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How to avoid fading on a long ride

Chris Saunders
24 Dec 2019

We look at the key points to remember to avoid fading on the bike during a long ride

We’ve all been there. When you first start out on a long ride you feel like nothing can stop you. But then, instead of building gradually towards a big grandstand finish, you find your energy and enthusiasm gradually waning until pretty soon, long before you reach the end of your planned route, your legs and your spirit start letting you down.

It’s a problem most cyclists have faced at some point, but with bit of careful planning and some common sense, it’s one you can easily swerve. 

Plan and prepare

First, ‘be prepared,’ says Les Filles Road Racing Team rider Clémence Copie. ‘Do your homework and check the route and weather conditions beforehand. If the wind is favourable for the first half of the ride, for example, remember to keep something in the tank for the return.

'To stay mentally strong during the long miles, break down the route into more easily managed sections. If the weather is set to turn during your ride, make sure you have the right equipment to deal with it.

'Getting either too cold or too hot could cause your body to shut down, so be sure to have adequate clothing and a hydration plan,’ Copie adds. 

Next, you need the right bike set-up, and that means the frame is the right size, the saddle the right height, and the handlebars and cleats are all in the correct position.

On shorter rides you might be able to get away with cutting a few corners, but you’ll pay the price on longer outings where any shortcomings in your equipment will come to the fore very quickly.

This will not only make riding long distances tougher than they need to be, but can also exacerbate any niggling injuries and even lead to new ones.

Build your strength

Deadlift - 3

The best form of injury prevention, and ride preparation, is a well-managed training regime which increases your stamina over time. The best way to do this, according to Nichola Roberts, clinical lead physiotherapist at Six Physio, is slowly.

‘As opposed to massive changes happening on a daily basis, work on small incremental changes week to week,’ Roberts advises.

In other words, don’t expect to jump in the saddle and start knocking out century rides left, right and centre. Sure, some people can do it, but not without months or even years of long, dedicated training sessions. 

There’s no shortcut, but improving your core strength (essentially the trunk of your body both front and back) will increase your overall proficiency and help you thrash out those miles.

So make sure your technique is spot on and you are fully engaging your abdominals. Avoid slouching in the saddle and share out the workload between your glutes (your backside) and quadriceps (your thighs).

It will make the ride more comfortable, and you will feel the extra power – especially over longer distances. There are a number of ways to strengthen your core. Sit-ups, crunches, planks and side planks are all great.

Alternatively, try reverse press-ups. This twist on traditional press-ups is a powerful exercise that blasts your entire core.

Start in the lower part of the traditional press-up position, making sure you keep a flat, strong bodyline by squeezing your glutes and quads, pulling your belly button back up towards your spine.

From there, instead of pushing straight back up, push backwards, almost scraping your nose on the floor as you thrust your butt back towards your heels, until your knees are right angles, while your torso is supported by your outstretched arms. Think sprinter in the blocks.

From there, drive forward so that you’re in the elevated part of a traditional press-up position. When you reach this position stop and lock it in strong. Arresting the movement here is an important part of the exercise.

Then lower yourself down into the starting position (the lower part of a press-up) and repeat, making sure you keep your abs and glutes tight throughout.

Alternatively, look around for yoga or Pilates classes in your local area – both are perfect complementary out-of-the-saddle disciplines for cyclists.

Just ask Sir Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome or Peter Sagan – all three and many more top-level pros use both these fitness philosophies to improve their on-the-road performances.   

Watch what you eat

Bonking – when your body hits what runners call the wall –is generally defined as extreme fatigue caused by low blood sugar and/or dehydration.

To help stave off the threat, make sure you fuel and hydrate properly. We’re always banging on about how you should pay proper attention to your diet – and with good reason. It’s a big part of the battle and a fight that’s easily won too if you steer clear of stuff you know is bad for you.

You just need to ensure you have a good balance of carbs and protein as well as essential vitamins and nutrients all the time, not just while you are riding. 

During heavy exercise, however, what you consume becomes doubly important. As your body tears through its glycogen (essentially energy) stores you need to replenish them as quickly and efficiently as possible by getting carbs into your system.

This can be achieved through energy bars, gels, and earlier on in the ride through more substantial whole food that you can store in your jersey pocket and eat on the move such as bananas or a bag of dried fruit.

Exactly what you eat is largely a matter of personal preference, but a long ride isn’t the time to attempt to broaden your culinary horizons, so stick to the tried and tested.

‘Drink and eat little and often,’ is the advice of Clémence Copie. ‘That means before, as well as during the ride. Make sure you eat something about an hour before you set off and keep taking on fluids leading up to the start.

'Then, make sure you eat and drink regularly, at least every 30 minutes, for the duration of the ride. If you wait until you are hungry or thirsty before you eat or drink, then it’s already too late.

'Personally, I try to stick to “real food”, especially before or early on in the ride, as gels can be hard to digest and cause stomach issues. On top of that, sugars can cause energy spikes, leaving you feeling drained afterwards.’ 

Fuel your muscles

La Fausto Coppi Food- Geoff Waugh

Tom Lawson, founder and CEO of Stealth Nutrition, adds, ‘At low intensities, fat can provide most if not all of the limited energy required to fuel the muscles.

'But as the intensity increases, the energy demands become more significant and the body relies more upon carbohydrates.

'Absolute fat usage will at first increase more or less linearly with intensity, but then rates of increase will fall as carbs kick in to top up the energy requirement.

'Crucially, there then comes a level of intensity where fat burning tops out (known as “fatmax”) and starts to decrease in absolute terms, not just as a percentage of the total.

'A great tip if you are riding long distances is to always take more food than you think you will need, just in case you get stuck somewhere and you need an extra boost to get you home.’

Remember to carb-load the night before, too. A big bowl of pasta should do it, and take on some porridge for breakfast because it will provide you with plenty of slow-release energy for some considerable time after you eat it.

As for hydration, aim to drink between one and two bottles an hour depending on the temperature and the effort.

That works out at between 500ml and 875ml. Sweating is your body’s natural way of cooling down as you become overheated.

As you sweat your excrete vital electrolytes – in particular minerals such as sodium. To replenish them make sure one of those two bottles of fluid isn’t just plain water but is rich in electrolytes by popping an effervescent, electrolyte-rich tablet into your H2O.

Whatever you do, don’t expend too much energy too fast, and try to employ some kind of psychological pacing strategy throughout, too.

For example, work out roughly where you want to be at certain key points on the ride, and adjust your speed (and the effort you put in) accordingly.

Be good to your bike

It’s not just you that needs looking after either but your bike, too and Nick Davie, brand manager at Madison, has some practical advice which could, quite literally, stop your wheels coming off.

‘Always ensure that you are using the right chain lubricant. For instance, if it’s a long, dry ride, you should use ceramic wax lube, whereas if it’s raining, wet lube is your best bet,' he says.

'Lubricating your chain is even more important on long rides to keep the bike performing smoothly. If you do have a mechanical mishap, make sure you have a decent multi-tool with you, too, as you never know what may happen.

'Another piece of kit I recommend is the Wheels Manufacturing Emergency Derailleur Hanger (£17.99, madison.co.uk), which will get you home should you break your hanger when riding.’ 

The wisdom with the bike then is the same as with the body – keep it in the best nick possible and you’ll beat the road every time.

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