Finding the perfect cycling recovery meal has always been a bit confusing. Do we need to neck a protein shake within that vital 20 minute window? What will happen if we go for a bog standard lunch? What’s really better for us?
In this video Cycling Weekly fitness writers Rob and Rebecca serve up four options that will provide everything you need to maximise your recovery window after a training ride.
It doesn’t need to be complicated and all of these options can be easily pre-prepared so you’re not diving into the fridge and making a poor choice when you come through the door. What’s more, if you’re armed with a planned and satisfying meal you’re less likely to over eat and undo the hard work you’ve put in on the bike.
We’ve all been tempted to grab that half eaten packet of biscuits from the cupboard, or pick at left-overs that have little nutritional value. Whether it’s a home-made smoothie, a full meal or a lighter snack, we’ve got it covered so you can recover with real food.
Next up in our series of nutritional videos we’ll be taking a closer look at the benefits of specific recovery powders so stay tuned.
Cycling recovery is essential. Without recovery, your form and fitness cannot improve as your body does not have the chance to adapt and improve.
To recover properly, it’s good to know how the process works. Training involves stressing muscles and cardiovascular system with hard exercise, causing damage and inflammation.
Although this damage and inflammation breaks down the body and is bad for short-term performance, in the long term it provides the essential stimulus we need for adaptation. Without it, we would not improve and get fitter, a process known as super-compensation.
It’s only during the recovery phase that improvements take place, so we should give our bodies what they need to support this recovery in order that we are both ready for our next training session and keep improving in the long term.
Nutritionally, there are three fundamental areas of cycling recovery to consider: the three Rs of recovery – refuel, rebuild, rehydrate.
The three Rs of recovery
Refuel with carbohydrate
During any exercise, especially intense or prolonged exercise, we begin to use up our body’s stores of carbohydrate. We start breaking down muscle glycogen to glucose, which can be used for energy. Replacing this energy with dietary carbohydrate is one of the most important ways to ensure we are ready to perform again. While training in a glycogen-depleted state may have some beneficial effects, it’s almost always detrimental to performance, so think carefully about what you expect to achieve in these sessions. The timing, type and amounts are all important and vary depending on your goals.
When training daily, or even most days of the week, it is important to eat enough carbohydrate to meet your overall fuel requirements and replenish glycogen levels. Exactly what that requirement is can vary dramatically depending on individual rates of carbohydrate versus fat metabolism, training volume, and intensity. So, while general recommendations can be given (as above), it needs to be tailored to your training programme and individual needs.
Timing of carbohydrate intake has a major impact on glycogen recovery and can be critical when you need to perform again in a short time window. Immediately following exercise, our bodies are more responsive to the carbohydrate uptake hormone insulin — muscles are primed for glucose absorption and glycogen synthesis occurs rapidly.
Consuming carbohydrate in the first 30-60 minutes following exercise gives much higher rates of glycogen replenishment than when eating is delayed by two hours.
If your next training session is between five and eight hours away or opportunities for eating are limited then taking carbohydrate as soon as possible will help restore glycogen and your performance faster. By two hours after training, the rate of glycogen synthesis has dropped, but as long as your overall carbohydrate intake is adequate it will catch up and be the same after 24 hours.
If you have another session coming up in the same day, this is the time to use a high-carbohydrate recovery drink. Alternatively, a carbohydrate-rich snack is a good way to get an easy, convenient meal and kick off the glycogen replenishment process. If your next session is not for 24 hours or more then a carbohydrate drink may not be necessary, providing you have plenty of opportunity to eat ample carbohydrate in the meantime.
The best carbohydrate sources for glycogen recovery are high to moderate glycaemic index foods. Sugars such as sucrose and glucose are a ready source for glycogen rebuilding, whereas fructose — a sugar frequently found in sport gels and drinks to be taken during exercise — tends to be metabolised and stored in the liver.
Adding some protein to your recovery drink or meal also helps glycogen synthesis when carbohydrate quantities are lower than the ideal 1.2g per kg, or regular when feeding is not possible.
It is not surprising, therefore, that one of the most effective glycogen recovery drinks is chocolate milk, with its high levels of added sugar and around 6g of protein per 250ml.
