A complete guide to recovering and resting in order to comeback better, faster and stronger than before…
Why is recovery so important for a cyclist?
In the most basic terms, when you exercise you put your body under stress which breaks down your body’s muscles. These then require rest in order to recover. During this recovery period, those muscles adapt – ie they come back stronger than before. This results in those muscles, in particularly your leg muscles when you cycle, being better able to cope with similar strains in future, something which allows you to ride with more power for longer, and therefore improve as a cyclist.
Is that why my legs ache after I train?
Exactly. What you’re feeling actually has a name – it’s called ‘DOMS’ or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. It’s most commonly experienced within 24-48 hours after a ride that’s stretched you in some way. What you’re feeling are micro-tears in your muscles as they recover. When your body repairs muscle damage, there’s an inflammatory response, which is why that tender swelling sensation associated with it is often described as muscle burn. This process of rebuilding stronger muscles can only happen, however, if the body has adequate time to heal. For that reason, recovery rather than exercise or exertion, can be seen as the most important element of periodization as it’s the time when your body’s fitness is actually improving.
What are the risks of getting recovery wrong?
If you don’t allow your muscles to adapt properly, usually by going out and training again before they’ve had a chance to recover, then their adaptation will flounder. After all, your muscles won’t be sufficiently rested or repaired to respond to what is being demanded of them. In the short term, this can lead to a greater risk from illness, as your immune system will come under increasing pressure, but you’ll also be more susceptible to injury. After all, tired muscles don’t respond as efficiently and this can compromise your central nervous system.
As a consequence, you may find that you’re pulled into all sorts of odd riding positions on your bike as your body overcompensates to provide some short-term protection, aggravating joints and previous injuries in the process.
Persist in hard training without allowing your body to properly recover and, in the long term, you’ll eventually begin to experience the debilitating symptoms associated with what is known as Overtraining Syndrome. At their worst, these can lead to weight gain, muscle loss, and a depressed state of mind that will ultimately leave you (gulp!) sick of the sight of your bike.
“Overtraining can lead to weight gain, muscle loss and a state of mind that leaves you sick of the sight of your bike”
What’s the best way to get it right, then?
Just as an effective training plan clearly needs to outline when and how to train, it’ll also need to include carefully placed and considered rest or recovery phases. This might be a single day slap bang in the middle of a training block, or a taper of up to a week long before a specific event so that you arrive at the start line fresh and raring to go. Employing a professional coach or using a service such as trainingpeaks.com is a good way to ensure that you get a well-balanced plan. Alternatively, you can find generic ones to download online or even draw one up for yourself.
If you do decide to go the latter (cheaper) route, be sure to avoid the most commonly made mistake made by cyclists – ie repeating the same training, week after week, for the entire season. The formula to remember is that progression and overload (or exercise) plus recovery equals improvement.
A structured training programme, therefore, won’t just include a variety of training sessions, but also ensure the right amount of recovery is scheduled to take place at the right time. After all, just as failing to get enough rest can lead to burn out, too many recovery phases will prevent you from ever reaching your full potential.
Are there any tell-tale signs that I haven’t recovered enough?
Yes, several, all of which are worth keeping an eye on in order to adapt your training programme accordingly. Some you’ll be able to measure, while others will more than likely be a question of feel. So, for example, measure your heart rate three times in a row when you wake up, if the average is significantly higher than normal, take a rest day.
Similarly, if you find your heart-rate exceptionally high when you’re on the bike or indeed unusually low and you’re feeling well below par, cut your training session short. Paying close attention to what your body is telling you is vital.
Didn’t sleep well? Feel terrible as soon as you get on the bike? Simply can’t face yet another day in the saddle? Then give yourself a break, and do something less taxing instead. The same goes, of course, if you feel run down. Exercising when you’re not feeling 100% puts your immune system under undue stress – and as we’ve already pointed out that’s something which is only likely to result in illness.
How do recovery rides help?
Recovery rides are used by some cyclists on their rest days as a means of recuperating. The thinking is that by keeping your legs moving by continuing to turn over the pedals, you’ll get the blood flowing and help to flush out toxins, such as lactic acid, produced by intense exercise. The key to using a recovery ride effectively is to maintain minimal effort.
So stick to low gears, keep your route as flat as possible, and don’t ride so hard that you can’t carry on a full conversation with someone – some even use them as an ideal way to get in a sociable ride with their children. Keep it short, too. Under an hour, ideally.
Staying completely clear of the bike on a rest day, however, works just as well for many riders. While you can spend your rest day vegging on the sofa guzzling chocolates, you’ll find it of even more benefit if you can get out and have a stroll or go for a dip in the local swimming pool.
As is the case with recovery rides, both walking and light swimming can be classed as ‘active recovery strategies’ and are gentle enough to help ensure your body can recover sufficiently to take on the following week’s set of exercises. Crucially, however, they’ll also give your mind a break from endlessly stressing about the business of riding a bike, alleviating the mental fatigue that can contribute to over-training.
Whether cycling, walking or swimming for recovery, however, the thing to remember is to keep your pulse rate low. Raise your pulse and you’ll raise your metabolic rate. Raise your metabolic rate and your muscles will fail to achieve the adaptations that your training has pushed them to achieve. In other words, all your hard work will be wasted.
Is there a ritual I should follow at the end of each training session?
Absolutely. Indeed, it’s helpful to think of your recovery period beginning before you’ve even got off the bike. That 10-15 minute cool down period you may have seen the top pros doing at the end of a Tour stage is considered vital to segue between the two key parts of periodization – exertion and recovery. So don’t sprint home after a workout.
