Ready, set, reset: How to prepare for a strong return to racing

Anna Marie Hughes explores how to prepare now for a strong return to racing when the long-awaited moment finally arrives

(Elynor Backstedt)

The Covid-19 lockdown that put a stop to cycling events this year was unprecedented, but forced breaks from competition happen all the time – they’re a fact of life for cyclists. Injury, pregnancy, work pressures – there are many outside forces, planned or unexpected, that can cause a racing hiatus. Many top riders have shown it is possible to come back stronger, so there's no need for you to worry about your return to the start line.

Though the pandemic hit us all, each person’s situation is unique. Perhaps you had Covid-19, or maybe you’ve been furloughed from your job... When it comes to returning to your chosen event later this year, or even early in 2021, you need to reflect on your personal circumstances and what is best for you – with the most important being your health and well-being. By taking care of yourself now, you can come back stronger when the time comes.

Pause, reset, play

(Elynor Backstedt)

Looking at how pro riders have coped with breaks from racing can teach us how to spend this time effectively, aiming to imitate their success. Jesse Vandenbulcke (Lotto-Soudal) is the current Belgian national road race champion and, at 24, is one of the youngest mums in the professional peloton. With an air of defiance, Vandenbulcke told me: "Nothing is too hard to beat – if you really want something, it is definitely possible."

In 2017, Vandenbulcke took a year-long gap as a professional cyclist and didn’t do even a single race. Only two seasons later, she stood on the top step of the podium in her National Championships. Vandenbulcke was dressed in the black, yellow and red stripes of Belgium, with her inspiration – son Fabian – nestled in her arms.

"I still can’t believe that I’m national champion," Vandenbulcke reflected on last year’s crowning glory.

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Having a break when she was pregnant gave her a chance to reevaluate her love for the sport. She came out the other side and realised she wasn’t done with cycling – feeling it was a dream she could fulfill with her little boy watching. It has added to rather than diluted her motivation. For Vandenbulcke, the ups and downs of training are made much easier because she is happier in general life. "When I have a bad day on the bike," she said, "Fabian cheers me up straight away when he smiles."

Pregnancy is one cause of a long time off the bike; illness or injury is another. Elynor Bäckstedt (Trek–Segafredo) claimed bronze in Innsbruck, Austria at the 2018 World Championships junior individual time trial after missing most of the season with glandular fever. Bäckstedt had been forced off the bike at the height of the season, battling extreme fatigue.

Refusing to panic, she took advantage by focusing on her core exercises and studies. When the virus was finally shaken, Bäckstedt returned for the final quarter of the season – mentally fresh and ready to tear up the competition. "I’ve learned to be patient and trust the process. The break allowed me to refocus and for my body to be ready again."

This season was going to be Bäckstedt’s first as part of the WorldTour outfit Trek–Segafredo and, being just 18, her goal was to gain as much experience as possible. Although this has yet to come to fruition, she acknowledged: "You can never be fully prepared for a situation like this, but the breaks I’ve had in previous years have helped make me strong-minded. I think that certainly helps a lot, in training and everyday life."

However, Bäckstedt is now facing a further comeback challenge – she fractured her tibia on an off-road training ride in May. "I’m still in a lot of pain, so I’m just doing minimal things," she told CW.

Rehab involves arm workouts a few times a week, with the focus on restoring full range of movement. Remaining determined, Bäckstedt added: "When the cast comes off, it’ll be all about making sure rehab goes correctly and then building the training to get myself back to better than before."

The common theme between Bäckstedt’s and Vandenbulcke’s comebacks is a positive attitude and using the time constructively, laying the groundwork to come back mentally fresh. In this, they both ensured that – far from spelling the end – their breaks were a springboard to success.

Pace yourself

(Elynor Backstedt)

When the coronavirus lockdown was announced, back in March, a lot of us were approaching a good level of fitness, ready for the season to get under way. But what should we have been doing since then? Some riders have continued on the same trajectory – high intensity and high training load. However, with events only dimly back on the horizon, it is important to avoid burnout. On this point, TT specialist and pro coach Matt Bottrill advised: "If you are feeling a bit mentally burnt out because you carried on smashing yourself, I’d suggest you back off a little and then start to rebuild." He took the long view. "For our riders, we backed them off initially and took a middle ground in terms of training. The quality training should come six weeks before the event."

If you still don’t have a confirmed race on the calendar, this is not the time to be hitting peak form.

"It’s about having tangible goals at the moment," said Bottrill. "Find three key areas to work on, such as: bike position, flexibility, strength and conditioning."

Focusing on these areas should help reduce the risk of overtraining, while also providing improvements in areas that many riders neglect – potentially giving that edge when racing is back on. For now, our top priority is staying healthy, motivated and connected with people. This challenge to mental well-being affects each of us differently.