Rebuild with protein
Damage to muscles during exercise provides a stimulus for muscle growth and adaptation. We can support this process by providing the nutrients needed for rebuilding in the form of protein and amino acids (the building blocks of protein). Again type, timing and amount are all important factors to consider.
Muscle tissue undergoes constant change, with muscle protein being broken down and rebuilt in a process called remodelling. Training simultaneously leads to muscle breakdown while also stimulating the remodelling process.
Apart from muscle breakdown, protein is also lost through use as a fuel source and can contribute as much as 10 per cent of total energy in extreme cases. Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), including leucine, are readily utilised as fuels and are ‘essential’, meaning they cannot be made by our bodies. Leucine is particularly potent at stimulating muscle protein synthesis, so products that contain added BCAAs or whey protein, which is leucine-rich, are best.
Muscle protein synthesis is highly dependent on the levels of available amino acids, so to allow it to happen properly we need to make sure we have a good supply and quickly. Taking even 10g of protein within 30 to 60 minutes of training has a growth-promoting anabolic effect. It will stimulate muscle protein synthesis, support growth and help prevent muscle loss. Delaying protein intake by three hours can negate this anabolic effect and impair recovery.
Research has shown that more is better, however, and 20g of protein is required to maximise muscle protein synthesis in young athletes. More than this is wasted, though, and leads to amino acid oxidation and urea production, ultimately causing smelly urine.
In older athletes, higher levels of protein may be required to support muscle protein synthesis after training. For athletes over 40, as much as 40g may be required in that 30 to 60 minute post-exercise window.
If, like many athletes, you are used to a high-protein diet (1.8g per kg or more each day) then taking post-workout protein is even more important as you are more likely to breakdown muscle protein as a fuel source. When too much protein is available, your body learns to use it as fuel, turning on protein burning pathways. So beware taking too much protein as in the long run it may not be good for you or your muscles.
While the majority of research on muscle growth relates to resistance training, the studies that have looked at endurance training tend to support a similar recovery strategy. If anything, it may be even more important for endurance athletes to get that protein in within the first 30 to 60 minutes to prevent muscle loss and stimulate synthesis.
Many recovery products marketed at endurance athletes are designed purely for protein replacement and forget the importance of carbohydrate. They are high in protein to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and recovery, while being lower in carbohydrate. For some athletes this is ideal as it allows you to take on carbohydrate in additional forms, including real foods, and does not leave you feeling bloated or cause loss of appetite. However, carbohydrate only drinks are the opposite and while excellent for carbohydrate delivery and glycogen replenishment, do not provide adequate protein and can leave you feeling bloated, making it hard to eat a proper meal later on.
There are added benefits to taking protein post-workout, such as to facilitate glycogen storage as already mentioned. Secondly, it seems that taking adequate protein is important for supporting a strong immune system. Studies have found higher protein intakes are associated with positive markers of immune function and lower rates of reported respiratory infections, such as colds and flus.
Rehydrate with fluid
Fluid loss during exercise is normal and necessary to help keep our core temperature under control. Fluid loss of two to three per cent is not normally detrimental to performance, at least in cool conditions, but it is important that we replace this as soon as possible after exercise, both to support further training and to reduce stress on the cardiovascular system.
During exercise, especially in the heat, fluid can be lost at high rates through sweat. However, with sweat rates of around 0.5-1.5+ litres per hour while cycling, it is important to replace as much as possible during prolonged exercise to prevent even greater deficits that will affect performance, perceived effort and can ultimately lead to health problems.
We need to be careful here, as most sports drinks are not optimised for fluid replacement and can have very high osmolality (essentially, too much sugar and salt in them). This can lead to further dehydration by drawing fluid into the stomach. Alternatively, simply drinking water is a safe bet when nothing else is available and is very unlikely to cause any problems.
Since dehydration is not a sustainable situation for the body, we should aim to replace lost fluid as soon as possible if we are to ensure we are ready to train again. Although sweat rates vary considerably between individuals, intensities and temperatures, you can calculate your fluid loss on a session-by-session basis to achieve optimal rehydration.
It has been shown that drinking 1.5 litres of fluid for every 1kg of body weight lost is best to achieve quick rehydration. This excess volume is required to account for the increase in urine production that occurs when we consume a large volume of fluid. When larger volumes are involved, an active hydration product containing electrolytes is best, as it will reduce the fluid lost as urine.
