Which Recovery Strategy Works Best for Cyclists?

More recently, the two main forms of high-tech recovery methods revolve around cold therapy of some form, either lower-body immersion into a cold or ice bath or some form of icing. The general theory behind such a recovery method is that the cold water acts like an ice pack, reducing swelling and inflammation following hard exercise and muscle damage.

The other increasingly popular form of recovery has been using compression garments, which increases the pressure around the lower body and theoretically speeds up the removal of waste metabolites. What has not really been tested before, and the focus of what we'll discuss today, is the combination of compression and cooling.

The Best of Both Worlds

Despite their popularity, the scientific evidence for either cold water immersion recovery or compression garments are equivocal at best. Some studies have been able to show a decrease in perceived muscle soreness and some physiological markers of muscle damage. However, very few studies have been able to clearly demonstrate a substantial improvement in a second bout of exercise after using specific recovery modalities. Part of this is simply due to the somewhat surprising fact that very few studies have actually used a second specific bout of exercise as their performance measure post-recovery.

In the May 2011 issue of Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise, my colleague and friend Romain Meeusen's group at the Vrije University of Brussels, in the Belgian heartland of cycling, explored in-depth the efficacy of recovery modalities specifically for cycling performance.

The nice aspect of this study was that it was very directly designed with cycling in mind, rather than most studies on recovery using strength training or other non-cycling exercise. Strength training-based studies are doubly problematic because the damage from jumping exercises like plyometrics is often far more damaging and different than anything we do on the bike.

The basic setup of the study:

  • Trained but non-elite cyclists were tested, with VO2 max values of about 57 ml/kg/min (milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute).
  • The exercise test was designed to simulate a hard time trial (TT) effort. This is nice because it replicates hard interval work, or else a time trial as part of a two-stage day in a stage race. The test consisted of 30 min at 55 percent Wmax (maximum power obtained during the initial fitness testing). Then, a time trial effort based on completing the work equivalent to 75 percent Wmax for 30 min (e.g. if your Wmax was 300, then your TT consisted of completing 405 kJ).
  • The test was performed twice each trial, with two hours in between for the recovery protocol.
  • All the "usual" variables were measured, including core and skin temperature, heart rate, blood lactate, thermal sensation, power output and TT completion time.

The five recovery modalities tested, in two separate but similar experiments, were:

  1. Passive recovery. Rest and relax for two hours.
  2. Combined compression/cooling using a set of inflated leg cuffs with coolant running throughout. The cuffs ran around the upper leg, thus cooling and compressing the thighs and hamstrings. The cuff was set to a pressure of 20 mmHg, and the coolant at 0oC, resulting in a skin temperature of ~15oC.
  3. Same as #2, but with circulating fluid at 10oC, resulting in a skin temperature of ~25oC ("normal" skin temperature at rest is about 32-34oC).
  4. Same as #2, but cycling at 80 W.
  5. Cycling at 80 W.

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