Recovery: Importance and Techniques

An often overlooked aspect of endurance sports is recovery. The recovery process is one that shouldn't be neglected; during recovery your body builds lean muscle mass and restores energy systems. This is the time that the body is adapting to the prior training load that was placed on it, so you can place a heavier load on it during the next training session. 

Recovery exists in two different ways: passive and active. Passive recovery is simply the act of taking a rest day, a day completely off from physical activity to allow the body to rest. Active recovery is the promotion of blood flow to sore and tired muscles through light exercise; imagine a session light enough to get the heart rate slightly up and get blood moving (get nutrients to the muscles), but not hard enough to elicit a training stress. Active recovery can be through the means of a light bike ride or run, a hike or maybe some yoga. 

For cycling, these are some of the things I try to focus on and keep in mind during recovery rides:

  • Ride on flat terrain- greenways and bike paths are great, they force you to keep the speeds (and effort) low 
  • Keep a moderate cadence; nothing too high, nothing too low- 80 to 90 rpm is ideal 
  • Keep power around 45-50% FTP, minimize large power spikes- imagine your cranks are made of glass 
  • Heart rate should be less than 65% of LTHR
  • 45 to 90 mins in duration
  • Add in a coffee stop! Caffeine aids in the recovery process and the re-uptake of glycogen (fuel) into the muscles. A recent study was published which dives into the details of this. 

Aspects of recovery that are also crucial are sleep and nutrition. It's important to aim for 8-10 hours of sleep a night and practice good sleep hygiene (tune in next week for more about proper sleep habits and hygiene). Sleep is so crucial to the recovery process, that if you have a bad night of sleep, you probably shouldn't train hard the following day. During times of heavy training it may also be helpful to incorporate short (less than 30 minutes) afternoon naps into your schedule. The recovery process is enhanced during sleep, therefore it's extremely important to be well-rested. 

Post exercise nutrition and hydration are huge components. During exercise, fuel sources are drained and it's important to replenish them as soon as possible. Refueling muscles allow them to build back stronger from previous training sessions. A meal is optimal for recovery within an hour of finishing your workout but sometimes a recovery shake is what's most convenient! Chocolate milk is a favorite because of it's 3:1 to 4:1 carbohydrate:protein ratio, it's inexpensive and it tastes great! Don't forget to rehydrate! Muscles are composed mostly of water, and a lot of that water is lost through exercise. Replace fluids post-exercise to ensure healthy hydration levels and healthy muscles.  

Incorporate some light stretching into your post-exercise routine. Some light stretching will aid in the recovery process and reduce the risk of injury. Some of our favorite methods to enhance the process of recovery are compression (via Normatec Recovery Boots), electric stimulation (via Marc Pro Plus) and various tools for myofascial release (foam rolling). Check out our fully stocked Recovery Suite at Podium Sports Medicine for all of these methods. These are all some techniques that will take your recovery to the next level! 

It may also be worth tracking physiological metrics such as resting heart rate and heart rate variability. Both of these metrics are values that measure physiological stress/strain on the body, and the numbers/trends reflect the response. Resting heart rate has been around for awhile now. If you track it daily, and see your RHR rise after a hard weekend or race, it might be time to ease up and recover. Heart rate variability (HRV) is a relatively new metric that has become popular over the past couple of years. It measures the variation in heart beats in milliseconds, essentially the higher number the better. Tracking HRV and RHR are like a traffic light; are they giving you the green light to train hard, or do you have some negative metrics (elevated RHR, depressed HRV) and you're getting a red light? There are plenty of smart phone apps (some free) that will measure these metrics as well as fitness trackers and watches. 

It's most important to listen to your body and what it is telling you. If you are sore and tired, take a day off. Did you have a long, stressful day at work? Maybe take it easy. Are you sick or feel like you're becoming sick? Definitely take it easy or take an off day. It's better to rest than to overdo it on a tired body and risk the chance of injury. A lot of athletes forget that you get stronger during recovery, not training. Train hard, recover harder!

Mental Preparation for Race Day

Load Monitoring Series: Part 1