How to Avoid Dead Legs on Race Day Forever

“My legs felt like lead!” I told my dad. It didn’t make any sense at all. I had been training for a full year for the Junior National Cycling Championships. I hadn’t missed a single day of training and had been religious about following the plan, relentless in my preparation. I was working so hard that my parents were concerned that I was taking cycling too far. I was strong, I was fast, I was confident… I had results proving I was ready, and now rested, I was ready to jump out of my skin and show the world what I could do.

Five minutes into the road race and I was completely red-lined with my legs screaming in pain and my lungs feeling like I had taken up smoking. I hadn’t felt this bad in my hardest interval workouts, and when I tried to stand up for more power, it was like someone had injected my legs with tranquilizers and shoved dry ice down my throat. It wasn’t the pace that was killing me; my legs and lungs were just not there.

Two days later when I returned to my local weekly criterium, it was a completely different story.  I felt like a cycling god, featuring in every major move and sprint with a recovery time so fast I couldn’t believe it was real! I couldn’t help but think if I had felt half this good two days before, I could have left Nationals with a result worth remembering.

So what happened? What went wrong at Nationals? How could I have possibly had that big of a difference in my form in less than a week? Can you relate?

Later in my career, right before a race, I asked a teammate of mine who had won several national titles to tell me what he was going to do in preparation for the upcoming National Criterium. My hope was to compare notes to see if there was anything he was doing that I wasn’t. His answer completely shocked me because it involved more rest than I could fathom mixed with higher intensity efforts than I had ever thought to do in the days prior to an important event. However, taking his advice led me not only to have an amazing race, but to never have dysfunctional “dead” legs on race day again.

Taking his advice, I learned that for cyclists to consistently perform at their full capacity on race day, especially in high intensity situations, they need to do “opener” exercises at least the day before and the day of the event.

Translation: Openers = Good legs  /  No openers= Uncertain and potentially bad legs

Openers Are Reminder Efforts

Openers are not training; they are basically reminding your body what it needs to do to perform at its best by starting and warming up the engine. The body needs to do many things at once very quickly and efficiently to respond to the demands of racing. It needs to bring in oxygen and get rid of CO2 fast. It needs to pump tons of blood through the capillary system and process lactic acid fast enough to prevent accumulation. The sweat glands need to regulate body temperature, and energy stored in muscles needs to be converted quickly to fuel, and that’s to name just a few. However, if the body doesn’t push these systems for a day or two – or in my case for several days – prior to the event, those systems kind of close up or get rusty.

Here is an analogy: Imagine that you had a race car with a check valve in the fuel line that opened whenever you pushed the gas pedal. When you pressed the pedal, gas gushes through the fuel line and puts pressure on the check valve. The more gas sent down the line, the more pressure built up and the farther the valve opened making the car go faster.  Now imagine if the check valve stiffened up from disuse. Maybe, if you hit the gas pedal, the pressure would build up but the valve wouldn’t open freely. Maybe it would even stick, causing the car to stall due to a lack of gas. Then imagine if, after stalling and restarting, it randomly broke free and opened up giving a bunch of power only to have it stick open. Then, when you let off the accelerator, the gas came gushing back the wrong way through the valve igniting the gas, blowing up your engine and taking you out of the race for good?  You might have had a fast car, but that sticky valve just turned you into a spectator.

Our body is almost like a series of flexible pipes and check valves that expand and shrink, close and open and they need to be all opened up and freed up for everything to work well. When they sit for a while, they essentially stiffen up, but with some simple revving of our engines, things will free up, stretch out, and be ready to go.

So, with that picture in mind, the trick is to do what is needed to get those valves open, primed, and ready to go but with as little work, muscle damage, and wasted energy as possible.

This is an example of my revised training plan for the two weeks before Nationals:

Example of a two-week taper/opener lead into a major race.

Keep in mind that the purpose of this article is not to show how to taper for an event or how to train; the purpose is to demonstrate that openers are critical to being prepared for racing at any level of fitness. You should not follow the exact plan above unless advised by your coach.

On the first day of openers following  2 – 3 days of rest, my assumption was that I was going to feel terrible. I was right, I felt awful, just like I did when I raced Junior Nationals. However, by the end of that day, my legs were starting to come around. By the second day of openers, they were feeling good, and when I began my warm up on race day, they were firing 100 percent. When I got to the race, I had a breakthrough performance.

These were my numbers for those two weeks. My AT was around 176. When I did the first set of Openers, after several days off, I completely blew up at a heart rate of only 155 bpm, 21 beats below my threshold. On the second set, it went up 10 beats to about 165 bpm. On the third set, 170 bpm. (Keep in mind, my perceived exertion on all of them was 100%.) I never got over my threshold on the first day. However, on day two, my first set was 155 bpm, my second was 165 bpm, and my third hit 175 bpm. I felt really good and my recovery time between intervals was cut in half.  On race day, I repeated the same process on my trainer in warm-up and got past 176 (my threshold) very easily by the third repetition. When the National Criterium started, everything I thought I should have to use was there at my disposal on lap one. The race was a sufferfest. After all, it was Nationals. However, instead of having dead legs or bad lungs, all my body’s systems were working together allowing me to push me to my max and landing me my first noticeable result at the national level.

Here is the moral of the story: By reaching your race intensity no later than the day before the race, your body will be prepared to respond with all it has to give.

Keep in mind: high levels of life stress, injuries, and over-training, can keep you from racing well or feeling good on race day. Doing openers doesn’t necessarily equal a race winning performance, but they are an important part of race preparation that will consistently allow you to use what you have.

Coach Luke Winger has experience racing in the ranks from the junior, to collegiate, to elite and master. He works with road and dirt athletes in racing and endurance events of all levels with training programs, consultation and skills training.