How to Recover from an Endurance Cycling Event

Some tips from Cycling Expert Mikael Hanson on how to get your body back to tip-top shape after the physical toll of an endurance cycling event!

A biker crosses the finish line at a race.

Photo by Angel Santos

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Many athletes ask about recovery. In my youth, rest days were a four-letter word, and you did not want to take a day off. How could that make you faster? We lived by the mantra that if you were not training, somewhere, someone was. And when you met them in a race, they would destroy you. Foolish, huh? Now I fully embrace my rest days so my body is recovered and ready for the next level of training.

While most take a full rest day each week, many trip up on what to do after longer endurance events like a full marathon or a multi-stage race. Recently, I completed a two-day, three-stage bike race. It included a time trial and circuit race on day one and then a long road race on day two.

When it was over, my Suunto smartwatch informed me I needed 105 hours of recovery. Yes, 105 hours. With 24 hours in a day, that meant over four days of rest! Woohoo! But does that really mean I need to take four days off? Probably not.

I regularly see my Ironman athletes go out for a long run or ride two days after the competition. This is not on my coaching advice, but four days of rest were not acceptable to me after my stage race, either. Don’t expect to feel immediately 100% ready to jump back into the thick of training unless you do a few things to speed up the recovery process.

1. Nutrition

Hydration

A man drinks water on a running track.

Photo by Nigel Msipa

We know dehydration affects performance. It is important to rehydrate after extensive exercise with more than plain water. After a multi-hour event or stage race like the Ironman, your body has depleted glycogen stores and damaged muscle fibers. It’s also low on key electrolytes.

Choose a post-workout/race drink that contains carbohydrates and sodium. Get into the habit of weighing yourself before and after long, intense workouts or races to gauge your net fluid loss. Drink 1 to 1.5 cups of fluid for each pound lost.

Foods

Some healthy food sits on a plate.

Photo by Ella Olsson

Consuming adequate macronutrients before/during/after training sessions ensures proper performance and recovery. Post-race nutrition is probably the most important starting place for recovery. Studies show it is best to consume carbohydrates and proteins within 30 minutes post-exercise and then at two-hour intervals.

Reload depleted glycogen stores by consuming 0.5g of carbohydrates per pound of body weight (for a 150lb cyclist, about 75g). And while protein requirements vary among individuals, one should consume 15 to 25g within an hour of your workout.

​Sports scientists disagree on many topics, but they have come to a consensus about recovery meals. Namely, no matter what type of exercise you’re doing, to rebuild muscles and get ready for another bout of exercise, you need to consume 0.2 to 0.4g of protein combined with 0.8g of carbohydrates for every 2.2 pounds you weigh, per hour you’ve exercised.

The experts are still fighting over when you should eat the recovery meal, but most nutritionists agree it shouldn’t be longer than 30 to 45 minutes post-exercise. Wait longer and it’s too late to stop the body from producing cortisol, a hormone created during exercise that causes muscles to atrophy. Even a bottle of Gatorade and a protein bar get your muscles on the road to recovery.

Recovery meals should contain as few processed foods as possible. A slew of fresh options does a lot more for your body.

Here is a list of the ten best recovery foods from our favorite athletes, nutritionists, and chefs: hot chocolate, smoothie, pasta, chili, chicken fried rice, turkey, turmeric and ginger, banana and coconut, salmon, and honey.

Get the full story and list of foods and recipes here. I am adding one more to the list based on my experience—tart cherry juice. Studies show it improves recovery times post damaging, intense exercise like a marathon or Ironman.

2. Rest

Sleep

A man and a dog sleep on a bed.

Photo by Jamie Street

We know how sleep affects race-day performance, but after a long endurance event, rest is just what the body needs. A stage race might not contain a 10 to 16-hour event like an Ironman, but additional fatigue comes from the fact that your weekend days started on the early side.

My collegiate cycling teams leave school before 5 am on a Saturday and return late Sunday night. Both days have early wake-up calls and sometimes require racing twice per day. This adds to the stress and fatigue of a multi-race weekend before factoring in the actual races.

Former professional triathlete and current endurance coach Wes Hobson wrote one should not train unless they got a minimum of six hours of continuous sleep the night before. Nice idea, but we all can’t meet that standard just because we want to.

Living in a major city, one complaint I constantly hear from my amateur athletes is their inability to get enough sleep. Work commitments, quality family time, training, and recovery take their toll. A training regimen for any professional endurance athlete will invariably include a minimum of eight hours of sleep each night, plus a nap. If we could do that, we would perform better!

How much sleep one needs is a very individual question. Here are some tips to help you sleep or at least find a relaxed state:

  • Caffeine: The lifeblood of endurance athletes. Go decaf after 3 pm.
  • Sugar: Ever see how kids act after a cupcake? Adults are the same, and extra sugar in the bloodstream keeps you up.
  • Alcohol: A glass of wine or beer before bed does not help you sleep.
  • Dinner: Avoid eating late and consuming spicy meals to fall asleep faster.
  • Environment: Make the room dark and avoid reading or watching TV in bed. Your bed should mentally represent a place to sleep.
  • Relaxation: Can't leave work at the office? Try noting what’s weighing on your mind on a pad of paper before bed. Get into a relaxing routine before climbing in by doing a few minutes of stretching. Deep breathing from the diaphragm helps, too.
  • Natural sleep aids: Valerian root and melatonin are natural sleep aids. They don’t work for everyone and valerian root does have a distinctive smell. Magnesium is reported to open up the capillaries and help you relax at night. Avoid taking vitamins before bed—save that for the morning. A hot bath before bedtime works wonders, too.