Take the time to lower your gears, and let your legs spin out for the last part of your ride, allowing your BPMs to return to close to your resting heart rate. Once off the bike, you then have a 30-45-minute window to get a recovery snack in, and then aim to have a post-ride recovery meal within the next hour or so.
Don’t just think about replenishing your used-up glycogen stores with carbs during this period, either, protein is absolutely vital to the adaptation process and very much needs to be in the mix.
Should I also stretch?
Although stretching is useful for keeping your muscles supple and for preventing injury, it’s not commonly regarded as an effective recovery technique per se. A much more common practice – and with good reason – is to have a massage. Pros, in particular, find this an ideal recovery aid, especially on multiday events and after intense sessions when their body needs to be ready to perform to a high standard again within a relatively short space of time. Deep-tissue, sports massages that target the legs, back, neck and shoulders over the course of an hour or more are best.
Most of us are, of course, unlikely to have a personal soigneur on hand at the end of a tough workout session to give us a rub down, which makes a simple foam roller a pretty decent backup. For effective use, simply rest your leg muscles and glutes on the cylinder and roll slowly back and forth over it, pausing and pressing into the sorest spots for up to 45 seconds at a time.
For hard-to-reach areas such as shoulder blades and other parts of your back, try using a tennis ball, simply put it between a wall and the affected spot and roll it out. These kinds of rub downs can increase blood flow and help align muscle fibers as well as eradicate the tight spots and knots that restrict movement and cause pain.
Anything else I can try?
Some sports professionals have been championing the benefits of compression clothing since at least the 1970s, and there’s an increasing amount of evidence that suggests there may be something to it. A 2010 study by the Australian Institute for Sport, for example, strongly suggested that wearing compression clothing can significantly decrease swelling during recovery while reducing soreness and improving performance if worn during subsequent sessions.
Indeed, these findings, along with the claim that it can lower heart- rate during exercise, was enough to persuade the UCI to ban compression clothing for use during races. Whether or not it can provide some kind of Elastane advantage during competition is still a matter of some conjecture, but there’s good reasoning behind the idea that compression socks or tights can help your legs recover more quickly. By squeezing your legs, they increase venous return (ie the rate at which blood flows back to the heart) thereby improving circulation and accelerating the removal of lactic acid.
And how important is sleep?
‘The Tour de France is won in bed.’ So claimed five-time winner Eddie Merckx, pointing to the fact that sleep is the single most important factor in the recovery process. It’s an observation that has since been borne out by the marginal gains brigade who reckon that the average pro cyclist clocks up to 70 hours of shut-eye a week during the Tour de France compared to the 40-50 hours most of us would snooze for in the same amount of time.
The likes of Team Sky have even been known to transport riders’ individual bedding between hotels each day, as well as employ ‘sleep professionals’ to ensure that its athletes get enough zzzs in. None of which is that surprising given that, among other things, sleep is the prime time that your body produces human growth hormone and undergoes protein synthesis, the key process by which your muscles undergo adaptation.
How much sleep should I be getting, then?
Well, unless you’re chasing the likes of Chris Froome over mountains on a regular basis, anywhere between seven and nine hours a night according to most experts. If you’re getting less than this while holding down a job, raising a family as well as training, then you’ll most likely be in what’s known as sleep deficit. In these circumstances, your body will find it harder to combat disease and illness, your concentration will be diminished, your heart won’t recover as well and you’ll more than likely have a higher resting heart rate than you would otherwise. And that’s just off the bike. On it, you may well find your power output is reduced, alongside your capacity for cranking out long distances.
Can I improve my sleep quality?
If, for whatever reason, you can’t get an uninterrupted night’s sleep, then try to supplement your slumber with a top-up snooze once in a while. At the very least try to grab a cheeky half-hour power-nap within two hours of a hard training ride – something which will see your stress, immunity and hormone levels returned to near-enough normal. To bolster your chances of improved sleep at night, lacing your diet with certain foods can help (a 2006 study found that some popular grape varieties, for example, contain high levels of the sleep hormone melatonin), while ensuring your room isn’t overly hot will also help you drop off sooner.
Circadian rhythm may sound the like name of a 1970s prog-folk duo, but it’s actually a reference to your internal body clock. This regulates many bodily functions including heart rate, blood pressure, hormone release, and body temperature, all of which act together to help you stay awake during the day, and sleep at night.
When you begin to fall asleep, your body temperature naturally begins to decrease by a couple of degrees so that your body can conserve energy. If your bedroom is overly warm, your body will struggle to lose that heat and keep you awake, or at least interrupt your sleeping pattern, resulting in restlessness.
So try to make sure that your bedroom is a little cooler than the rest of your home. Sleeping aids such as earplugs, eyes masks and meditative recordings can help, as can avoiding smart devices and social media at least an hour before shut eye. Even if the blue-light emitted by your phone’s screen (which many studies have shown can disrupt sleep patterns) doesn’t get you, the latest rants and pointless posts by politicians and internet trolls almost certainly will. A book before bedtime is a much healthier choice.
What about ice baths, do they work?
Probably not. Although ice baths have been a highly publicized technique used by many top athletes, most studies doubt their effectiveness. A 2007 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, for example, concluded that ice baths may even hinder recovery.
What would appear to be more beneficial is the use of contrast bathing, the process of immersing yourself alternatively in cool and then hot-water baths to facilitate circulation. If your home isn’t rocking two separate side-by-side bathtubs then try taking a shower and switching between blasts of hot and cold water instead. You’ll reap similar benefits and save yourself the bother of having to give your bathroom a major makeover!