No matter how many miles you log on the bike, some of the most neglected and valuable training is off the bike and on the couch (wait, what?). Recovery is a crucial part of all training regimes, but some cyclists think they can’t afford to take it easy.
One of the ways you become a better cyclist is through muscular adaptation. In very basic terms, as explained by Bicycling, this is what happens: The stress of training causes micro tears in your muscles. Your body then repairs the damage, which results in an inflammatory response (the swelling and tenderness you feel after a hard workout or race). This rebuilding process creates stronger muscles—but only if the body has adequate time to heal.
But recovery isn’t just about sitting on the couch with your legs up. It’s also about not going hard all the time and using days off wisely. Strategies like low-intensity rides and massage allow your muscles to benefit from all the work you’ve put in. Here’s how to maximize every minute you spend in—and out—of the saddle.
1. Take a Cold Plunge
Long a favorite ritual of distance runners, soaking in cold water after a workout has been shown to reduce inflammation and soreness. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found that a group of cyclists who immersed their legs in cold water right after a hard effort performed even better on a second rigorous ride 24 hours later. Another benefit: Soaking in cold water can simply feel good, especially on hot days.
Whether it leads to actual strength gains is up for debate. A recent review of 17 studies found that while it does reduce pain, cold-water immersion might not make muscles stronger.
How-to: Fill a tub with about 8 inches (enough to cover your legs while you’re in a seated position) of 50- to 60-degree water. Soak for up to 15 minutes within a half hour of finishing a hard ride. If you can’t tolerate the chill, start with shorter baths and try keeping your shorts on and wearing a fleece jacket.
2. Refuel right
Many riders depend on recovery drinks to get their nutrients back after a ride. But if you’re not pressed for time, it’s pretty easy to get the nutrients you need from real food.
How-to: The optimal formula is four parts carbohydrate and one part protein. Good postride recovery snacks include a smoothie made with Greek yogurt, banana, and berries, or a bowl of cereal with fruit and milk, says sports nutritionist Nancy Clark, RD. For a meal, try a turkey and cheese sandwich or spaghetti and meatballs made with turkey or lean beef.
You also need to replace sodium and potassium lost through sweat, and while commercial sports drinks are handy, says Clark, low-fat milk (regular or chocolate), and other convenient foods such as pretzels, a bagel with peanut butter, or pasta with tomato sauce can be even better for replacing these electrolytes—and for your overall health.
As for timing, feed muscles as quickly as possible after a workout, especially if you have less than 24 hours until your next hard effort. “Within 15 to 30 minutes is ideal,” says Testa. Try to eat something else in the next 60 to 90 minutes, when your body’s primed to take in nutrients and replenish energy stores. And no matter how exhausted you are at the end of a long day, topping off the tank before heading to bed may help repair muscles while you’re down for the count. In a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers had a group of exercisers drink a protein shake 30 minutes before bed, while another group drank a shake sans protein. Overnight muscle-protein synthesis rates were 22 percent higher in the protein drinkers.
3. Sleep more!
It’s well known that pro cyclists sleep far more than the average club rider, clocking up to 70 hours of shut-eye a week during the Tour de France, for example, compared with the 40 to 50 hours most of us get during the same amount of time. It’s a recovery tool that pro teams take seriously, and for good reason: When you sleep, your body produces hormones that are critical to recovery. Research has shown that getting just two fewer hours of sleep than normal can slow your reaction time. Indeed, it can be a key factor in athletic performance, says Stanford University sleep researcher Cheri Mah, but one we often neglect. In 2011, Mah and her colleagues found that when athletes who were sleeping six to eight hours a night aimed to get closer to 10, their reaction time and performance improved.
How-to: The National Sleep Foundation recommends that healthy adults get seven to nine hours of sleep. And though Mah’s study wasn’t specific to cyclists, athletes in any sport will benefit from even just 30 more minutes, she says.
4. Get a massage
A postride rubdown helps increase circulation and clear muscles of lactic acid, says Reed McCalvin, head soigneur for Team Bontrager-Livestrong. It also reduces adhesions, or knots, that make movement less efficient and more painful. What’s more, science has linked massage to improved muscle function. In a study on cyclists who got a massage on only one leg, biopsies showed greater muscle regeneration in the treated leg. And researchers in Canada found that postexercise massage reduced inflammation and promoted the growth of new mitochondria—the parts of your cells that produce power.
There’s also a mental benefit to massage, says Testa. Numerous studies have shown that it lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is released during hard efforts. “If your brain remains in fighting mode,” says Testa, “it slows your recovery.” Excess cortisol has been linked to overtraining syndrome and can lead to a host of problems including irritability, weight gain, and muscle loss.
How-to: No money? No problem. You can buy a foam roller at most sporting-goods stores and use it after a ride or any time in between. Rest your leg muscles and glutes on the cylinder and roll slowly back and forth, pausing and pressing into the sorest spots for 30 to 45 seconds. For hard-to-reach areas such as shoulder blades and other parts of your back, lean against a tennis ball on the wall.