3. Active Recovery

A swimmer is in a lap pool.

Photo by Marcus Ng

Recovery does not have to be a complete day off. I stress to my athletes to include at least one complete day off a week. Older athletes may require two days every other four-week training cycle. A full day off is a form of ‘passive’ recovery. Active recovery days include low to non-impact activities like swimming or yoga to increase blood flow to muscles and speed up the recovery process.

Avoid strenuous and other activities that include pounding, like running on concrete, when a pleasant hike in the woods qualifies. As a cyclist and triathlete, I find swimming to be the perfect form of active recovery. There is something about the cool water of a pool that clears the mind and eases any aching!

4. Passive Recovery Aids

Besides focusing on a post-race diet and getting enough rest, there are other aids that help speed up recovery, getting you back in action sooner and feeling more like yourself.

Compression Socks

Compression socks stretch almost to the knee and are worn by many athletes. While new to endurance sports, compression socks have been around for some time. They are the direct descendants of compression stockings used in hospitals. The same compressive idea has been used for decades in the medical field to improve circulation and prevent muscle damage.

The contraction of working muscles during exercise aids the heart in pumping blood to the body and back. When idle, that natural aid is gone, leading to some slight pooling of blood in the lower extremities.

Compression socks provide a bit of pressure on the leg’s blood vessels to aid the circulation process and avoid pooling. The jury is out on whether they aid performance during an event, but there seems to be more concrete evidence on their recovery benefits.

Massage

The good old-fashioned massage is a favorite and a staple in professional cycling. Who hasn’t seen a weary rider lying on a massage table getting a deep tissue rub from their soigneur (the French word for massage therapist)? Great idea, but most of us don’t have the budget to afford our own.

Ice Bath

A man sits in an ice bath.

Another standard seen in many sports, especially those that involve full contact like football, is the ice bath. Fill a tub with cold water, add a few trays of ice and you’re ready to go. Getting in is the trick! Once immersed, it’s the perfect post-race fix for sore muscles.

I find ice baths helpful in reducing muscle swelling directly post-race or after hard workouts. Ice baths work by redirecting blood to the core to help maintain body heat. The cold forces blood out of the muscles, thus reducing inflammation.

Compression Boots

Compression boots.

Photo by Marco Verch

How about a set of recovery boots that look like they were borrowed from a Sci-Fi book? Voted the VeloNews Innovative Beauty of 2009 and dubbed ‘Space Legs’ by the Garmin-Slipstream Team, the NormaTec MVP (Most Valuable Pump) has quickly found a home among many of the world’s best professional cyclists and triathletes.

A computer controlled-electric pump sends pressure cycles to chambers within the boots to increase circulation. These are compression socks on steroids! NormaTec branded recovery centers have opened across the country for athletes to use this pricey product for a small fee while seated in a comfortable armchair.

Can’t afford the NormaTec boots' steep price tag? You are in luck. Less expensive alternatives now exist on the market for under $500 (check Amazon!).

Other Tools

Altitude training is no longer for elite athletes only. Long gone is the need to travel to a mountainous region like the Colorado Rockies to gain the benefits of altitude training. All you need is your own altitude tent.

According to Hypoxico, a leading manufacturer of altitude tents, “When the human body is exposed to hypoxia (oxygen reduced environments), it struggles to produce required amounts of energy with less oxygen. This struggle triggers the onset of a range of physiological adaptations geared towards enhancing the efficiency of the body's respiratory, cardiovascular and oxygen utilization systems.”

By forcing the body to breathe less oxygen than it is accustomed to, it responds by producing more hemoglobin-rich red blood cells. It is precisely hemoglobin (a protein) that absorbs oxygen as it passes through the lungs on its way to working muscles to release it as energy.

The more red blood cells, the greater one’s ability to transport blood to where it is needed. Many elite athletes, not just endurance ones, have used altitude training as part of their regimen. A look at the Hypoxico website reveals testimonials from the Irish rugby team, soccer players like David Beckham, swimmers, mixed martial arts fighters, and even football players.

Another more bizarre recovery tool is called whole-body cryotherapy (WBC). It’s an ice bath taken to the extreme. Athletes stand in a metal chamber about the size of a shower stall called a cryosauna. The interior is filled with air cooled by nitrogen gas that drops the temperature to below -260 Fahrenheit.

It was developed in Japan in the 70s and has become the trend among celebrities, as it claims to burn 800 calories in only three minutes. Scientific research has not weighed in on its recuperative properties, and it is a tad pricey; $75 plus for a three-minute session.

Using the above recovery strategies, an athlete can speed up their recovery time and get back to training. Which method is best for you will require trial and error, of course. But once you find the magic combination, you’ll be on your way to improved performance and recovery. If you still find yourself with questions or needing to gear up before the big event, reach out to a Cycling Expert here on Curated and we'd love to help!

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Written By
After spending nearly 15 years working on Wall Street I was exhausted, bored and just a little a bit out of shape. With the blessing of my wife, I left the banking world in 2004 and started ENHANCE SPORTS - an endurance sports coaching and consulting company. A world champion, a few National champio...

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