7 Steps to achieve better race results this weekend (without changing anything in your training)

1. Sleep more and better

We all know that our bodies recover, and hopefully adapt to a better condition, during rest and recovery. That implies that most of your recovery will take place during your sleep. But how much does a good or a bad nights’ sleep influence your recovery or performance the next day?

According to the National Sleep Foundation,

“Some research suggests that sleep deprivation increases levels of stress hormone, cortisol. Sleep deprivation has also been seen to decrease production of glycogen and carbohydrates that are stored for energy use during physical activity. In short, less sleep increases the possibility of fatigue, low energy, and poor focus at game time. It may also slow recovery post-game.

REM sleep in particular provides energy to both the brain and body. If sleep is cut short, the body doesn’t have time to repair memory, consolidate memory, and release hormones.”

(The National Sleep Foundation is dedicated to improving health and well-being through sleep education and advocacy. Founded in 1990 by the leaders in sleep medicine, NSF is the trusted resource for sleep science, healthy sleep habits, and sleep disorders to medical professionals, patients and the public. Find out more at www.sleepfoundation.org)

In articles posted by Yann Le Meur, a highly rated sports scientist, he states that athletes who sleeps less than 8 hours per night, have a 1,7 times greater risk of injuries than athletes who get more than 8 hours of shut eye. He also states that insufficient sleep, or interrupted sleep, can have substantial negative effects on our bodies’ immune systems. Which implies that if you do not sleep enough, you are more likely to get sick.

2. Work out your race strategy

Do you know the course of your race? Do you know where the water points will be, or on what side the technical zone is? How much water or drinks will you carry before you need more? Whom of your competitors will be racing, and how are you going to outsmart them?

Arriving at a race, not having a plan, adds to the uncertainty and anxiety experienced by many cyclists. Find out as much as you can about the route, the route profile, where the water points will be, the total distance. The more you know about the route, the better you can plan your race. Print a profile of the route, laminate it and tie it to your handle bars. That way you know what to expect, where you can perhaps attack, or where your main competition could launch an attack. You will also know when you want to take on a fresh bottle or top up.

Having a strategy or a plan gives us confidence. We know what to expect, and we know what we are going to do about it. It is terrible to be in the 4th hour of a race, and you don’t know how far to the finish you are, or if there are any more hills left. Or you run out of drinks, and you don’t know how far the next water point is.

3. Improve your tactics

Is it raining on the morning of your race? Or is there a strong headwind going into the first climb? Is there a tight left turn right after the start, followed by a steep, single file climb?

Tactical thinking can help you finish better, because you learn how to read the race, and respond in a way that benefits you. You might be getting tired, and your main rivals look fresher. Therefore you might want to push a little extra to get into the single track ahead of them. Why? If it is difficult to pass in the single track, and you are in front, you dictate the pace. So you could actually slow down a bit and recover to be fresher later.

On a Cross Country race, go and look at the course. Look at alternative lines through difficult sections, so you could effect a surprise pass on someone where they don’t expect it. Or you avoid being stuck by someone who had to stop and dismount.

How fast can you change a wheel or repair a puncture? Which side of your bike do you need to dismount in the technical zone in such a case? On which side do you take on a fresh bottle?

These are all tactical options that can help you finish better. Work on it, think about it. Not only do you save time. You also save the energy you need to chase down somebody that was tactically smarter than you, and you end up having catch up to them because you were not so smart.

4. Bike preparation and setup

Do you know the ideal tyre pressures for your event? Are you comfortable on your bike, or do you suffer from lower back pain, or burning feet? Does your bike shift smoothly and accurately through the gears? Are your brakes effective and progressive?

Small setup changes in your bike can have substantial effects on your performance. If you are not comfortable on the bike, you will start to suffer at some point. Get some professional help, especially with regards to seat height, fore and aft position of the saddle, the angle of the levers on the handle bar, and cleat position.

Learn as much of the technicalities of your bike as you possibly can, so you understand what each component does and what to do if you encounter a problem during a race. Preventative maintenance is the best way to ensure your bike will not let you down in your race. Make sure you clean your bike regularly and properly, and lube it sufficiently afterwards. And don’t forget to take it for a test ride to ensure everything works well.

Learn how to ride your bike efficiently. You could lose places because you did not shift at the right moment, or you crashed because you applied the brakes too much. If you are not confident on the bike, get some instruction on technical skills. It can transform your riding.

5. Learn about effective nutrition

Carbo load? How many scoops of powder in your bottle? What is carbohydrates and proteins? What do they do? Why do I need a recovery drink?

Do you know that our bodies can only metabolize up to 6-8 grams of carbohydrate per kg body weight? Did you know our bodies can store only enough energy for up to 1,5hrs of vigorous exercise or completion?

Let’s simplify it. Generally speaking, you should have a carbohydrate rich meal 2 hours before your race start. That could be oats with honey and a banana. Or it could be pasta with vegetables and some fruit. Do not complicate it! Between then and the start of your race you could sip on a bottle with diluted energy drink, just to keep you topped up. Start your race with a full bottle of energy drink, and a bottle of water. You should have enough energy stored for the next hour, so the one bottle will be just to keep the energy stores topped up.

Many cyclists make the mistake of not eating a good meal 2 hours before the event (either they don’t eat enough, or they eat too close to the start), and then they try to take in too much energy drinks and gels right before the start. That is a complete waste. There is no point in drinking a bottle full of energy drink, and squeeze a gel right before the start. Simply too much for your body to metabolize.

Try to eat simple foods, like raisons, dates, bananas, and drink lots of water.

Read the labels on the packaging of energy drinks and gels, and familiarise yourself with what you consume. You are probably eating and drinking too much of the stuff (and wasting money also!)

6. Improve your warm up

Many cyclists do not perform a warm up before a race. They argue that they will warm up as they start racing. Truth is, you cannot expect your body to perform at maximum effort from a cold start.

(The section below is referenced from the British Cycling website. See more at www.britishcycling.org.uk)

According to Dr Andy Kirkland, a Coaching and Education Officer at British Cycling and a BASES accredited sports scientist, warming up is essential to prepare your body and mind to perform at its very best, especially when you are facing a hard effort such as a race or an interval session. Not doing so will normally compromise your performance.

“A warm-up results in a number of physiological responses that are essential for optimal performance. A good analogy is allowing your car engine to warm-up on a cold day. Fuel and oil become more viscous and flows better. Moving parts glide past each other more smoothly and the whole engine performs far more efficiently than if you’d just pressed the accelerator to the floor immediately.

Having a planned warm-up routine will also help you prepare mentally for your race or training session. Ideally, you should be relatively relaxed and focused on the task in hand rather than worrying about what the competition is doing.“

How long?

Your warm up depends on the type of race. Generally speaking, the shorter and harder the event, the longer the warm up needs to be. My personal view is that a warm up should be at least 20 to 30 min, or even longer. Start with easy pedalling, building the tempo first, and not the load. You want to be spinning the pedals and ramping up the cadence until your body starts “waking up”. Then, after 5 minutes, you gradually increase the load, always keeping a fast cadence. You increase the load every 2 to 3 minutes, maintaining a fast cadence (100 rpm), until you are working at approximately 80% of your max HR. Recover then with light fast pedalling, and light load for 3 minutes, at around 50 – 60% of max HR. Increase the load again, as before, until you reach the 80% HR again. Then do 3 x 20 sec max effort sprints, with 1 minute rest in between, and a cool down of 3 minutes. This will take approximately 25 minutes to complete, and you should be ready to race!

7. Arrive prepared

Preparing for your race should not only focus on your fitness, your nutrition and your bike. We all have busy lives and full schedules. It often happens that we forget things, or forget to do things. Planning ahead for your race day or weekend will take away a lot of the anxiety associated with a race. Make a checklist for your race, and include entry, clothing, bottles, food, directions to the event, zip ties and the like. Make sure you include all the items and activities needed, and have a system where you can confirm that it is done, i.e. “ticking off” the items. That way you know you are well prepared, and you can focus on your race. Anxiety or stress will have a negative impact on your performance. You don’t want to be sitting in the car on the way to your race, and you wonder if you packed your shoes. Or you get lost on the way, because you did not confirm exactly where the event is taking place.

Article written by Marcel van der Poll, founder of Veloworld, and a UCI accredited Level 2 Mountain Bike coach. Find more at www.veloworldza.com, or @VeloWorldZa on Twitter.

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