June 14, 2010

Recovering

I was pedalling at a consistently higher tempo on the stationary trainer but my heart rate was not increasing at the same rate as three weeks before. Tired from one of the toughest races I have ridden, my heart no longer responded quickly to stimulus. Three weeks of weather extremes, challenging and varied courses, intense racing and nonstop travel were draining. Electronic music, blasting through my headphones and blocking out the noise of the whirling trainer, got my mind racing but failed to stimulate my legs. They ached as the pressure increased. My warm-up complete, I stepped off the trainer knowing the final time trial of the Giro d’Italia wouldn’t be an easy one.

Grand Tours are unique in every sense. No other sporting event is as taxing physically and mentally. During the three weeks we rarely relax as the pace of our lives is relentless. We seem to be in constant movement as we are never in one place long enough to fully unpack a suitcase or feel remotely settled.

The team lives in a bubble blown around the race environment. Stage numbers replace days of the week. Results pages replace newspapers. The race moves around the countryside as one. We escape the bubble momentarily when we walk outside the hotels in the evenings, step in a store, or turn on the television at night to catch a few minutes of the news. But, our thoughts never really leave the race. There’s always an imminent goal.

Then the tour ends and our bodies shut down. Accustomed to the rhythm and tempo of the race we learn to persist, and cope, mentally and physically within the race structure. Once that pressure is released an tiredness takes over. The week after the finish, I feel an overwhelming lethargy. Each step I take through town, or up a flight of stairs, seems laborious in comparison to the thousands of kilometres ridden in Italy.

To recover and rebound to a higher level, I let my body rest and eat well. I ride intermittently during the week following the race, to keep from completely shutting down. The rides are at a tourist’s speed and just as short. Afternoons become nap time.

A coach once suggested that I base my training on the mathematical sequence by the Italian mathematician Fibonacci (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fibonacci). If applied to training two days of hard training would require one day of recovery. Following the sequence, 21 days of stimulus requires thirteen days of recovery. From experience, I know it requires at least ten days for the body to regain its normal rhythm and for the desire to ride to return.

A Grand Tour etches the body. Friends who I haven’t seen in a month comment on my weight loss and the dark brown tan line. Like a tattooed punk, a fit professional cyclist looks out of place in a crowd of townspeople.

Racing reaches levels unobtainable in training. If a cyclist recovers carefully from a grand tour, he will be rewarded his finest form. The extremes of the race mentally and physically, make cyclists comfortable with the abnormal.

The rest worked. Nearly two weeks after the race, I can feel the power I’ve gained in my pedal stroke. The return of the sensation of flight is the moment to resume training with consistency and intensity.

The effects of a Grand Tour are sweeping. Efforts can be sustained for longer periods, climbs seem shorter and shallower and the bike moves in harmony with the body. With so many hours spent in the saddle in a period of a few weeks, it is on the bike that a fit cyclist feels most comfortable. In any other realm, we again feel displaced.

And, it is during the rebound in fitness that I will specify my training again to ensure it is pointed towards the next objectives. For a week, I will train in the Alps and then Pyrenees with two teammates to ride the key Tour de France stages. It will be a week, where we will rediscover the routine and almost singular focus of the cyclist’s life.