Face of America Cycling Notes

2012 Face of America Riders in Maryland

Face of America 2012 riders head north through Maryland to Pennsylvania. Photograph by Richard Rhinehart.

If you are participating in a World T.E.A.M. Sports‘ annual Face of America ride, here are some useful training tips and practices for cyclists from trained bicycling coaches.

Adequate Fueling for Century or Ultra Cyclists

By Todd Parker, M.A., M.S

One of the biggest mistakes that multi-hour endurance athletes make is inadequate fueling to perform optimally for the duration of the event. Critical word here is adequate. Although there is no perfect standard for all athletes, inadequate solid and/or liquid fueling during competition will most often result in “running out of gas,” “bonking,” or hitting the wall prior to the finish line. Put simply as “running out of gas” or fuel prior to the end of an event will often result in some or all of the following phenomenon:

  • Loss of leg muscular power and turnover (leg-speed)
  • An overall feeling of lethargy, as well as an onset of a “tingling sensation”
  • Loss of mental clarity and focus on event perception and time
  • Lightheadedness, dizziness, and in extreme cases – short lapses in consciousness
  • So how does an athlete figure this out, based upon two hour, five hour, ten hour, to 24 hour plus cycling events? The somewhat obvious answer is “trial and error” during training, and lots of racing experience at a myriad of race formats, terrain and climate extremes, and truly learning your body by having the ability to detect the most subtle of signs or biofeedback.

    Through years of year-round training and riding, one learns what their fueling and hydration rates, amounts, and types require for them to sustain muscular and psychological control and focus for differing course challenges. Even for those professional athletes who have these personal requirements committed to memory, there are times when they may get “caught up in event competition” and lose focus on their intake rates. When this occurs, most often the seasoned professional will pick up on early warning signs from the body (i.e., a slight moment of “tingling sensation” or light-headedness), and quickly drink a carbohydrate beverage that has electrolytes, or two to three gel packs and some water. When caught early like this, one can stave off the downward spiral of “bonking,” or if at the first onset – get back on track within 20 minutes or so. With fast metabolizing carbs and cold liquids, coupled with the elite athlete’s metabolic rates, 20 minutes is well within reach.

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    Most gels are made from Maltodextrin – a fast processing sugar that you’ll want to look for. Your body can only process or metabolize from 250 to 350 calories an hour, so two to three washed down with four to eight ounces (a few good gulps) of water can have you “bouncing back” in as little as 20 to 30 minutes. Psychologically, or the placebo effect often can contribute to these fast returns; therefore, putting your mental imagery techniques to use can be make or break many athletes.

    As I often comment to my athletes, “it’s the mentally strong that will persevere.” We won’t get deep into mental training here; however, if you don’t ever incorporate it into your training repertoire, you’ll never reach your full potential as a competitive athlete.

    Again, all of this needs to be figured out preferably in training, otherwise, you will in several races or long rides early on in your career. I often refer to my athletes as “dialing-in” their fueling and hydration. Without having done all the necessary testing, often times athletes will have debilitating performances after spending an enormous amount of time and money devoted to the ride.

    Both solid and liquid fueling must be exhaustively tried and tested, because you may find some products more palatable (thus more apt to consume for long periods). In addition, some products can actually make you nauseous or cause vomiting and diarrhea – further complicating the refueling, hydration, and electrolyte imbalance issues.

    Lastly, don’t forget to find out early on what products solid and liquid fueling stations at the event will be offering. Test those products on similar distances, paces, terrain, and climate to find out if they work for you or not. If venue products do not work for you or make you nauseous, then you have to find a way to get your products into the course. Cyclists who are on a team or who have family or friend support can have personnel pre-positioned at rest stops with supplies.

    Once the ride begins, your pre-ride anxiety will be gone. We’re now focusing on staying in a comfortable position within the peloton. As time quickly goes by, some athletes get so caught up in the ride that they forget to drink and eat. Early on, of course, we should be concentrated on fluids, and if you’re one who tends to forget, I highly recommend you set an alarm on your watch to go off every 15 minutes.

    For most riders, a good gulp or two (about four to six ounces) every 15 minutes should keep you adequately hydrated. That would have you going through about one bottle per hour. Generally, most will have water for the first hour, followed by a drink that contains carbohydrates (sugar fuel such as maltodextrin) and electrolytes (sodium, potassium, magnesium, and even calcium).

