Optimal Recovery from Cycling Training

Optimal Recovery from Cycling Training

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Knowledge Level: Intermediate

Smart and effective training isn’t just a case of piling on the miles week after week. Structured training, as well as delivering the key components of progression and overload, should also factor in adequate recovery. Without paying attention to this key aspect of training, you’ll stop making progress, lose motivation and form, risk developing overtraining syndrome and possibly expose yourself to increased risk of injury or illness. Fortunately all British Cycling Training Plans have regular recovery weeks factored in but why is recovery so important and what can you do to maximise it?

Why is recovery important?

Structured training exposes your body to novel and stressful stimuli that force it to adapt. This adaptation process is what causes you to become a stronger rider but it can only occur if you’re allowing your body to recover optimally. In essence it’s not your training that makes you a better cyclist, it’s your recovery from that training that moves you forwards. If you fail to recover adequately from workouts, this adaptation won’t take place and you’ll also find that your ability to perform in subsequent workouts also suffers. This creates a two pronged reason for diminishing returns from your training.

What is muscle soreness?

DOMS or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness tends to flare up 24-48 hours after unusually tough or unaccustomed exercise. It’ll usually ease after 72 hours. Although the exact mechanisms still aren’t fully understood, micro-trauma to the actual muscle fibres is the most likely cause. The old theory of it being caused by lactic acid has been disproved. Novel exercise stimuli, like the first time you worked through an off-season strengthening routine or hit the mountain bike trails after a lay off, probably illicit the strongest effect but, with repeat exposure, the effects dramatically and rapidly diminish. DOMS aren’t a bad thing and this natural inflammatory process and subsequent healing and recovery are part of the adaptive process we’ve previously highlighted. It only becomes a problem if it impacts on your ability to perform subsequent workouts but, if this is the case, you may need to programme more recovery into your training plan.

Regular recovery weeks

Most well constructed training plans, including the British Cycling Training Plans, use blocks of three to four build weeks, where volume and intensity progressively increase, followed by a recovery week where they are markedly reduced. Again, this is to allow physiological adaptation to take place and, if you fail to incorporate recovery weeks into your training, you’ll be significantly reducing the effectiveness of your training.

What can I do to enhance my recovery after a tough ride?

Along with making sure that you schedule recovery into your training plan, there are a number of measures you can take to help you bounce back and get maximal gains from tough workouts and rides. It can be difficult to find an absolute scientific consensus for the efficacy of many recovery techniques due to the problematic nature of designing suitable studies to investigate them. Massage and stretching are both good examples of this and, although common sense, anecdotal evidence and tradition support them, indisputable scientific evidence is hard to find. This doesn’t mean that these techniques should be written off though, it just means that proving their benefits in a scientific context is difficult. If they feel good to you, as they do to many riders, then this can be reason enough to make them part of your routine.

1) The next workout starts during the current one

You should be thinking about your next training session or race during your current one as, what you do on that ride, can significantly impact on your next. Make sure you fuel and hydrate well as, if you exhaust your body’s energy reserves excessively or allow yourself to become dehydrated, you’ll significantly increase the time necessary to recover from the ride. Follow Great Britain Cycling Team and Team Sky nutritionist Nigel Mitchell's guideline for optimal fuelling. Make sure you follow the prescribed intensity and duration goals of the workout, as these factors will also have a knock on effect on subsequent sessions. Always end any ride with at least 10 minutes of easy Zone 1 riding to cool down.

2) Recovery meal or drink

Within 20 minutes of finishing a ride of longer than 90 minutes, it’s vital to take on some carbohydrates and protein to kick start the recovery process. During this time window, your body is especially receptive to these macro-nutrients. The carbohydrates will be channelled to re-stock your body’s glycogen stores and the protein will be used to start repairing the micro-trauma to your muscles. Both of these are key components in the recovery process. It’s often easier, convenient and more palatable to use a commercial recovery drink, such as CNP Endurance Recover, which will deliver exactly the nutrients you need in the correct ratios. However, a banana blended in 500 ml of full fat milk is a great alternative or, if you can stomach real food and can have it ready to go, a tuna sandwich or chicken and pasta would also be good.

3) Stretching

Despite the scientific evidence not being 100% conclusive, post-ride stretching should be part of your recovery routine. Phil Burt, lead physiotherapist with the Great Britain Cycling Team and consultant physiotherapist to Team Sky, explains.

What flexibility work does address is a heightened sensitivity in the muscle to ranges of movement beyond those which you experience when sat on your bike or at your desk. This perceived tightness, if left unaddressed, can easily lead to imbalances, poor muscle function and potentially pain or injury.

The optimal time to work on flexibility is immediately after you get back from a ride but within an hour, after you’ve had a shower and put on some clean clothes, is still good. You’ll still get benefits in the evening following a ride and, if you’re more likely to do a good job when relaxed in front of the TV, this is preferable to a rushed token effort straight after riding.

4) Elevation

The old pro maxim of never stand when you can sit and never sit when you can lie down, isn’t especially practical or applicable for those of us who have to fit our cycling around work and family. However spending some time elevating your legs after a long or hard ride can make a significant difference to recovery by promoting lower body blood flow and preventing pooling. With a pillow behind your head, place your legs up against a wall and aim to stay there for 5 minutes for every hour ridden. Keep your knees straight but not locked and you’ll get a gentle stretch for your hamstrings too.

