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The Cyclist guide to good recovery

Wesley Doyle
23 Jun 2016

Training and racing can leave your body in bits. Here's how to recover properly in time for your next ride.

We’ve all been there. You stayed at the front that little bit too long, took that last climb a touch too hard and went hell for leather on the ride home. And now you can’t walk. You creep into work like an OAP, groan when you stand up and avoid stairs. While pain and suffering is all part of cycling’s rich tapestry, if it affects your ability the next time you get on the bike then something, somewhere, is wrong. We all know that increasing the frequency and intensity of riding is the way to improved performance, but surely there must be something we can do to offset the damage we do to ourselves? As it turns out there is – plenty in fact – but first of all let’s have a look at what you’ve done to yourself.

Whatever level you’re at, the day after (and the day after the day after) a hard training session or a long ride you’ll find your body doesn’t hold back on showing you how displeased it is with your efforts. ‘All exercise causes microscopic tears in the muscle,’ says Dr Chris Easton, lecturer in clinical exercise physiology at the Institute for Clinical Exercise and Health Science, University of the West of Scotland, ‘and cycling is no exception. The body responds to this with an inflammatory response after the initial muscle damage, resulting in pain, swelling and heat.’ That’ll be why you can’t get out of your chair, then. 

It’s not just aches and pains you have to deal with: a long stretch in the saddle will have depleted energy stores and left your tanks empty. Not only does this all need to be replaced, but the longer you leave it the less effective your body is at processing it and making sure it goes in the right place. Then there’s the oxidative stress caused by an increase in free radicals floating around your body. ‘You continuously produce these molecules,’ says Easton, ‘and while they do have some positive uses, for the most part they just attack the body’s cells, causing damage linked to delayed onset muscle soreness [DOMS], as well as premature cell ageing. Normally they’re mopped up by vitamins A, E and C. However during exercise, production increases and the body is sometimes unable to cope.’ 

Finally, there’s dehydration, which can cause all sorts of health problems, as well as slow down recovery and cause cramping. And you thought you mainly suffered while on the bike.

No pain, no gain

Fear not – with a few well-placed recovery strategies you can reduce the amount of discomfort you feel and get back on the bike as quickly as possible. First of all, how to sort out those damaged muscles? Protein can help hurry the repair process, knitting together the damaged fibres to make them stronger, but you have to be quick because the window for optimal protein uptake following exercise is up to 20 minutes after finishing, the time when your muscles require nutrients the most. Don’t worry, though – you won’t have to wolf down a chicken breast the moment you unclip your feet. 

‘You need to stop the breakdown of lean muscle and kickstart the tissue repairing process,’ says Maya Ranchordas, head of nutrition at Sheffield Hallam University and nutritionist for Rapha Condor Sharp. ‘Something that’s rapidly absorbed and can be taken immediately after training, such as a pint of milk or dairy-based drink, is best. Follow this up with a balanced meal such as chicken breast, rice and mixed vegetables within 90 minutes and you’ll be providing the amino acids to help muscles recover, as well as restoring your depleted muscle glycogen.’

So the repair of your muscles is underway. Now what do you do about the inflammation and pain caused by the damage? Surprisingly, you may not want to do too much to reduce it. ‘Received wisdom says that inflammation needs to be dealt with quickly, which is why you have things like ice baths and compression garments,’ says Easton. ‘But don’t forget that inflammation is an important part of the muscle adaptation process and to reduce it may affect performance gains.’ The reason it’s painful is deliberate because it stops you going and damaging the muscle again, undoing all the good work you did initially. ‘It’s almost a self-preservation thing,’ Easton adds. ‘While fast recovery strategies are essential if you’re a pro rider in a multi-stage race, the same methods may not always be sensible for one-off events. Obviously you want to reduce some of the discomfort, but you also want to make sure you let your body get on with what it does best: looking after itself.’

Fluid motion

Hydration can also be an important factor in keeping your body functioning properly but, despite what certain drinks manufacturers may tell you, you don’t have to continuously drink a brightly coloured sports drink to make sure you’re performing well. 

‘Excessive fluid ingestion can be both impractical and dangerous,’ Easton says. ‘There’s no need to replace above and beyond the fluid you’ve lost. If it’s been a hot session and you’ve sweated a lot, replenishment of those fluids is important – but there’s no reason why you can’t use thirst to judge how much you should drink. If you don’t feel thirsty at all, your body is telling you don’t need to ingest more fluid.’

‘Liquid replacement is a very easy thing to get right,’ says Ranchordas. ‘Simply weigh yourself before going on a 60-minute ride. Don’t drink anything while you’re out and towel off any excess sweat when you get back. Then weigh yourself again. Each gram in weight you’ve lost equates to 1ml of fluid, so the figure you’re left with is how much fluid you need to replace for every hour of training.’

‘During high-intensity exercise you’re working at an increased metabolic rate, so your muscles produce a lot of heat,’ says Easton. ‘That means you’re likely to have a higher fluid loss during those sessions than an endurance one.’ Especially if you’re in front of a Sufferfest video.

Pro plus

So what of the pro experience? Ian Goodhew, former coach at Team IG Sigma Sport, says, ‘Realistically, in a stage race the best you can hope for is partial recovery, so with our riders we factor that into the training to help their bodies cope with it.’ Of course, when you ride with the pros you enjoy the benefits of having a team of people there to help you, including nutritionists and masseurs.

‘Eating strategically during and after the ride can help recovery,’ says Ranchordas. ‘If they’re riding for longer than three hours or racing, I make sure our guys get around 90g of carbohydrate in a 2:1 ratio of glucose and fructose. This will prolong their performance and preserve their muscle glycogen. Plus there is also evidence that taking on carbs during long rides reduces muscle damage and protects the immune system. They’ll get this through a mixture of bananas, gels, bars and drinks. As I said, their post-training nutrition will include a dairy-based drink straight after and a meal within 90 minutes, although I recommend they also consume some slow-release casein protein such as cottage cheese about 30 minutes before bed so their muscles are still being fed as they sleep.’

The popular image of all pro sportsmen jumping straight into an ice bath after competing is not an accurate one, either. ‘Well, you can’t be carting a tub full of ice around for every rider,’ says Nick Wolfenden, soigneur for Team IG Sigma Sport. ‘For us, a decent massage does the trick. What it aims to do is to move blood around, flushing lactic acid out of the muscles and bringing in new nutrients to aid with repair.’ 

While not everyone has a pair of healing hands around to reanimate tired legs and ease a stiff back, there’s a lot to be said for a bit of DIY. ‘A lot of the riders use foam rollers,’ says Wolfenden. ‘They’re really good and basically you can do anything with them. Compression gear is also very popular, although I’m not too sure about the science behind it. If it helps the riders mentally with their recovery, I’m all for it.’ 

Also, adding a bit of recovery promotion at the end of a ride can significantly improve your chances of walking properly the day after, too. ‘When you’ve finished your session, drop into a very low gear so your cadence is around 120rpm,’ Goodhew says. ‘Do that for 15 minutes to get your blood pumping, and then as soon as you get in, lie down with your feet higher than your head for 10 minutes to get the blood moving around your entire body.’

The post-ride pie and a pint may now have lost its appeal, but there is good news: you have an excuse to get yourself some extra shut-eye. ‘Sleep is the number one recovery tool,’ says Goodhew. ‘Recovery is about compensating for having overloaded your system. If you don’t allow for the recovery, you don’t get the benefit from the work you’ve done. So train harder and recover more often. When you rest is when you get stronger because your body is rebuilding itself after you ripped it to bits out on the road.’

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