I've been cycling for almost a year now and have done a lot of different kinds of rides. I started out training for a century ride, which meant just a lot of hours in the saddle. There wasn't a lot of intensity to that, just a lot of time. Now I'm training to race. The time factor is still huge, but I'm not doing 5+ hour rides every weekend any more. I'm doing shorter rides, more often, and with a different focus. I've noticed some really interesting changes that went along with the training switch.
First let me define what I'm talking about. Long rides = 3 or more hours at a moderate pace. Terrain is not a big factor. Hard rides = Usually 1-2 hours involving constant or repeated efforts of 80% or more maximum ability. Whether on flats or hills, these rides always involve some serious suffering.
- During the ride I wouldn't get really tired. Except for that one time I gave blood the day before, but that doesn't count.
- After the ride I would be exhausted. Barely able to keep my eyes open kind of exhausted.
- I ate like a starving hyena. No food was safe around me, both during and after the ride.
- My muscles would be very tender for the rest of the day. Not really sore while using them, just very tender to the touch. This was not good for my post-ride massages.
- I slept more on the day of the ride, and then would go back to a normal sleeping pattern for the rest of the week.
- During the ride I use up every ounce of energy I have available. By the end I can barely push the pedals and I feel like I'm going to puke. That's how I know I did the workout right.
- Once the ride is over, I don't feel the need to fall into bed and sleep for a few hours. I'm physically exhausted and don't want to move much, but not mentally worn out. I do become an even bigger klutz for the rest of the day.
- I don't want to eat. I will eat while riding if I have to (only if the ride is more than an hour) and I will force myself to drink a protein shake afterward, but I'm not hungry.
- I get weird cravings and dislikes for the rest of the day. Once I am hungry my stomach feels very sensitive and a lot of foods make me feel sick. Then I start craving strange stuff. I figure it's like practice for being pregnant.
- My muscles aren't tender, and massage feels great. But it hurts like a bitch to walk up stairs. The next apartment I get will be on the ground floor.
- I need about 9 hours of sleep every night. More on the days I actually work out. Otherwise I turn into a non-functional zombie.
- I sometimes get grumpy after rides and my patience goes right out the window. I don't know what that's all about.
I used to think that my long rides were hard on my body, and in a way they were. I was building a lot of endurance in a relatively short period of time. But because I wasn't directing all the energy I had into my legs, I could still eat normally and pretty much function normally while on the bike. Once I got off the bike, I would eat a lot more and my body would say, "Ok, time to shut down and digest and recover!" and I would fall asleep. My muscles would be tender from the sheer length of time they were at work, but there was a limited amount of real damage and lactic acid because I hadn't been working them that hard. They would only need a good night's rest and then they'd be recovered and ready to go.
On the other hand, intensity workouts tear my body apart so that it can be rebuilt stronger (faster, better...). My heart and lungs are pushed to their maximum level, allowed to recover a little and then pushed again. My muscles scream in pain and I have to convince my brain not to listen to them. Overall, I am training myself to cope with suffering. Sounds like fun, huh? That kind of ride allows no extra energy or blood flow to be directed toward digestion, which is why I can consume only liquids. I don't know what causes the weird temporary likes and dislikes. My legs always take about 36 hours to feel even close to recovered. I'm guessing that's a combination of glycogen depletion and cellular damage from the intense strain. And then I sleep. I do about two (sometimes three) intense workouts each week, but I need seven nights of good sleep or I can feel the fatigue seeping into my legs. The sleep allows me to heal, brings my resting heart rate down, and clears my head for the next bout of suffering.
I don't actually know what I'm talking about. All the science-y stuff up there was just conjecture. But it sounds good to me. In the end, it's all about increasing my ability to suffer. Like Lemond said, "It never gets easier. You just go faster."