Much about becoming better at riding a bike unsurprisingly involves actually riding your bike. Interval training, sprints, climbs, bike handling – all are gained by adding saddle time. This is all just half the story, however. The other half is in proper recovery.
The wisdom nowadays is that training and exercise yields microscopic tears inside your muscles. As your muscles work, they slowly secrete waste products, the most notable of which is lactic acid. This is the stuff that makes you feel tired and sore when you have enough of it soaking in your muscles. The aim of recovery, then, is to repair the muscular damage and help flush out waste products, so that your muscles rebound from the training effort stronger.
So what constitutes a good recovery method or routine? I’m no fitness expert but I can identify a few.
PERFORM A WARM-DOWN
If you watch professional cyclists racing these days, you’ll notice that after they cross the finish line of each stage of the race, they walk to another bike mounted on a trainer and continue pedaling easily for about 15 minutes.
“But wait,” you might say. “They just finished a hard stage! Why would they want to keep pedaling afterward?” Turns out, that’s actually the whole point.
The so-called “warm down” phase of very easy effort pedaling allows your sore muscles to flush out lactic acid and other waste products. Without this, all of that will stay inside your muscles and actually leave scar tissue and plaques, which can hinder your performance in the long run.
What can we learn here? We could make sure that our rides don’t end in a sprint that finishes at our doorstep. Allow for some easy spinning at the end of a ride.
EAT WITHIN THE FIRST HOUR AFTER A RIDE
One of the points of having recovery is to rebuild muscle torn up during training, and this requires the intake of protein. For maximum effectiveness, this intake has to be timed to within the first sixty to ninety minutes following a long or hard ride. Any time else, and your body won’t be as receptive to protein intake as your metabolism has cooled down.
GET A MASSAGE – OR GIVE YOURSELF ONE
Many of the soigneurs (support crew) that follow pro cyclists as they race are also masseuses. They massage riders’ legs to assist in flushing out any lactic acid or waste products left soaking in their muscles. You can pay for a massage to get the same benefits as well.
Of course, not everybody has easy access to a masseuse all the time, so the next best thing is a foam roller. Effective use of this tool for self-massage takes a bit of getting used to. You basically lay the muscle you want to massage on the foam roller, and then apply your body weight as you roll forwards and backwards and side to side, practically pressing out the pain. This does feel clumsy and ungraceful at times, but it’s quite effective. Some cyclists swear by a short foam roller session after every training ride.
DAYS WITH SHORT, EASY RIDES – OR NO RIDING AT ALL
The current wisdom in training is to alternate hard training days with easy recovery days. It can be tempting to push hard on what are supposed to be your recovery rides, but best to keep your ego and competitive tendencies in check. Keep your recovery days really easy – spin the cranks such that you barely have resistance to push against.
If you’re feeling particularly knackered after a hard block of training, don’t feel ashamed of shelving the bike for a day or two and resting. The saying goes that “don’t stand when you can lean; don’t lean when you can sit; don’t sit when you can lie down.” Spending time off the saddle for rest can also re-energize you mentally so that you can return to training with a better mindset.