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Getting Somewhere while Going Nowhere
Fueling, hydration, motivation, and recovery for dedicated indoor training.
By Dr. Luke Bucci
For endurance athletes, indoor riding/racing is similar to High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) for other athletes. Unlike riding outdoors, with indoor interval workouts, you almost never stop pedaling. In general, indoor sessions like this are much shorter and more intense, usually topping out at 1-2 hours in length, so the shorter time to finish for indoor riding needs a different hydration and fueling strategy.
Riding indoors is also radically different from riding outside. There’s a reason why the trainer is so maligned. Smart trainers and virtual training apps have gone a long way to spice up the indoor life, but even with the gamification of indoor training, you’re still inside, pedaling in space, and probably physically alone. So keeping your head in the game can be just as important as keeping up with carbs.
In this blog installment, Dr. Bucci gets gamey, sharing tips for how to approach fueling, recovery, and maintaining a mental edge during indoor training.
WINNING THE FUELING GAME
Keeping glucose supplied to working muscles and the brain is the main goal for fueling. This means increasing your intake of carb/electrolyte hydration by consuming servings more often.
To ensure your body is prepared for the often-fast start of virtual racing or workouts, start topping off carbs and electrolytes 30 minutes prior to starting a workout. That’ll get your gut ready to open wide for the high rate of glucose absorption and uptake and reduce the risk of GI shenanigans.
During the workout, ingesting a serving of isotonic carb/electrolyte drink more often at smaller serving sizes (fewer gulps) is the fastest way possible to get glucose into your bloodstream, and the rest of the nutrients (water, electrolytes) will follow naturally. Think of trying to get as close as possible to a steady, gradual intravenous delivery – taking small servings every 15 minutes has been shown to produce the same performance results as iv feeding. This is much easier on the trainer, where you’re alone and stationary, than in an actual crit, where you’re bumping elbows and can’t be sipping mix on every corner.
When you feel fatigued, are near the end of the race, or anticipate an intense burst of effort (climbing, attacking, chasing, sprinting), then you should consider gels. For intense efforts or key segments, ingest a gel 5-10 minutes before you’ll need the higher output. Gels with maltodextrin/glucose combinations can also replace carb/electrolyte drink servings in the last part of the ride, especially if sweat losses are minimal or small so the electrolytes won’t be missed.
Indoor training means that time from ingestion to energy production is of the essence, so there are some things to avoid in gels. Watch out for gelling or coagulating ingredients like gellan gum, xanthan gum, and pectin. Those viscous operators keep the gels in your stomach, time-releasing carbs when we really want them immediately. The shorter duration of indoor sessions recommends gels whose isotonic formulae promote fast stomach emptying – otherwise, the gel becomes a belly-ache anchor slow-feeding you carbs instead of an immediate source of fuel. If it takes 10-15 minutes for a gel to kick in, you’ve already lost a significant portion of the workout or race.
Also avoid heavy fructose levels, which increase GI intolerance and stomach aches at high levels while only providing benefits during longer exercise times – three hours or longer, which is often much more than you’ll be doing in a given interval session. Fructose can also increase lactate, a major fatigue signal, more than usual during interval training or short-duration/high-intensity exercise.
You may also sweat more, losing water and electrolytes faster than you might during longer, less intense races outdoors. Levels will be fluctuating more and more rapidly than a longer race, sending signals causing more fatigue (your body telling you to slow down for the long haul). By taking care of additional fueling, hydration and electrolytes will also be replenished, but the trick is to maximize electrolyte intake – look for higher levels of all five electrolytes for peak uptake and efficacy.
Finally, since fatty acid burning is usually maxed out as a fuel source, but cannot be increased, unlocking more fatty acids is another goal. Anything that increases fat burning would be a plus. This is accomplished not by something taken just before exercise, but by consistent use of maintaining chromium status and using adaptogens such as cordyceps, rhodiola, ashwagandha, and certain ginsengs throughout training and racing periods – the longer time periods chromium and adaptogens are ingested, the better. They are not stimulants for a pre-race boost; their system enhancers that do their work gradually.
