Relax, it’s not a big deal: Recovery behaviors

Latest Survey: Training Makes Riders Weaker!

“The majority of bike racers surveyed say they come back from training rides and gym sessions weaker and more tired than when they leave, contradicting the popular perception that training makes one stronger. ‘At the end of my last ride I was pedaling squares and had to take a nap,’ says one rider.” 

You have to do a large volume of high quality training to become a stronger, faster, more effective racer and yet paradoxically training itself makes you immediately weaker, slower and less able to race. The solution lies in the fact that you actually improve not during training sessions but between them. Many athletes think hard about what to do in training, hoping to get the edge on their competition, but ignore what they do in the time between training sessions, which is when the actual gains occur or fail to occur. Large volumes of training wear you down if you do not adequately recover between sessions. If you continue to increase volume beyond that from which you can recover, the quality of training inevitably drops.

What you do between rides has a huge impact on the effectiveness of your training. If you’re not being deliberate about recovery behaviors, you are very likely missing much of the possible benefits of your training. In a physiological sense, your body is in one of two states: activated or recovering. During exercise, your body is activated: Stress hormone levels are high, energy is being used up faster than it is being stored and tissues are suffering damage more than they are being repaired. During exercise, blood flows to your working muscles to deliver fuel and oxygen, and to your skin to rid the core of excess heat. During exercise, little blood goes to the gut, so digestion slows down. Hormones called catecholamines direct muscles to break down fat, muscle protein and glycogen for energy. When the body is activated, catecholamine levels are high and the mechanisms of recovery are turned off or nearly so.

During relaxed rest, catecholamine levels drop and recovery mechanisms switch on. During rest muscle is repaired, and energy, in the form of glycogen and fat, is stored. During relaxed rest, blood flow shifts away from the working muscles and skin and towards the gut, so the digestive system can function effectively and you can absorb large quantities of nutrients once again.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that simply because you are not exercising you are recovering. When you experience emotional stress from work, family life, or financial or other problems, or your muscles are tense because you are standing or doing physical work, your body remains activated and you are not recovering, or at least not rapidly. The more time you spend stressed, the less rapid your recovery and the less effective your training.

Exercise pushes various systems within your body away from their normal stable levels. Glycogen is depleted during any prolonged exercise. Sweating disturbs hydration and electrolyte levels. Fibers within muscles are actually torn during heavy work. Numerous other systems are disturbed. During recovery, the body returns to normal. If conditions for recovery are ideal, the body does not just return to its original condition, but surpasses it. This process of recovering to a level superior to the original condition is called super-compensation. Super-compensation only occurs if conditions for recovery are excellent. If conditions for recovery are good but not great, you recover back to more or less your original condition. If you have tremendous stress or poor nutrition, you may be gradually or rapidly torn down by training and not benefit from it at all. Thus the quality of recovery determines the benefit you get from training.

Think of your body as a highway. During exercise the highway workers go out with spray paint and mark weak spots and pot-holes for repair. During recovery, they go out again and make the repairs, but only if they have the materials and time they need. The more relaxed you are, the more staff and resources your highway department can put on the job, and the more time you spend relaxed, the more time they can devote to the work. If you are stressed, the crews are busy marking fresh potholes, but not making repairs. If you don’t have the staff, time or resources, the markings wash away before the repair crews can do their work, and the pot-holes accumulate. For non-exercise time to be effective recovery time, you have to really rest, meaning that you must have not only time off the bike, nutrition and hydration, you also must have low stress and low muscle tension.

The most important time for recovery is the first few hours after training. Immediately after training, blood vessels in the recently working muscles are still open so the by-products of exercise can be flushed out, and fresh fuel can be more easily brought in. Spending an hour napping or with your feet up after each exercise session rather than rushing off to work will make more of a difference to your race performance than a fancy wheel-set or extra couple of hours of riding per week. While the first few hours after a ride are the most important, the rest of the day is also important to recovery. This is one reason that well paid pros are able to be so much stronger and faster that other riders who train similarly but have to go to work after training.

Specific Strategies for Enhancing Recovery

Putting the body in recovery mode requires relaxation, both emotional and physical. Racers use a variety of tricks to enhance recovery. The first is simply to get off the feet as often as possible. When not riding, if you can lie down with your legs up, do it. If you can’t do that, sit. If you can’t sit, lean. This is especially beneficial in the first few hours after a ride, but important all the time.

There is very little scientific evidence to support the use of massage or stretching over napping for performance enhancement, and yet many racers swear by them and many pro-riders include one or both in their training plans. Whatever its physiological benefits or lack there-of, a massage or stretch session is a solid block of time during which a rider relaxes and is distracted from whatever other things might be causing stress. This in itself will support more rapid recovery and an increase in the volume of quality training that can be achieved.

Masters racers often tell me that they need more recovery time because they are older, but my experience with hundreds of older racers does not support this belief. Masters racers do often need more recovery time because the recovery time they have is of such low quality. With jobs, kids, spouses, taxes, mortgages, and in-laws competing for attention, many older riders have a high degree of stress around the clock and so recover slowly and poorly. We don’t see a lot of 20-year olds in college holding down two jobs racing well or recovering more quickly than older riders. Sleep and plenty of it are essential to racing success at the highest level. While Miguel Indurain was the perpetual winner of the Tour de France, he is reported to have said that napping was his favorite hobby. Most racers perform optimally when they can get around nine hours per night of sleep. Very few can perform at the elite level on less than eight.

I know that many people reading this will be saying, “that’s great but I don’t have time to nap after every ride or sleep nine hours per night.” To them I say, “that’s fine, but you should expect to be beaten by people who have equal talent, equal nutrition, equal training, equal equipment and better recovery time.” If you can’t relax after every ride and sleep nine hours every night, at least block out time to relax when you do have the option. Many riders find that they will be busy as soon as they get home after a ride or race so one trick is to take some time before getting home. In the spring and summer, a lot of the elite masters riders around my hometown, finish every ride with a snack and a coffee while sitting on the sidewalk shooting the breeze for a half hour. They arrive home partially recovered and also relaxed.

When you drive to races or training rides, bring a folding chair and an air-mattress so that you can get off your feet immediately. Sit to chat with friends or watch another category race. Lie down to relax while you wait for your car-pool to be ready to go home.

Make a point of relaxing, whatever else you are doing. Take a deep breath and let it out slowly every so often and anytime you feel stress building up. Avoid situations that make you angry. Learn to let small things go in daily life so you can save your fire for riding and racing.

To some extent you can decrease your need for recovery by eating and drinking well while you ride, by training at appropriate intensity (thoroughly aerobic most of the time), by using your sunscreen, and by spinning rather than mashing big gears.

If you are already training as much as your body and schedule can handle, it is not possible to improve your performance by increasing training. If you are at the limit, training quality will drop if volume goes up, but you may be able to improve the quality of your training none-the-less if you can improve the quality of your recovery. At the least good recovery behaviors will help you maximize the benefit from the training you have the time and energy to do. At best you’ll be able to increase the volume of high quality training that you can handle. Relaxation is a big deal.