If you’re going to get the maximum benefit from your training you need to focus on recovery as well as on the time spent on your bike or in the gym; this is when all the good stuff happens and you actually get stronger. Sometimes it’s a passive approach, allowing yourself to relax and get adequate amounts of sleep, but there are also ways of being proactive so you can make the most of the hard sessions you’ve suffered through. Here’s how you can optimise your body’s adaptation process…
It is important to refuel and rehydrate your body to promote muscle repair and growth, to boost adaptation from the workout, to support the immune system and be ready to go again the following day.
To replenish your muscle fuel stores carbohydrate-rich foods are required says Dr Gareth Wallis, a professor of Exercise Metabolism and Nutrition at the University of Birmingham.
He explains: “Glycogen stores in the muscle and the liver are the main sources of fuel that you’ve used during exercise.
“In the early stages after exercise, the evidence suggests having combined types of carbohydrates, with different types of sugars. This means not sticking to just one source of food for recovery.
“Most of our sugars come from glucose sources. Pasta has starch which ultimately is a source of glucose—it’s good to get that in to restore your muscle levels."
But Gareth notes that we also need to think about replacing the liver glycogen.
“For restoring those levels in the liver it is more effective to have carbohydrates that also contain fructose. This can be found in fruits, so smoothies are a good option for topping up this.”
Consuming between 1g and 1.2g of carbohydrates per kilogram of body mass in the hour after you’ve finished is important as it starts the recovery process, Gareth says.
“You should be repeating that every hour for the first few hours after exercise before resuming your normal diet.”
While carbohydrates are for refuelling, protein is necessary for repairing muscles.
“You don’t need to go overboard with protein straight away after exercise. You just need to get around 0.3g of protein per kilogram of body mass to help kickstart muscle recovery processes,” Gareth explains. That’s around 20 to 25g for most of us.
“What the evidence suggests with protein is that you should then be getting that same amount of 20 to 25g of protein every three to four hours throughout the rest of the day. That should come with resuming your normal diet and ensuring that your meals have a sufficient amount of protein.
“This is different from what the evidence suggests for carbohydrates, which is that it should be consumed more frequently and in slightly greater amounts than protein.”
Often specific recovery bars or drinks have a line saying you should consume within 30 minutes of finishing your training. Answering how important it is to stick to these guidelines, Gareth explains: “Exercise definitely sensitises your muscles to protein and that sensitisation does last for at least 24 hours, but the response to protein is slightly higher in the first hour or two after exercising.
“Taking protein in close proximity to the end of a session is more of a practical suggestion to ensure you have taken the right amount. The reality is that if one or two hours have passed, it’s not going to be the end of the world.”
“If you delay taking carbohydrates for two hours after an intense session, your recovery of energy levels will be slower. Consuming carbohydrates is more important to do earlier on, but total recovery covers carbs, protein and fluids and so it can be more practical to take all at the same time.
"Recovery drinks can be a convenient way of doing this and drinks have some electrolytes too which are important to replenish if you are a particularly heavy sweater.”
“But it’s not all about having lots of carbs all the time. It should be a periodised approach. You should be having enough based on what you’ve done and what you’re going to do.
“If you’ve had a hard session and you are going into another hard session the next day you need to be more aggressive. But if you’ve not done so much and your next session isn’t going to be intense then you don’t need to be so aggressive,” Gareth recommends.
Recovery rides can be fitted into your training schedule once or twice a week, and ideally the day after your hardest session or short block.
“The point of a recovery ride is to stretch out muscles that are feeling stiff and sore after previous workouts, and to feel better after you have done it,” says Tim Phillips of Catenary Cycle Coaching.
But he admits: “I’m a little bit of a sceptic when it comes to recovery rides as I wonder whether a lot of the time recovery rides are actually recovery rides—the appropriate pace is really, really slow.”
Recovery rides aren’t about getting any training in at all. This means they should be ridden at a pace that isn’t really exercising. Continuous conversations should be a breeze and it is recommended to stick to below 68% of your lactate threshold heart rate (this is the heart rate you’d hold for the majority of a 20 minute FTP test).