    If the ride is only about an hour, for power-to-weight ratio concerns, forget the second bottle, and save one pound or more on your bike! Trust me, that pound will make a difference, so if experience indicates that you never need or touch the second bottle – lose it! Of course, everything must be tried and tested in training – close to ride conditions (consider the time of the day, climate, duration, and intensity). After you get a couple years of training and riding experience, hydration and fueling should be “dialed-in,” well known, and consistent with ride format.

    For rides that last from one hour to 90 minutes, liquid should be all that is needed – keep in mind we can store about as much glycogen (or fuel) that will sustain most of us for that period. Once we get to two hours and longer, most individuals will need eat (a bar or gels). An important note here is that this doesn’t mean you start eating at two hours, but rather at the 45-60 minute mark, or whatever works for you.

    For those riding five to ten hours or more, solid fuel becomes very critical for most individuals. Seldom can cyclists sustain themselves for these longer rides on liquids alone. I’ve had training partners who don’t stomach or process solid food well, and can successfully sustain themselves on liquid sources alone. In my years of training, racing, and coaching, these type of athletes are rare.

    I cannot reiterate enough that you must try and test numerous liquid and solid fuel sources to determine what helps you perform optimally. And that may mean you don’t necessarily use the same products or ratios for different ride formats, regional climate, and distances. One critical consideration regardless of your fuel type, for most individuals, is that you can only metabolize (or process) from 250 to 350 calories an hour. This depends upon the athlete’s genetics, fitness level, and riding intensity primarily, with fitness level usually being the largest contributor. Therefore, quickly eating two bars or bottles of a carb drink will not only fail to process, but often may result in vomiting and/or diarrhea, thus complicating your fuel and hydration levels or could compromise your ride altogether.

    Also critical is not to drink too much water. Yes, you can overhydrate with water. This is known as hyponatremia, where you actually dilute your blood sodium levels too much. This often leads to cramping, or in worse cases – muscles will fail to contract, or as I call it “muscular locking,” dizziness, and ultimately loss of consciousness. Again, you know what your body needs and performs well with given the situation, so don’t change or try something new on race day.

    Adequate Recovery, The Importance of Recovery Weeks, and Listening to Your Body

    By Todd Parker, M.A., M.S.

    “I want to remind you that next week is a RECOVERY WEEK.”

    “What? I can’t lower my volume now, Coach!”

    This is a common exchange between coach and athlete. I know we don’t typically like this at first glance, but once we learn the benefits, it’s easy to embrace.

    Actually, it should be a week we start to look forward to. Remember, “Recovery is Just as Important as Training Itself.” This is particularly true for those athletes who are preparing for five, ten, 15, 24+ hour races or events – the training volume can take up a significant part of your week, your life, and will affect those around you.

    If we don’t back down the volume at least 25 to 40 percent plus every fourth week, we’ll often peak too early or not when we need to. Furthermore, and even more important, is that you can easily enter what I call “the downward spiral of the over-trained state.”

    Often times, if an athlete enters this state, they will have to take a few days, weeks, or in severe cases, months off. We cannot afford this to happen.

    So, if you start to experience an elevated heart rate while resting and/or training; your sleep is disturbed (waking up several times and not sleeping through the night); you experience a general soreness that lingers for no apparent reason; your appetite is off, especially in not being hungry (a real red flag with all of the training volume); you don’t look forward to getting out on your bike; you are more or uncharacteristically irritable; your route times and performance begins to decline instead of getting faster, you need to take action.

    I’ll tell you the one symptom that typically may surface (or you notice) first – you don’t want to get on your bike and ride. All cyclists love to ride their bike, and if you didn’t feel like it today, start soul searching and identify what other “red flags” you may be experiencing. These are all RED FLAGS that we need to pay attention to. If you experience any, notify your coach immediately. I know it sounds cliche, but you must listen to your body. Therefore, if you don’t feel up to riding when you typically can’t wait to, just take the day off. Believe me, you won’t lose anything, and in fact you’ll likely gain more by allowing your body extra rest and recovery. Your body strengthens on days you are off or taking an easy day. This allows muscular repair and cardiovascular break needed to adapt and get stronger.

