Is Your Lifestyle Consistent with Your Goals? You Must Live Like a Racer to Ride Like a Racer

Bike racing is an extremely demanding and unforgiving sport. Unlike baseball, soccer or football in which half of the few dozen players in any given game will win, only one rider gets to take the top step on the podium and only a small percentage will gain the coveted “top-10”. Like soccer teams, riders are often closely matched so that it’s impossible to tell until the final minutes which will come out victorious. Very small differences in ability or luck turn into huge differences in bike-race outcome. A moment of weakness or inattention can move you to the back of the pack. Success requires that luck and all other factors be in your favor. You can control some of those factors.

You’ve probably heard the metaphor that training for racing is like building a house. Base training is building your foundation, and the bigger the foundation, the bigger and more solid the house can be. A solid base of endurance training will support more intervals or other hard work, the house itself, which in turn supports, you hope, the high-peaked roof of race performances.

As important as the foundation is to the eventual house, the land under the foundation is even more important. When you put a big foundation on wet sand, it sinks or cracks. If you build on a flood plane, your house may be washed away soon after it is built. When you train for bike racing, your lifestyle forms the land on which you build your training foundation. Some lifestyles are like dry bedrock: They will support a huge edifice of race preparation and performance. Some are like swamp land: As you add each row of bricks to the foundation, the previous row sinks in and the building never gets any taller.

Almost everything you do affects your bike racing: what you eat, where and how you work, who you live with or spend time with, when you go to sleep and wake up, where you live, what you do for fun, how you handle your money, how you take care of your mental and physical health, and how much you drink. Each of these lifestyle choices is an opportunity to improve or undermine your competitive aspirations.

When it comes to restrictions and control, the lives of bike racers may resemble those of the extremely religious, and many elite racers have an extreme passion for the sport which makes the sacrifices and privations feel like privileges and sources of satisfaction. They know that when you live like a bike racer you get the most out of your training. Living like a bike racer means making every decision with your bike racing goals in mind. To win at the highest level you have to have the attitude that anything that supports your goals is good and anything that undermines them is a bad.

Most bike racers have other jobs and responsibilities that force them to compromise repeatedly during their quest for athletic perfection. Riders who make fewer of these compromises will beat those who make more. How many are you making? How many are unavoidable? Some compromises are made because we have to eat and have families and a place to sleep. Other compromises are made out of laziness or ignorance. At the very least, eliminate this last group. If you have aspirations to win at the professional level, clean up the first group as well.

Following are some lifestyle elements that can be the swamp or the bedrock under your training.

Bike racers need generous rest. Most riders do best with about nine hours per night of sleep, and they do better with eight than with seven, and better with seven than with six. There are a few people who perform well on much less sleep, or who need a bit more. If you are sleeping much less than nine hours per night, do what you can to get more sleep and see what happens to your performance. This may mean cutting back on aspects of your social life. You won’t find a lot of successful bike racers at evening parties, or watching the late news or movies on TV. In fact, most nights you’ll find them at home in bed not much after nine PM.

Wearing dirty shorts will sooner or later give you saddle sores. Wearing unwashed jerseys or tee-shirts makes it tough to find ride partners and car-pools, as does being constantly short of cash when it’s time to buy gas, short a spare tube when you have a flat and short of food when you are hungry on a ride. Bike racers need healthy skin, ride partners and carpools, so get organized. Do your laundry before you run out of stuff to wear. Keep some cash, a bit of food and a spare tube handy.

Bike racers need excellent eating habits to provide the nutrients they need and the energy they need, but no more. Eat a diet generous in fruits, vegetables, low-fat protein sources and whole grains and skip the sweets, potato chips and other empty calories. If you are among the very small percentage of racers who are underweight, eat some ice-cream. If you wonder about your diet and whether it is doing all it could to support your racing goals, talk to a nutritionist or a coach with some nutrition training.

In order to eat well you need to have good food in your house and you need to know how to cook or have the help of someone who does and who is willing to cook for you. Either shop regularly for fresh food and learn to cook, or stay on the good side of the housemate who does.

Breathing cigarette smoke ties up your hemoglobin and decreases your aerobic capacity. Don’t smoke or breath near people who do. If you work in a smoky environment, get a different job. Larger quantities of alcohol keep your liver busy and prevent it from playing its various roles in recovery from exercise. If you want to be a bike racer, limit yourself to one drink or less per day. Don’t get drunk and don’t get hung-over.

The body exists in one of two modes: It is either in stress-mode or in recovery mode. Stress mode occurs during training, but also during work or times of family life stress. If you are experiencing stress, you are not in recovery mode, even if you are not exercising. You do not benefit from training unless you have blocks of restful, relaxed recovery time,. Constant or frequent stress or lack of sleep will keep you from benefiting from your training. Deal with the things that are stressing you and get beyond them. If certain people or job situations are causing the stress and the stress cannot be eliminated while you maintain that job or that relationship, high-level bike racing success will require ending the job or relationship. Several of my clients who have had the opportunity to ride after leaving a job have advanced the equivalent of a category or more compared to when they rode employed.

Another thing that prevents recovery is extensive standing. Riders who stand for hours at work do not progress nearly so much as those who are able to sit or lie down most of the time when they are not riding. If you work as a waiter, machine operator, bike mechanic or other stand-up worker, find ways to do some of your work from a stool, or find a different job.

One pattern I’ve noticed among my successful clients is that many of them have a large support network. Their husbands or wives or boyfriends or girlfriends support their racing goals, and they surround themselves with other supportive people, from friends, coworkers and neighbors to coaches and massage therapists. Positive people are an essential part of the bedrock under your training foundation.

This is an incomplete list but should be enough to get you started thinking about how your lifestyle and the environment you accept support or undermine your racing goals. You could do all these things right and still not be a great racer unless you combine them with good training, patience, superb talent and a lot of luck. Doing really poorly on any of these things will prevent you from achieving your potential, no matter how well you train and how much talent and luck you have. Making as many of these positive lifestyle changes as you can will greatly enhance your chances of racing well next season. If you are going to go to the trouble to train, make the lifestyle adjustments that will allow you to actually get stronger and faster from your training. Before you build your foundation check out the land on which you are planning to build. Is it solid or soft? If there are swampy spots, drain them as you go. If the whole property is swampy, prepare to do a major drainage project before you start building your foundation, or take up a less demanding sport.

This article by Scott Saifer, M.S. first appeared in ROAD Magazine in September of 2008