5) Compression

First arising in a clinical setting to improve post operative blood flow and then being applied to long haul flights to prevent deep vein thrombosis, compression garments are now common amongst cyclists. In terms of independent research, although several studies have shown equality compared to other recovery techniques, the jury is still out. There’s no doubt though that the anecdotal evidence is strong and many top riders swear by their efficacy. Putting a pair of compression tights on to hang out post-training is certainly no hardship and your legs can feel noticeably fresher after a good nights kip in them. They seem to feel particularly good when you’ve had a long drive after an event or for a lazy Sunday afternoon after a long morning ride. You can easily wear them under your normal clothes so there’s no hardship or inconvenience to trying them and they certainly won’t do any harm. It’s important though that they are tight enough to give a genuine compressive effect, so buy a quality brand and take care with sizing.

6) Massage

While the mechanics fettle with the bikes, the soigneurs work their magic into the tired limbs of pro riders and reinvigorate them for the next day’s racing. A trusted soigneur is the pro’s best friend and tales of masseurs such as the blind Biagio Cavanna who tended to Fausto Coppi are legendary. However, although a universally accepted recovery method, there’s surprisingly little scientific backing as devising a blind study to test massage would be almost impossible though. How could you give the control group a non-massage?

Correct massage technique can increase blood flow, correctly align muscle fibres and scar tissue and reduce tightness. There is more about massage here. A weekly, let alone a daily, massage is beyond most of our budgets but why not try to schedule one in during your recovery week? Look for a qualified sports massage therapist with experience working with cyclists and view it like a regular MOT for your body. A good therapist, as well as treating problematic areas will also be able to flag any potential areas of concern and give you exercises or stretches to address them.

A foam roller routine provides a great poor man’s alternative to daily massage.

7) Sleep

All mammals and birds sleep. Deprive a rat in a laboratory of sleep and it’ll soon start behaving strangely, gaining fat and will eventually die. However, for such an essential part of our existence, the exact mechanisms and purpose of sleep are still not fully understood. Simple R and R for the body is not a satisfactory explanation and studies have shown that one of the things sleep deprivation does not impair is physical work capacity and is much more of a cerebral activity. This means if you suffer from poor sleep due to pre-event nerves, your physical performance shouldn’t be significantly reduced. However, long term poor sleep will result in diminished mental performance and an increase in the body’s stress hormone cortisol. This will impact on both your ability to train and to recover. Follow these tips for making sure you get a good night’s sleep.

-     Associate the bedroom with relaxation. Get rid of the TV.

-     Don’t train hard less than two hours before sleeping.

-     Chill out with some stretching, yoga or meditation before going to bed.

-     Avoidance/reduction of caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol before bedtime. Drink warm milk as it contains the natural sleepy chemical Tryptohan.

-     Avoid arguments, work related material, discussion/dwelling on problems near bedtime. Have a cut off time and stick to it.

-     Practice muscle relaxation and self-hypnosis. There are number of audio guides available.

-     Go to bed only when sleepy. Don’t try and force it until a regular sleep pattern is resumed.

-     If unable to sleep, get up. Write down thoughts in a sleep diary (if a problem keeps you awake or you remember something you need to do / have forgotten to do – write it down, then forget about it until morning, you have written your reminder).

-     Keep the bedroom at a well-aired comfortable temperature. Check pillows and bed linen are comfortable, if not, change them.

-     Get up at a regular time. Even if sleepy, and avoid napping. This will aid in the return of normal sleep rhythm.

-     Don’t lie in bed worrying that you cannot sleep. This will over stimulate the brain to further awakening. Do not watch the clock, this encourages a stress response. Not everybody needs 8 hours, give your body the chance and it’ll find its own perfect sleep pattern.

8) Riding

Pros don’t spend rest days on Grand Tours lounging around in bed. They’ll normally ride for two to three hours to aid recovery and prevent staleness creeping in. If you’ve done a hard training ride or race, going out for a recovery ride the next day can really facilitate the recovery process. Ride for 30-60 minutes on a flat course, keep your bike in the smaller chainring and spin easy. Imagine you’ve got “crystal cranks” that’ll snap if you put too much pressure through them. Throw in some low gear (39X18) sprints of 5-8 seconds duration to really help flush things out and prevent heavy legs. Don’t let your legs burn at all though. If you’re using heart rate or power, you should stick strictly to Zone 1. Anything more than this and you’ll just be adding to your fatigue rather than enhancing recovery.

9) Ice baths

The idea of sitting in a bath of ice after a tough ride, especially during the winter, is hardly an attractive proposition. The good news is that recent research has shown that it is not only unnecessary but may actually reduce the gains from the training you’ve just done. The reason for this is that ice bathing reduces the inflammatory process and the associated muscle soreness. Although this may seem to be a good thing, it’s the recovery and healing from this soreness and damage that result in performance gains. So, when you get back from a long tough ride, run yourself a nice warm bath or shower and leave the ice cubes for your recovery smoothie.

10) Anti-Inflammatory drugs

Popping a few pain killers during or after a hard ride to prevent next day soreness may seem like a good idea but you could be doing more harm than good. As we’ve already discussed with regards to ice baths, trying to alleviate the inflammatory process can result in reduced training gains. Studies at Ironman Brazil and the Western States 100 Mile Trail Race showed no benefits to taking ibuprofen with regards to perceived discomfort during or after the events. However, there are also potential health implications. Worryingly the Western States study showed signs of kidney impairment and endotoxemia (bacteria leaking from the colon into the bloodstream) and also higher levels of tissue inflammation. Painkillers should only be taken under doctors orders for a specific injury. Research has also shown that risks of hyponatremia (dilution of body salts leading to potential death) in endurance athletes increases significantly when taking painkillers, so it’s not worth the risk.

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