Line up 100 pro cyclists and ask them for one piece of advice and many will talk abut the importance of recovery. Without adequate rest and recuperation (R and R), you're not giving your body a chance to recover from the stresses you've placed upon it. See it as the key that unlocks the door to progression and improvement.
Riding a Grand Tour requires the body to remain on top form on a daily basis for three weeks, which is why pro teams employ an extensive backroom staff including everybody from physiotherapists and masseurs, to chiropractors, osteopaths, nutritionists and chefs. Without a support team, no cyclist would finish a three-week race, let alone compete in one. Just because you're not a pro doesn't mean you shouldn't take your recovery seriously. If you ride on a regular basis, you need to give your body a chance to recover afterwards.
During heavy bouts of cycling, the body is under enormous strain: muscle fibres get damaged; the heart and lungs are continuously working hard; the temperature regulatory system is working flat out to keep body temperature down and manage sweat rates; endorphins are released that help to diminish your perception of pain; and the immune system is temporarily weakened. There's a lot going on and, don't forget, cycling also depletes the body of its glycogen stores, nutrients, minerals and fluids. It's no wonder you need to focus on recovery after each ride.
The initial hours immediately after cycling are important for helping to return the body to a resting state and the first step is a warm-down. This is still a relatively new topic to sports science, but, increasingly, people are starting to understand the importance of it.
When you stop cycling, the systems of your body continue to work at a heightened level, remaining at an elevated state preparing for more exercise. A warm-down will begin to switch your body into recovery mode by helping to gradually lower your body temperature and your body's hyper-active state, as well as helping clear the muscles of lactic acid, a by-product of exercise that can cause muscle soreness.
A warm-down doesn't need to last long nor does it require specific structuring. You can use the last 10 minutes of your ride to gradually slow down and ride easy or you can do a warm-down at home when you finish riding consisting of stretches, movements and exercises.
To Stretch or Not to Stretch?
A 2007 review of the literature showed that stretching doesn't prevent delayed onset muscle soreness, but it's still heavily practiced and advocated because it can help you relax and simply feels good. "When I get in from a long ride, my hip flexors often feel tight, so I'll send a few minutes stretching those out," says Australian pro cyclist, Rohan Dennis.
Nutrition for Recovery
Nutrition plays an important role in the recovery process. Inadequate nutrition has the ability to bring the strongest of cyclists to a standstill, putting an immediate halt on performance. Once you have warmed down, you should adhere to the three 'R's: Rehydrate (water and key electrolytes), Replenish (energy) and Repair (damaged muscles). The longer you ride, the more the recovery nutrition is important. If you ride at low to medium intensity for an hour to 90 minutes, you should be aware of these strategies but they're not so important. For rides of 2-3 hours or longer, or higher intensity shorter rides, nutrition to help your recovery becomes more important.