The sooner you recover from training the sooner you will be able to train again. The more training you can do, the fitter you will get. I have tried plenty of recovery techniques over the years, and as you might be able to guess there don't seem to be any short cuts. Correct nutrition, rest and time are the key ingredients. Here's a list of what works and what doesn't.
During the ride
Don't train so hard that you can't recover from it. Fitness gains should be in small incremental steps. Now and again you will need to do a blow-out killer ride which will take 4 days to recover from, but generally you need to complete your training without being smashed. In that way you will be able to recover quickly and take the next incremental step.
To use an analogy, imagine you wanted to get a tan. If you started by spending 5 hours in the sun with white skin you will get burnt. You won't be able to go in the sun for a week, then you will peel and end up with white skin again. The process will also be quite painful.
An alternative is to start with 15-30 minutes in the sun per day. As time goes by you will be able to spend longer in the sun and you will develop a tan. The discomfort will be minimal and you will get the best results.
To draw out the analogy, some people won't be able to tan and will stay white and perhaps get freckles. Some will tan very quickly on day one. Your genetic talent for training works in a similar way in that some people are responders and some are not. There's not a lot you can do about your genetics, unfortunately.
If you are using WKO+ software and a powermeter, you can quantify your training stress (TSS, ATL and CTL). This will help you to realize how much load you are putting on your body. For example, you should not be increasing daily Training Stress Score (TSS) by more than 5-8 units per week and Chronic Training Load (CTL) won't go much higher than 1000 for pro riders.
On rides longer than 2 hours, bring food. The main thing is to not blow up (run out of glycogen; hit the wall) on the ride as this will take longer to recover from than getting near to blowing up. It is of course in the spirit of cycling to have to be lifted from your bike after a ride, but save that for races!
Eating within 20 minutes of getting home from a ride
Your muscles are more receptive to taking up nutrients within 20 minutes of finishing a ride. This is the optimal time to consume food and water. A protein shake is recommended as it is easy to prepare and digest and contains the protein needed for muscle repair. As a result you will feel less stiff and tired the next day.
The first thing to do is to drink some water. One big glass should do. It is easy to become dehydrated after a few hours in the saddle, then feel hung over (sleepy, low energy, fuzzy headed) for the rest of the day. If you are hydrated then it does make you feel more alert.
To avoid getting home and raiding the junk food drawer, try not to buy junk food in the first place. I'm talking about processed food goodies: donuts, cakes, cookies, crisps, soda, sweets which are usually full of trans fats and additives.
Otherwise, prepare your food prior to going cycling. This could be bread and sardines, protein shake, pasta and tuna. When you come home you will eat this instead of gorging on everything in sight. It might look like crap as you head out the door but when you return a few hours later it'll look like the height of fine dining!
High GI foods are great for this time as they will be rapidly absorbed. Now is the time you can enjoy some white bread, some juice or a sugary drink. However with high GI foods, the temptation is to overeat. When starving it is easy to swallow half a loaf of white bread or an entire carrot cake. Depending on how depleted you are eat a serving, then wait 15 minutes. The starvation will subside as blood sugar increases and you will be able to think more rationally about eating more wholesome foods like fish, vegetables and wholegrains.
Do avoid consuming too much sugar, including fruit juice, smoothies and soda. A single glass will help to restore liver glycogen quickly if you are very depleted, but a whole carton is too much. By all means eat an orange, but this is a very different proposition to a liter of juice as the fiber content of the fruit delays fructose absorption which puts less of a strain on your liver.
Have a nap
Once you have had a good dose of water and food, it is time to get the head down for a quick 30-60 minute nap.
Some of us won't be able to nap and others won't have the time due to family commitments. Train yourself to nap. Once the food starts to digest and you've had a shower and get into a warm clean bed, it is easy to drop off. It may be better to nap on a couch with a blanket as it is easy to spend too long in bed. Set your alarm so you don't over sleep. Avoid the temptation to spend your recovery time looking at your phone as that isn't proper rest.
In terms of family, it is probably better to have a nap as it'll mean you are not a zombie for the rest of the day, so can spend better quality time with them. That might be a difficult sell if you've already been away for 5 hours, but remember training + rest = gain.
A sleep also promotes a release of growth hormone. Measurements show that a peak in growth hormone from zero to up to 70mug/ml happens after about 1 hour of sleep. Growth Hormone is useful as it promotes muscle recovery and repair. Most GH will be released whilst asleep during the night, but a dosage in the day is helpful for recovery.
