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Preparing for your first cycling race

Michael Donlevy
19 Jun 2018

If you want to take part in a competitive bike race, and we don't mean a sportive, here's the Cyclist guide on how to do just that

The nerves are jangling and you have a slightly sick feeling in the pit of your stomach. You’re about to take part in your first race. The problem is it’s still a week away, so what on earth are you going to be like on the big day?

Don’t panic. Our experts can guide you through the build-up and offer advice on what you should be doing the week before and on the day of the race, during the race itself and once you’ve crossed the finish line to ensure the experience is as enjoyable – and successful – as possible.

The week before the race

The fact is you can’t get fitter in a week, so you have to trust that you’ve put the hard work in. What you can do is stay sharp.

'The week before the race is about making sure you arrive fresh and confident on race day,' says coach Paul Butler.

'Maintain frequency but do fewer hours and fewer, shorter hard efforts than usual. Don’t do a century ride the day before!'

Nutrition is vital, but don’t be tempted to gorge on carbs.

'Most people go overboard, even for long events,' says nutritionist Mayur Ranchordas.

'Maintain a good, balanced diet and graze on high-quality, unprocessed carbs, healthy fats and protein. As you cut back training your body will store more energy as glycogen, so eat normally and you won’t have the heavy bloated feeling many people have after carb loading.'

Then you need to make sure you’re rehydrating after exercise.

'Weigh yourself before and after training so you know how much fluid you lose. Immediate weight loss is almost entirely dehydration,' says Ranchordas.

'Drink two litres of water the day before the race. That’s your daily requirement plus a bit extra.'

The chances are you drink coffee, too – you’re a cyclist, and caffeine has its benefits.

'Athletes adapt to caffeine, though – the more you have, the less the benefit,' Ranchordas adds.

'One way round that is to stop having it four or five days before a race, then reintegrate it on race day. You’ll get a greater benefit when you need it.'

You want your body to feel fresh, and having a massage can help.

'Exercise causes microdamage to the tissues and massage aids recovery by helping blood reach these areas,' says Ian Holmes, formerly soigneur for Madison Genesis.

'Pre-event massage is more appropriate for short, explosive events, but regular weekly massage is good to identify potential soft tissue problems – this helps to prevent overuse injuries and fatigue.'

Finally, there’s your kit to consider.

'Pre-race is an important time to assess the safety of your bike,' says coach Ric Stern. 'Check your brakes, headset, gears, bars, tyres, wheel rims, saddle and bottom bracket to make sure they’re fit for purpose.'

The day of the race

'What you eat for breakfast will depend on what time your race starts,' says Ranchordas. 'Porridge with fruit will give you a mix of slow and fast-acting carbohydrate, but if you don’t have time for a full meal have a banana and a rice cake to keep energy levels topped up.

'Have a coffee or two and drink plenty of water but not so much that you feel bloated or uncomfortable. This is something you will hopefully have practised during training.'

Likewise your warm-up. 'I start an hour before the race,' says Butler. 'As a rule, the shorter the race, the longer the warm up.

'I do it on the course if I can and rollers if not, and the warm-up should reflect the demands of the race. If it’s a time-trial I’d gradually increase the intensity until I’m riding for a least a few minutes at my target pace.

'Then stay warm and change any clothes if they’re sweaty.'

Oh, and one last thing: 'Always go to the toilet,' says Stern.

'Spending two or three hours in a race while needing to pee is no fun, and unlike the pros most of us aren’t fit enough to be able to stop and then chase back.'

The race

'I prefer to be near the front or near the back in a crit or road race – not in the middle, basically – and I always choose the left side,' says Stern.

'Learn to clip in to your pedals very quickly, and then accelerate fairly hard to find a space so you can see what’s happening.

'Leave some space and keep your fingers feathering the brakes. Sit slightly to the side so that if the rider in front slows you won’t hit their rear wheel.'

You’ll be working hard, so will need to refuel in any race that lasts longer than an hour.

'Use energy gels but be specific,' says Ranchordas. 'In a longer race or sportive take one gel after 45-60 minutes and one every 30-40 minutes after that.

'You shouldn’t need gels for shorter races – fuel before with real food. And don’t take a gel in the last 15 minutes, because you won’t gain the full benefits until after you’ve crossed the line. Fuel well before the race and in the first two-thirds.

'A couple of drinks bottles are well worth the extra weight, especially if you fill them with an isotonic sports drink to replace lost salt and electrolytes, and make use of any feed zones, even if you don’t feel particularly hot or hungry.'

You will probably struggle at some stage. Use the crowd if there is one, or visualise one if there isn’t.

'It boosts your morale when people see you doing well,' says Butler. 'You can also be motivated by the fear of failure. If you’re really struggling say to yourself, "I’m not going to let them see me getting dropped."

'Or count down from 30 to one before giving in. You always have another 30 seconds in you.'

Post-race recovery

You’ve crossed the finish line – well done! Now try not to collapse because you still have a few things to do.

Firstly, you need to warm down.

'Ten minutes of easy pedalling should do it,' says Butler. 'Do it as soon as you can or you won’t feel like doing it. Physiologically, it flushes out waste products from your muscles, which in turn speeds up recovery.'

'Stretch as soon as you get off the bike, while the muscles are still warm,' says Holmes. 'Tiny sections of muscle remain contracted and stretching helps iron these out.'

Don’t panic if you can’t get a massage straight away.

'Athletes often have it on a Monday after a race on Sunday,' Holmes adds. 'They might be a bit sore on Tuesday but will be OK by Wednesday.'

You’ll probably be hungry, too. Happily, you will have the rest of the day to eat and drink, starting now.

'Weight in kilos is the same as fluid in litres, so if you lose 60g that’s equivalent to 60ml. But to stay topped up replace at one-and-a-half times fluid loss, so in this case take on 90ml,' says Ranchordas.

'Have an isotonic drink immediately afterwards to recover your muscle and liver glycogen. Then have some high-GI carbs – 1g per kilogram of bodyweight – which you can put into a smoothie.

'Try to eat something within two hours of the finish and make sure it contains protein to help repair your muscles.'

Post-race, you’ll be shattered, says Stern. 'Break your recovery down into short, medium and long-term goals.

'In the short term, relax and recover, in the medium term, do something that will help you both recover and aid your training, but give you a different objective: an off-road race or cycling holiday.

'Your long-term goal may be to do the same race in a year and beat your PB, but you have plenty of time to work towards that.'

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