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To peak or not to peak — and why our bodies can fool us

Our bodies were not made to ride bikes, so they often fool us when it comes to how we think we feel

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“Peaking is one of the first symptoms of burnout,” and, “If you do a recovery week right, you’ll finish it feeling tired.”

These are two things I like to tell my new athletes. I then wait for a confused look that says, “How much am I paying you?” But almost anyone who has experienced a big training camp, or a burnout, can tell you that these concepts, as counterintuitive as they might sound, ring true.

As Todd Wells, a multiple U.S. national cyclocross and cross-country champion explained it, “Say I’ve been training a lot and I take a few days off; I always feel super tired.” It’s almost as if our bodies try to fool us and signal the opposite of what’s truly going on. But understanding why our bodies behave this way is the key to mapping out a season, keeping your training on track, and peaking for a big race.

The fact is, our bodies weren’t designed to ride bicycles. Our bodies were designed to gather food and run away from lions. Yes, that’s a simplification, but it’s also a great way to understand some complex physiology. When we are going hard on the bike, our bodies aren’t saying, “Hey, I’m winning the race!” Our bodies are saying, “Man, I’m running away from a big lion!” Epinephrine gets pumped into the blood stream, and our fight-or-flight instinct kicks in. This is why blood gets shunted from our guts to our muscles. Our bodies are more concerned with being digested than digesting.

During a big training block or stage race, your body doesn’t know that you’re training; it, quite naturally, thinks you’re running away from a predator. The body’s response in this situation is intuitive — this is not a time to tell you how much your body is hurting. This is a time to keep you functioning at your best and avoid being eaten. So, it increases your body’s fight-or-flight hormones and natural painkillers, catecholamines and cortisol. This is the essence of a peak. You really aren’t that much stronger, you just can’t feel how much it really hurts.

Your body’s natural painkillers are remarkably effective at keeping you going. “It’s amazing how much stress, physically, your body can handle,” Wells said. But there is a price to pay.

Our natural painkillers are catabolic, which means they inhibit the body’s ability to repair muscle tissue. You may be feeling no pain and setting new Strava records, but you are doing damage, and it’s accumulating. If you’ve had a burnout, you may remember feeling amazing for the few weeks before it started. The painkillers were flowing. The first thing you probably noticed was an inability to go hard anymore. Your muscles had become too damaged, despite the masked pain. If it was full-blown burnout, you entered adrenal fatigue. Your body lost the ability to produce even normal levels of cortisol and catecholamines, and you felt awful.

Fortunately, recovery lets you repair the damage, but there is a price. I have had athletes call me absolutely livid after a rest week.

“I was flying a week ago, now I can barely ride. What did you do to me?” As Wells explained it, “It’s almost like your body has been plugging along and once you give it the break that it needs, it shuts down and really recovers, whereas otherwise it just tries to maintain and keep up with things.”

Since they are catabolic, the painkillers have to be cleared to truly repair muscle damage. When you take a rest, your body says, “Great, the lions are gone,” and the painkillers get sucked back up. But this also means that you feel every last bit of damage and fatigue your body was so effectively hiding from you. When you get back on the bike, you feel lousy. This is why Tour athletes ride on the recovery days. They need to keep the painkillers flowing or the lions will get the better of them on the next stage.

Using your natural painkillers

Our natural painkillers can fool us, so we can’t always trust how we feel. We have to find other ways to recognize what’s really going on. The best indicator is to know what you did over the last few weeks. If you have trained hard and start to feel good, you know the painkillers are flowing. Likewise, if you rest after a big block or race, expect to feel bad. Another thing to watch is your heart rate. A depressed training heart rate is a sign of early adrenal fatigue. Monitor your morning heart rate and fatigue levels as well. Our bodies try to repair at night and we get the truest sense of how we really feel when we wake in the mornings.

Combine hard training with meaningful rest

We need time off the bike to clear the painkillers and let the body rebuild. Take a rest after a big week or race — the bigger the training block, the bigger the rest.

Wells describes this combination of hard training followed by a rest as “getting a bounce.” “There are times when I don’t have any races coming up, so even though I am fatigued, I can push through, over-train a bit and when I recover I get a bigger benefit than had I just plugged along without accumulating too much fatigue,” he said.

Peaking starts with over reaching

Most riders know that to peak, they must taper before a key event, but without a big training block beforehand, a taper is just detraining. About three to four weeks before a big race, it is critical to do a hard training block and get the painkillers flowing.

“You see guys who race the world championships in September,” Wells said. “A lot of the best ones finish the Vuelta a week or two beforehand. You wouldn’t think racing as hard as you can for three weeks in a row soon before your biggest event would pay off… but it gives a bounce.”

Peaking ends with a combination of intensity and rest

Painkillers allow us to push ourselves, but muscle damage is a limiting factor. A proper taper can give us the best of both worlds: free flowing painkillers combined with minimal muscle damage. About a week or two before a key event, reduce your volume, but keep the intensity high. The intensity ensures that the painkillers are flowing, but the decreased volume allows for a fair amount of muscle repair.

You can’t make a peak last

When you are at your best, you have a limited amount of time before your reduced ability to repair damaged muscles catches up with you.

“I feel like I can have some pretty good fitness for four to six weeks, based on a good build and having some rest,” Wells said. “But if I have six weekends in a row of races, I can’t sustain that.”

Try to peak within a week or two of a key event — then rest as soon as it ends. If you find you’re flying four or more weeks before your target, avoid trying to sustain it. Take a short three or four day rest to clear some of the painkillers and then get back on schedule.

Be prepared for recovery weeks and time them well
“When I take a couple days off after I’ve trained quite a bit, I know that I’m going to feel sluggish afterwards, so it’s just something that I’m prepared to deal with mentally,” Wells said.

But never take a full rest week before a big event. My first year as a coach, I had an athlete take four days off before a race. It was a race he could have won. He didn’t survive the first lap. We need the painkillers to race our best.

Putting it all together: Timing your build

Manipulating your painkillers can allow a very precise build to a key event. As Wells said, “For me, it’s a two-month build up and I try to get it within a week… If it’s the optimal situation, I like to take a short break, six or seven days off or super-easy. Then a couple weeks overtraining with big volume, then a couple weeks of intensity, then a little rest and hit the target event.”

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of Velo magazine.