"Nobody’s life is going as expected at the moment," noted Dr Victor Thompson, a sports psychologist who specialises in overcoming setbacks. Being in a healthy place mentally is the foundation upon which all else is built.

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For some riders, the structure that a training schedule brings to each day of the week provides all the purpose needed. For others, having a rigid plan is too much pressure when family health and financial concerns are foremost priorities. It’s important to step back and ask, how am I coping? There is no point adding extra difficulties to your life in this lockdown period.

"Use this time to come out of the lockdown in the best position you can – this means what’s best for your sanity alongside your physical fitness," added Dr Thompson.

Staying motivated

(Daniel Gould)

Some riders have reverted to base training, but simply repeating the winter cycle is mentally challenging, warned Matt Rowe of Rowe and King Cycle Coaching. He is also dubious about Zwift racing, which – though very motivating – can become addictive and lead to overtraining. "As a coach, you’ve got to rein them back," said Rowe. "Zwift allows you to race flat-out as many times a day as you like. It’s just too much. People will burn out."

To mitigate overuse, at the beginning of lockdown, Rowe and King set up a community WhatsApp group for their coached riders. The team uses this to announce weekly target races on Zwift. It’s also helped to boost morale by forging new connections and consolidating existing ones in the socially-distanced sphere. UK riders who can only train before work have linked up with Zwifting riders from New Zealand who can only train after work.

For those who don’t have Zwift, it is vital to find other metrics meaningful to them personally. "Motivationally, it is important to ensure it is their goal and we are not inflicting it upon them," Rowe added. It’s not all about setting PBs for five or 20 minutes, since those one-off maximum efforts don’t closely imitate the demands of a road race or sportive. Targeting improvements in repeatability is a goal favoured by Rowe; for example, the maximum 10-minute power you can produce over three consecutive times.

Spare time should also be invested in looking after your body – working on core, upper body and posture strength. Rowe and King have brought in Alecs Donovan of Yogability to produce yoga workouts for their coached riders. “Yoga is good for the mind and body,” explained Rowe. "It can also be done in a different setting from turbo sessions, and lets you slow down. Use yoga as a mental refresh."

Silver linings

(Philip Williams)

With two young children, and as the director of a removals and storage business, Dan Fox of Cwmcarn Paragon Cycle Club in Wales ordinarily has to squeeze in his training around work and family life. But since lockdown restrictions came in, he has been

holed up at home. Stress relief for the 33-year-old has always been his bike. "My little sanctuary is my garage or out on the road," he told CW.

Cycling has been a source of mental comfort for Fox, and his fitness has been benefiting at the same time. "I’m keeping a structure," said Fox, who is coached by Matt Rowe. "I’m doing specific Zwift sessions on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, then rest on Thursday, racing Friday, long ride Saturday and resting again on Sunday." His extra time is not only filled with training; he’s been able to work on his core stability as well as doing some DIY and walks with the family.

Rowe and King’s WhatsApp group and weekly targeted Zwift races have helped Fox stay engaged – his enthusiasm was palpable: "Going in as a team, wearing the same kit, I’ve found, is really motivating."

A broader perspective

While lockdown has been frustrating at times, it’s important not to forget the reason for the restrictions, and the impact the virus has had on individuals and families directly affected. Kate Allan, another Team Bottrill rider, had her sights on the national 10, 25 and 50-mile time trials, but her plans were thwarted when she contracted Covid-19 in mid-March.

"I’m normally a pretty healthy person," said Allan. "I don’t often feel ill, but if I do, I find an easy spin on the bike aids  my recovery."

Not this time, though; even an easy spin proved too much. Allan’s symptoms flared up and a trip to A&E resulted in a prescription of antibiotics for suspected pneumonia, along with doctor’s advice to take a complete break from cycling.

The 35-year-old is still recovering, and treating each week as it comes. "To deal with it mentally, I’ve written off this season, but I’m keeping an open mind at the same time. If I can do any races this year, I’ll take that as a bonus."

Once recovered, Allan is going to be focusing on positioning and pedalling technique, in the hope of making tangible improvements, before returning to high-intensity training.

A few months’ break from racing need not set you back an irrecoverable amount – as Vandenbulcke, Bäckstedt and many others have shown. The experiences of riders dealing with the coronavirus lockdown span the full spectrum.

Fox is fortunate that his situation has given him a chance to hit his best form yet, while Allan has had to readjust her outlook and accept that a return to racing form is going to take time. What’s most important for all of us is to keep mentally well, so that when racing returns we’ll be ready to translate our lockdown preparation into a peaking phase and ultimately competitive success. Don’t panic – remember that countless racing comebacks have been achieved before, many against the odds, and you are not alone on this occasion.

This feature originally appeared in the print edition of Cycling Weekly, on sale in newsagents and supermarkets, priced £3.25.

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