In Part 1, I talked about the importance of training three of the body’s key energy systems, endurance, threshold and VO2. I wrote that doing high-intensity intervals was important to becoming a stronger rider, even if the events or rides you like to do are not high-intensity. And I made the point that a couple of structured rides a week would do as much or more good than hours and hours in the saddle. Now, we need to work recovery into the equation.
Train hard, recover harder. It’s a common refrain and one that challenges many cyclists. We got into riding bikes because we like to ride bikes, so sitting on the couch is hard for many of us. Plus, there are so many cool rides and races going on these days, it’s hard to miss out. But here’s the deal: to get stronger, you must stress the body (Part 1 in this series), but to see any benefit, you must rest after a period of stress. Let’s get into why it’s necessary and how to do it.
Any effective training plan includes carefully planned recovery phases, which can be a single day off the bike to a full week of focused recovery before a big event, called a taper. To ignore recovery is to leave your body in a continuous state of breakdown, where improvement stops and you risk overtraining and burnout. I’ve seen it and I’ve been there and it takes a long time to dig out of that hole, physically and mentally.
So when we’ve done that hard and/or long ride or series of rides, what we’ve done is create a bunch of micro trauma in our muscles. If it’s different or in greater volume than your body is accustomed to, you’ll feel muscle soreness 24-48 hours after, which is not a bad thing. But those micro tears need to heal and when you recover properly, they not only heal but become even stronger than they were before. That’s progress! On your next rides, you’ll be able to go faster for longer: the whole point of focused training. If you don’t allow your body time to rebuild, those micro tears in your muscles never recover and as you continue to stress them, they remain in a constant state of inflammation as they attempt to rebuild in vain. Finally, your power on the bike suffers and rides that used to feel great now feel like a slog and you begin to slide mentally. To avoid that, here are a few tips to keep you from overreaching (a narrow band of accumulated training stress preceding overtraining) or full-blown overtraining:
- If your heart rate is higher than normal when you wake up (requires measuring over time). Ride easy or take a day off.
- If you just can’t stomach the idea of riding. Do another activity like an easy run, hike, or swim.
- If your heart rate on the bike is abnormally high or it’s low with a feeling of irritability. Lower the intensity and duration.
- If you immediately feel awful on the bike and have a hard workout planned. Ride easy or ride home.
- You feel so-so on the bike as you roll out. Try that first hard effort and see if you feel better. If not, ride easy or head for the coffee shop. I’ve had many of these and almost always I feel better after the first effort or two, but never if I feel awful to start.
- If you didn’t sleep well or don’t feel rested. Again, easy day or day off.
- As Joe Friel says, “When in doubt, leave it out.”
A lot of this is listening to your body, and you’ll get better at it the more you do it. We’ve all been surprised at our body’s reaction at times, so experience will help you to hone in what those sensations are telling you; that’s just part of being an athlete!
So how do we recover best? We’ve been talking about taking time off the bike, so that’s obvious, but there’s more to it. Again, we can make this as complicated as we want but let’s keep it simple and hit the high points.
Cooldown. This is super simple and there are many studies that have proven the benefits of finishing your ride by riding easy for 10-15 minutes. However, impatience or -gasp- Strava and The Cult of the Average Speeders are loathe to ride slowly and kill the average speed of the ride. If you fall into that trap, just stop your Garmin, preserve your super fast ride stats and pedal easy. Please. It’s that important to improving.
Nutrition. What we eat and drink is not only what fuels us but also what rebuilds us. I think this is one of the most beautiful aspects of being an athlete because it requires us to act in concert with our bodies and give it what it needs. It’s also what I struggle with most. Eating after a ride is a key part of recovery. I’m talking within 30 minutes of stopping the pedals, get the right nutrients in your belly! In that timeframe, your body’s receptors are wide open to replenish glycogen, which is how the body stores glucose in the muscles and liver. The macronutrient here is carbohydrates. Yep, you need these and they are not only a key to recovery but they also assist in fueling for your next ride. Get some quality protein also, as the amino acids here will help repair those little tears in your muscles. I like to mix some berries into my recovery because they are high in antioxidants, which battle the oxidative stress from your ride. And because I’m a sucker for berries.
Eating real food is the best way to get your nutrients. Protein from black beans, nut butters, greek yogurt, dark leafy greens or lean meats are great. High-glycemic index carbs from rice, potatoes or a bagel work well. You can combine them by making a sandwich with lean protein and spinach, a great salad with protein and mixed berries or a smoothie with kale, berries and protein powder. If that’s not possible, I like Hammer Recoverite and Carbo Rocket Rehab. The ideal ratio of carb to protein is 4:1, or so. A recovery shake with 40-50 grams of carbs with 10-15 grams of protein is great. Much more protein than that can actually impede recovery.
Lastly, don’t forget to rehydrate. You can weigh yourself before and after your ride and replenish each pound lost with 16-24 ounces of water. Make sure to add some electrolytes here, because you will have lost sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium. An electrolyte capsule works well; add either to your water or smoothie, if you’re going that route.
Active recovery. European Tour de France riders in the 30’s and 40’s espoused going for a leisurely walk in the woods on a day off. Even with the advent of ice baths, recovery boots, etc. etc., not much has changed. A recent study of trained but non-elite cyclists in Belgium has shown that the simple act of pedaling a bicycle at 80 watts (REALLY easy, if you aren’t a powermeter user) was significantly better for recovery than cooling, compression, a combination of the two or even just doing nothing. What this does is get the blood flowing through your muscles and flushes out the metabolic waste products in your system. It feels amazing and so much better than doing nothing, which can leave my legs feeling stagnant the next day.
What I like to do? Massage my legs with a nice lotion, or embrocation if it’s cold, kit up and go out for a leisurely ride of 30-60 minutes. And I like to do this with as much focus as a hard day, knowing that this is probably the most important ride of the week and I EARNED it. I also might hit the coffee shop because espresso is just good stuff.
Sleep more. This is huge and another difficult thing to come by in today’s world. Schedule your sleep just like you schedule your rides and measure how much you’re getting. 7-9 hours a night seems to be the consensus for average humans but professional cyclists sleep 10-12. The quick and dirty is that more is better, so limit the high octane beverages after midday and turn off electronic devices an hour before bedtime. Plan to sleep at the same time each day and you’ll notice a huge improvement in your fitness and lifestyle. Please reread this paragraph.
Doing nothing. As great as an active recovery ride feels, you need time off the bike, as much for mental as for physical recovery. How many days per week is, of course, individual but listen to your body. If you need a number, I’d say 1-3 days a week, depending on how you’re feeling, how trained you are and where you are in your training season.
Getting enough sleep and passive recovery is an exercise in time management. Try to think less about fitting training around work and more like fitting life around recovery. If you lead a busy life, follow a training plan that fits your life rather one that fits your calendar. Rest and nutrition account for 95% of recovery, so keep it simple. If you’re chasing that last 5%, you may benefit from the more esoteric and costly recovery modalities. Listen to your body, keep it fun and train hard but recover harder! Thanks for reading.