    NOTE: Todd Parker is a world-renowned fitness industry leader and corporate wellness consultant – consulted by corporations, sports governing bodies, and sports supplement, gear, and apparel companies worldwide. Todd is a former professional triathlete, elite cyclist, personal trainer, strength coach, and professor with a Masters Degree in Exercise Physiology & Human Performance. Todd is also an experienced exercise physiologist, professional bike fitter, certified cycling coach, and endurance sports coach. Reach Todd by email or by visiting his website.

    RELAX… Take Time To Detrain

    by Dr. Erik A. Ward, DC, CCSP, CSCS
    NOVA Pain & Rehab Center

    Time off may not only help you stay fresh, it may help you improve performance

    Have you thought about taking time off recently to rest from exercising? For most people, “taking time off” means doing some type of exercise other than what they normally do each week. In the past, for me, the thought of taking a full week off of all training seemed crazy. “I have worked very hard to attain my fitness level so why would I want to sit back and let things slide??” Many athletes know that taking time off can have an overall benefit in athletic performance, but actually doing it is harder than it sounds. In the sport of cycling, taking time to allow your body to heal or “detrain” is as important as training in many ways.

    Our bodies detrain depressingly fast. Yet, almost all pros have a very specific training regimen and detraining regimen. The good news about detraining is that you have a grace period of about 5 – 7 days days with no real consequences; however, there is too much rest. Look no further than your VO2 max, a measure of your body’s ability to use oxygen, to see the depressing truth. In the first 12 days of inactivity, changes in the heart’s ability to pump blood can cause a seven-percent drop in VO2 max. Another month or two of inactivity will produce a further nine-percent drop as your muscles become less efficient at using oxygen. That is a massive 16 percent in VO2 max in just a few weeks of downtime; that’s the difference between staying in front of the pack and struggling to make the time cut. Worse, in relatively new athletes, any improvements in their VO2 max can be lost in just four weeks. In short, if sitting on a bike produced gains as rapidly as sitting on a couch turns us into couch potatoes, we’d all be riding in the Tour De France next year.

    So if we detrain that quickly and dramatically, why do top pros take time off? Answer: “To stay refreshed. It refreshes your body, mind, soul. It keeps you from burning out.” But that’s not his only reason. Studies shows considerable gains in both speed and endurance in most sports when the athlete takes a week off training every 10 to 12 weeks. You’re not going to peak unless you also take the rest time.

    This is where you might be shaking your head. To explain again, let’s look at VO2 max. That initial seven-percent drop is due to a reduced stroke volume. Stroke volume is the amount of blood your heart can pump with each beat; it is one of the body’s most crucial adaptations to training. Our bodies can improve through training in two ways. The first is to increase our blood volume. This allows the heart to fill with more blood between beats. The second is by increasing the size of the heart. Your heart is like a bellows — a larger bellows can pump more air. That first change is, to simplify, biochemical; the second is structural. All of our training improvements are a mix of biochemical and structural changes. Base training tends to produce structural improvements over years. These changes dictate your overall fitness level. Intense interval work tends to produce bio- chemical enhancements. They create the edge you need to be at your best.

    The rapid detraining explained above is all biochemical. When we look solely at structural changes, such as capillary density, muscle fiber ratios, and the size of our hearts, detraining gets a lot less scary. Many studies have shown no changes even 12 weeks after stopping exercise. More encouraging still, fitness levels, VO2 max, and the body’s structural adaptations can improve year-to-year with proper base work.

    Suddenly, detraining doesn’t seem all that bad. It’s only the biochemical changes that subside quickly, but they can return rapidly — blood volume returns in a matter of weeks. Biochemical improvements are the duct tape of our bodies. They are quick, relatively easy, and surprisingly effective. But to continue the analogy, you wouldn’t want to ride a bike held together with duct tape over the long run. Biochemical changes are a stress on the body. We don’t want to maintain them indefinitely. Try, and you will burn out or your body will respond the way it does to all biochemical stimuli — it will desensitize.

    So in a word, relax. People will freak out that they are losing fitness by the hour. If you’ve built up a proper base, then you’re going to be fine. The biggest challenge for most people is mostly mental. But be assured, taking time to allow your body to heal will give you better endurance, strength and stamina. Wouldn’t life be nice if “taking time off” in most other things had the same positive effect??

    Back Pain & Cycling

    by Dr. Erik A. Ward, DC, CCSP, CSCS
    NOVA Pain & Rehab Center

    Back pain is a common problem in cycling that is seldom discussed. There are many causes of back pain, the most common being an improper bike fit, incorrect riding style, inflexibility and weak core body strength.

