Anatomy of a Productive Rest Day

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The peloton has been looking forward to the first rest day of the 2006 Tour de France. The first week of the race has been fast and hard, and many men hit the ground at least once this week. This rest day gives them a short period to recuperate from their injuries and prepare, both mentally and physically, for the challenges ahead.

Winning the Rest Day
The rest day is a Tour stage without a sprint finish. It does have a winner, however. The winner of the Rest Stage is the man who emerges the next day with no ill effects resulting from inactivity. Ironically, too much rest can be worse for a Tour rider than another day of racing. Over the years, there have been many riders who start the day after the rest day feeling sluggish, blocked, and slow because of the way their bodies coped with the interruption to the day-to-day routine of hard racing. In order to feel fresh, energized, and ready to race tomorrow, riders rely on the following techniques:

Great Habits
In truth, everyone in the peloton rides on the rest day because the body does not like to go from racing to complete rest and then back to racing. It can't deal with the radical changes. After nearly 1500 933 miles (1,500 kilometers) of racing, the body is perfectly willing to shut down and rest. Asking it to get up and race the next day would be like trying to start your car on a bitterly cold winter morning. It'll start, but it's not going to run too smoothly for a while.

The riders need to be careful to keep up their normal habits and race day rhythm on the rest day. The same way your internal clock wakes you up at 6 a.m., even on Sunday mornings, the riders' bodies are accustomed to the schedule and tempo of race days. It is easier and less stressful to go through the motions than to completely break the rhythm.

Active Rest
Since their bodies are accustomed to working hard and then recovering from that work, riders spend two to three hours on their bikes on the rest day to maintain some continuity. And they don't just cruise around for two hours. While today's ride is less strenuous than a Tour stage, it's still important to throw in a few hard efforts in order to keep all of the muscles and energy systems working smoothly.

Recovery Nutrition
Riders also need to eat to replenish depleted energy stores, but be careful not to gorge themselves. For the last week, at least, they've been almost completely depleting fuel stores every day and attempting to replenish them each evening. They have become very efficient at moving nutrients from the digestive system to the blood and into the muscles. Even though the riders don't work as hard as they do on race days, they eat and drink a lot so they can top off the tanks and rebuild energy reserves they will need in the coming weeks.

Focused Relaxation
Perhaps most important, riders need to relax while still maintaining their focus on the race. In addition to eating, drinking, and riding, they'll visit with family or friends who are attending the race, reply to the load of emails that have piled up, watch movies, and nap. At the same time, they have to remember that they're still in the middle of a race. In other words, there are no wild parties in the team hotels just because there's no stage to race today. Experienced riders like Vjatcheslav Ekimov and George Hincapie have routines that work best for them and they stick to those routines. Rest days can be harder on younger guys because they aren't sure of what to do with their time. This is where experience counts, and improving recovery techniques is part of the learning curve that helps young riders move up through the ranks in three-week stage races from one year to the next.

Rest Day Impacts All
Rest days allow all the people involved with the Tour to catch their breath, but like the riders, the people who make the Tour de France run smoothly work today as well. The rest day gives race officials and journalists a chance to catch up on the things they overlooked since the Tour began, like laundry, phone calls and emails.

The rest day is actually a very difficult day for the team support staffs. While the athletes flew south last night, the support staff had to drive all the vehicles and equipment about seven hours to catch up with them. Once there they had to set everything up for the riders, including bikes, massages, and food. During the stages, some of the support staff have some time to relax. Their major workload comes before and after the stage, but due to the rest day, their workload from the end of yesterday's stage to the beginning of tomorrow's is huge.

The Tour de France is an endurance event for all involved. Journalists have to createwrite articles, sometimes several each day, for three weeks straight. Television commentators have to be on top of their game for 22 consecutive days, longer than the coverage for the Olympic Games or any other major sporting event. The support staff for the race organization sets up, breaks down, and moves the Tour de France from city to city each day. In another two week's time, the parties at the end of the Tour de France won't be just celebrations of the riders' efforts. Everyone celebrates when this great event that requires several thousand people to circumnavigate an entire nation delivers the peloton safely to Paris.