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How the time of day can affect your training for the better, and the worse

Michael Donlevy
15 Nov 2020

Different cycling training sessions can be more or less effective at different times of the day

Some habits, such as cycling, are good. Others, such as sticking to the same routine day in, day out are bad – and can hinder cycling performance. Our bodies are better at doing certain things at different times of the day, and that includes the sessions that make up our training regimes.

And with us spending more time at home recently, the chances are we are probably riding more often than usual - albeit through shorter rides and closer to home - and also riding at different times of the day, too.

What you eat and when will also have a big impact on performance and recovery, so we’ve roped in coach Will Newton and nutritionist Mayur Ranchordas to offer advice on what sessions to do when, and how to fuel them.

With current circumstances, we appreciate that there may be questions surrounding how far and how long you should ride; Cyclist Editor Pete Muir has laid out his recommendations here.

The morning ride

‘Morning is the perfect time for low-level endurance training,’ says Newton. ‘Everything’s cold – crucially muscles – so this sort of training is effectively an extended wake-up.

'It will warm your muscles up gently and won’t overload your cardiovascular system. Be disciplined in your pacing and don’t try to smash it. You’ll also probably still have a foggy head so this isn’t the best time to be smashing out intervals.’

Here’s how to prepare for it, starting the night before your ride…

19:00

If you’re cycling in a fasted state you should eat a normal meal the night before, making sure you take on protein and plenty of veg.

‘Carb intake does depend slightly on your session,’ says Ranchordas. ‘If for example you’re working shifts, have limited time and are planning a medium-intensity session, increase your carb intake so you’re well fuelled.

‘Consume no more than 20g of carbs if you want to burn more fat, but increase that to 50-75g if you plan a medium-intensity session,’ he adds.

06:00-07:00

Drink water or coffee if you plan to ride fasted. ‘Caffeine before a fasted ride enhances fat utilisation,’ says Ranchordas.

He adds that elite athletes tend to avoid training fasted, which is a lead you can follow if you want to up the pace.

‘They eat protein in the morning to preserve lean tissue and burn fat, not carbs,’ he says. 'Twenty grams of whey protein with some amino acids will help to preserve muscle and enhance fat-burning, which over time helps to make you more energy-efficient.’

07:00-08:00

Ride. Ideal sessions are steady rides, recovery rides or, at the higher end, medium-intensity endurance training (MIET).

09:00

Have a protein-based breakfast or shake. ‘At some point, either for breakfast or lunch, aim to eat a high-protein meal containing polyphenols – antioxidants found in fruit and veg that help prevent the damage to our cells that exercise can cause,’ says Ranchordas. 

'A three-egg omelette with veg is a good choice. Don’t eat carbs, as this will “up-regulate” the enzymes responsible for fuel metabolism.

'Your muscles will become more efficient at burning fat, and in physiological terms you’ll increase the number and size of the mitochondria, which give our cells energy. As a result you’ll be more fat-efficient at 75% of your maximum heart rate. Carbs suppress those enzymes.’

The lunchtime ride

‘I’d say this is the time when you’re likely to be at your peak, when you’re physically and mentally best placed to do the hard stuff,’ says Newton.

‘You haven’t been at work long enough for it to tire you out, you’ve probably been productive and you’re feeling positive about the world.

'You’ll have better mental focus, which will reduce your perceived effort. So lunchtime is the perfect opportunity to do short, sharp sessions.’

08:00

‘Always ask yourself: does my meal match my session?’ says Ranchordas. ‘For a hard lunchtime session have a high-carb breakfast and mid-morning snack so you’re well fuelled.

'Porridge is a cliche because it’s great – it gives you slow-release energy for a lunchtime ride. Avoid cereals because they release energy quickly and you’ll slump before lunchtime.

'If you’re planning a one-hour steady ride, again, you’ll want to burn fat so avoid carbs by having an omelette and snacking on nuts. Then withhold carbs until the evening.’

13:00

Ride. Ideal sessions here are FTP sessions, intervals or a steady ride with flat sprints or race pace intervals thrown in.

For a guide on the best turbo trainer sessions, we have compiled our favourites here.

14:00

‘A chicken and salad wrap with a handful of cherry tomatoes and some Greek yogurt with fruit is ideal after a hard session at lunch,’ says Ranchordas.

‘This will help to replenish lost glycogen, which comes from carbohydrate to fuel hard efforts.’ Just bear in mind that you should avoid carbs if you opt for an easy ride at lunchtime.

‘That 3pm slump we’re prone to is caused by a rise in insulin, so any exercise at lunchtime will mean less insulin is released.

'Unless you’re replacing lost glycogen, carbs increase insulin production and undo all that hard work. If you ride easy, then eat a low-carb lunch, you produce even less insulin and will feel fresh all afternoon.’

The evening ride

Barring weekends, the evening is the most flexible time to ride as you’re less likely to have a boss or grumpy colleagues wondering where you’ve disappeared to.

‘It’s better to do high-intensity work when your muscles are warmer and the body is producing more testosterone,’ says Ranchordas.

Yet while this makes the evening ideal for faster rides, the greater freedom also makes it well suited to doing endurance training too. It’s all in the planning.

‘You should devise your training plan for the week in advance so you know what each day looks like,’ says Ranchordas. ‘You can then plan your meals based on your training schedule.’

You do need to be adaptable, though. ‘If you feel sharp enough to train but not sharp enough for an intense session do some MIET,’ says Newton. ‘You’ll get better results by recovering properly. The evening is an opportunity to do endurance training that’s long enough to feel the benefit but short enough to give you time to eat at a reasonable time.’

08:00

Eat your normal (healthy) breakfast…

13:00

…and lunch. ‘Aim for 50-75g of carbs in each main meal before a harder ride,’ says Ranchordas.

‘Take on 1.8g per kilogram of bodyweight of protein per day for hard rides, reducing it to 1.3-1.4g per kg per day for easier rides. These rules apply no matter what time of day it is.

'I use a traffic light system: red means withhold carbs, amber means moderate carbs and green means fuel with carbs,’ says Ranchordas.

‘Apply this to each meal based on your plan for the day and making sense of your nutrition becomes a lot easier.’

16:00

Snack. A pot of yoghurt with granola or muesli and a banana is ideal.

18:00-19:00

Ride, and enjoy the flexibility – the evening is suitable for a whole range of sessions including FTP efforts, time-trialling, MIET, intervals and even recovery rides.

Plan your session in advance but be flexible enough to change it if you’re too tired for an intense effort – you could swap a hard session for some endurance training with some race pace intervals or flat sprints.

Then spin or stretch for longer than normal to help you wind down.

20:00-21:00

Eat a light meal (not a roast) with plenty of protein, and remember that shakes aren’t just for breakfast. A chicken stir-fry with rice noodles is perfect.

Then relax, but don’t expect to be able to sleep straight away if you’ve done a hard session.

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