    Proper Bike Fit

    Many cyclists ride bikes that are too big for them. Take the time and have your bike fitted to your body.

    Fit Basics

    There is no standard sizing or fit – everyone will be different. The right fit for you will depend on your body geometry and how aggressive you want to ride. To get the right bike fit, you have to do three things:

    • Spend some time riding and testing different set ups. Move the saddle and handle bars into a few different positions. Then try each one with a short ride; this leads to the second thing to do.
    • Pay attention to any aches or pains as you ride. For example, back pain may be caused by leaning too far forward or sitting too high on the saddle.
    • Seek professional help to correctly size your bike if you continue to have pain while riding.

    Riding Style

    A bicycle that fits your riding style is the one that creates the best experience.

    All bikes should fit comfortably, but this priority can be weighed against other objectives. Every choice about fit and riding style has consequences for your cycling experience. For example, the more aerodynamic and “aggressive” style emphasizes speed and efficiency but favors those who can adjust to positions that others will find difficult to maintain over long days in the saddle. In other words, a competitive style may for some become uncomfortable over longer distances or it may not suit those for whom the priority of greater comfort actually increases speed. A slightly more relaxed style adds comfort but compromises some aerodynamic and power efficiency in order to gain endurance and ease. A comfortable style understands speed as a feature of comfort and puts power and efficiency in terms of longer endurance goals.

    Riding style can also lead to back pain if the wrong style is chosen for the rider. Lower back pain may arise in cyclists that push big gears, especially while climbing. The angle of your back in relation to the bike can increase or decrease the strain on your back.


    Most of us take flexibility for granted and generally don’t notice a change in our relative mobility until it’s too late. Flexibility training can help you regain your range of motion, improve cycle performance, and reduce low back pain. Check out these four simple methods for making your muscles more malleable.

    Always warm up

    Before stretching anything, warm up 5-10 minutes to elevate your body temperature. Think of taffy: when it’s cold and you try to bend it, it breaks. But warm it up, and you can fold it like origami. Same with your muscles; when they’re cold, they’re stiff and inflexible, and forcibly stretching them could lead to injury or strains.

    Big to small

    Stretch your largest muscle groups first, such as chest, back, hamstrings, and quads. This will increase blood flow to those areas, including the smaller groups, warming you up and making stretching that much easier.

    Take your time

    Hold each stretch for a minimum of 10 seconds and progressively work your way up to 60 seconds or more if you’ve got the time.

    Just breathe

    Breathe while you stretch. Breathing deeply also helps you to relax, furthering your stretch and therefore your flexibility.

    You want a full range of motion out of your muscles so that you can have more power throughout the entire pedal stroke. Lack of flexibility, such as excessive hamstring and hip flexor tightness, can contribute to lower back pain.

    Core Body Strength

    Core strength is very important in back stability. Most back rehabilitation programs include some type of exercise directed at improving core strength. Core strength is not just your abdominal and back muscles that you can touch or see; it is rather a collection of hundreds of muscles both big and small that collectively work together to give you core stability.

    Back and abdominal muscles are essential components of the muscular network of the spine, helping the body maintain upright posture and movement. When these muscles are well conditioned, back pain can be greatly reduced or avoided in cycling.

    Strong abdominal and gluteal muscles reduce stress on the spine

    Most people don’t know that strong abdominal and gluteal muscles play an important role in avoiding and/or recovering from back problems. Well-conditioned abdominal and glut. muscles decrease stress on the structures of the spine. And unlike muscles in the legs and arms, which get some exercise just from everyday activities, the abdominal / gluteal muscles don’t get much of a workout from daily movements and need specific exercises to stay strong.

    Core Weakness and Leg Length Discrepancies (LLD)

    Weak core muscles can create leg length discrepancy or misalignment of your spine. Leg length discrepancies (LLD) are common and consider that the average person has a LLD of three to six millimeters. Generally, most authorities on bike fit will correct a LLD greater than six millimeters. If this is a problem for you, go to a reputable source who has experience with LLD such as a chiropractor or a sports physician. It is easy to over-correct and cause a back or knee pain that will take you out of the saddle for months.

    Rest Stop in Barlow

    Riders prepare for the start of the 2012 ride from Barlow through the historic Gettysburg Battlefield. Photograph by Richard Rhinehart.