It's commonly heard within the world of sport that recovery is just as important to an athlete at the time spent training, if not more so. If you fail to adequately recover and repair the muscle damage that you have caused by training, then your training will actually be hindered in the future.
There is plenty of research around that attempts to spell out the most optimal methods for recovery in order to reduce the soreness, injury and fatigue that result from training. However, this can often be contradictory, leaving you more confused with what the best way to recover is than when you started.
What is clear though is that recovery really is essential for positive adaptions to occur after you have trained. Consequently, it has increasingly been the focus of science in sport, and should be implemented if you want to the see the fastest improvements as possible.
Professional cyclist Liam Holohan explains: “It’s the most important bit of training. So many guys go over the top with the training and just don’t recover from it — their form gets worse and it’s a vicious circle. They think they’re doing badly so they train harder and it only makes it worse.”
Overtraining, a common factor in causing injury, is generally attributed to poor recovery, and isn't limited to elite athletes. Ken Matheson, a former road coach for the British team, explains that people don't take as much care in their form when tired, which is a sign of a lack of recover.
Matheson says: "Muscles don’t behave normally when they’re tired; it’s not just the muscles themselves but fatigue in the central nervous system and the necessary neural responses. If you’re tired you’re maybe not controlling your knee so well, or the location of your foot. Things are not quite working and you end up with an injury because of it.
“Some people feel compelled to just train and train and train and they just become more and more ill. A lot of people underestimate the need for recovery and the power of recovery.”
Fact or fad?
Now, there are plenty of different techniques floating around suggesting that implementing them will help people to recover quicker than usual. The tried and trusted trick of simply stretching after a training session is arguably the most prominent trick people do to try and limit the muscle damage and soreness. Unfortunately though, studies suggest that stretching has little-to-no effect on short-term muscle soreness.
Stretching over a long period of time though is recommended however, because flexibility training - prolonged stretching over time - has been shown to reduce the amount of tearing that occurs during intense training, according to a study in the American journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
Ice baths, another highly publicised technique, also has its challengers within the scientific world. Some papers suggest they provide only a small benefit after sprint training, while in 2007 the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that ice baths actually hindered recovery.
Matheson also provides sound reasoning for why active recovery, replacing rest time with light exercise, isn't always the most optimal way to recover from a tough session.
He argues: “Once you raise your pulse, you raise your metabolic rate and once you raise your metabolic rate you’re not creating the new proteins or the adaptation that your training has pushed you to achieve. The adaptations that you would get from recovery aren’t taking place."
When does science work?
Plenty of studies have found in recent times that compression clothing is particularly effective in eliciting improved recovery within the muscles. A study by the Australian Institute for Sport in 2010 showed astounding results for the clothing, suggesting that it lowered heart-rate during exercise, decreased swelling during recovery, reduced soreness and improved performance while being worn and during subsequent sessions — so much so that the UCI has banned its use as race clothing.
Perhaps somewhat understandably though, former world champion and Olympic silver medallist track rider Wendy Houvenaghel disagrees that compression clothing provides anything other than discomfort.
“I find that it’s quite uncomfortable", she said. "I’ve tried it maybe once and didn’t discover any particular benefit from using that.”
Arguably the most effective tool to promote improved recovery is with good nutrition. A well known study in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise showed that endurance cyclists were able to cycle 40 per cent longer on a second session with a four-to-one ratio of carbohydrates to protein.
Protein and carbohydrate mixtures are a must-have among top cyclists, Wendy Houvenaghel explains: “The protein and carbohydrate drinks that we have soon after racing are definitely beneficial, along with a balanced healthy diet.”
Research also suggests that some food is better at reducing muscle soreness, dubbed 'anti-inflammatory' foods because they can allegedly help recover damaged tissues.
Among these anti-inflammatory foods is cherry juice, which also has a high antioxidant potency. As exercise increases the intake of air, it also increases the production of free radicals, which have a role in damage to muscle tissue. So, antioxidant foods that counter the effect of free radicals can also have a notable effect on recovery.
Consequently, athletes favour the drink because of its supposed superior ability at recovering muscles.
Managing your time
One of the simplest and often most overlooked aspect to recovery is sleep, and good sleep at that.
Rob Hayles, Olympic silver medallist, says: “Sleep is definitely the main thing in recovery. It is the key to effective training and recovery."
Professional cyclists are now looking toward sleep for marginal gains. So much so, Hayles explains, that Team Sky decided to take all their athletes’ beds on tour with them last year. Some teams have enlisted the help of professionals to analyse riders' sleep. While sleep analysis might be out of range of the average athlete, the first step is getting enough sleep.
Good nutrition and plenty of sleep is arguably 95 per cent of the battle in recovery, with the other extras simply that, extras. Sleep is free to have, meaning there aren't any excuses why you shouldn't get at least the recommended seven to nine hours a night. On the other hand, expensive supplements, kit or recovery isn't absolutely essential, and is often reserved for professionals looking to wring every last bit of performance they can out of their body.
Recovery shopping list
Cherry juice: Shown to reduce muscle pain and reduce loss of strength over several days of intensive training by a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2006, cherry juice is a supposed expert at helping with recovery.
Beetroot juice: Studies in the Journal of Applied Physiology show that beetroot juice can boost your stamina and VO2max owing to high levels of nitrate. People have started to call it the new EPO, in regard to how beneficial it actually is.
Fish: Fish contains oils that can have a notable effect on the recovery. The omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids are able to increase the oxygen intake of damaged muscles and generally lower fatigue. The protein in fish also helps to repair muscles stronger after intense training.
Milk-based drinks: While protein shakes from professional supplements are likely to provide the correct ratios of carbohydrates and proteins, general milkshakes from supermarkets are still effective in recovery, at a huge cost reduction.
Fresh tropical fruits: Pineapples, passion fruits and mangos are known to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant potency to reduce muscle damage after a session.
Vitamin/antioxidant tablets: Tablets containing supplementary antioxidants and vitamins can help the recovery process when used alongside a healthy diet. The antioxidants can help counter the muscle damaging effects of free radicals produced during exercise.
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