THE BEST AND WORST WAYS TO RECOVER
Get back on your bike sooner with a few smart tactics
What do you think about when you finish a ride and step off the bike? Chances are it’s your next ride, but if that’s the case you’re missing a trick. If you pay more attention to your recovery, you’ll be able to get back on the bike fitter, healthier… and sooner. Recovery should start before you even step off the bike, with a warmdown. ‘The important thing is the fact that the part of the circulatory system that deals with getting blood back to the heart isn’t active,’ says British Cycling coach Will Newton. ‘Blood is actively pumped to the muscles, but it returns via a passive system that requires muscles to contract. The same is true of the lymphatic system for flushing waste products out of the muscles. You need gentle muscle activity to return the blood to the heart and flush out your system – five minutes after a steady ride and 10 minutes after a hard interval session will do the job.’
A stretch in time
What you do when you set foot back on solid ground will depend on your physical state and how much time you have available, but some elements of your recovery should be as fundamental a part of your routine as fastening your shoes. The first is stretching.
‘A muscle is composed of many strands of tissue, and tissues are in turn composed of bundles of muscle fibres,’ says coach Paul Butler of PB Cycle Coaching. ‘When you stretch, these fibres are lengthened to their fullest and the connective tissue takes up the remaining slack. Collagen fibres in the tissue align themselves along the same line of force as the tension. This realignment of disorganised fibres is good for the body and can help scar tissue to repair, for example.’
That doesn’t mean you have to enter into a seated back twist the moment your foot hits the floor. ‘It may be better to eat and rest [first] to speed up recovery,’ says Butler. ‘Later in the day is fine. Be sensible – if you’re cold or wet, then shower and get warm first. Whenever you stretch, it’s important to make sure you’re warm.’
Eating soon after a ride is an excellent idea, so long as it involves protein. Just don’t overdo it.
‘The importance of protein can be overstated sometimes,’ says Newton. ‘You’re not a bodybuilder who needs 2g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. But the amino acids in protein are the building blocks of muscle, and if you want to repair muscle damage and get stronger – as much as you need to as a cyclist – you’re going to need it.
‘For me, 1.2g per kilo of bodyweight is enough,’ he adds. ‘If you take on too much it will be converted to glucose to be used for energy and will end up being shovelled into your glycogen stores. And what’s cheaper: carbohydrate or protein? Protein is expensive so it’s a waste of money using it for fuel.’
At some point after your ride, unless you’re a robot, you’re going to go to bed, and this is an underappreciated part of the recovery process. ‘In my opinion sleep is the most important recovery aid, because this is when the body is in the best state to repair itself,’ says Butler.
To optimise your chances of a good night, make the room as dark as possible – use blackout blinds if necessary – and keep the room at around 18°C. Don’t eat for two hours before going to bed and don’t watch TV or use your phone from under the duvet. ‘And don’t have caffeine after 1pm or any alcohol,’ Butler adds. So put down that beer and get off to bed – you can continue reading this in the morning.
Rise and shine
Good morning! After a good night’s sleep your temptation may be to head out for another long ride, but if you’re still a bit sore from yesterday’s efforts there are other things you can do to continue your body’s recovery, such as a decent massage.
Not only does cycling leave you with tired and heavy legs, but your muscles go through hundreds of contractions through a very short range of motion while you’re hunched over in a static position. ‘It’s hard to undo these negative effects by stretching alone, so massage is a fantastic investment in your body to relax your muscles,’ says Butler.
Ian Holmes, a soigneur for pro team Madison Genesis, explains, ‘The heart pumps blood around the body, but massage puts pressure on the vessels and forces blood through at a cellular level to areas that aren’t getting bloodflow as readily. Exercise causes microdamage to the tissues, and massage aids recovery by helping blood reach these areas.’
While Holmes will dish out massages to the pros within two hours of finishing a stage, this isn’t practical for all of us. ‘Your best bet is to book one for the day after a big ride. If that’s a Monday, you might be a bit sore on Tuesday but should be OK by Wednesday. A good massage means you can train harder, with less rest.’
If you’re feeling brave, you can always try an ice bath. ‘The theory is that it reduces swelling and tissue breakdown, and constricts blood vessels to flush out waste products – lactic acid,’ says Butler. ‘When you warm up, the increased blood flow speeds circulation and, in turn, improves the healing process. Research has been inconclusive but many top cyclists swear by it.’
Newton isn’t so sure. ‘Ice baths are really fashionable and you see rugby players jump in after a match, but I’ve never seen an ice bath on a pro team bus, and I’ve been on the Team Sky bus. My question would be: if you have muscle damage, why would you want to slow down the circulatory system so there is less blood flow through the tissues that need it? There are some good arguments for using it in other sports, but it’s not something I’d use or recommend for cyclists.’
OK, so what about the things you may have noticed being marketed to you as ideal recovery tools? Compression tights, for example.
‘You want compression on the tissues, but not while you’re sat with your feet up,’ says Newton. ‘Again, it’s movement that flushes the tissues through, so there’s a good argument for compression tights so long as you stay active.’
Finally, you could spend your money on those little pots of wonder known as recovery balms. Newton’s response is emphatic, and although the printed word doesn’t quite do justice to the noise that comes out of his mouth it goes along the lines of, ‘ Eeeeuhmm… meh.’
Let’s leave it there.
‘Ice baths are really fashionable and you see rugby players jump in after a match, but I’ve never seen an ice bath on a pro team bus, and I’ve been on the Team Sky bus’
Ice baths may be popular but not all coaches agree on their effectiveness for cyclists. ‘If you have muscle damage, why would you want to slow down the circulatory system so there is less blood flow through the tissues that need it?’ asks British Cycling coach Will Newton