While it’s important to pay attention to feel, recording the ride and wearing a heart rate monitor is worthwhile for checking if you have executed the ride at the right intensity – AKA no intensity!
“It’s very easy to go out on your bike and think you’re doing a recovery ride, but there’ll end up being a hill or segment that you get carried away on, or you’ll find yourself just increasing the average speed as you feel like you are going too slow.
“Then when you are going out on a ride with someone else, it’s even harder to stick to the slow speeds. If they up the pace it’s so easy just to follow them.”
Don’t allow yourself to be sucked into competition by friends. It’s better to ride solo so you stick in the correct zone.
Tim believes it is safer just to do some stretching or yoga instead. These techniques can be more beneficial as it’s harder to work your muscles or cardiovascular systems too hard.
Tim adds: “Recovery should be mental as well as physical. If you are putting in a lot of time on the bike, spending some time off the bike for recovery can be better for you.”
For those who do feel the need to give their legs a spin, Tim recommends doing no longer than an hour and under 35/40 TSS (Training Stress Scores) on Training Peaks. “Stay in the little ring and ride the flattest route you can do.”
While it’s nice to get outside into the fresh air for your recovery ride, Tim says: “It’s much easier to do a recovery ride on the turbo as I don’t think you are tempted to go as fast.
“Just spend 30 minutes and keep a nice brisk cadence. It might also be a good opportunity to work on pedalling smoothness so you’ve got something to concentrate on instead of going faster and harder.”
Sleep is essential for both the brain and the body, for both mental and physical health. The ‘Sleep and the athlete: narrative review and 2021 expert consensus recommendations’ by Walsh, N. P. et al. sums up that sleep loss impairs cognition, learning and memory consolidation and mental well-being; it disrupts growth and repair of cells, metabolism of glucose and lowers the protective immune response to vaccination.
Professor Ben J. Edwards of Liverpool John Moores University studies chronobiology and he notes: “Cellular restitution occurs in the first half of your sleep cycle and this is when you heal and recover from the exercise you have completed in that day.”
Then there's the effect of sleep on how you perform the next day in your next training session. Rui Pereira, a PhD researcher in Sleep Psychology at the University of Loughborough, says: “Poor sleep seems to have little influence on the actual physical sporting performance of athletes, but there is a decrease in the cognitive psychological aspect. Athletes report higher fatigue and are less motivated to perform. The subjective perception of exertion is much higher.”
Intending to get between seven to nine hours of sleep, Rui takes us through the best techniques you can adopt to help with improving your sleep quality, sleep efficiency and latency.
He explains: “Sleep efficiency is your total sleep duration divided by your total time in bed, times 100. You want a sleep efficiency of at least 85%.”
“Sleep latency is the length of time it takes you to fall asleep at night, and that should be around 15 to 30 minutes.”
Create routines: “Try to go to bed at the same time every day and wake up at the same time every day, regardless of whether you’ve slept terribly or if you’ve had a wonderful night of sleep. Stick to this schedule as it will let your body know that at X time of the day it is time to start feeling relaxed and at X time in the morning it is time to feel alert, get up and start moving.”
Do not use your bed for anything other than sleeping and relaxing: “Your bed is for limited activities and definitely not for anything that involves a mental task. Don’t work in bed because it should be associated mostly with rest. By ensuring this separation it will subconsciously help to create the association between the bed and resting and the process of sleep.”
Do not try to sleep: “Sleep is a natural process. It’s supposed to be unintentional and automatic. If you attempt to fall asleep and you’re thinking a lot about the need to fall asleep and you have a sense of urgency, you will most likely fail.”
Do not look at the clock: “If you’re in bed and you find yourself struggling, do not look at the clock and start doing mental maths: 'If I fall asleep at this time I’ll have this many hours of sleep'. This will create added pressure and impair the subconscious nature of the whole process.”
Make your room as familiar as possible: “When sleeping somewhere different you should bring objects that are usually associated with your sleep process at home such as a pillow.”
