Recovery from day to day is often a challenge for many cyclists. Not only for a pro rider in the Tour de France, but also for the amateur cyclist who is riding several days back to back while clocking up a solid number of kilometers and a few famous cols during events like Transalp or the Grand traverse of the Alps. Although from day to day every cyclist will inevitably perform a bit less, the trick is to keep this decline to a minimum. This recovery actually starts on the bike with a proper distribution of your energy and a good nutritional strategy, but in this article we’ll also go into the do’s and don’ts between getting off the bike and hitting the sack.
The golden 11 rules of recovery.
- Although for most cyclists priority number one is uploading their ride to Strava, it should actually be hydrating. Also, it’s not the proteins that should come first, but hydration, then the carbohydrates and finally the proteins. The longer and heavier the ride, the more important it is to replenish the proteins. For carbohydrates and proteins there is a window in the first hour in which you can absorb these especially easily. That’s why pros always get handed a water bottle with these proteins and carbohydrates right after the finish, which is usually drunk right after the first coke. This so-called recovery bottle usually contains 20-25 grams of whey protein, which is a smaller protein that is absorbed faster than the casein protein in dairy, plus ~50 grams of carbohydrates. These drinks also often contain more salts to make up for deficiencies in the electrolytes area.
- It’s certainly advisable to do a short recovery ride. You were often seen as the village idiot when you got on the indoor trainer after a tough stage. Nowadays it is completely the opposite, you can see cycling teams making an extra few kilometers on the trainer next to the team bus immediately after the finish. Often 10 minutes is enough to turn on the sodium-potassium pump of your muscles and thus actively dispose of all waste products. The trick is to let the pedals spin with a minimum of effort. Although most cyclists prefer to lie on the massage table instead of cycling for another 10 minutes, there are even teams where you are not allowed on the massage table until after you have done a recovery ride. If your ride doesn’t end in a bunch sprint, you can of course do this in the last few kilometers of the ride, instead of on the trainer.
- The massage is one of the most controversial recovery techniques in cycling. Simply put, the scientific evidence for the healing power of the massage is wafer thin. However, very few cyclists prefer to do nothing more than crawl on the massage table after an exhausting day in the saddle. The role of the soigneur actually goes a bit further than just his work as a masseur. Usually the massage is one of the few points of rest during the day and the therapist is also a mental carer. The attributed effect of the massage will partly be related to this, but a good masseur also knows how to reduce muscle tension and thus stimulate natural muscle recovery.
- One of the ancient laws in cycling says that you should sit if you don’t need to stand and that you should lie down if you don’t need to sit. So don’t stand unnecessarily on your legs, like on a stroll through town. There are legendary stories of a Tour de France winner who ordered his teammates to carry him up 5 stairs to his hotel room to save his legs! A very short, light walk can provide some extra active muscle recovery for example after dinner. But you should really try to stay on your bed until you are called for dinner or a massage.
- Eat, eat, eat. When you’re no longer hungry, then you should start worrying. All the carbohydrates you’ve consumed during a day’s riding need to be replenished. With an absorption capacity of 60 to 90 grams per hour, that’s often quite a trick to get done before going to bed and nigh on impossible with just one meal. There are therefore stories of pro cyclists who were woken up at night to wolf down another serving of pasta. Of course you also have to replenish the other macro-nutrients. So don’t think you can complete a Tour de France on just pasta or wine gums. Make sure you eat good quality foods with sufficient vegetables, proteins and vitamins while containing XL-sized carbohydrate portions.
- Extra protein before going to bed is a great and proven method to work on muscle recovery during sleep. Another 25 grams of casein protein through the yogurt/soft cheese/cottage cheese or milk is therefore recommended.
- One of the most barbaric recovery methods is a cold water bath. This works almost in the same way as a massage. The cold water causes the blood vessels to constrict, increasing the speed in the blood vessels and thereby the speed of waste products discharge. Pro athletes were taking them mostly after hard weight training sessions, but the habit has fallen a bit out of fashion recently.
- Less barbaric but creating the same effect are recovery socks or compression clothing. These socks will most likely get you a ticket from the fashion police, but they do help to get the blood out of the legs and especially the calves faster. Especially at the dinner table or in the car or bus on the way to the hotel, these days the recovery socks are the rule rather than the exception in the pro peloton.
- Good news! Although it is imperative to avoid alcohol immediately after exercise and to ensure that carbohydrates, fluids and proteins are replenished first, a glass of wine at dinner can do little harm. Research has shown that alcohol hinders the protein synthesis in the muscles, but a small amount of alcohol will not do any harm in the short term. In the longer term the effects of alcohol on the immune system, the quality of sleep and muscle building are somewhat less positive, but just a glass of wine at dinner time is fine.
- There are no good cyclists from Finland yet. That could be because of their love for the sauna. It’s not good at all to sit in a Finnish sauna after a tough ride and lose even more fluids. Skip the sauna and go to bed with the recovery socks on.
- Go to bed on time. As a famous Tour de France winner once said: you win the Tour de France in bed. Sleep is vital, so make sure of the quality of it. If you have a roommate who likes to read until late, unscrew the light next to his side of the bed when he’s taking a shower.