The key to gaining strength and fitness on your bike is as much about recovery as it is about training.
The secret to successful progress in any sport is to recover well – your body builds itself when its resting, not when it’s training. When you train, you break down your muscle fibres, and it’s in your days off and when you’re recovering that the muscle fibres repair and rebuild.
Fortunately, there are a number of ways that you can promote your recovery process, meaning you’ll both get stronger and feel better after those super-hard rides.
Check out our guide to recovering quicker!
If you’re training hard, you need to make sure you’re giving yourself plenty of days off the bike. You ideally want to have two non-consecutive days where you don’t ride at all every week.
On those rest days, you want to keep all other physical activity to a minimum. This is your chance to be lazy! It’s important to try to be as inactive as possible, allowing your body total rest and the chance to rebuild. Taking a mental break from exercise also lets you refresh your motivation so that you can go into your next training session absolutely raring to go.
So, get familiar with the couch, load up your favourite box set, and chill!
One of the most important ways to promote recovery after a hard bike ride is to refuel as soon as possible.
In the 30 minutes after working out, there is a phase known as the ‘glycogen replenishment window’. In that period, your muscles are most receptive to carbohydrate and protein. The stores of these key nutrients have been depleted by the ride, and so the sooner you replace them, the faster you recover!
The typical recommendation is to take in c.20g of protein and c.60g carbohydrate in the ‘window’. The easiest way to do this is to use a special sports recovery powder or drink, however, you can easily get these nutrients from normal food with a big glass of chocolate milk, bowl of cereal, or nut butter on toast. The specially-formulated products are typically slightly more effective however as the nutrients in them are more rapidly absorbed.
After you’ve had your recovery snack, you want to try to have a typical balanced meal full of veggies within around two hours.
And remember, it’s not just food you need to focus on; if it’s been a really tough ride or it has been very hot, you’ll be dehydrated and so will need plenty of water.
When you want to recharge your body, sleep is king.
When you’re asleep, your body releases Human Growth Hormone, a chemical that encourages your muscles to grow back stronger. Good quality sleep also reduces cortisol, a hormone that indicates your body is mentally and / or physically stressed. When there is a lot of cortisol in your system, your body will struggle to recover.
A nap of as short as 20 minutes will do a great deal to speed up your recovery. If you do choose to nap, make sure you don’t sleep longer than an hour, or you will compromise your night-time sleep.
You ideally want to get eight hours sleep every night, but after a really tough ride, get as much as you can to bounce back strong the next day.
Massage / foam rolling and stretching
Using a foam roller, or better still, getting a sports massage, is a great way to promote your post-ride recovery.
These techniques open up your blood vessels to promote blood flow, which helps flush any toxins out of your legs. It’s these toxins that cause the feeling of DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) after a ride, so you want to eliminate them as soon as you can.
A massage also serves to elongate your muscles. When you ride, muscles contract, and create the stiffness and aches that make the stairs an enemy the day after a big day on the bike. By using a foam roller or getting a massage and lengthening the muscles again, you return them to their normal state – and so making them ready for your next session on the bike.
Stretching is similarly important. While you can get a massage or use your roller a few days after your ride, it’s best to perform some stretches soon after your workout, while the muscles are warm.
A full-body stretching routine will help to re-set your body after it has spent several hours hunched over your bike, and will leave your back and legs back at their best. Regular stretching also promotes the range of motion of your joints, which means you can ride more comfortably and efficiently.
It may sound counterintuitive to go cycling when you’re tired from a big ride the day before. However, a gentle spin at a very easy pace, does wonders for your legs.
By going for a gentle ride, you help promote circulation around the body, which carries the nasty metabolic by-products that accumulated in your legs out of the muscles, returning them back to a state of chemical balance. Also, a very easy spin will help to relax tightness and aches.
A perfect recovery ride should be no longer than around 90 minutes, and as slow as you can go! Put the bike in a very easy gear and keep a good cadence (ideally 80-95 rpm) for the best recovery. Turning a heavy gear very slowly will do you no benefit!
Also, use your recovery spin as an opportunity to take a trip to your favourite café and get yourself a mid-way coffee to make the ride even easier.
Compression / elevation
Using compression socks or tights is an easy way to help your legs recover from a tough bike ride.
Tight fitting clothing around the calves helps prevent blood from pooling in your legs, and flushes blood around the body. By circulating the blood, the toxins in your legs that are making you sore will circulate through the body and leave you feeling fresh again.
A simple way of mimicking this compression if you don’t own specific clothing is simply to elevate your legs! All cyclists love some sofa-time after a ride, so when you do so, simply get your legs elevated above your hips and get your recovery going.