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By: Zdenko Kahlina
Have you ever bonked? What is ‘bonking’?
‘Bonking’ is a phrase used in the cycling world to describe the state you reach when your body simply runs out of energy. It usually happens like this:
- My bike ride went well enough and, after a day in the office, I was feeling comfortable as I sailed past the static commuter traffic on my way home. Then, with only 14 kilometers to go, it all changed. I simply ran up against the proverbial wall. Cycling through treacle would have been a breeze compared to this. I was struggling to get the crank to turn even in the lowest of gears. My heart was ticking over at a steady 120 beats per minute but my legs were just not working. I made it home, but it took 30 minutes longer than normal and the experience was not one I wanted to repeat.
So what went wrong? I bonked!
Bonking is one of the worst feelings you can have on two wheels. If you have ever bonked on a ride you will know what I am talking about, a complete collapse of your mind, body and soul. One minute you are smiling, flying along and the next minute you can barely stop the drool from coming out of your mouth, never mind trying to turn over the pedal crank!
Here I want to emphasize the importance of food intake during the ride. To ensure maximum efficiency you should always consume approximately 360 calories every hour on the bike.
What Does Bonking Mean
Bonking is when your glycogen stores have been depleted in your liver and muscles to dangerously low levels. You know when you have bonked because of the unmistakable fatigue that comes over you.
Bonking while Cycling
Bonking on the bike, also known as “hitting the wall” in running, is simply when you are completely and utterly exhausted. You have no more energy left in the tank. The glucose levels in your blood is abnormally low so parts of you start to systematically shutdown.
Your legs and your brain both require glucose in order to operate, but your brain takes priority. In the beginning, your legs lose considerable power and it becomes increasingly difficult to continue pedaling, but as you continue to ride then your brain function also starts to deteriorate. So not only are you ridiculously weak, but you may turn to the dark side and become irritable, emotional and even hostile.
Types Of Bonks
Dead Legs – your legs just will not go even though the rest of your body is keen. Complete Meltdown – a complete body shutdown. Nothing is working! A great combination of nutrition errors, dehydration, poor training and overexertion combined into one.
Signs That You Have Bonked
Physical Signs of bonking
- Immense fatigue
- Uncontrollable shaking or shivering
- Unable to balance – dizzy or lightheaded
- Increased sweating
Mental Signs of Bonking
- Loss of concentration
- Irritable, emotional or hostile
- Mentally defeated – all thoughts turn negative ie. you have to stop, unable to finish event, feeling like the grim reaper has come to take you…
Biting Off More Than You Can Chew – Bonking.
With all this in mind, I went digging around internet for some bonking stories (just watch those Google searches spike…) and to prove they’re human, I even found some stories from the pro peloton as well. Believe it or not, the fit people who ride a bike for a living get it wrong too as we’ll find out. I know of one very fit rider who makes his living from riding bikes and whose friend got them home by drip feeding them Haribo! So without further ado, grab some carbs (just in case) and a cup of tea and let’s listen to some stories of pain.
In 1996, Indurain was trying for what would have been a record 6th Tour de France win, but on the epic Stage 7 of the ’96 Tour on the final climb to Les Arcs with only 5km to the finish line, Indurain was dropped by the group as he blew. Virenque, who went on to win the stage said it was one of the most remarkable sights of the Tour, as other riders broke away Indurain “appeared to cycle on the same piece of road.” Amazing for a man who won five tours back-to-back, it just shows it can hit everyone!
Armstrong famously bonked in the 2000 Tour on the Col de Joux-Plane climb of Stage 16.
The Col de Joux Plane was not so kind to Lance Armstrong. In the 2000 Tour, Armstrong, who was in the yellow jersey at the time, started the climb with Ullrich, Virenque and Heras, who were chasing a small breakaway group. Part way up the climb Armstrong suffered a serious “bonk” and was unable to respond to attacks by Heras and Ullrich. While Armstrong maintained his overall lead, he lost 2 minutes to eventual stage winner Virenque and 1:30 to Ullrich that day. Armstrong described it as one of his worst days ever on a bike. Pantani, meanwhile, had a disastrous day, not even contesting the climb he had set the record on and losing over 13 minutes on the day. Not eating was a mistake Armstrong vowed to never make again.
In 1998, Ullrich flatted and then bonked at the base of the climb up to La Plagne, the day after he made up for it and ferociously attacked, only Pantani could stay with him.
