Personal Performance Enhancing Experiments

The thing I like most about cycling is the ability to travel relatively great distances and see the earth from various perspectives, all under my own power. To do this, I sometimes ask my body to do things that are rather hard on it. As such, my body has often communicated its distress through headaches, dizziness, cramps and other discomforts.

The goals I’ve set for myself this year have led me to further investigate these conditions. I hope to determine how I might best relieve any undue distress upon my body while hopefully reaping some performance gains at the same time. Success will be the ability to ride farther, faster and ultimately see more miles of gravel roads within the amount of time that my life allows for cycling.

What I’ve discovered So far

I occasionally get headaches after rides of more than a couple hours and also after driving long distances in a car. These headaches are sometimes accompanied by dizziness. I used to think it was dehydration because that’s typically the most obvious cause for most people. As such, last year I was carrying a 100oz bladder and two 20oz bottles for every ride and drinking until I had to relieve myself almost every hour. This was in addition to hydrating better the day before a long ride as well as rehydrating afterward. The headaches persisted.

I asked my doctor recently what might be causing the headaches. She pointed out that I have slightly low blood pressure and that could be part of the issue. She also made the recommendation that I experiment more with my nutrition, suggesting that while I was adequately hydrating, I may not have been ingesting enough electrolytes. The main one being sodium. I pointed out that after Gravel Worlds last year I felt pretty good. I don’t remember having a headache during or following that 15-hour ride, which I thought was pretty remarkable. That said, we ate a lot on that ride.

During this discussion with my doctor, it dawned on me that Sam had shared some of his salt tablets with me. That was further evidence that better replenishment of electrolytes might be at least part of the solution. As such, I will now be eating more and more each ride to find out what foods and in what amounts are the most beneficial to my performance and recovery.

My doctor also suggested that my symptoms were indicative of tension headaches. Tension headaches may be caused by maintaining an unsupported upright position without much movement of the head or neck for long periods of time. It may be made worse with eye strain by focusing on a particular distance ahead. This explained my headaches while driving too. She recommended a good pair of sunglasses to ease eye strain and some stretching of my neck during long rides and drives. I probably could have discovered this on the Google.

Another issue limiting my cycling endeavors are muscle cramps. Most notably, at Bohemian Sto Mil last year I started cramping before halfway through the race! [I don’t consider myself one who races. It’s as much a race as a half- marathon is a race. There are plenty of folks, myself included, just hoping to finish.] On some of the hills, my quads and hamstrings were cramping at the same time to the point where I had to get off and walk up the rest of the hill. This is frustrating because I usually have plenty of strength and energy left to continue but alas, the pain of cramping is tough to ignore. 

I didn’t ask the doctor about this. I didn’t ask because I’m quite certain the cramps are a result of my own lack of commitment to gradual preparation for longer and harder efforts. And I don’t stretch enough. By building my body through more frequent rides this summer and a calculated, progressive, increase in distance and effort, I hope to experience much less cramping. 

The Plan

So here’s my plan. A few tweaks and experiments should solve most of my problems. I will have fewer headaches by consuming more electrolytes as part of my normal diet as well as during rides. I will eat more nutrient-dense foods and add more salt to them when appropriate. I will experiment with ways to replenish my electrolytes more effectively. During rides, I’ll be experimenting with various ratios of solid foods and electrolyte drink mixes. I’ve heard too much solid food on a long ride can cause unpleasant digestive issues. I’ve also read that too much sugar in some drink mixes can cause a crash later in your ride. As such, my experiments may prove to be a delicate dance until I figure out what works best for me. This may also help my cramping but I intend to tackle that from other angles as well. 

I’ll be less susceptible to cramping because I’ll prioritize more frequent rides with an emphasis on progressive increases in distance and speed. [Speed hasn’t often been a metric I like to measure for its own sake. Rather, I measure and endeavor to improve speed as a means of going farther and taking in more miles of road].

Before I get to 100-mile rides, I will have done many preparatory 20, 50, and 75-mile rides. I’ve also devised a list of stretches and mobility exercises that serve my purposes. I’ll do a mix of these stretches for at least 20 minutes a day, 5 days a week. I’ve done well so far this year by making this a part of my morning routine and often adding some stretching time in the evening. 

Because I believe the cause of my headaches to be twofold, I have plans for reducing tension during rides as well. Consciously relaxing my upper body and striving to maintain good form in my riding position should help reduce the tightness and tension in my neck. Though I’m comfortable in my riding position, I could benefit by supporting my upper body more with my core vs my arms and shoulders.  I’ll need to figure out a way to periodically remind myself to do this until it becomes the norm. I’m hoping I can connect it to my appreciation for viewing my surroundings. It is important to me that I not forget why I am out on a ride in the first place, which is to look at the things around me. I’ll use that as a reminder to relax and move my head around more even as I vigorously push the pedals.

My plans, thus far stated, are my starting point. I will likely need to reevaluate as I learn. If I struggle with establishing these solutions as habit, I will tweak their implementation to make them easier to achieve. Perhaps I’ll be led to discover other issues or find that my conclusions thus far are incorrect. If so, I’ll be grateful for what I’ve learned.  Then, I’ll adjust as necessary. If I still have headaches by mid-summer, perhaps I’ll buy a pair of decent sunglasses to replace the $2.50 tinted safety glasses I normally wear.

– Jason

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