular sleep pattern around work and training is essential and sneaking the odd afternoon sleep on the weekends helps the process. Work and family stress can have an immeasurable effect on recovery. Physical and emotional stress (from work or family) effect hormonal output. Improvements from training can only be made when we have an adequate balance in our hormonal stasis therefore if this is affected, so will our adaptation to training. During stressful times (albeit family or work) reduce training volume and intensity and use training as a tension release.
Nutrition, stress, lack of sleep and consequently a lack of recovery can lead to sickness. If you are repetitively becoming sick you need to review the factors above and question which are missing or not quite up to the demands you are placing on your body. One of the biggest mistakes athletes can make is having time off the bike through sickness and then skipping a recovery week because they didn't ride during sickness. Big mistake! Remember sickness is just as hard on your body as training and isn't counted as recovery. If you are working full time it is almost impossible to accrue enough training volume to over train. It is in actual fact "under resting" and one of the keys to becoming a good athlete is the skill of listening to your body. Listen to it, and do not ignore it when it is aching for a rest.
This article originally appeared in New Zealand Endurance Sport Magazine. Amy Taylor is an Auckland based Exercise Physiologist with a MSc(Hons) in Sports Science. One of the founders of Kinetic Edge Training Technology (www.kecycling.com) she coaches recreational to World Champion cyclists and has been cycling herself for 14 years and can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org