A Little R&R

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The first week of the 2004 Tour de France was difficult and nervous, and by the time the peloton crossed the finish line yesterday, most of the riders were exhausted. Tom Boonen put it nicely when he told a journalist, “Everyone sits like a corpse on the bike.” It’s difficult to believe that these riders are going to race for two more weeks, and that some of them are actually going to get stronger as the race goes on.

At the Tour de France, we see a very interesting phenomenon. When you look at markers of fatigue, including mood, sleep quality, waking heart rate and waking weight, riders commonly show increasing signs of fatigue through the first week of the race. With 100+ miles of racing every day, fatigue is to be expected. The interesting part is that after the first week, we often see markers of fatigue diminish, even though the race is still just as difficult. Even at the Tour de France, some riders are able to recover well enough from their efforts to actually adapt to the demands and get stronger.

In order to be one of the fortunate riders who can gain strength in the course of a three-week stage race, you have to start the race with a very high level of fitness. If you’re struggling to keep up in the first week because you started the Tour slightly out of shape, each stage takes a lot out of you and too much fatigue accumulates too fast for you to be able to adapt to it. When you start the Tour in top condition, you don’t have to dig as deep into your energy reserves to meet the demands of each stage. You’re tired at the end of the day, but not wiped out.

Your recovery habits play a large role in determining whether you will adapt to the pressure after the first week of the Tour. It’s important to stay well hydrated on the bike, which means consuming about two bottles an hour. You also have to eat 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour on the bike in order to supplement the stored carbohydrate in your muscles and liver. If you don’t eat enough during the stage, you run out of stored carbohydrate more quickly and really suffer during the final hour. Even worse, failing to eat enough during the stage makes recovering from it even more difficult.

Following each stage, riders start eating and drinking immediately. Since their bodies can most efficiently replenish depleted glycogen (carbohydrate) stores in the first 20-60 minutes after exercise, food consumption is a high priority after stages. In the US Postal Service bus, the riders use blenders to make their own recovery drinks and smoothies. Carbohydrate is the most important ingredient in recovery drinks. Adding protein may accelerate the rate at which you replenish glycogen stores, but it doesn’t increase the total amount of carbohydrate your body stores. To quickly and completely refill your muscles and liver with glycogen, carbohydrate takes precedence.

Recovery goes far beyond the foods and drinks you consume within an hour after exercise. Riders at the Tour de France get massages daily to increase circulation to sore muscles and relieve stiffness. Dinner is high in carbohydrate and moderate in protein and fat to continue the process of replenishing glycogen stores. During the course of the evening, they continue to consume water and sports drinks to ensure optimal hydration. It is very rare to see a Tour de France rider without either a bottle of water or something to eat in at least one of his hands. Since sleep is so important for recovery, you also won’t see riders awake much past 11 pm, and many riders go to bed much earlier.

Riders who arrive at the Tour de France well prepared, and ready to stick with the daily routines necessary for optimal recovery, can often look forward to improved form in the third week of the race. Expect to see some of the same riders Tom Boonen though looked like “corpses on bikes” coming alive again before the race reaches Paris.