Try relaxing beforehand: “In the pre-sleep process, that's the half-hour or so leading up to going to bed, try to relax. Progressive muscle relaxation is a good technique or yoga. To allow the melatonin to kick in, it's not recommended doing anything involving your phone or other electronic devices.”
If you nap in the day, make it short: “Short naps of up to 30 minutes can be beneficial in boosting your mood, alertness and cognitive performance. But make it 30 minutes at most because when you fall asleep you start progressing through the different sleep stages. The more time you sleep, the deeper you go and if you don’t keep your napping short enough you'll enter the deeper stages and wake up feeling groggy and exhausted. Another reason to keep naps short is that you’ll otherwise rob some of your night-time sleep—it’ll take you longer to fall asleep and it can also impact the quality of your sleep at night."
As well as these habits it is important to avoid stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol and meals late at night, and it is worthwhile getting decent exposure to natural light in the morning when you wake up.
The sleep hygiene steps above do not touch on sleep tracking devices, here’s why…
“There isn't a lot of research that validates the reliability of these apps on mobile devices and wrist devices. A lot of these algorithms of these devices are proprietary, and the companies that make them do not release the details of the algorithms or give access to raw data with the academic world,” Rui explains.
Polysomnography is considered the gold standard for sleep monitoring and typically includes an assessment of eye movement, brain activity, heart rate, muscle activity, oxygen saturation, breathing rate and body movement for determining both REM and non-REM sleep, but it is not cheap or portable.
The sleep tracking devices available to consumers do not track your sleep in the same way as polysomnography and experts note that wearables typically overestimate total sleep time and sleep efficiency.
“If your priority is to get a rough idea of how much you’re sleeping, then absolutely use one. But if you think it will add pressure or anxiety I would stay away because pressure and anxiety are definitely not conducive to having good sleep which needs to be as natural and initiative as possible.
“As the devices are also not the most reliable technology, it's really not worth feeling stressed over the readings.”
Sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3) supplementation before training or competition has been found to be an effective agent for improving exercise performance in studies such as ‘Mechanistic Insights into the Efficacy of Sodium Bicarbonate Supplementation to Improve Athletic Performance’ by Siegler et al. and ‘Ergogenic effects of sodium bicarbonate’ by McNaughton, L. R. et al.
Lactic acid is produced in muscle cells during high intensity exercise as a by-product of anaerobic metabolism. This separates into a hydrogen ion and lactate within the muscle fibres, and the hydrogen ion can disrupt the acid-base balance and have a negative effect on performance. Bicarbonate (HCO3-) is an electrolyte that buffers the hydrogen ions from being produced and can therefore reduce the impact of acid production on muscle function and fatigue, and help you perform better in your next workout.
Bicarbonate creates an alkaline environment surrounding the muscle cells, which reduces the chemical stress caused by acid production during heavy workouts and it also staves off the post-exercise inflammatory response.
Sodium and bicarbonate concentrations in the extracellular space, and the blood, have been found to modulate fluid shifts between the inside and the outside of the muscle cells, and this decreases the oedema and tissue swelling that occurs following a heavy session—the build-up of oedema is what we sense as muscle soreness.
Previously bicarb could only be taken orally and this had the side effect of causing gastrointestinal distress, with athletes experiencing nausea, bloating, diarrhoea and nasty stomach “cramping” when ingesting before exercising. Athletes have tried different “loading” strategies to avoid such negative reactions, but these pre-workout or competition routines are tedious and not ideal…
Amp Human recently released its PR Lotion that is said to deliver sodium bicarbonate straight to the working muscles after you rub it into the skin.
By applying the lotion before each workout Amp Human says the benefits are: "First, enhanced buffering capacity to limit the negative impact of rapid acid production in the muscle. This can diminish the progression of fatigue during high-intensity training session and competitions, thereby enabling high-quality training and maintenance of performance during competition.
"Second, PR Lotion can reduce the sensation of post-exercise or delayed onset muscle soreness. That is, sodium bicarbonate may alleviate post-exercise inflammation and oedema or swelling following intense training, allowing athletes to recover more effectively and increase 'readiness' for subsequent sessions."
