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How to prepare your body for an epic cycling challenge
James Henderson has just returned from riding in 45 South-West (45SW), one of 2023’s major European ultra-distance cycle or ‘bikepacking’ races. 45SW is a cross-continental, 4,300km ride from Krakow in eastern Poland to Tarifa at the southern-most tip of Spain. This year it passed through seven countries and took James around 20 days to complete.
A client at Beyond Health since 2015, he has taken part in many endurance events and needs regular repair and preparation along the way. He worked with one of our physios James Lee in the lead up to 45SW to ensure he was fully prepared. Here they each give their perspective on what it takes to be physically prepared for such an epic challenge…
The client’s view: James Henderson
How did the ride go?
Pretty well, considering. Any race as long as 45SW is a slightly dizzying challenge, because you just can’t tell what might happen, and with so much climbing over so many different terrains, there are plenty of chances for something critical to break, including various bits of my anatomy. However, once it had settled in, my reliable old body, seemingly decrepit at other times, just got on with it. It was great to ride through so many different countries – the roads in Spain were great and Italy is always fun, but I had never visited Slovenia before and I’ll definitely go back. It was probably a bit too long, at three weeks, but defeating the challenge is still a great feeling, so all in all it was a great experience.
What was the toughest moment during the ride?
The climbs, particularly the final one, Pico Veleta near Granada in southern Spain, a climb of more than 2,500 metres. It lasted much of the day and even took in gravel near the summit at nearly 11,000 feet. I still haven’t forgiven the race organiser.
How did you work out your prep programme with Beyond Health physiotherapist James Lee?
James Lee got me into shape with a cycling-focused programme of stretches and exercises (some tailored to work around other issues I have, particularly with my back, which has seen years of inappropriate and over-use, and an arthritic ankle). I managed to complete them, mostly, and, as a cyclist himself, he also gave me a few pieces of very good advice. Most importantly he advised me to grip the handlebars with ‘light hands’. With your hands spending so much time on the handlebars, there is a risk of losing the touch sensation. If only I had listened! Now I can’t do up any buttons or type very accurately. The sensation will return, but my left hand still functions more like a claw than a hand just now! I did take his advice to have a ‘back, sack and crack’ though, in order to prevent a pustular outbreak down below. It didn’t work entirely, but not to have had it might have been terminal to my race.
What were the main benefits of these sessions for you?
I was pretty fit as the race approached, so the later sessions focused on flexibility and the strength to maintain positions and sustain the day-long rides without straining the body too badly.
Will you continue using the methods worked on with James for your future health and fitness?
I will certainly continue to do some of the exercises and will be returning for a ‘wrap’ session to reintroduce me to normal life (the back’s already an issue again), but I always have an eye for the next event and so will definitely take his advice about future fitness. I am limited now in that I cannot run, but there are plenty of other active things to do in life.
What advice would you give someone attempting a similar challenge?
These cycle rides are very, very long, which is more than enough time to come to the decision that they are not for you after all (always sleep on a decision to quit, life can look very different the next morning). So first, ride, ride, ride, into the dark, and then camp with gear that you carry, and then ride, ride some more. Also, perhaps rather than one of the really long events, enter what in the bikepacking world is disarmingly called a ‘sprint’. BikingMan has a series of races in Europe and further afield at 1,000 to 1,500km.
The physio’s view: James Lee
How did you plan your work with James to get him ready?
James and I discussed in detail the nature of the event and his preparation to date for it. We discussed his past medical and injury history, and problem areas, particularly lower back and ankle pain. We then completed a mobility and strength assessment, discussed nutrition and hydration, and did a formal bikefit at Cyclefit, as well as a gait analysis with our specialist cycling podiatrist Mick Habgood to put James’s foot in its best and most efficient position when riding such long distances.
What were they key areas you worked on with him?
We implemented a mobility and strength programme based on the testing completed prior to the trip to prepare James well. This involved spinal mobility, core strength and leg strength exercises. We discussed best times to complete this programme when on the road, plus cycling specific technique pointers to improve comfort and efficiency on the bike.
What were the main challenges he faced along way?
Spending such long hours on the bike, comfort is king. James touched base halfway through with a number of areas that were uncomfortable, namely his foot, for which I sent over a list of exercises, stretches and self-manual therapy techniques to try and relive some of the areas of pressure/tension. James reported that his back was comfortable for the most part which was a great relief.
How proud are you of him for completing this challenge?
It is an incredible feat of endurance to cycle 4,300km in mountainous and hot conditions across Europe. To do this unsupported and at a distance of cycling James hadn’t completed before is very impressive. Great work James!
What top tips can you share with people who spend a lot of time on their bike?
- Ensure you build time on the bike towards the distance you are aiming for. If it is a multi-day event, then complete back-to-back days of training.
- Ensure good nutrition and hydration tAll Postshroughout training.
- Complete two strength and mobility sessions a week that are cycling specific and target key muscle groups to ensure comfort in all positions when you are riding
- Consider doing a proper bikefit to ensure you are in the most comfortable and aerodynamic position in the saddle, and also that you have the correct shoe type and foot position.
Expert physio in Parsons Green, London
If you are preparing for a big sporting challenge or need treatment for an injury, arrange a consultation with James Lee or another of our physios by getting in touch here.