The bad news is that just collapsing onto the sofa isn’t always the best thing to do after a ride—you need to put effort into recovering. The good news, however, is that it’s far easier to rest ‘hard’ than it is to train hard.
Perhaps the most important element to recovery is good nutrition. We’ll be covering that in detail in next week’s blog, but in the meantime here are some ideas and tips to help you speed up your recovery:
It is impossible to overstate the importance of sleep. It’s very simple: the more you sleep the faster your body will repair itself. Stories abound of elite athletes not needing much rest, like Yiannis Kouros, the greatest ever ultra-runner, claiming that he slept 2 ½ hours a night. Even assuming such stories are true, leave feats like these to the greats.
You probably have a good idea of how much sleep you need to function day to day and, moreover, how much you can ‘get by’ on short term. The more you exercise in a day, the more you need to sleep. Factor this in when planning your recovery.
It’s good to sleep as continuously as possible, but supplementing your night’s sleep with naps is a good alternative if a lie-in isn’t on the cards.
If you struggle to sleep well, even after training, there are many possible symptoms. To get a better handle on how to improve your nights, try filling out the Oxford-led World Sleep Survey.
The humble recovery ride is one of the most underrated training tools going. If you take a day off to recover after a hard session, your body can seize the opportunity to rest too enthusiastically. When you’re back on the bike the day after, this can lead to what’s known as ‘blocked legs’.
‘Active recovery’, as this is known, should be a short ride (well under and hour) at no more than 50% of your FTP (see last week’s blog for more information). Alternatively, it should feel like you’re soft pedalling most of the time. Easy conversation pace.
Cross training can be a great way to recover as well. It’s mentally refreshing and can be a good chance to practice coordination which cycling doesn’t provide.
STRETCHING, YOGA FOAM ROLLING AND MASSAGE
Your muscles warm up during exercise as blood flow increases; the harder you work, the warmer they will be. When they cool down afterwards, they contract, feeling tense and stiff, and can be sore the next day. A lot can be done to reduce this.
You should aim to stretch when warm, ideally soon after riding but not so soon that you’re too tired to hold a stretch. There are many good free apps and guides about but the key is consistency. Focus on your hip flexors, glutes, groin, hamstrings, quads and calves.
Foam rolling is essentially self-massage. For those unaware, a foam roller is a cylinder made of (you guessed it) foam, over which you can roll your limbs to release tension. Done correctly it can be extremely effective. Dedicated sports massage, meanwhile, is often more effective but is something of a luxury—best saved for a holiday or training camp.
Your heart rate is the best way to keep track of your recovery. There are several things you can do to keep an eye on it, but once again the key is consistency day to day. You’ll be able to recover better when you know your body better.
The orthostatic test is simple but requires a heart rate monitor with a specific watch or app. Best taken in the morning, it gives you a very good insight into your freshness. Sitting or lying down, the test measures your heart rate for 90 seconds or so, then you stand up and continue standing for another 90 seconds. It will express the result with three numbers: your resting average, your peak when standing and your standing average. You’ll need to have an idea of your normal levels before you start noticing anomalies. Within 10bpm of normal and you should be fine to train; within 20bpm you should be careful and probably stay off the bike; above 20 don’t train at all.
Resting heart rate is a simpler but less complete version of the orthostatic. Wake up, then lie in bed for five minutes, then take your pulse for a minute. A higher reading than normal means you may be tired or ill. The higher it is, the more cautious you should be about training.
Heart rate variability (HRV) is the most advanced but most accurate way of measuring fatigue. It measures the gaps between heartbeats and is a very accurate reflection of fatigue, training load, mental stress, soreness and even mood. Apps like TrainingPeaks can help you measure it, but there are also a few good free ones about.
It’s worth saying that whilst monitoring your heart rate can be extremely useful, it’s only one part of the picture. You heart rate might look ok but you could still feel exhausted. Listen to your body as well as monitoring it and you won’t go far wrong.
