There’s no denying it — the time spent off the bike recovering is as vital to an athlete as the time spent training. If you miss the opportunity to repair muscle damage, you can be left with more than just aching legs.
So it is no surprise that scientists have been trying for decades to improve the process of recovery and reduce the soreness, injury and fatigue that result from training. Yet wading through the different research that has been produced can be baffling, contradictory and can lead to you making wrong decisions about your own training and recovery.
It is with good reason that recovery has increasingly been the focus of science in sport. 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.”
Worse still, failing to recover can cause and aggravate injury. Ken Matheson, former national road coach for the British team, explains that “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.”
Overtraining and injury aren’t just limited to the elite either. The reality is that those fitting training around an ordinary lifestyle are most susceptible. “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,” says Matheson. Chances are, if you are a competitive cyclist and a busy professional, you’ve already experienced more than one symptom of overtraining.
Fact or fad?
So, how can we speed the process of recovery? There are many tricks that people use in approaching recovery, in an attempt to speed the process and reduce pain, but many have proved to be ineffective. For instance, many think that stretching after a training session can reduce muscle damage and soreness. Unfortunately, though, studies suggest your muscles won’t be spared simply by holding a position for 15 seconds after a difficult session, as stretching has little or no effect on short-term muscle soreness.
That’s not to say that cyclists shouldn’t make stretching a regular part of their training routine. In the long term, 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 have also been a highly publicised technique used by the ultra-competitive. Yet, the majority of the studies contest any benefit of their use. A 2007 paper in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that ice baths actually hindered recovery, while some recent papers suggest a small benefit after sprint training. Immersing yourself in a cold bath (around room temperature) and contrasting this with hot water has produced much better results.
Another popular method of reducing muscle soreness and speeding recovery is active recovery, replacing rest time with light exercise. While the science often supports it, active recovery has its drawbacks.
Matheson warns: “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.’ So while a gentle warm-down is a good idea, replacing valid rest time with more exercise can prove problematic.
Don't replace rest time with more exercise. Learn to relax
When does science work?
So what help can one enlist to improve the process of recovery? Of all the recent innovations, compression clothing is one method that has taken off. Although the practice dates back to the 1970s, the recent commercialisation of compression clothing has been wildly successful, particularly in triathlons. Head of marketing for 2XU Mike Martin admits that the cycling market has been harder to penetrate than the triathlon market.
Many top cyclists use the kit for recovery but very few train while wearing it, which the marketing often encourages. Holohan explains: “I can tell the difference in my recovery when I use them and when I don’t, but I never put them on during a session, always afterwards.”
Meanwhile, former world champion and Olympic silver medallist track rider Wendy Houvenaghel completely steers clear of the garments. “I find that it’s quite uncomfortable; I’ve tried it maybe once and didn’t discover any particular benefit from using that.” Matheson is also sceptical. “I don’t think that compression apparel necessarily works that well and if it does I have no idea how.”
But where does the science on compression kit stand? 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.
An area which has also been shown to have significant effect, but which conveniently hasn’t been banned, is 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.”
Other foods can have a more direct effect on muscle soreness as opposed to purely fuelling the body. There has even been research into ‘anti-inflammatory’ foods that can allegedly help in the breakdown of damaged tissues. This has led to certain unusual food sources to be favoured by athletes, Matheson explains, ‘We’ve found cherry juice to work very well for some time now.’
Cherry juice also has a high antioxidant potency along with its anti-inflammatory properties, which can be beneficial. 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.
This sort of thinking on diet is seeping into the consumer market, Matheson explains. “For instance there’s a new tablet with lots of vitamins and antioxidants in it called Source of Life Gold by Nature’s Plus. It packs a hefty dose of vitamins and antioxidants."
Managing your time
Leaving aside any purchases, there’s a simpler ingredient to good recovery. Olympic silver medallist Rob Hayles explained that for him, “sleep is definitely the main thing in recovery.” He admits to often sleeping well over 12 hours a night.
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.
Getting enough sleep and passive recovery both require a basic element of time management which, as Hayles tells us, “is the key to effective training and recovery”.
For many who lead busy lives, it is important to think less about fitting training around work, and more about fitting life around recovery, says Matheson. “If you’ve got a busy life, I would say do less training. I mean this is old stuff but it still holds true. Write yourself a training plan that fits in with your life rather than fits in with the calendar.”
As a competitive cyclist, it’s worth trying anything that may offer up an advantage, especially in the often-neglected area of recovery. But there’s no need to break the bank on a full range of experimental methods. Instead, be safe in the knowledge that rest and general diet is 95 per cent of the battle, and the science confirms it. It is only when honing the last five per cent that expensive supplements, kit or recovery therapy become necessary.
Though stretching has benefits, it may have little or no effect on short-term muscle soreness
Recovery shopping list
Cherry juice: Originally studied in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2006, cherry juice was found to have notable benefits on muscle damage. It’s been shown to reduce muscle pain and reduce loss of strength over several days of intensive training.
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. Some are even calling it the new EPO.
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.
Milk-based drinks: While professional supplements are more likely to provide the correct ratios of carbohydrates and proteins, supermarket milkshakes like Frijj or ForGoodnessShakes have often been found to be similarly effective.
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.
Recovery methods at a glance
These are the tried-and-tested rescue remedies that the pros and amateurs alike have been using for years
Often effective in reducing muscle damage, active recovery (light recovery training) has some positive effects but can also exacerbate overtraining, injury and reduce energy. As with most approaches, if it doesn’t seem to be working for you, opt for passive recovery.
The jury is out on whether the kit has any benefit during training. But a variety of studies and testimony of top riders suggests that pulling on a pair of compression tights after training can make recovery a little more effective.
Recovery drinks, supplements or tablets
In addition to a healthy diet, topping up your levels of antioxidants, vitamins, proteins and carbohydrates is essential, and often supplements can speed this process.
Contrast water therapy, basically alternating a hot and cold shower or bath, can help reduce inflammation and simultaneously increase circulation. Although the science at times doesn’t support it, many athletes and coaches respect this method of speeding recovery.
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