Advice for Hillclimbers – Rest and Diet

Rest

If you train hard, you must also rest hard. Some of the lunchtime riding group at work are perplexed by my riding habits. I may ride a pace they like in the winter or very early in the season, but as the season progress, my hard rides get harder, and my easy rides get easier. It doesn’t all get harder. You see, the harder you train, the more important recovery becomes, especially for somebody like me in their 40’s.

The lunch crowd likes neither end of my riding spectrum once winter passes. My hard is too hard, yet my easy is too easy. I often will do block training days, where two or three days in a row involve intensity work. Then I need two days of recovery. I rarely take days completely off, so I go out for short recovery rides and stretch afterward on my rest days.

The pace I ride at is one half my 30-minute power, which is roughly 60-65% of my max heart rate. This is a very easy pace and takes focus with HRM to keep it that easy  But if I go harder than this, I don’t recover as well, and go into my next intensity block with sore or tired legs. I find maximum adaptation is gained when doing intensity work on fresh legs.  For many riders, taking one or two days per week completely off the bicycle may be the best way to recover.

There are weekly, monthly, and annual rest cycles. I really don’t periodize my training much, so no true annual rest period. I do curtail biking when I begin XC skiing, but I ski rigorously. There may be a week within each month my training drops off a bit, but this is not planned, and it’s not a large roll back like Friel recommends. I do, however, rigorously recover within weekly cycles. You just can’t go out and hammer every day and derive maximum value from your training hours.  You need hard days, and those can only come after resting.

There is another factor to rest. This comes into play when tapering for an important event, let’s say the Mt. Washington Hillclimb. There are a lot of opinions on how to taper one’s training in the days or even weeks before a big event. For Mt Washington, which is one of my biggest events of the season, I do not taper more than a week out. I’ll reduce volume some in the week leading to the hill climb. I’ll even do a little intensity work early in the week. But by Wednesday, intensity work is over. Make sure you’ve got the right spinners and please be aware that anything you do at this point can only hurt your performance.

Thursday and Friday are very short and light days on the bike. By Saturday, my legs are chomping at the bit to hammer. Older athletes generally need more days to fully recover from training to be in an optimum form on race day. I know other athletes that like to do some intensity work the day before an important event. They call this “opening,” getting the muscle ready to work. This does not work with me. I might be able to go hard two days in a row, but the second day is always a little bit slower than the first.

Diet

Lots of training required adequate nutrition. Most athletes are pretty good with their diets, avoiding excess fat, getting plenty of fruits and vegetables, etc. How one eats in the days leading to and during a big hill climb event vary considerably among individuals. Generally, as you taper for a big event you want to make sure your glycogen stores are topped off, and you are fully hydrated. We’ve all heard the term “carbo-loading.” Personally, I think this is often overdone. I find as I taper for an event, which means backing off on training volume and intensity in the days prior, I top off without eating additional large volumes of carbohydrates.

I just continue to eat a sensible diet as if I were training. Since I stop burning 1000+ calories per day as I taper, these calories will first replenish muscle and liver glycogen stores before adding to fat stores. My weight will often rise several pounds as I taper for an event. This is not fat gain, but rather glycogen and hydration reaching topped off levels. Never try to lose weight right up to an important event. You will come to the event with depleted energy stores and perform and feel terrible. A book I found highly informative on proper nutrition is Chris Carmichael’s “Food for Fitness: Eat Right to Trail Right.”  It is still widely available<.

What to do on race day also varies widely among individuals. Many cannot tolerate eating in the few hours prior to competition. I’ve never had this problem. In my early cycling days, I’ve been known to wolf down three burgers on the way to a two-hour group MTB hammer ride. I do not eat this way anymore, but for longer endurance events I do like to eat up to within an hour of the event, such as three-hour road or mountain bike races.

Shorter events like hill climbs are generally ridden at or above the threshold. This means most energy production is coming from glycogen stores and to a much lesser extent from fat breakdown and ingested energy. Don’t think that the Power Bar you ate 15 minutes before the cannon goes off will do much for you. Some Gu or sports drink, yeah, maybe.

For most people, it doesn’t hurt to take a little sports drink up on the climb, especially for Mt. Washington. One thing you must be careful of is this. Ingesting simple carbs right before an intense effort can leave you feeling blah. Simple carbs, like found in most sports drinks, gels, etc can cause your body’s insulin system to over-react, resulting in a sugar crash a short time later. I know I am susceptible to this, so I avoid eating Gu’s or the like in the last 45 minutes or so before race start.

A typical 24 hours leading to Mt. Washington for me looks like this. The day before, eat a normal breakfast. This usually is a whole grain, low sugars content (but lots of carbs) cold cereal like Cheerios, Wheaties, or maybe one of the Kashi products. Mid-morning, I’ll have yogurt. Lunch will focus on plenty of low glycemic index carbs and lean meat, such as homemade turkey and cheese sandwiches on whole-grain bread. Usually, we’re driving up to Mt. Washington at supper time. We’ll often stop at Subway. I’ll get a large turkey, ham and swiss on wheat bread. Usually, eat the other half of my wife’s large sub too. Good mix of carbs and lean protein with very little fat (I go very light on the mayo). Bring some fruit and wheat crackers along to snack on later in the evening.

The morning of the race, I’ll eat two bowls of whole-grain cold cereal and yogurt. This will be around two hours before the race starts. I’ll bring some sports drink and a bagel with me to the race venue. I’ll eat the bagel an hour or so out from race start and continue to drink weak sports drink to make sure I’m fully hydrated. I do not carry water or food on the climb. The temperatures have been cool enough that I will not lose enough fluid to impact performance in 70 minutes. Nor will I blow through my glycogen stores. I can generally go 90 minutes before I start to fade, so Mt. Washington can be completed with plenty of margins. Approximately half of the Mt. Washington competitors will take over 90 minutes to finish. It makes sense for this group to take a Gu or two and a bottle of sports drink up. For two hour climbers, two water bottles should be considered.