Training & Transitioning
to WorldTour Racing
Two things are obvious about Human Powered Health’s Olivia Ray: She is one of cycling’s most promising young sprinters and, despite her bright future, she’s accessible and candid in a way that’s refreshingly human.
To talk to her, you get the feeling that you could aspire to ride at the level she rides at. Of course, that impression is belied by what she actually does on the bike, which is more like superhuman–well beyond most cyclists’ wildest aspirations.
That combination of humility and strength makes Olivia one of cycling’s most compelling young champions, so we were delighted to speak with her as part of our series of offseason articles. Our call was initially focused on her offseason, but the easy nature of the conversation led us down several unrelated paths, some of which we’ve excerpted and summarized here.
“I’m someone who really enjoys suffering.”
In addition to her natural strength, Olivia wants to suffer, wants to do the work. She sees the pain of endurance training as an opportunity for improvement, not an obstacle holding her back. Embracing that suffering has been a key element to her growth as a professional, and it’s shaped her training and preparation for her first WorldTour season.
“ was the first year I’ve pushed past ‘this is really hard, I can’t hold on,’” she told us. Now, she says “I’m someone who really enjoys suffering. In the front of my head is just: Die. That’s the best way to train. You know the pain won’t be forever, but little goals can help keep you motivated.” For Olivia, those little goals are the gains made every time she challenges her limits rather than succumbing to them.
“Pure racing; more professional.”
Olivia’s first European campaign, as part of pro-continental squad Rally Cycling, was derailed by a broken ankle, but she was still able to accumulate some racing kilometers at the top level and experience a lifestyle that’s centered on cycling. “It’s pure racing,” she said, “more professional. Like being in the office instead of working from home.”
In terms of everyday life, this means Olivia was living cycling in a way that she never had, even while she was winning some of the biggest criteriums outside of Europe; in terms of the actual racing, this means a higher pace and more suffering.
“The European cyclists are so good with the pain of WorldTour speed because they’ve done it so long,” she told us, crediting the WorldTour as the catalyst for her suffering epiphany–and for shaping her approach to training this offseason, which was separated from her season proper by “a solid 11 days off.”
“Know how to follow.”
Since she’s got natural top-end speed, Olivia’s offseason training is “targeted more around threshold.” This is to prepare her for the WorldTour circuit, whose races are at a distinctly different level. “It’s like a crit for 3.5 hours or more,” she said, so her work is preparing her to maintain a high level for hours on end, including on climbs, while preserving her signature kick for the finale. Five-minute hill repeats, Sets of over/unders, 15-20 hours a week at target wattages–a training plan designed to “get the miles into the legs and expand those threshold windows.
“If you’re gonna be a good leader, you’ve gotta know how to follow,” she told us, referring both to her eagerness to learn from her veteran teammates and to the obvious requirements of navigating a race at peloton speed–and then holding wheels till the final sprint.
Much of this preparation involves, of course, climbing; however, ORay has no angel-of-the-mountains ambitions. “There’s always gonna be someone better at any individual thing. I’m never gonna win a mountain stage,” she laughed, adding that she still has to cover those climbs and difficult stages in order to be there for the sprints.
As for where she trains during the offseason, Olivia prefers riding outside in the cold, “with two pairs of socks and two jackets.” She gave the indoor game a try, doing Zwift Academy for a month in 2019. The verdict? “I don’t like this.” Fortunately, Olivia is currently based in Atlanta, GA, and Human Powered Health is hosting a January camp in Portugal (last year, Rally Cycling had a winter camp in Moab, UT), so extreme weather and snow-packed roads won’t force her off the road and onto the virtual circuit.
“Eat for tomorrow.”
Eating disorders and body dysmorphia are built into cycling (and also, incidentally, ballet, which was Olivia’s first discipline). Many of the interviews and conversations we’ve read with Olivia tend to focus on these, examining the intersection between body image and the life of a professional athlete. She’s spoken and written about body dysmorphia at length elsewhere, but we were interested in her changing approach to diet and how she uses it as a tool both on and off the bike.
“My initial coaching on nutrition wasn’t very specific,” she told us, acknowledging that for years she was inexperienced, didn’t know how to fuel properly for a ride, and struggled to carve out substantial gains as a result. But she’s since learned through the help of expanded access to professionals and her own growing knowledge of how diet can affect her performance.
Early- to mid-race, she prefers solid food and bars; late-race, gels and fast carbs. Though it’s of course easy to rattle off this approach, executing it effectively (or not) remains a problem for even the most seasoned pros in the biggest races. Hunger knocks, stomach-related abandons, a jour sans–we see it every year on the WorldTour, and we experience it every year in our own events and training. And she understands why. When you’re at your limit for hours on end, “you don’t necessarily want to eat a gel. They’re not the nicest thing,” she said, though she does recommend the thinner consistency of osmotically balanced gels to make late-stage emergency energy more palatable.
During training, when the immediate stakes are lower but the long term impact of each session manifests as top-end growth, Olivia takes nutrition just as seriously. “I stick to 75-100g of food two or three times per hour, depending on intensity.” She also recommends caffeine for elevating fat metabolism before and after a race or session, and supplements her morning coffee with a prebiotic to help prevent any potential GI issues. During high-intensity training and racing periods, she adds a protein recovery shake before bed. (She avoids pre-bed recovery drinks during non-peak periods because of the extra carbs.)
“Eating properly during a race or while training is like the difference between sleeping and not sleeping the night before,” she told us. She continued this line of thought with a fundamental piece of guidance to her approach to endurance nutrition beyond the saddle: “Eat for tomorrow.”
“Talking to and listening to my body.”
“I like to keep it as simple as possible,” Olivia said about her daily approach to nutrition. She’s built a base of foods, simple things like rice and certain vegetables and proteins (salmon [smoked, with a bagel], chicken, tofu), which she then combines to ensure she’s checking all the boxes (“I have a guy who helps with the macro stuff”) and maintaining consistency to avoid any surprise GI incompatibilities.
That’s not to say there’s no room for change. Olivia is still a young cyclist, learning the ropes of nutrition from dietary experts, her teammates, and her growing awareness of her body’s needs. With those inputs, she takes the offseason as an opportunity to experiment and tailor a better diet, “finding and fixing issues by talking to and listening to my body.” During the season, though, Ray sticks to her established program: “Just eat. Keep things simple to ensure you’re not in a bind.”