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, 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 fibers 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.
Water will go some way to rehydrate you, but to optimally rehydrate after longer rides it's not ideal as you need to replace the salts lost in your sweat.
Drinks containing sodium promotes absorption of water in the small intestine, encourages thirst, and helps delay the rate at which you urinate — perfect to rehydrate you. You can also include some sugars (carbohydrates) in your drink as these help replace glycogen stores and will also taste better encouraging you to drink more.
Recommendation: 1.5 litres of fluid for every 1 kg of weight loss—most sports drinks are ideal for this.
You will continue to sweat as your recover and possibly lose some fluid to urine. This is the reason for drinking more than the equivalent weight loss.
Carbohydrates will restore glycogen stores used during the ride, replacing the body's main fuel source in the muscles and liver.
Recommendation: 1g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight immediately after riding. Then you can go back to your normal meal strategies. This is the best way to help rebuild glycogen stores after exercise.
More: Supplement Plan for Riding (Infographic)
Repair (Damaged Muscle)
To help optimally repair muscle tissue that gets damaged during hard riding, the body requires protein immediately afterwards. Think of protein as the building blocks of muscles. Proteins also help stabilize blood sugar levels and strengthen the temporarily weakened immune system.
For a ride under an hour, the need for protein isn't as great as you probably haven't worked the body hard enough. Many amateur cyclists will work out for 45 minutes or so, and then consume a recovery drink, full of protein, carbohydrates and calories. It's simply not required, and they wonder why they aren't losing weight.
Recommendation: For hard rides of longer than an hour, 20g of high-quality lean protein is advised.
Foods Containing 10g protein:
- 1 cup low fat milk or soy milk
- 200 g low fat yogurt
- 40 g skinless cooked chicken
- 2 small eggs
- 4 slices of bread
- 60 g nuts or seeds
Want to really enhance your recovery? Get a good night's sleep. "Sleep is the most powerful recovery aid out there," says retired American cyclist and 2012 US Road Race champion, Timmy Duggan. And he's right. Sleep is when your body is able to rebuild most effectively. Your body recharges, muscle repair can take place and you aren't exerting excess energy. Your immune system is also at its strongest when at complete rest.
Good sleep—anywhere between six and eight hours—is essential for this process to occur. There are a few top tips you can try to ensure you are optimizing your sleep.
Good Sleep Habits:
- Maintain a regular bedtime.
- Avoid stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol in the hours before you go to bed (yes, alcohol encourages sleep onset but as it gets metabolized in the body it causes arousal later into the sleep cycle).
- Eat your last meal at least 90 minutes before bedtime.
- Associate your bed with sleep; avoid watching TV, reading or listening to the radio in bed.
- Sleep in a dark room.
- Avoid vigorous exercise in the evening.
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