6 ways to speed up your post-ride recovery
Post-ride recovery is one performance parameter which is easy to neglect. Professional cyclists, who are accustomed to training and racing regularly throughout the year, certainly understand the importance of following dedicated recovery protocols.
But recreational riders can often let their recovery plans slide, especially if they are busy with work and home life. And this is a big mistake. Without a good recovery plan, your legs will be aching for days, and the next time you get on your bike you won’t feel as sharp as you should.
Here experienced cycling physiotherapist Bianca Broadbent, an expert at Fit Your Bike (fityourbike.co.uk), which is based at the High Performance Centre within the University of Birmingham, shares some simple steps for enhancing your post-ride recovery.
Sleep it off
Sleep is a painfully neglected aspect of modern life, with 25% of the population failing to get the recommended 7-8 hours per night. This is certainly bad news for your general health and mental focus. But it’s also terrible for your post-ride recovery.
Sleep is the time when your body repairs its damaged muscles after a ride. So without a good night’s sleep, you will feel sore and lethargic on your next training ride. Scientific studies have shown that a bad night’s sleep can affect everything from your cardiovascular performance and your oxygen consumption levels to your peak power output during exercise.
“When it comes to recovery, the big one is rest and sleep,” explains Broadbent. “There’s increasing evidence emerging to support the importance of sleep, not only for recovery but also for your wider health. It’s not just about getting the duration right either.
You also need good quality sleep – ideally uninterrupted – to create the most effective recovery environment.” That is because our primary physical recovery takes place during what is known as Stage 4 or REM sleep – essentially very deep sleep.
Power up your recovery by improving your bedroom environment: make sure your curtains or blinds block out all light, and remove any electronic gadgets like tablets and TVs – even those tiny red standby lights will hamper the release of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin.
Check the room’s thermostat too – experts suggest a cooler 16-18 degrees is the optimum temperature for sleep. Aim to keep a regular sleep routine by going to bed and getting up at the same time, and follow a relaxing pre-bed warm-down, like taking a bath, reading a book (on paper, not a bright device), or listening to relaxing classical music to help you drift off to sleep.
“There’s not much point faffing about with other recovery strategies if you’re not getting this really basic but important one right,” says Broadbent.
Wear compression garments
“Once you get your sleep right, you can start looking at active recovery strategies,” explains Broadbent. “Evidence for some of these modalities can be low, but it’s important to note that even if you ‘feel’ well-rested then that will contribute to your recovery. A good example is compression wear which may help optimise circulation in the body and therefore enhance metabolic recovery.”
Compression garments – which for cyclists usually come in the form of knee-length socks or full-length tights – improve blood flow to help oxygenate your blood and ‘squeeze out’ toxins. The process is therefore similar to that of a post-ride massage.
A 2018 review of 102 compression studies concluded that compression garments can contribute to a reduction in delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). And a 2017 study in the journal Sports Medicine found that compression garments can enhance next-day cycling performance.
Get plugged in
Electrical muscle-stimulation devices have become increasingly popular in the pro peloton, with riders often plugging themselves in to these self-massaging recovery tools on the team bus or at the team hotel after a ride. “The brand Compex, and other equivalent devices, are essentially neuromuscular stimulation devices,” explains Broadbent. “These have multiple purposes (including strength building) but they usually include a ‘recovery’ setting to help aid relaxation and promote good circulation.”
Put simply, you strap small patches on to your leg muscles which are connected to a device that sends electrical pulses into the muscles. This ‘self-massaging’ process is designed to bring fresh oxygen and nutrients to the muscles, and to facilitate the removal of post-ride toxins, therefore helping you to recover faster.
Hit the pool
Going for a post-ride swim can help to loosen your muscles and reduce muscle soreness. But if you don’t live near a pool, having a gentle ride on your turbo trainer will do the same job. That is why you often see Tour de France riders going for a light ‘recovery ride’ on their turbo, even after completing a 150km stage. “Light recovery sessions, such as swimming or easy turbo spins, help with optimising circulatory function and lymphatic drainage,” explains Broadbent.
Reach for the foam roller
Using a foam roller to stimulate and loosen aching muscles will also help you to feel better after a ride. Some of this effect may be physical, caused by a rise in blood flow to the aching muscles. But the psychological boost that comes from feeling more flexible is also part of the equation.
A review of studies published in Frontiers in Physiology found that foam-rolling after exercise helped to limit reductions in subsequent sprint and strength performance, and also reduced perceived muscle soreness by 6%.
“There’s not a lot of evidence to say this will change things on a cellular level, but if something feels sore, and you rub it, it automatically feels better, so this will certainly help from a psychological perspective,” concludes Broadbent.
Avoid beer, pills and ice
In addition to trying the helpful methods above, it is also worth knowing what post-ride activities won’t help you. Drinking alcohol will seriously hamper your physical recovery, even if you do crave a beer after a long ride. Alcohol slows down the repair process by inhibiting the function of hormones which aid this process, such as testosterone. It also encourages muscular swelling and enhances post-ride dehydration.
Don’t be tempted to pop anti-inflammatory pills either. “Anti-inflammatories might help reduce muscle soreness, but this actually might mean they are inhibiting your natural recovery processes, rather than aiding your recovery,” warns Broadbent.
Don’t feel as though you need to act like a hero by jumping in a freezing cold ice bath either. Ice baths may help rugby players and American football players who have suffered severe bruising, but it’s not much use for endurance cyclists.
“It’s generally agreed that using ice after exercise is not beneficial, although some people will still use it inter-competition to help them feel ‘fresher’ to compete again,” concludes Broadbent.