Contador infamously bonked on stage 7 of the 2009 Paris-Nice. This episode of hit the wall cost Contador a place on the podium, it transpired he had failed to eat and hydrate as he said he was too busy fending off attacks.
Zdenko bonked too
I have had two memorable bonking moments on the bike during my 14 years long carrier. One as an junior somewhere in rural Medimurje region of Croatia and one as a more mature rider (still only 19 years old) racing in Italy.
I was certainly surprised and a touch disappointed in myself when it happened for a second time in a foreign country, on a boiling hot day and with only 5 km’s of uphill road to get to the finish line. This was at the professional stage race ‘Giro del Piave’, in Belluno region. The stage started in Belluno and finished in the Dolomites atop of Tree Cime di Lavaredo mountain pass.
Many years after the incident, the Italian experience sounds more exotic and certainly had a nicer backdrop while I sat at the side of the road weeping, only 5 kilometers from the finish line. I felt good and very strong that day, until suddenly all energy left me. That’s when I realized I forgot to eat during the stage that was 180 km long. Big mistake! I was busy racing and attacking all these Italian riders in my (third) group, who looked so professional to me, that I forgot to empty my back pockets as I still had some food. But when I bonked, I had to stop… suddenly I couldn’t turn my pedals any more. I tried to hold for one car that was following the race for a while, but even this was too much. All the guys that were far behind me passed me at this point. I couldn’t turn my pedals any more. I stopped and got off the bike. I sat in the deep grass by the road unable to continue with the race. I abandoned! Soon after one car stopped and offered help to take me to the finish line. But he didn’t have a roof rack so I had to leave my bike behind me… in the grass. Just like that!
At the finish my coach was not impressed when I told him I had to quit the race and where I left my bike. The whole team boarded the club van and coach drove down the mountain towards our hotel, quite pissed off. He told me to show him my bike when (if!) I see it. I guess, he didn’t believe the bike would be still there… but it was! Except, the coach was driving so fast that I spotted the bike in the last second… almost missed it! We stopped, picked up the bike and that was the end of this adventure.
How do you avoid bonking?
Avoiding bonking in theory is simple – eat enough carbohydrates to convert into glucose to fill your glycogen stores. The problem is that you can only process 60g to 90g of carbohydrates an hour as discussed in what to eat on a long bike ride . So no matter how much you eat you can only convert so much of it to usable energy. Eating too much is a whole other can of worms… So if you are eating the correct amount then it will come down to monitoring intensity and making sure you are not exceeding your limit and staying properly hydrated. The time to avoid bonking in a race really begins long before, in your training, and continues through the implementation of a pre-race plan of food and race nutrition, hydration and pacing.
Early Detection of Bonking
Bonking can hit you like a ton of bricks with no warning, but sometimes (especially if you have had extensive firsthand experience with bonking) you can start to see the signs of the bonk coming on. Riding starts to get much more difficult, you start losing focus or getting hungry (hungry & angry).
What Do I Do If I Have Bonked or Feel it Coming On
Immediately decrease intensity, start to eat simple carbohydrates and try to rehydrate – drinking sports drink takes care of both of those at once.
If you are deep in to a bonk consider getting picked up or dropping out of the current event especially if it is not an important one. Recovery time is exponentially longer the harder you try to push through. If you are stubborn and want to finish – get off the bike, take in some carbohydrates and continue when you are no longer dizzy, disoriented and have sufficient energy.
If you catch yourself early enough then you may be able to continue riding slowly as you take in some simple carbs, often this can save a race. Bonking is actually a way of protecting the body from further damage, if you will not look out for your body properly, it will! Do yourself a favor and don’t let it get to that point.
When the darkness of bonk descends it is pretty hard to see a way out. We’ve all been there, but it is never nice entering that horrible zone where you just grind the miles out willing it to end and for someone to hand you a bottle of coke, some chocolate or cake, (both are good) and a hug. But the thing is, although you feel alone, you’re not and we’ve all been there at some point or other. Sometimes lots of little mistakes combine; riding when you’ve not fuelled properly, riding when you probably should be resting, not packing enough food and going a bit too hard are all errors that can contribute to a bonk. Sometimes we don’t do anything wrong and it is just a case of it being one of those days.
As Mr Armstrong once said, sometimes you’re the hammer, sometimes you’re the nail. Sometimes you’ve just got to take your turn in the pain cave. Key is to eat & drink along the way – refuel… bring your own prata or ‘popeye spinach’!!
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Source: I love cycling portal