Ask a cyclist about the key elements of his or her training program and you will probably hear about mileage, intervals, or specific nutritional secrets. Almost never is there a reference to a post ride recovery program. Yet successful cyclists know that preparation for the next ride begins even as the prior one is being completed.
POST RIDE FATIGUE
First, let’s review the four levels of fatigue experienced by the regular cyclist.
- The fatigue (or bonk) which occurs during the ride and results when muscle glycogen depletion develops – usually 1 to 2 hours into a ride if we don’t supplement our internal muscle stores.
- The normal post ride fatigue which indicates we are pushing our normal training limits and will lead to improved performance the next time out.
- The fatigue we feel at the end of a particularly hard week of riding (really an extension of #2) that, with recovery, will make us faster and stronger. Exercise physiologists often refer to this as overreaching.
- The debilitating and long term (often lasting weeks or months) fatigue which limits performance and is commonly referred to as overtraining.
A successful post ride recovery program includes an awareness of the risk of overtraining, a sensitivity to the possibility of crossing that dividing line between post exercise fatigue and overtraining, and making the appropriate adjustments to the training program to minimize the risk of overtraining and poor performance.
Most training programs include at least one and sometimes two rest days per week as well as a day or two of easy spinning. This is based on practical experience that has demonstrated the risks of pushing too hard for too long. Overreaching is a normal part of the training cycle, but if your performance is not improving after a few days of recovery, it’s time to take a break or risk entering that zone of extreme overtraining where it may take a month or two to recover.
Remember that rest is a key part of any training program and may be the toughest training choice you’ll have to make.
Carbohydrates are the primary source of energy for cyclists involved in maximum performance events. Fats, an alternative energy source, are more important in slower endurance events. Protein, the third component, is used primarily to maintain and repair cells and tissue.
Muscle fatigue (the “bonk”) occurs when the body’s internal carbohydrate (glycogen) stores are depleted and the exercising muscle shifts to fat metabolism as its prime energy. And the chronic fatigue of overtraining may be in part related to the inadequate muscle glycogen repletion that can occur after several days of hard training.
Optimizing your glycogen stores involves eating a high carbohydrate diet in the days and hours before your ride, using carbohydrate supplements while riding, and using the immediate post ride recovery interval to begin rebuilding carbohydrate stores.
Carbohydrate loading, which traditionally involves avoiding all carbohydrates for several days, then forcing carbohydrates for the 2 or 3 days immediately prior to the event to maximize internal carbohydrate (glycogen) stores is not essential. A high carbohydrate diet alone (without the preceding carbohydrate depletion phase) will provide 90% of the benefits of the full program and avoid the digestive turmoil that the changes in diet that go with carbohydrate depletion and loading can produce. The increase in glycogen stores WILL increase the duration of exercise to fatigue, but will NOT increase maximum performance (VO2max) during that time.
Maximizing carbohydrate replacement while riding is a very important strategy for events lasting more than 2 hours. 1 to 2 grams of carbohydrate per minute can be absorbed and utilized to sustain prolonged exercise. In extreme events such as the Tour de France, as much as 50% of the daily energy expenditures can be replaced while on the bike.
Take advantage of the glycogen window that is open in the 4 hours immediately following vigorous exercise. During this interval, ingested carbohydrate will be converted into muscle glycogen at about 3 times the normal rate (and the earlier the better as some data suggests a 50% fall in the conversion rate by 2 hours and a complete return to normal repletion rate by 4 hours). Muscle glycogen stores are replenished at a rate of 5% per hour, and although it may require up to 48 hours for complete muscle glycogen replacement after a 2 hour ride, they are almost completely rebuilt in the first 24 hours post event.
The athlete training daily, or in a multiday event, can use this glycogen window to their advantage to get a jump on the normal repletion process minimizing the risk of chronic glycogen depletion (and the fatigue that goes along with it). There is also some evidence that the muscle stiffness that occurs after vigorous exercise is related to muscle glycogen depletion, so rapid repletion may have an added benefit of minimizing this day after effect.
One caution though – many simple carbohydrate snacks such as chocolate chip cookies are more than 30% fat and if eaten in large quantities might exceed your planned daily fat intake of 20-30% of Calories. In contrast, complex carbohydrate foods such as pasta, bread, and rice offer significantly more carbohydrate per gram or ounce. Recognizing the importance of this post ride recovery interval, special recovery drinks have been marketed. However any high carbohydrate food or drink will do and save you a few dollars to boot.
Specific post ride dietary recommendations include:
- 3 to 6 gm carbohydrate/ kg BW over the immediate 4 hours post ride – start immediately (a high Caloric density glucose polymer sports drink may be ideal here)
- 600 gm carb/day for 2 days to replete muscle/liver glycogen.
Although water does not provide a source of Calories, adequate hydration is at least as important to good athletic performance as the food you eat. Perhaps the single biggest mistake of many competitive athletes is the failure to replace the fluid losses associated with exercise. This is especially so in cycling because rapid skin evaporation decreases the sense of perspiring and gives a false sense of minimal fluid loss (even though sweat production and insensible loss through the lungs can easily exceed 2 quarts per hour). For a successful ride, it is essential that you start off adequately hydrated and that fluid replacement begin early and be continued on a regular basis. In fact, a South African report on two groups of cyclists (one rehydrating, the other not) exercising at 90% of their maximum demonstrated a measurable difference in physical performance as early as 15 minutes into the study.
So make it a point to weigh yourself both before and after the ride – most of your weight loss will be fluid, and 2 pounds is equal to 1 quart. A drop of a pound or two won’t impair performance, but a greater drop indicates the need to reassess your on the bike program. And use the post ride period to replace any excess losses.
Usually after the ride is over, you just want to sit down and relax. But if you make wise use of the post ride recovery period, you will be well rewarded the next time out.