The best way to improve your overall fitness and see progress in your bike performance is to lay back once a week and recover. Does this sound too easy to be true? Don’t be fooled your body is doing a lot of work while you are having a slow day, it’s just not the kind of work you are used to acknowledging. My challenge to you is to start paying attention to what your body does when you are not in the saddle and see if you can find some appreciation for how amazing the human body is and how clever the systems are to naturally help increase your performance and stamina.
Regular recovery days play a critical role in your overall fitness. During a rest period, your muscles fibres have time to repair, strengthen a grow, something they can’t easily do if you are on the go all the time and have them in use. It also gives your immune system time to reset and regroup and be better able to protect you.
Without that important rest day you will quickly find your performance plateaus, your motivation drops, and you increase the risk of injury, illness or burnout. To get the most out of your cycling performance here are some great ways for a perfect recovery.
Cool down after every high intensity ride. No matter how baked you feel after a hard ride finish off with five to ten minutes of cool down riding. Your aim here is to take a gentle stroll on the bike and get your heartrate back to normal.
Stretch, stretch and stretch
Warming up and cooling down with stretches are the best way to prepare your body for work and maintain great circulation.
You won’t use all your muscles equally when you ride so stretching will ensure your whole body gets some attention as well as maintaining your flexibility and maximising your recovery.
Just five minutes of stretching before and after a ride strengthens your muscles, improves overall performance and protects you against injury.
Chart your progress
Think a recovery ride means there is no point in checking your speed and heart rate? There is every reason to keep your support apps going to make sure you are not exerting yourself and to add those kilometres to your overall monthly workout tally, because of course they count.
If you have a heart rate monitor use it to check your exertion. You want to be cycling around 50 to 60% of your maximum capacity.
Plan your recovery ride
Ideally, you probably want to take your recovery ride when you are feeling a little flat or after you’ve pushed yourself too hard, maybe you got caught in some really hot weather or you just came from an event that wore you thin. The danger of this is you can override your body’s needs and keep pushing even if you are tired because you want to stay on schedule. If you plan a recovery ride into your schedule, then you get to have it without putting a spanner in the works. The most essential element of this is you will be giving your system much needed breaks and getting to that recovery period before your body is screaming for it (which well and truly too late).
In actual fact, if you have overdone a ride, failed to hydrate correctly or completed a real exhausting event a recovery ride is pointless. Instead, you’ll need solid time off the bike, much longer than you’d need if you had of planned those recovery days in.
So what does a recovery plan look like?
- Balance your sessions. The best way to use a recovery session is to sandwich it between high intensity training rides or events. That could mean that you only need one recovery session a week, or if you have two or three hard sessions a week then you will need to plan two recovery rides in.
- You can still ride. If you have overdone it you will need time off the bike, which may also trigger a complete shutdown as your body goes into extreme repair mode. A better option is to incorporate recovery rides into your regular routine so you can keep your legs ticking over and come back to the next strong session ready to go racing. Drop into a really low gear and play with your cadence.
- Take it easy. This sounds like a no brainer but just about everyone gets it wrong and goes too hard. As soon as you work too hard your recovery goes out the window and you miss that vital regroup session. If you really want to improve your performance and see great results on the bike you need to listen to this one piece of information. The best ride to recover is easy, flat and short, 30 to 40 minutes is plenty. Cruise slowly and enjoy the surrounds. You should be able to easily hold a conversation, aim to use 60 to 70 per cent of your maximum heart rate and definitely no more than 50% of your usual power. Does that sound like you aren’t actually training? You’re right. Your aim is to give your body a full break from any stimulating training. You are literally just there to keep the momentum in your legs going, that’s all.
Take in the scenery
It’s amazing how much detail you get of your surrounds when you cycle, so much more than when you are in a car. Enjoy this opportunity to experience the weather, the neighbourhood or the long stretch of road ahead. After all, if you are not out on the road to test yourself, you might as well enjoy being there. Getting a group together for recovery rides can be a great way to enjoy going slow and heading out to grab a coffee together or a really great way to slow down is to take newbies out for a ride or go for a ride with your family.
Take a slower bike
If you have a spare bike that’s not race worthy, then this is a great opportunity to keep it running and the older bike might help remind you to slow the pace down. It’s also the perfect way to practice your bike mechanics because you can tinker around with it without messing up your perfect race positioning.
Ease the boredom
If you are really struggling with a nothing kind of ride I’d suggest practicing mediation, chances are you struggle switching off which is putting more stress on your body than you need. Failing that, or in addition to that, do some high cadence sprints that last no more than 5 or 6 seconds each and do no more than 6 of them in a set. Remember to keep the gears easy and the cadence fast. High cadence means low energy output. Give yourself a solid five-minute break between sets.
Fuel to recover
As well as giving your body down-time to heal and repair muscles you also need to provide the right building blocks for muscle repair. That’s in the form of protein. Make sure you take on protein either through naturally protein rich foods (i.e. a banana smoothie made from full fat milk) or through scientifically formulated recovery drinks.
Be sure to have healthy carbs and proteins 20 minutes after a ride to nourish your muscles and glycogen stores.
If you plan a recovery day as part of every week or every fortnight you will be less likely to need long bouts of time off the bike for injury or sickness and your body will be better able to cope with fatigue from events and difficult ride conditions. You will also have more strength and power and better overall fitness. As always, take care and have fun out there!