WINNING THE MENTAL GAME
Indoor training can be monotonous, to say the least. Visual and musculoskeletal cues to your brain are different with indoor riding, and the more limited feedback you’re processing can numb the mind, let concentration lapse, and sap focus and mental toughness. But keeping your mental edge is as or more important than keeping your body fueled, hydrated, and replete with electrolytes, because abbreviated workouts and races mean you also have less time to think during the ride to follow your racing strategy. You need pinpoint mental control.
If you’re an endurance athlete, you’ve probably learned to naturally roll with the pain of long-distance, outdoor exercise. During indoor training session, which are often shorter and more intense, your brain is also receiving stronger signals of pain and fatigue and stress, and thus, is more apt to panic. Structured or concentrated efforts affect muscles much differently than unstructured riding, where output naturally ebbs and flows, with intuitive rests and recovery. Because of the higher risk of pain-induced panic mode, you do not need more mental stimulation on the trainer. Instead, you need more control and cool calmness – precision zen.
Mental nutrients known as nootropics can help keep you calm but alert and responsive. Modest doses of nootropics like L-theanine, GABA, Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs), and L-glutamine, ingested DURING exercise – not big doses before exercise – have shown better mental functions such as alertness, concentration, focus, executive functions (thinking head, strategizing), willpower, mental toughness, and less fatigue and mental errors without being lackadaisical.
Caffeine is another nootropic option to sustain mental performance during exercise, and a relatively small dose taken at intervals is sufficient. If you’re a coffee or tea drinker, then maintain your usual caffeine intakes during the day, before you get on the trainer, and consider caffeinated gels as part of your fueling routine to also maintain the benefits of slow-drip caffeine intake.
During the actual workout, small doses (25mg) every 30 minutes is a good general guideline to keep the caffeine levels in the right zone and accommodating for the baseline you’ve already established with your usual caffeine intake. Maintaining your normal caffeine levels with these top-up doses also prevents getting too much caffeine, which can be detrimental to mental functions, heart rates, and body temperature.
One final side effect of adding immediate-acting mental nutrients to your trainer routine: You might actually enjoy your ride and performance more, so when you finish, you’ll be more motivated for the next trainer workout.
WINNING THE POSTGAME / RECOVERY GAME
Interval training causes a more acute muscular response to exercise, with stronger and slightly different panic and repair signals than typical (or outdoor) endurance efforts. Muscle soreness may also be increased because of the intense nature of indoor riding/racing, and both facts simply underline the importance of recovery aids.
For recovery drinks, sooner is better. As soon as you can catch your breath enough to drink a serving of a recovery drink – do it! One serving after the ride should be enough. You can return to your normal diet as soon as you’re inclined to eat again, but for the purposes of recovery, nothing beats a recovery drink for getting what your body needs, where it needs it, when it needs it.
This may seem counter-intuitive, but carbs (glucose) are actually the most important part of recovery for returning to full active potential as quickly as possible, with many human studies showing the benefits of immediate post-exercise ingestion of glucose and protein drinks. In some ways, protein is an auxiliary to glucose, adding to carb effects like reducing delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), aiding musculoskeletal repair, and – during longer workouts or events – quickly repleting glycogen stores.
Electrolytes, other minerals, and multiple vitamins in recovery drinks are also helpful post-exercise, one-upping solid foods for rapid recovery by just delivering the goods with no intermediaries. Again, the faster these nutrients get to exhausted muscles and tissues, the more good they’ll do.
When approaching a trainer workout or race, think about nutrition and hydration the way you think about intervals: concentrated, intense bursts. That ensures that you get the fuel and nutrients you need, when you need them, without wasting anything after the event. In review, here’s your indoor checklist, and how the First Endurance system checks every box.
- Start fueling and hydrating 30 minutes before
- Maintain steady intake of carbs and electrolytes
- Enhance focus and motivation with nootropics
- Use before climbs/attacks and final sprints as needed
- Supplement with small, steady doses of caffeine
- Start recovery with carbs and protein ASAP after finished