In cycling there are known knowns and known unknowns. Nick Morgan uncovers the truth behind the riddles wrapped up inside enigmas…
Plenty of footballers, boxers and even cyclists claim that abstaining from ‘how’s yer father’ before a big event is vital to performing at their peak. ‘No nookie after Wednesday if you’re racing on Saturday’ is their philosophy.
Sadly, it looks as if such monkish behaviour is in vain. There’s no scientific evidence to suggest that sex before an event reduces endurance or speed.
Indeed, in a treadmill test, male athletes showed no decline in performance 12 hours after having sex. In fact, if you’re the type who gets restless the night before a race, the sleep-inducing powers of sex may actually help. But whether you can persuade your other half to help you out with this is another matter entirely…
'Warm' is the crucial word in warm-up
Despite its name, a warm-up has little to do with temperature, so you can bypass blowing on your hands before a chilly morning ride. A team from Aberystwyth University heated the leg muscles of riders before cycling and found it had little or no effect on their endurance performance. Instead they discovered that the warm-up is all about telling your body it’s going to need to recruit plenty of muscle fibres to work soon.
The team went on to look at the best way to help your body do this and found out that a few gentle stretches aren’t enough. They recommend a five- to seven-minute interval session at 75-80 percent effort 10 minutes before you start your ride.
“At the onset of high-intensity exercise, the body recruits the muscle fibres it thinks it needs, but invariably it doesn’t recruit enough, because it doesn’t know how long you’ll ask it to exercise for,” says Dr Mark Burnley, one of the researchers. “A heavy warm-up recruits more motor units to start with, which slows down the rate of fatigue – it’s a bit like adding more people to a tug-of-war team.” The heavy warm-up is advisable only when glycogen depletion isn’t a factor, so forget it for races that last longer than an hour.
Aspire not to perspire
It’s commonly assumed that the less fit – or more fat – you are, the more heavily a period of exercise will make you perspire. “Actually, after repeated training your body becomes more efficient at cooling, so you start to sweat earlier and produce a greater volume of sweat,” says Dr Nick Gant of Loughborough University. “So, in fact, the fitter you are, the more you should sweat.”
It may not sound like it, but that’s something to be thankful for. New research shows performance drop-off in the heat is caused primarily by your body retaining excess warmth, rather than due to a lack of fluids. This not only means cooling your skin will help dramatically, but that sweating is vitally important, so think twice before you spray yourself from head-to-toe with anti-perspirant!
Harder is better
Can filling your tyres with enough air to fill a Zeppelin lead to faster riding? A team at the University of Texas decided to investigate if rock-hard tyres really make a difference. They asked seven riders to cycle at top speed on a four percent incline four times, each at different tyre pressures. The riders used identical bikes and conditions were controlled to ensure each trial only varied in tyre pressure. “The difference in rolling resistance caused by varying tyre pressure is too small to be detected physiologically,” lead researcher Dr Timothy Ryschon concludes.
Furthermore, if you try to pump your tyres until their pressure is sky-high, you’re going to be in for a rough and uncomfortable ride, because you’ll effectively have no suspension to cushion the blows. Feeling every bump in the road through your undercarriage is likely to slow you down and may even cause some damage to your bike.
Dehydration puts a dampener on performance
Dehydration’s effect on performance is one of the most prevalent myths in sport, but all is not as it seems. “The theory of dehydration limiting performance in the heat is completely bogus,” says Dr Ross Tucker of the University of Cape Town. Several studies have shown that your performance drop-off in hot conditions is due to the body’s level of heat storage, rather than its lack of fluids. Indeed, a South African study looking at competitors in an Ironman Triathlon found that although many suffered from extreme dehydration, there was no correlation between their levels of hydration and performance.
“There may exist a tolerable range for dehydration that won’t impact negatively on endurance performance, but which may even confer an advantage by preventing the increases in body mass due to the consumption of large volumes of fluid,” says Professor Yannis Pitsiladis, who has devoted many years to studying the nutritional habits of Kenyan distance runners.
The upshot? Don't get thirsty but even more importantly, keep your cool (see Aspire to Perspire above).
Many people with hip, leg or foot injuries are told they have one leg slightly shorter than the other, so using a wedge should balance them out and resolve the problem. That advice may be useful in a small number of cases, but often using a wedge isn’t necessary. According to biomechanics expert Martin Haines, it may not be that there’s a real difference in the length of your legs, but that there appears to be one due to a problem with the pelvis. In this scenario, he claims the best cure is to correct the pelvic problem through manipulation and exercise, instead of through the use of a wedge.
“A rotated pelvis is probably the most likely reason for people who have one leg shorter than the other,” Haines explains. “Certainly the anecdotal evidence points to this and – in these cases – wedges can cause [the patient] more problems than they solve.” Given Haines’ opinion on the matter, we’d recommend that you get your injury properly diagnosed by a medically qualified expert, rather than by a salesman in a cycling shop. After all, waiting may only exacerbate the issue.
Lactic acid brings the pain
Lactic acid has long been the bogeyman of speed and endurance athletes. The commonly held belief is that once you push your body to its limits, lactic acid starts to flood your system causing the pain and ‘jelly-legged’ feeling we all know so well. However, the truth of the matter is quite different. “Lactic acid is a partially broken-down carbohydrate molecule containing lots of energy,” says Dr Louis Passfield, who works at the University of Glamorgan. “If we exercise very hard, the body doesn’t have time to break down glucose fully, so it breaks it down as far as lactic acid, which is then used to provide lots more energy. The pain experienced is more likely to be caused by nerve endings in the muscles being stimulated.”
Eating is cheating
It seems logical that your body will be in a fasted state if you do your exercise before breakfast and, without food to burn, it’ll set upon the spare tyre round your midriff instead. Not true. Well, at least it’s not true that your spare tyre will diminish any more quickly than if you do your exercise at any other time. “It’s a pretty straightforward equation,” says sports nutritionist Karen Reid. “You eat a certain amount of calories per day and exercising burns some of those calories, regardless of when you do it. If you cycle in the morning, you may burn fat, but you’ll add the calories back throughout the rest of the day.”
With that myth busted, early morning cycling may even be best avoided. Statistically, it’s the most common time for suffering heart attacks and strokes during exercise.
A leg that's free from hair moves swiftly through the air
Non-cyclists simply don't understand why many male bikers shave their legs. The most used excuse is the aerodynamic benefit of baldness. Oops! While leg shaving makes your muscles look nicer and road rash easier to clean, no academic study shows any kind of significant advantage in terms of speed.
But before you bin the razor, the same is not true if you plan on dabbling in triathlons. Given that water is around 1,000 times denser than air, the resistance hairy legged athletes face when swimming is more of an issue. Several studies have proven that body hair removal can reduce the drag effect significantly. One study even found that swimmers achieved 10 per cent greater distance with each stroke.
All fat is bad
“Fat gets bad press and endurance athletes have developed an almost pathological desire to reduce body fat as much as possible,” says Dr Arthur Stewart, who is an expert in the relationship between anatomy and movement. “But fat plays a useful role in maintaining energy balance, in repairing tissues after training and in providing shock absorption for feet and organs, which is crucial for preventing injury.”
Trying to measure your personal fat levels accurately is difficult and expensive. So a good tip, according to Dr Stewart, is to only worry about dieting a few weeks prior to competition. During the training months, it’s best to eat sensibly but not stingily. Remember that carrying a few extra pounds may help you stay healthy and free of injury.