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Chris Carmichael’s diary: Recovery at full speed

Sandwiched between the always-nervous first road stage of the Tour and the potentially dangerous third day tomorrow, stage 2 offered the U.S. Postal Service the chance to take it relatively easy. As usual, the team’s instructions were to keep Lance up front and out of trouble, and since that task is going to be a bit more difficult tomorrow, conserving some energy was also an important task for the day. It’s not just the 4km of cobblestones that are a cause for concern in stage 3. The 20km preceding the cobbles are likely to be very fast and combative as riders try to secure positions near

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By Chris Carmichael

Sandwiched between the always-nervous first road stage of the Tour and the potentially dangerous third day tomorrow, stage 2 offered the U.S. Postal Service the chance to take it relatively easy. As usual, the team’s instructions were to keep Lance up front and out of trouble, and since that task is going to be a bit more difficult tomorrow, conserving some energy was also an important task for the day.

It’s not just the 4km of cobblestones that are a cause for concern in stage 3. The 20km preceding the cobbles are likely to be very fast and combative as riders try to secure positions near the front of the peloton. Everyone wants to be among the first 10 riders onto the pavé, and the USPS will do their best to make sure Lance, George Hincapie and Vjatcheslav Ekimov are right up front when the peloton hits the cobbles. Knowing they’re going to have to dig pretty deep tomorrow, and for the following day’s team time trial, riders will do everything possible to improve their recovery tonight.

Optimal recovery begins while you’re still on the bike. Consuming enough food and fluids during the stage drastically improves your ability to recover from today’s efforts and restore the fuel reserves you need for tomorrow. At the Tour de France, racers consume about 45-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour from a combination of foods like PowerBars, PowerGels and carbohydrate-rich sports drinks. Total fluid intake, nearly equally divided between plain water and sports drinks, can be around 1.5 liters per hour on the bike. Getting enough food and drink on the bike delays the onset of fatigue, which reduces the overall amount of stress each stage applies to a rider.

As important as on-bike nutrition is to recovery, a rider’s habits immediately after the stage are just as critical. Generally speaking, more of the “doors” that allow carbohydrate into muscle cells are open in the first 15-60 minutes after exercise than after the first hour. This means your muscles can most efficiently replenish depleted glycogen stores directly after you exercise. If you wait longer, you’ll still replenish your glycogen stores, but it will take longer. When you’re racing, or training day after day, rapid replenishment is best.

Protein has received a lot of attention in post-workout nutrition for its role in enhancing recovery. While protein does play a role in recovery, its action in regard to carbohydrate is to accelerate the replenishment of muscle and liver glycogen; it doesn’t increase the total amount of carbohydrate your body stores. Over the past few years, I’ve reduced the protein content of post-workout meals and recovery drinks (to about a 7:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein), having found the total amount of carbohydrate consumed to be the critical determinant of performance in subsequent days of training or racing.

Lance and his teammates have smoothie machines on the team bus so they can mix up their favorite recovery drinks before they even get back to the hotel. Just like anyone else, each rider responds best to a slightly different mixture, and members of the USPS team know what works best for them. After five successful runs at the Tour de France yellow jersey, post-stage recovery is just one of the things this team has down to a science.

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Chris Carmichael is Lance Armstrong’s coach and author of “Chris Carmichael’s Food For Fitness: Eat Right to Train Right” (July 2004).

©2004, Carmichael Training Systems, Inc.