Taking all the scientific advice out there is well and good, but there’s still a lot to be said for going on feel. If you jump out of bed in the morning and can’t wait to get on your bike, that’s good! Don’t waste your mojo by worrying about an orthostatic 8bpm above average. Similarly, if you feel awful, chances are you’ll be better off staying in.
There are pitfalls in being too lenient with yourself, of course, but cycling is an art as much as it is a science. You have to let your judgment guide you. It’s all about balance.
POSITIONING OFF THE BIKE
Maybe the worst thing you could do after finishing a hard session is sit down for eight hours. Your hips will stiffen up, your core muscles will disengage and a wave of tiredness will hit you after the endorphins run out. Unfortunately, however, most of us have to do this all week.
If you’ve been out in the morning, try and leave 10 or 15 minutes to stretch, loosen up and cool down before showering and getting dressed. You’ll be in a much better state by the time you get to your desk.
During the day, try and move around as much as possible. Taking the stairs whenever possible, a walk at lunchtime and even a standing desk will improve your posture, core strength and, most importantly, will make sure you don’t feel stiff as a board when you leave at the end of the day.
Faster blood flow means faster recovery—this is the same principle behind recovery riding. Compression clothing puts pressure on your muscles to maximise the rate at which blood flows around your body. Some people notice this by feeling slightly warmer when taking compression gear off.
It should work in theory, and for some it does, but the jury is still out as to exactly how effective compression is. Some athletes swear by it, some notice little gain.
Compression tights and socks tend to be the most popular for cyclists (for obvious reasons). They’re particularly good to use when travelling. Some athletes even sleep in them often, aiming to combat day to day training stress.
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) will be particularly familiar to anyone who’s ever lifted weights. Your muscles can be sore after endurance training too, but only after extremely hard efforts or when you’re not used to training.
Muscles are inflamed when sore. Icing your muscles soon after training can be a good way to combat this inflammation, making you less sore the next day and able to train more. Like compression, however, the jury is still out about the effectiveness. Some claim ice baths and the like should only be used after strength training (which is very hard on your muscles), others swear by them.
One good way to release tension in your legs can be to combine hot and cold. Alternating an ice pack and a hot water bottle on the offending spot—or just the hot and cold taps in the shower—can be extremely effective.
They say you shouldn’t make decisions when you’re tired or upset. Being tired and upset, however, are often the same thing.
Mood is a tricky one when it comes to recovery as it doesn’t feel like a symptom of fatigue—you just feel annoyed and won’t have the inclination to do anything about it. If you find yourself in an inexplicably foul mood—unapologetically angry, impatient, snapping at friends etc.—the best thing you can do is have a slice of cake and a nap.
The more effort you put in to tracking your mood, the more self-aware you’ll be. It’s worth keeping a note of your mood (e.g. a score /10) first thing in the morning and last thing at night.
Essentially, if you’re angry or emotional and unsure why, you’re probably hungry and tired.
KEEP A DIARY
Mood is only one of the things you can learn to track. When you keep an eye on symptoms of fatigue over time, you start to notice trends in your training that are specific to you. You might, for example, find that you always feel fine after the day after hard intervals but get run down by normal endurance rides. This can tell you that you’re a more aerobic than anaerobic athlete, or that you need to go easier on long rides.
The key to a diary like this is keeping it simple. We’d suggest scores /10 for perception of fatigue, soreness, mood, stress and motivation, with a space for additional comments at the end. 1 should be rock bottom and 10 feeling superhuman.
Try this for a while to see whether you find it useful. A big part of getting to know your body is simply paying attention!
In conclusion, don’t think that training and recovery are separate entities; they’re different sides of the same coin. If you put thought and ‘effort’ into recovering well, you’ll be much happier for it on and off the bike. Knowing your body is the key to good recovery, and, like anyone, it takes time to get to know yourself.