By Kevin Kolodziejski
Two months ago, a conviction of mine enkindled this column. That while benefits of bicycling abound, you and I really do so for the same reason: to feel good, to feel bad — to magically cram three weeks’ worth of ups and downs in three hours of exercise.
In other words, to feel alive.
Nobody wants to crash, but who amongst us doesn’t love the rush that comes from avoiding one that appeared inevitable? Nobody wants to get dropped, but who doesn’t get goosebumps after going through a world of hurt to somehow catch back on when it does happen?
The iconic aerialist Karl Wallenda once said, “Walking the tightrope is living. Everything else is waiting.” But if he had to curl his toes around a one-inch thick wire 100 feet above the ground 24 hours a day, it’d be too much. Even adrenaline junkies can overdose. So as much as I like Wallenda’s words, I’ll alter them a bit as I direct them to cyclists.
“Cycling is living. Everything else is preparation.”
Think about that. And also think about all those other things besides cycling that give you extra juice, jazz you up, make you feel 15 again, and guess what? They also happen more often if you’re properly prepared for them.
So what does all this dime-store philosophy mean for your cycling? That while it cannot be your be-all and end-all (unless you’re a pro or hoping to become one), you need to be mindful that everything you do during the day in some way affects how you feel the next time you ride. Near the close of the last column from a review published by the International Journal of Sports Medicine in August of 2019, for example, sufficient sleep was cited as being “the single most important factor in exercise recovery.” But based on my body’s recovery and the feedback I’ve received from athletes I’ve advised, I’d say sleep is just one of the two.
The second decisive factor in exercise recovery is what you eat — and not just immediately after the ride when the glycogen window is wide open.
Now you’ve probably read article after article about the glycogen window and the importance of ingesting a 4-to-1 ratio of carbohydrates and protein (with little fat) within 30 minutes to two hours of anything more than a recovery ride. Doing so certainly expedites recovery, but are you aware that fully refueling totally tapped out muscles is at least a 20-hour process and that there’s really a second glycogen window?
Even though a 2004 Journal of Sports Science Medicine review calls refueling your muscles, technically called glycogen synthesis, “a relatively slow process,” it also acknowledges that “a relatively rapid rate of glycogen storage can be maintained for up to 8-hours post exercise.” So while slugging down 16 ounces of a recovery drink (low-fat chocolate milk is both an inexpensive and effective one) before you wipe down the bike and hop in the shower is a great start to being able to ride ambitiously the next day, it’s just a start. You throw a major wrench in the works if you chow down on three chili dogs, two cheeseburgers, or even a steak with a salad an hour or two later. What needs to follow the first refueling to get fully refueled as soon as possible are three snacks or meals (preferably at two-hour intervals) loaded with complex carbohydrates and protein in about a 3-to-1 ratio.
While this isn’t well known, it’s far from a recent discovery. In September of 1981, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a study using long-distance runners that concluded “muscle glycogen can be normalized between daily strenuous running activity,” and that if you want to ride or lift or exercise five or six or even seven days a week, refueling with complex carbs is superior to doing so than with simple carbs.
I’ve found baked squash and baked potatoes to be great for refueling. So great, in fact, I eat the former for lunch and the latter for dinner (along with fat-free cheese or a protein supplement) after both weekend rides. Every weekend. But options abound. You could choose other starchy vegetables, such as corn, peas, yams, and sweet potatoes; whole grains, like brown rice, wild rice, quinoa, and oats; whole-wheat bread and pasta; whole-grain cereals; and even air-popped popcorn.
Just make sure that the majority of the calories you consume in the eight hours after you ride come from complex carbs and not simple ones. In a study published in the 1991 March issue of The International Journal of Sport Nutrition, simple carbs, like white rice and traditional pasta, were found to be 15 percent less effective for refueling.