A nap after a long bike ride is one of life's luxuries; try to get one if you can.
Sleeping with raised legs
In France I was told to raise the legs whilst sleeping by putting a pillow under the mattress. The logic is that it helps toxins to drain from the muscles. This just makes sleeping uncomfortable and doesn't seem to help recovery at all. I would put this one down to cycling superstition.
Cold water baths
These have been used by various Olympic teams. A wheelie bin is filled with ice water and the lower half is submerged for 5-10 minutes. Alternatively, run a bath and put a load of ice into it. I know many riders who swear by this and say their legs feel fresh the next day.
I've never felt much of a benefit from it and in the meantime it is a pain to organize, a pain to sit in and causes too much 'shrinkage' for my liking!
One school of thought says that inflammation is a natural response to damage, and by reducing inflammation with ice baths and drugs, we're actually delaying the healing process.
Hot water baths
Sitting in a hot tub or spring has been said to open up the capillaries to allow nutrients to enter muscles and toxins to be flushed away.
For me, doing this has always resulted in extremely heavy legs the next day. The heat seems to drain your energy away and you just feel more tired. Avoid this as a recovery technique.
Also avoid steam rooms as they are a haven for respiratory illness.
If you've not had a sports massage for a few months, then the middle of a stage race isn't the time to start. A deep massage can take a day or so to work out of your system. You might find yourself limping from the massage room.
If you are regularly massaged, at least weekly, your muscles will be much softer and you won't be so sore afterwards. The knots will have been worked out.
Massage helps to loosen up tight muscles and tendons and is a great way to relax. Knots will be released and you will generally walk out feeling like a new person. Remember to stay well hydrated after the massage.
After a hard session, massage should be gentle. A deeper massage can be carried out after 24 hours.
You can buy an eight inch diameter foam roller or use the cardboard inner from a carpet roll (about 6 inch diameter). Use it to roll out your quads, illiotibial band (ITB) and hamstrings. Knotted areas can be identified and gently rolled out in a way similar to having a massage.
Using a roller is quite painful to begin with, but after regular use the muscles become less knotted and more compliant, so persevere with it.
This is a hard plastic roller of about 3cm diameter. Using this you can really get into some of the knots in your quads. Prepare to moan and groan with this one, but it is effective.
A gentle walk, swim or cycle are good ways to recover. Don't spend too long, and do the activity gently until you feel a slight sweat and that everything is working freely again.
Whilst I'm reasonably skeptical of compression wear, and research is currently inconclusive, I have found it to be useful in some cases.
- During a flight. They seem to keep leg swelling down. Your legs will be much fresher the 24h after the flight.
- If I need to walk, e.g. go to the shops with the wife after a long ride, then they seem to stop the legs feeling so heavy. Tyler Hamilton wrote about walking around like an old man when off the bike. The fitter you were, the slower you seem to walk. Hills and stairs become a challenge.
Spending the night in compression tights just gives you a sweaty crotch and doesn't seem to aid recovery at all. Tip: cut the tights at the crotch area to give your private parts some breathing space.
A budget option is to buy medical compression tights. They are not as hard wearing, and make you look like a geriatric patient, but the compression is greater and they cost very little. WADA Banned methods
Drips, testosterone, blood transfusions, HGH, gene therapy. Best to leave those out.
However nothing cures dehydration like a drip. Just ask a medical student with a hangover.
Younger athletes tend to recover quickly. After a good night's sleep they will be ready to go again.
Older athletes (35+) will take longer to recover. Listen to your body and be patient. Wait until you are ready for another hard effort before training hard again.
A good recovery interval is 36 hours. This means alternating morning and evening training with days off. For example you might train Sunday morning, Monday evening, take Tuesday off then Wednesday morning. The extra 12 hours make a difference. You might wake up feeling terrible but by the evening be ready to roll.
If in doubt, then leave another day for recovery. It is better to err on the side of caution. Listening to your body rather than following the training plan is a skill.
There is no short cut to recovery, but you can make life easier for yourself.
- Don't overstrain yourself in the first place. Extremely hard training is occasionally needed, but if done too often it will result in fewer gains. Increase the load gradually.
- Eat and drink soon after exercising. If glycogen stores are likely to be low, then high GI foods will provide faster absorption. Go easy on the sugar, fruit juice and beer, regardless. Go more for starch and protein after rides.
- Make time to rest and wind down after training. It isn't always easy to do with family commitments, but relax as much as you can.
Article about Growth hormone secretion during sleep
WKO+ Trainingpeaks information about ATL, CTL, TSS