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The Importance of Looking After Your Body

Last week during our Q&A Matthew touched upon getting ill with Cytomegalovirus (CMV) and how that affected him physically and how that had a knock-on effect regarding his ability to race and train. Subsequent to CMV he decided to leave the British Cycling track programme to try and get better before the season ahead (in 2017) with JLT Condor.

After talking extensively with others it would seem that viruses tend to end peoples careers in cycling, I’ve found more often than not the illness tends to give a platform for doubt to manifest: this is then usually followed by a long bout of depression which often results in riders sadly hanging up their wheels so to say.

This is tragic, completely and utterly. Matt was one of the lucky ones who was able to get better in his own time and on his own terms. However, many aren’t in such fortunate positions as he was, therefore I will be talking about the importance of looking after your body and why it’s so paramount in order to stay in the sport and to attain success.

Paris Tours 2020 - Matt back at the front

Helps you to get the most out of your training and prolongs your career

It’s no secret that eating correctly can improve your all round health and performance, we’ve been told since we were children to ‘eat your greens’, but really there’s so much truth in that. We have to ensure that we eat enough vitamins and minerals, this helps your body to function as it should thus helping you to get the most out of your training. There’s no shame in getting these minerals from supplements, but you do need to ensure that it’s been batch tested as it goes without saying that you don’t want to fail a test due to an adverse analytical finding. If in doubt - check the WADA website. Ensure that you also eat enough carbohydrates and protein to ensure that you get the most out of your training and attain optimal ‘gains’. Eating a suitable diet for your training and racing needs will ensure that you don't find yourself running on low out the back of a race too. Under eating / not eating the right things can massively compromise your immune system. In short - you are what you eat.

Stretching is also a great and easy way to ensure that you get the most out of your training. Stretching helps to keep your muscles flexible and strong. Stretching regularly will also help you to maintain a range of movement with your muscles, therefore your time on the bike will be a lot more enjoyable and ache free - no one enjoys back pain two hours into a four hour ride! Stretching will also help to prevent injuries from occurring which sometimes can be career ending or take a prolonged period to rectify. Therefore, more stretching will help massively in the quest for a prolonged career!

Another huge part of looking after your body adequately is: sleep! Something hardly any of us get right. Our sleep hygiene plays a paramount role in our body being able to resynthesise its stores efficiently. While you sleep your body recovers faster, meaning you will in theory receive more gains from the racing / training that you have been participating in. Sleep is amazing for recovering your tired muscles (of course when followed by an adequate diet) which will allow your body to carry on competing and training at the very top for much longer than your competitors who neglect these important aspects of looking after your body. If you are injured, battered and bruised from a crash or ill sleep will also be your best friend in helping you to recover.

Look after yourself - drink coffee!

Prevents you from getting ill or injured / prolonging illness or injury

As I mentioned previously it can often be career ending to cyclists when they become ill with a virus. For Matthew Gibson he contracted cytomegalovirus after an altitude camp in Tenerife. For Matthew he believes if he had initially rested when he became ill he would have made a full recovery a lot faster. However, had he looked after his body in the first place he wouldn’t have become so ill: he believes the virus came about due to pushing too hard and doing extra training on top of what his coaches at British Cycling were setting for him. This would have been way too much for his body to cope with and therefore compromising his immune system.

Therefore please don’t put your body into the red without prior discussions to do so with your coach/coaches. Matthew truly believed he was doing the right thing at the time - training hard logically seems like the best thing to do, right? Wrong. You are set specific sessions by coaches for a reason, so please don’t think more is needed or beneficial, it could seriously harm your body.

Other famous cyclists have suffered very badly subsequent to viruses and have been forced to look after their body with more server measures. For example Emil Johansson the slope style and free ride cyclist from Sweden unfortunately contracted Epstein-Barr virus at the end of his 2017 season, this then led to him needing 10 months off of the bike. Emil was fortunate as he had the best doctors to help him back to full health. Because of this he is already back at the top of his sport, however had he not looked after his body and prioritised his recovery then there would have been very little chance that he’d have been able to carry on racing and training.

Therefore even if you do get ill, it’s very important to look after your body and take whatever steps necessary to get yourself back to full health. In the first instance ensuring your body is in the best possible shape will help, however it’s important to note that at times you will unfortunately become ill or injured, it's unfortunately just a given. But believe in the process and ease back into training gradually, carrying on at the same speed will only prolong the issues that your body is trying to fix.

Improving general wellbeing / mental health

Looking after your body will help to improve your general wellbeing and mental health. It’s so important to remember that your body also includes your brain which of course relates to your mental health. Keeping your thoughts and feelings in check in my opinion seems to be massively overlooked in our sport.

A lot of riders now seem to unfortunately be suffering with what could be described as ‘burn out’. Many have ended their careers early due to their mental health, most notably Marcel Kittel. Too much pressure and not enough support can leave athletes feeling burnt out, not to mention on top of that being away from family for a prolonged period and travelling extensively can only antagonise issues further. Riders can understandably end up mentally very unwell if their mental health isn't looked after.

In order to ensure riders look after our bodies they could be briefed on the signs to look out for mental illness in themselves and teammates. As well as that members of staff should also be mental health first aiders - it’s common place in working environments so why not in sport? I would argue the work of professional athletes is a lot more demanding than a 9-5, therefore I feel they should get every ounce of support needed for such a busy and competitive occupation.

Another important aspect of looking after your mental health is the correct preparation going into race. Making sure that you are mentally ready for the strain that racing and training entails is really important when it comes to performing at your best. Many riders will talk with their sports psychologists to ensure that they feel confident ahead of big races. It’s also an important aspects for riders overcoming any issues they may have and therefore giving them coping strategies to make sure it won’t become a barrier to success. Most of it is mind over matter, right? A happy head equals fast legs. Always.

Calvin Cheung 2020

All of the above ways will help you to look after your body when it comes to racing and training. Athletes face a huge amount of strain both physically and mentally week in week out and it’s important to therefore look after our bodies accordingly. It’s also especially important if you have a busy race schedule (remember them?) ahead of you. Getting every single marginal gain out of your body by looking after it could result in some surprising results - after all the little changes to your training habits tend to be the ones that stick.

So please please please make sure that you look after your body - you only get one of them!

Until next time, Charlotte

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