Learning from Tour cyclists

Here we are in July with an array of sports to choose from. Football’s European Championships, Wimbledon, the Olympics starting on the 23rd and three weeks of the Tour de France. It’s only in recent years I’ve got into watching the Tour which is mostly a procession through beautiful French countryside until a final sprint for the line in the last kilometre of a 150-250km race. Occasionally they throw in a short time trial of 30km and of course there are the gruelling climbs of the mountain stages in the Pyrenees and Alps.

With ITV having over four hours live coverage to get through, the adverts are frequently interrupted by some excellent commentary by Ned Boulting and David Millar. They’re joined from time to time by Chris Boardman, who won gold at the Barcelona Olympics at a time when British cycling wasn’t that good. Nicknamed “The Professor” because he’s studied the details, Boardman brings great technical analysis to any broadcast discussing the build of bikes, aerodynamics, streamlined skinsuits, nutrition and tactics among other things. While I’m never going to be a cyclist, I enjoy listening and learning what I can from watching the Tour.

Notice the beauty of of the logo creating a cyclist riding in a tucked position

One of the things I picked up last year was that “fat burns in the light of a carbohydrate flame”. This is a saying which relates to needing some carbohydrates ingested to kickstart the process of fat-burning. Specifically Boardman stated riders will eat 20g of carbohydrate before going out on an early morning ride otherwise they’re burning through their glycogen stores. Certainly I’ve always found my heart-rate is lower (which suggests better fat-burning) after I’ve had breakfast.

I tried experimenting with eating two digestive biscuits before setting out on my long runs. I’d put two on my bedside table ready for the morning then, on waking I’d immediately eat them before getting up, getting my kit on and going straight out for my run. I never saw any notable difference when I did this so I’ve returned to running fasted but having a decent breakfast definitely helps on my workout or race days.

If you want to try it the information about grams of carbohydrates is usually there on the side of the box or packet so take a look. A couple of Weetabix is my go-to breakfast. Not too heavy and the milk helps with hydration.

The other thing I learned is that even when the Tour schedules a rest day, which are the two Mondays in this year’s three week schedule, the riders still go out on it for a two-hour ride. I could barely believe this when I first heard it. After all when you consider the riders are riding hard for the better part of 3,500km (2,200 miles), you’d think they’d jump at the chance of a day off. But, without it, I suppose they’d be almost forty-eight hours without riding.

A little closer inspection of riders’ data shows their rest day ‘recovery rides’ tend to be closer to an hour, maybe stretching out towards ninety minutes. On tour days they’re riding at an average of 40km/h with an average power of over 300W (with the ability to sprint at over 1000W); whereas a recovery day is closer to 25km/h with only 90-130W of effort being put in. It really is an exercise in keeping the legs turning over, flushing out any waste products and providing stimulus for hormonal and nutrient delivery. Unlike runners where the body’s muscular-skeletal system takes a pounding with each step, it’s much easier to cycle for over an hour without any detrimental effect. Nonetheless runners can still use recovery runs as a way to trigger recovery as well as maintain lower aerobic fitness.

Short sprint – No-one’s racing anymore

A few years back, I was going through the preliminaries of ascertaining whether I would be the right coach for a potential client. One of his questions to me was whether I could help him with racing. My reply was that it was something I had no experience of, but fortunately despite this, he still went ahead and took me on as his coach.

It later transpired we’d had different definitions of racing. He’d wanted to know if I could help with what to do on the day of his mass participation marathon race (which I absolutely could) whereas I’d been defining racing as what happens when you’re trying to finish ahead of your fellow competitors. For most people, when they talk about attending a race they’re really talking about a time trial – how quick can they run the distance?

Parkrun is not a race. For starters its insurance doesn’t cover it which is one reason why there are no race numbers or race clocks. Parkrun doesn’t even have a winner, it has a First Finisher, although when I first attended it did, until the nomenclature changed. If you look back to its beginnings, parkrun started as Bushy Park Time Trial then, as other events opened, it became UK Time Trials before rebranding as the friendlier sounding parkrun.

Running doesn’t have any true time trial events like say, cycling where riders go off at intervals of a minute or more and the winner is the one covering the distance in the quickest time. Admittedly when I orienteered it was done against the clock with runners having their own start times. This is a logistical necessity to ensure they don’t all reach the check points at the same time and have to wait to punch their card. But orienteering isn’t a pure running sport, it’s also a test of your ability to navigate, runners go off at intervals to avoid being able to follow someone else.

Typically elite runners do time trials to find out what form they’re in. When it comes to races the goal is simply to finish ahead of the person behind you. Often championship medals are won in times slower than heats especially at longer distances.

Of course there are some (many?) who turn up to parkrun and think they’re racing against others but true racing is a tactical art. It’s about letting your opponents take the breeze, it’s about knowing your strengths, their weaknesses and how to gain an advantage. It’s knowing when to go with the pack and when to let leaders go it alone hoping they’ll burn themselves out. This is the tactical stuff I’ve not got any experience of because I’ve never been good enough to need to learn it. I understand some basic theories as I’ve outlined but I’ve never experienced them. Like almost everybody else, I just run as fast as possible trying to get the best time I can.