Recipes for recovery
Oven-roasted tomato salad
Take this easy-to-carry salad to work to give you a tasty energy boost before your evening ride.
1. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Cut the tomatoes in half lengthways and arrange in a roasting tin, cut side up. Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Season with salt, dried thyme and a generous grind of black pepper. Cook in the oven for around 40 minutes. Remove from the oven, transfer to a rack or leave in the roasting tin to cool.
2. Cook the pasta in a pan of boiling salted water, according to the packet instructions. Once cooked, rinse the pasta with cold water and allow to drain thoroughly.
3. Put the onion, garlic, capers and parsley in a bowl. Stir in the pasta, followed by the puree and flaxseed oil.
4. Stir through the tomatoes and transfer to plastic containers until ready to eat.
For the oven-roasted tomatoes:
500g baby plum tomatoes
Balsamic vinegar, for drizzling
Extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling
Pinch of sea salt
Pinch of dried thyme
For the pasta:
250g whole wheat pasta shells or penne
1 red onion, finely chopped
1 small clove garlic, crushed
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
3.5 tbsp sundried tomato puree
2 tbsp flaxseed oil
Nutrition per serving
Chickpea soup with vegetables
This fibre-rich soup is a great post-ride meal that will fill you up and feed your muscles on relatively few calories. It’s also an absolute doddle to prepare.
1. Drop the tomatoes into boiling water for 30 seconds. Drain well then peel away the skins and remove the seeds. Chop the flesh and set aside.
2. Heat the oil in a large pan. and gently cook the onion, carrots and celery for three minutes. Add the garlic,
cook for one minute then
stir in the courgette.
3. Pour over the stock, add the thyme and bay leaf and bring to a boil. Add the tomato puree, the chopped tomatoes and the chickpeas. Simmer gently for 15-20 minutes or until the vegetables are tender.
4. Season with salt and pepper and serve in warmed bowls garnished with the basil.
600g ripe tomatoes
4 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 small courgettes, finely chopped
800ml vegetable stock or water
1 sprig thyme
1 bay leaf
2 tbsp tomato puree
300g canned chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1/2 bunch basil, finely chopped
Nutrition per serving:
This chicken and rice delight is packed full of protein to keep you satisfied. It’s ideal to put in a Tupperware box and save for when you get home from your ride. The leftovers can even be used for lunch the following day.
1) Rinse the chicken breasts and pat dry. Slice into strips.
2) Heat the oil in a pan and
sauté the onion, garlic and spring onions for two to three minutes. Add the chicken and continue to sauté for one or two minutes more.
3) Stir in the bell pepper strips, celery, chilli and rice. Pour in the chicken broth and add the bay leaf. Season with salt
4) Cover and simmer for
approximately 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the rice is cooked, add the tomatoes and coriander leaves.
5) Season to taste with the cumin, salt and pepper.
4 chicken breasts
1 onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
3 spring onions, sliced into rings
2 red bell peppers, deseeded and finely sliced
150g canned tomatoes, chopped
3 tbsp olive oil
250g cup long grain rice
500ml chicken broth
1 bay leaf
2 tbsp fresh coriander leaves, chopped
Nutrition per serving:
Why? Carbs plus protein plus fruits or veggies post-exercise is the best prescription for recovery, and this shake has them all. Milk is an effective recovery fluid thanks to the mix of fast and slow-release proteins — teamed with bananas and dates to add carbohydrate, this smoothie is a natural alternative to a post workout
Giving a chocolate hit sans guilt, cocoa powder packs in all the healthy stuff from the cacao bean without the added sugar found in a chocolate bar. Known for it’s mood-boosting properties, cocoa compounds boost blood flow and may even help protect your grey matter. The concentrated antioxidants in the cocoa and cinnamon are also great for bolstering your body’s natural defence against oxidative stress.
Pour milk into blender
Add the rest of ingredients and blend until smooth
Add a little more milk if needed
Pour into glass and sprinkle extra cinnamon on top.
3 medjool dates, pitted
1 tbsp cocoa powder
1 ripe frozen banana
300ml skimmed milk
1 tbsp almond butter
Pinch of cinnamon
Nutrition per serving: