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Balancing your bike training with — well, everything else

Unless you get paid to ride your bike, there inevitably comes a time when life’s little complications get in the way of training and racing. Safe to say the last few weeks have been complicated.

First came a ski-endurance event called the Arapahoe Basin Enduro. I won’t bore you with all the details — and yes, I choose to do this — but the nuts and bolts is that 30 teams of two spent 10 hours on a chilly Wednesday skiing the 20 runs beneath the resort’s expert-rated Pallavicini lift. Whoever does the most runs wins. All proceeds go to charity.

For the record my brother-in-law Mike and I tallied a respectable 53 runs — and stopped for a cheeseburger lunch. The winners — a pair of ski patrollers — ran up 69 and definitely did not stop for lunch. It’s also worth noting that we ducked into the woods to go to the bathroom, while the winners utilized a different strategy

The following days included the expected soreness that accompany packing three ski days into one, and by the next weekend’s two bike races in Colorado Springs, I was cooked. Afterwards I had a quick sit-down with my coach, Neal Henderson, to figure out what the impact of burying myself on the skis actually had on my two-wheeled pursuits.

As expected he informed me that it definitely yielded no positive impact on fitness, and probably hurt my short term performance. No argument there, as the two races I did — a crit and road circuit race — went something like this: start, pedal, redline, pop, crack, individual time trial, limp across finish line.

But in the bigger picture, Coach explained, unless I’m getting paid to ride my bike, which I definitely am not, doing things other than training — and obsessing about training — is a good thing even if it means getting spit out the back in a few Cat. 4 races.

“As long as you don’t hurt yourself it’s not a real problem,” Henderson explained. “The biggest concern when doing alternative activities is to make sure you don’t get hurt. Beyond that, it’s all about balance in life. If you remove all the fun things then you’ll become one-dimensional.”

Now if you are getting paid to race your bike, being one-dimensional is not entirely a bad thing. Single-mindedness is typically a good trait in professional athletes, and Henderson coaches plenty of riders who’d get fired by their team director if they showed up for a ski enduro. Instead, he instructs his professional clients to write down a list of things they want to do in the offseason, and then make sure they check a few of those items off that list when the season ends.

This week’s other prime topic of discussion was what was to do when you can’t ride your bike, as is the case as I write this little diatribe. Work covering the Tour de Georgia has taken me on the road and while you’d think it’s be easy to ride a bike at a bike race, that never seems to be the case for us media types. Instead it’s a steady diet of questionable hotels, marginal sleep, greasy-spoon dinners and one too many beers. One of the keys to surviving these little adventures, Coach tells me, is not to try to do too much before you head out on the road.

“A big mistake that a lot of people make is to drill themselves before they travel,” said Henderson. “People will kill themselves one day, and then get up at the crack of dawn, not eat well, and generally do a lot of things that impair recovery. Well, the immune system is affected when you work really hard, meaning you’re a time bomb for getting sick when you’re in places where there is more potential for illness — like the inside of an airplane.”

To make this point, Coach pointed to a study that looked at runners in the Boston Marathon who contested the annual Patriot’s Day race, then immediately hopped on a plane and headed home. According to the study, those people were 40 percent more likely to get an upper respiratory tract infection then those who rested for a day and then went home.

“If you have to travel right away, remember to pound the fluids and take in plenty of carbohydrates,” Henderson instructed. “But the best thing is to leave some time for recovery the day before you travel.”

The other obvious issue is how much fitness you lose when traveling. There’s obviously no hard-and-fast formula, but the general rule of thumb is that the fitter you are going in, the longer it will take to lose fitness.

“The less fitness you have coming in, the quicker it starts to go away,” added Henderson. “But you lose more fitness on the high end than at low end, and generally most people won’t see real negative impacts until they’ve taken a week off, and even some basic maintenance can help prevent too much loss. That can be everything from running to doing laps up and down the hotel stairs.”

Well as luck would have it, the first hotel I stayed in here in Georgia didn’t have an elevator.

Now to this week’s Coach Neal Q&A. It was a pretty light week, so get those questions rolling in for the next column. If you’d like to ask Henderson a question, please send e-mail to CoachNealQandA@gmail.com.


Hi Neal,
I am a 27-year-old, 143-pound, cat. 4 focusing on bike racing after spending the past four seasons doing triathlon. My training system I have adopted is heartrate based, typically riding 7-10 hours a week. I have long known since running in high school that my heart rate is high while waiting on the start line before races. I have competed in over 20 triathlons, close to 100 5k’s and 10k’s, and a handful of bike races. I thought the more I competed the more calm I would be at the start line, but this has never happened.

My resting heart rate in the morning is around 53-56, and walking around heart rate is 70-80. However at the start line of races, and now when I go to my local Wednesday night crit, my heart rate is routinely in the 170’s before I even pedal. When I am on longer rides on the weekend it is in the 140-150 range until I see someone off in the distance that I am catching. Then my heart rate always goes up about 10-14 beats. I’ve checked my speed to make sure it is not due to going faster, but no matter what my heart rate always goes north. I wonder if I should just embrace it and go with it or try some on-the-bike relaxation techniques.
—Andrew Harrington
Flagstaff, Arizona

This is not unheard of. A lot of people have some degree of anxiety. If you’re not nervous before a race, something is wrong, so having a little bit of nervous energy and elevated nervous response is not a bad thing. But the elevation in heart rate you’re having is pretty extreme. I would recommend some very specific mental training. It’s just like the physical training you do. There are things you can do before the race to get yourself in a more calm state. Self talk, visualization and mental rehearsals could all help, and not just on the morning of the race, but consistently.

On off days from training try spending a few minutes just being quiet and go through your pre-race routine. Maybe even watch the start of a race and try to talk yourself through the start like you were there. You could even get a friend to video tape you at the start of a race so you could try to go back and insert better thoughts. With mental training a lot of people will just give up and say, ‘I don’t have it.’ Well, that’s like giving up on going fast up a hill. You have to do things to change patterns. It takes mental training to gain confidence.

Editor’s Note: Jason Sumner is a 37-year-old, 168-pound freelance writer and Cat. 4 bike racer who is working with a cycling coach for the first time in his life. Sumner underwent a full battery of lab tests at the beginning of the season, producing a 250-watt lactate threshold, a 3.2 watts per kilogram score and a VO2 max of 51.5. His 2008 goals include improving on his usual mid-pack finishes, not getting dropped on the weekend group rides, and learning something along the way. He’ll be documenting his experiences for VeloNews.com in this twice-monthly column.

Neal Henderson is sports science manager at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine and a well-regarded elite-level coach. Henderson’s clients include Slipstream-Chipotle’s Taylor Phinney, Jelly Belly’s Scott Tietzel and Trish Downing, a nationally ranked paraplegic athlete. Henderson is also the winter triathlon coach for the U.S. national triathlon team, and was recently named USA Cycling National Development Coach of the Year. He is working with Jason Sumner on a pro bono basis.

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