Last week I wrote about how Steve Koester could be on form for big events (two centuries two weeks apart in late June and early July). He also asked, “I may do one more century in August. I will be backpacking for eight days and the century is only a week after the backpacking trip. I don’t know whether to get out riding again or go into it rested but with no riding for more than a week. Before the backpacking trip I also plan to swim 2-3 days per week and start hiking more.”
Many roadies have a similar situation. After training up and completing an event, how you do you maintain form despite a break in cycling for a two-week non-cycling vacation or a week-long business trip? What should any roadie, including Steve, do to be in shape for another event after a break from cycling?
Here’s what I wrote to Steve after his second century about how to prepare for his backpacking trip and then the August century:
Unless you are an experienced distance rider used to doing multiple centuries in a summer, after riding a century you are sufficiently fatigued that you need some recovery time. Riding two centuries two weeks apart results in cumulative fatigue. Steve, after the centuries you should do very little exercise that uses your legs for at least five days after the second century. Swimming is a great way to stretch out, and several 30-minute walks are fine, too.
Base fitness continues
To prepare for the centuries, you wrote that you did some “some moderate base training but not as much as I like.” My colleague Neal Henderson, former director of Sports Science at Colorado’s Boulder Center for Sports Medicine and USA Cycling’s Coach of the Year, said in a talk that 75% of the athletes he sees over-train (too much and/or too hard), 10% under-train and 15% get it right—usually pros that are paid to race. Almost all of my new clients have also been training too much.
Although you may not have done as much base training as you like, you probably did enough.
Base training improves:
1. The endurance of the cycling muscles.
2. The respiratory system, providing more oxygen to the blood supply.
3. The efficiency of the heart so it can pump more blood to the muscles.
4. The capacity of the liver and muscles to store carbohydrates.
5. The capacity to burn fat during long rides.
6. The thermoregulatory system by increasing the blood flow to the skin.
7. The neuromuscular efficiency of pedaling.
Because building your base took many months, these improvements don’t disappear overnight. Note that the first six improvements also apply to hiking!
If a roadie cuts way back on training – for example, because of a two-week family vacation – he’ll only lose a little endurance.
After achieving base fitness, which you had done, specificity is the key to effective training. You’ll be backpacking for eight days starting about three weeks after your second century.
First, wear your hiking boots or shoes most of the time.
If you feel fully recovered the weekend after the second century, then you can start preparing specifically for backpacking. You should do:
- Back-to back-hikes about two-thirds the duration of the hikes on your trip. Your typical backpacking days will be about six to eight hours in rugged terrain. You should do two approximately four- to five-hour hikes.
- If possible, hike on terrain similar to the backpacking trip.
- Hikes carrying all of your backpacking gear.
These hikes should feel like work – but shouldn’t leave you exhausted.
A week later do two back-to-back hikes each about one-third the duration of the backpacking days, i.e., two to three hours.
After the second two days of hiking, you have eight days to taper for your trip. Instead of two more big days, I suggest that you go out with your pack for a couple of hours every other day.
Although base endurance fitness fades slowly, the capacity to go hard diminishes faster. You can help maintain your power for cycling by pushing the pace on your short training hikes — you should still be able to talk in short sentences but not whistle.
If a roadie is on a two-week vacation or week-long business trip, then every two or three days he or she should try to build in some power walking (or running if the knees can tolerate it.)
Hiking uses your base fitness in ways that apply directly to cycling, so you won’t lose much of your base fitness (#1 – #6, above). Hiking does use your leg muscles; however, the biomechanics of hiking are different than cycling, so you’ll lose some cycling-specific fitness (#7).
On the days before the trip when you’re not hiking you should do specific drills to maintain your pedaling power and efficiency. Good drills include:
- One-legged pedaling — Do several reps of 30 – 60 seconds with the right leg. Between each rep pedal with both legs for recovery. Then do several reps with the left leg, alternating with both legs.
- Builds — Start in a moderate gear at your normal cadence and every minute increase the cadence by about 10 rpm. Build to the maximum cadence at which you’re still pedaling smoothly and then work your way back down, decreasing by 10 rpm every minute.
- Sprints — Sprinting makes the maximum demand on your muscles and improves your pedaling power and efficiency. Do two or three 20- to 30-second sprints in a hard gear with at least five minutes recovery between each.
A strong core will keep your back in alignment despite the pull of the pack. A strong core stabilizes the pelvis, which is the fulcrum for your legs when you cycle, so a strong core is also essential for cycling.
Even during your recovery week after the century (or a roadie’s two-week non-cycling vacation), core exercises like the plank are critical!
Back on the bike
Steve, when you are home from your backpacking trip and want to get back in shape for the century a week later, what should you do? When a roadie is home from that non-cycling vacation or darn business trip and wants to regain fitness for the club rides, what should she do?
Remember that even when you aren’t riding, your base fitness endures while your muscle memory and power diminish. Therefore, after you and any roadie are back on your bikes you should work on pedaling economy and power by doing the drills above.
Listen to your body
You only have a week between your backpacking trip and the century, and you shouldn’t get carried away “getting back in shape.” More miles on the bike won’t help. You should do just enough of the drills so that you feel your cycling form return, but not do so much pedaling that you feel any fatigue.
After the backpacking trip, Steve wrote me, “I felt pretty good for the hike. The first day was a little rummy, likely from driving all day the day before. By the third day I was feeling very good and we hiked 19 miles, although not at high elevation like the Rockies or Sierra. Cardiovascular fitness is rarely an issue for me and I had carried my pack enough to prepare.”
For more information get my eArticle Your Best Season Ever Part 2: Peaking for and Riding Your Event. It describes how to:
- Analyze your event to figure out what’s required for success.
- Develop specific training objectives based on that analysis.
- Train for peak fitness for your individual event.
- Taper so that you are fresh and on form at the start.
- Create and test a personal strategy for your particular event.
- Control how you ride your event for best performance.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.