Whether it’s a 24-hour cycling event or a long ride with your friends on the weekend, experiencing fatigue is part of the sport. But knowing how to handle fatigue and what you can do to minimize it on the bike is something that can take a long time to figure out through trial and error. Being able to cope with or decrease fatigue can help you reach some of those short- and long-term goals you might have set your sights on in the near future.
To help speed up your learning curve, we recently spoke with Adrian Bennett, a coach with Wenzel Cycling, about what he recommends for cyclists who are trying to get over the hump to ride longer distances and minimize fatigue on the bike.
WHY YOU FATIGUE
While attempting to ride a longer distance than you’re accustomed to is a good goal to have, it requires planning and strategy to accomplish. According to Bennett, even if you’ve trained properly to ride a longer distance, two of the most important aspects that can cause fatigue to set in and be difficult to recover from are intensity and nutrition.
“Cyclists who have prepared properly through training for long-duration activities will typically fatigue because they failed to fuel properly, or the activity exceeded the level of intensity they are conditioned to tolerate,” Bennett says.
Getting sucked into the pace of the group is one of the most common ways cyclists raise the intensity beyond what they’re capable of. This may happen early on in a long cycling event when you’re feeling good and you may not realize you’re riding much faster than you commonly do on your weekly solo rides.
“Not being prepared for the higher-intensity of the group environment is common,” Bennett says. “Going all-out on a climb to not get dropped (by the group) for instance, will tire you out much quicker. It’s always a better idea to ride at your own pace.”
When you decide to push the intensity, even if you’ve planned for it, fueling properly to handle the increase in effort becomes even more crucial.
“The higher the intensity, the higher the fuel requirements,” Bennett says. “Even at lower intensities when you can rely more on fat stores than carbs, after an hour or so you’ll need to start eating if you want to keep the party rolling. Don’t wait that long (to eat and drink) if you know it’ll be a long ride.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO THE DAY BEFORE
Anytime you’re going to be pushing your limits on the bike, what you do the day before can influence your performance. Where cyclists often go wrong is steering away from their normal routines, causing their body to react in a way that can be detrimental when the ride begins.
“Doing things like carb-loading with a massive pizza or tons of spaghetti the night before is just as likely to disrupt sleep and digestion as it is to provide an extra fuel boost,” Bennett says. “One’s body has a hard ceiling on how much carb fuel it can hold. Eating a hearty, healthy dinner and breakfast that’s normal for you before the event is the ticket. If eating a hearty breakfast, make sure it is several hours before the ride. Some folks can sneak by with some oatmeal closer to the departure time, but don’t bet on it.”
Going with what you know works (by trying it during training) is usually the best strategy the day before and the morning of a big ride.
“It’s too late to train more, so rest,” Bennett says. “The best thing cyclists can do is get lots of sleep, control life stress, and enjoy healthy food in a normal quantity. Don’t try anything new. Stick with vetted food, get plenty of sleep, and stick to rehearsed pre-event prep practices.”
STRATEGIES TO USE WHEN FATIGUE SETS IN
Even when you try to stick to a pacing plan and have done all you can to dial in your nutrition and get plenty of sleep, things beyond your control, such as extreme heat or weather, can still derail your ride. When fatigue starts to set in and you’ve still got many miles to go, there are some strategies you can use to get yourself to the finish.
Some of the tactics Bennett recommends include staying positive and reassessing your energy output.
“(When you start to struggle) be kind to yourself. Perhaps your body is capable of more than you think,” Bennett says. “Embrace concepts like positive self-talk and positive visualization. When it gets really hard, see how much you have to slow down to feel comfortable. What’s wrong with riding that slowly for a little while?
“Try spinning a lower gear or stretching your legs with a couple of pedal strokes out of the saddle, then settle back in. There is always a rhythm in the moment that will work with your fatigue level, the wind and the hills. It is never wrong, too slow or not enough. It’s the rhythm for right then, in that situation. Find it, and make it as easy as possible on yourself.”
USING THE RIGHT APPROACH DURING TRAINING
Like anything, specificity is king when it comes to training for an endurance event. The more you can mimic the demands you’ll be placed under during training, the greater your chances of success are. This includes gradually increasing training mileage to ride further distances and focusing some of your training on planned intensities.
“Several months of focused preparation on the bike doing long rides that approach the event duration is the key,” Bennett says. “Time-limited riders can boost endurance by using careful dosages of training time spent above their planned event intensity. Sub-threshold or sweet spot intervals are a popular approach. This can allow a shorter ride to have the endurance-building benefits of its longer counterparts.”
Dealing with and preventing injuries as you increase your training load is also important to overall success and reaching your goals. Once you have the necessary aerobic capacity to ride longer, decreasing fatigue could be as simple as becoming as strong and biomechanically efficient as possible.
“Those with enough aerobic conditioning can stick it out, barring biomechanical problems that become injuries with more activity time,” Bennett says. “That’s why it’s important that cyclists troubleshoot their own biomechanics (during training).
“If that knee feels bad at mile 60, it won’t get better at mile 100 most of the time. Get on top of those gremlins before a dogged determination to finish sidelines you with an overuse injury. Dynamic core strength work, weight training, massage, physical therapy and stretching can all help to combat these overuse injuries that may be waiting in the wings to vanquish us.”