Should you be pulling on some compression tights as soon as you’ve finished exercising and showered? Dr Jessica Hill of St Mary’s University is an Associate Professor in Applied Sport and Exercise Physiology and has undertaken studies on the effects of compression garments in relation to facilitating recovery after strenuous exercise. The pressures exerted by compression garments have been found in her research to affect recovery after exercise-induced muscle damage.
“Compression garments have quite a good effect on recovery with the type of exercise that leaves you feeling sore the next day—when you’re experiencing delayed onset muscle soreness,” Jessica says.
“Along with that muscle soreness, we usually exhibit changes in muscle strength—a reduced ability to produce force. Some of our research has found that wearing compression garments can minimise the amount of soreness that you feel afterwards and can also improve the recovery of muscle strength quicker than if you’re not wearing compression garments.”
While the current research has not determined exactly how long these compression garments need to be worn for maximal effect, Jessica recommends leaving them on for as long as possible, and that includes overnight.
“After heavy exercise, you experience a little bit of oedema—this is swelling in the tissue.
“The external application of pressure from the compression garments theoretically can minimise the space available for swelling to occur, so you’re experiencing less of an inflammatory response.”
It’s for this reason that Jessica explains its best to put on the compression garments as soon as possible after finish exercising. “It would have little effect if you waited until the next day when you start feeling that soreness.”
She adds: “The soreness you experience during exercise is caused by a different mechanism. The metabolic acidosis and lactic acid build-up fatigue is not the same as the micro-damage soreness to the muscle fibres that compression garments tackle.”
“With other recovery modalities—which are strategies that help to minimise muscle damage—we suspect that using these all of the time might affect adaptation.
“The inflammatory response is important for adaption so if you are reducing the inflammatory response you are also reducing the level of adaption.
“Around cold water immersion, I have started to demonstrate that there could be a blunting effect if you’re repeatedly using these techniques. The same may be true with compression garments”. Research hasn’t been carried out to say either way at this time."
As a final recommendation, Jessica says: “If you are training for adaption, I wouldn’t wear compression garments all the time. But if you are doing heavy training or a race, then it’s beneficial to wear them”.
Cherries contain antioxidants and anti-inflammatory substances that have been found to provide a recovery boost.
Researchers at Northumbria University and St Mary’s University have recently published a new meta-analysis in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism determining the efficacy of tart cherry supplementation on recovery following exercise.
The analysis of 14 previously published studies concluded that taking Montmorency tart cherry - in the form of juice, powder, or tablets – does have a significant effect on improving the recovery of muscle strength and reducing reported muscle soreness after exercise.
Professor Glyn Howatson at Northumbria University and Dr Jessica Hill at St Mary’s University analysed the effect of tart cherries across the following metrics: muscle strength, muscle soreness, muscle power and several blood biomarkers of exercise-induced muscle damage including C-reactive protein, creatine kinase, Interleukin 6 and tumour necrosis factor alpha.
The cherry supplementation that was taken included one to two servings per day during the length of the study—ranging from seven to 16 days, including pre-exercise, on the day of, and post-exercise.
Nearly all the studies on cherries and exercise recovery or performance have been conducted with Montmorency tart cherries—these are grown in the USA and available year-round in dried, frozen, canned, juice and juice concentrate forms.
According to the study, tart cherries are effective for recovery as they contain high concentrations of anthocyanins and flavonoids. These phytonutrients possess powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and are thought to reduce inflammation via inhibition of the cyclooxygenase COX-1 and COX-2 Pathways. Further scientific details and the full study can be found here.
Anna has been hooked on bikes ever since her youthful beginnings at Hillingdon Cycle Circuit. As an avid road and track racer, she reached the heady heights of a ProCyclingStats profile before leaving for university. Having now completed an MA in Multimedia Journalism, she’s hoping to add some (more successful) results. Although her greatest wish is for the broader acceptance of wearing funky cycling socks over the top of leg warmers.