The best recovery methods are boring!
Post-training recovery is a hot topic. Recovery is discussed online, in magazines, and on podcasts. Exotic, expensive recovery methods and nutritional supplements, many of them endorsed by pro athletes, are touted as the secret key to athletic success. It's easy to become obsessed with and confused by recovery strategies to the point that the stress of worrying about recovery actually impedes recovery. The good news is that the most effective recovery actions you can take are simple and either free or cheap.
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Sleep: There is no substitute!
Sleep is your #1 recovery tool. Rest is the flip side of the workout coin. You don’t get stronger while training. Obviously, a hard workout makes you weak and tired. It's during rest—especially sleep—that you get stronger and fitter. These adaptations cannot happen without proper recovery. Inadequate sleep causes muscle loss, fat gain, and poor cognition. If you aren't getting adequate sleep then all your other recovery efforts are a waste of time. Period.
Key points on sleep hygiene:
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule. Most people (not everyone) need 8-9 hours. Try to go to bed and get up at the same time, including on weekends.
- Turn off your electronics two hours or more before bed. Turn off that cell phone and put away the tablet and the laptop. Instead, find a good book and read it just before bedtime.
- Keep your room as dark as possible. Put heavy drapes over the windows and cover up any little lights in the room.
- Keep your bedroom cool. You sleep better in cool temps.
- Caffeine consumed 6 hours before bed and alcohol consumed 4 hours before bed disrupts sleep. Limit consumption of both accordingly.
Workouts break you down. Rest and food build you up. Food provides both the fuel for work and the raw materials for repairing damaged muscles and connective tissue, building new blood cells, and lots of other things. You need adequate fuel for effective workouts so don't skimp on the calories while riding. Drink a sports drink for rides lasting over 60 min and bring food with you for those long endurance rides. Reddiyo provides detailed in-ride nutrition recommendations with every long workout to help you determine how much to bring.
If weight loss is a goal of yours, it might be tempting to reduce what you take in on the bike. Don't do it. You'll have sub-par workouts and you'll stress your body unproductively. Instead, check out my previous post on how to do it without sabotaging your training.
A post-workout shake is a good idea. Use a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein with about 60-160g of carbs to 20-40g of protein depending on your size and weight. This can be as simple as orange juice and whey protein in a shaker bottle. Or you can use a blender and mix up some fruit, dairy or nut milk, protein powder, ice, and whatever you like. For more ideas review Precision Nutrition's Super Shake Guide.
Please understand, your ability to recover isn't determined solely by your post-workout shake or snack. No magic post-workout shake is a replacement for a garbage diet. A healthy diet for endurance athletes is similar to a healthy diet for everyone else. If you are looking for more guidance, look into the Mediterranean diet. It is a healthy, realistic way to eat. It is characterized by:
- plenty of fruits, vegetables, bread and other grains, potatoes, beans, nuts, and seeds;
- olive oil as a primary fat source; and
- dairy products, eggs, fish, and poultry in low to moderate amounts.
Fish and poultry are more common than red meat in this diet. It also centers on minimally processed, plant-based foods. Wine may be consumed in low to moderate amounts, usually with meals. Fruit is a common dessert instead of sweets.
A note on antioxidants and anti-inflammatories
You’re probably aware of antioxidants. They’re compounds in fruits and vegetables that fight inflammation and generally make you healthy. Antioxidant supplements have become popular in recent years. Some athletes take them immediately post-exercise to fight exercise-induced inflammation. Bad idea! Why?
Strenuous exercise causes muscle damage and inflammation. It’s normal. Acute, exercise-induced inflammation (as opposed to chronic inflammation) is one part of a complex cycle that leads to the adaptations that you want. Inflammation signals your body to initiate a cascade of processes to strengthen your skeletal muscles, heart, lungs, connective tissue, and nervous system. Taking antioxidant supplements post-exercise short circuits this process. Eating fruit after a hard ride or putting fruit in your post-ride smoothie is fine but don’t jump off your bike and swallow a bunch of antioxidant pills or ibuprofen. (Further, it’s a better idea to get your antioxidants via whole fruits and vegetables, not supplements.)
Exercise is one source of stress. Personal conflicts, finances, family responsibilities, poor sleep, poor diet, allergies, altitude, travel are also stressors. Your body and nervous system doesn’t care what causes it, it’s all stress. The right amount of stress helps make you fit and keeps life interesting, not boring. Too much and/or prolonged stress of any kind is a problem. You have a limited amount of adaptive physiological reserves upon which to call when you experience stress. The more stress you have in your life, the more you tax those reserves. If you exceed those reserves then you have problems.
Think of squeezing a balloon: What happens when you squeeze one end? The other end expands. Keep squeezing and the balloon pops. That’s how stress works on you. You can’t ignore it. As stress goes up in part of your life, it needs to come down in another. More and harder work in the face of excessive stress isn’t the answer. If you’re facing a work deadline, you haven’t slept well, your spouse is sick, your allergies are bugging you, and your kids are having a tough time in Zoom school, then back off your training plan. No matter how badass you think you are, too much stress is too much and it will wreck you.
Signs of overstress/overtraining:
- Disrupted sleep
- Prolonged soreness and fatigue from workouts
- Apathy toward the activity (cycling) you normally enjoy
- Elevated resting heart rate
You can't control all the stress in your life. There are going to be times when you need to take it easy, back off the hard training, and maybe get off the bike altogether. If you recognize that stress is building then try and prioritize sleep, healthy food, and mild to moderate exercise. (And NO you won’t get “out of shape” if you take it easy for a couple of weeks.)
Systemic processes that result in stronger muscles and bones, better oxygen-carrying capacity, and improved nervous system function take time. The human organism can only move so fast. The adaptation process has been refined over millennia. No new supplement or foam roller can speed up these processes much if at all. Don’t rely on magic potions and expensive contraptions to make you a superhero. The best way to respond to training stress is through sleep and a healthy diet. When the other stress of life builds up—and it will—then back off and rest a little. Finally, check out Good to Go by Christine Aschwanden for a thorough dive into a wide array of popular recovery gizmos and strategies.