When you’re training for a big event it’s tempting to cram as many miles as possible into the schedule and go harder than you should, even on the ‘easy’ rides. But while we all know swapping a recovery ride for a Sufferfest climbing session probably isn’t the best idea, it can be harder than it sounds to take your foot off the gas. And that’s a problem.
“One of the mistakes many cyclists make is under recovering,” says ultra endurance cyclist James Mark Hayden, winner of The Transcontinental Race in 2017 and 2018, a 4,000km self-supported bicycle race across Europe. “But without recovery your body doesn’t have time to repair muscle damage and you can’t get stronger or push hard when you need to.”
Like most successful cyclists, recovery is something James takes very seriously. “Pushing myself as hard as I do, I need to be just as aggressive with my cycling recovery as I am with my training,” he says. “For longevity and enjoyment on the bike I’d say you need to think about recovery first and training second.”
Here’s why recovery is so important
Recovery is a vital part of a cyclist’s schedule. When you train you’re putting your body under stress and breaking down muscles and it’s during recovery that these muscles repair, adapt and grow stronger so that the same workout feels easier next time. If you don’t give yourself time to rest and recover post-ride, then you won’t progress and you’re also putting yourself at risk of illness, injury and over-training. Rest days are essential.
How many rest days should I build into my training?
Striking the balance between rest and training can be trickier than it sounds. Too many rest days and you’ll risk stagnating, too few and you’re at risk of overtraining. While most off-the-peg training plans factor in rest days, there’s no one size fits all. Everyone is different and age, cycling experience, work and family stresses, general health and how far out you are from your goal race can all make a difference.
“The best way to know if you need a rest day is to listen to your body,” says James. “During training I normally have at least one day completely off the bike and one easy day but if I haven’t slept well or feel rough, then whatever I’ve planned will go out the window and I’ll take more time to recover.”
Signs you may need extra rest include:
- an elevated heart rate
- feeling mentally tired
- and not being able to hit your training goals.
Getting to know your body’s signals is a skill that comes with experience though. “It took me six years of nearly full-time riding to be able to understand my body,” says James. “If you’re unsure, getting a coach or asking a friend who’s an experienced cyclist to assess you can help.”
These recovery tips will help you rest up for improved performance in the saddle.
The 10 best cycling recovery tips to implement in your routine
1. Take time to cool down
Hands up who’s guilty of jumping straight off the turbo after a tough set? A cool down may take extra time but ending each ride with at least 10 minutes of easy cycling helps the body return to its pre-exercise state. Spinning the legs gets blood flowing around the body and helps remove metabolic waste products from the muscles, aiding the recovery process.
2. Elevate your legs
If you’ve just done a hard training ride, lying down with your legs against a wall can help drain fluids that may be pooling in the legs, reduce swelling and also gently stretch your hamstrings, all helping with recovery. If you’re feeling faint or dizzy, it will also get blood flow back to the brain. British Cycling recommends aiming to stay there for five minutes for every hour ridden.
3. Hydrate with cycling recovery drinks
While most of us drink little and often on the bike, after a hard or long training session and in warmer weather, dehydration is likely. That makes it harder for your heart to pump blood and oxygen around your body, slowing the recovery process.
When you get back from a shorter, easy ride drinking water should be enough but if it’s been a tough day in the saddle, you’ll want to replace some of the electrolytes – such as sodium – which you’ve lost too.
4. Fuel up on carbs and protein
Nutrition is a key weapon in your recovery arsenal (see our article on cycling nutrition). After a long or tough session, taking on carbs to replace the energy lost during exercise will boost your glycogen stores, while protein will help repair muscles.
While some cyclists opt for protein powders and sports nutrition products, James is a big believer in natural food. “After a long ride, if I’m in a glycogen-depleted state I’ll try and eat something good when I get home,” he says.
“If it’s the right time of day then I’ll have a full meal, if not I’ll make a smoothie with fruit and vegetables, maybe some oats and Greek yogurt. I tend to have protein and carbs in my recovery shake and avoid too much fat as it slows down the transition of carbohydrates through the stomach, which isn’t really something I want at that point.”
The best time to start your refuelling is within 30 minutes of exercise so if you can’t face a full meal grab something quick and easy like the Veloforte Forza bar, which contains the perfect 3:1 carbohydrate:protein ratio for optimal recovery.
5. Try a bit of self-massage
While it’d be great to schedule in a sports massage each week, not all of us have the time or the money. Luckily self-massage tools such as foam rollers, massage balls and sticks offer similar benefits, helping remove waste products, reduce inflammation and encourage blood flow to promote good recovery.
6. Include some mobility work
Keeping muscles supple and in good condition with mobility work will reduce your chance of injury. It also allows your muscles to work to their full range of motion during exercise, which can improve your performance. In addition, it may also help relieve symptoms of muscle stiffness and soreness after exercise.
“Mobility is a really important part of my programme,” says James. “Before a ride I like to warm up my muscles through the full range of movement and then I’ll do some holding stretches. I never do any stretching immediately after a ride though, I think you need to leave your muscles alone and give them time to recover, instead I might do some in the evening before bed.”
7. Try compression clothing
While more evidence is needed to prove its efficacy, compression clothing is designed to increase blood flow and reduce swelling and post-exercise soreness and many cyclists, including James, are fans.
Manufacturers recommend wearing it for periods of two-to-four hours after exercise and James finds it particularly useful after big races. “I wear it for about a week after a race or my legs swell up,” he says. “Particularly if I’m travelling.”
8. Try active recovery
Rest and recovery usually means putting your feet up and doing very little. However, in certain circumstances, such as the days following a big race, you may find active recovery beneficial.
Active recovery consists of doing some form of exercise, such as a very easy spin on the bike to get the blood moving. “Walking to and from work counts as well,” says James. “Or playing with the kids. Recovery is just as much mental as physical, particularly if you’ve just competed in your goal race. So sometimes it’s better to sack off the bike and do something else you enjoy instead.” So if you’re in doubt whether you’re ready for it, miss it out and take an extra day’s full rest instead.
9. Get some quality sleep
During deep sleep your body produces the human growth hormone, which stimulates muscle growth and repair. A lack of sleep can make you moody, unfocused, increases production of the stress hormone cortisol and ups your rate of perceived exertion – so training feels like much harder work. In short, if you want to recover and train at your best, you need some decent shut eye.
“I aim for eight to 10 hours a night,” says James. “Eight’s a minimum, 10 is nice. Unless I’m racing. In my last race in Italy – the Italy Divide – I slept 2.5 hours in four days!” Not something we recommend!
10. Let your mind rest too
As well as giving your body time to rest and recover, you need to give your mind some downtime too, particularly if you’re trying to train alongside other demands such as work and family.
“Mental recovery is probably more important for me than physical recovery,” says James. “If I haven’t recovered mentally it doesn’t matter what physical shape I’m in because I won’t be able to push myself to the limits.”
After a big race such as The Transcontinental, James will take up to two months out of training and competing. For amateur cyclists, after a race it’s a good time to catch up with friends, maybe try some other sports or exercise classes and just chill out so you can get back in the saddle, mentally and physically refreshed.