Recovery Do’s and Don’ts for Cyclists


, by Nikalas Cook

Photography by: Andriy Bezuglov

Recovery is key to making gains in your cycling fitness. It’s while you recover that your body repairs, physiologically adapts to the training you’ve done and that’s what makes you fitter. It’s no surprise that you’ll often hear pros alluding to the fact that it’s not necessarily the strongest rider who’ll win a three-week Grand Tour but the rider who can sleep and recover the best.

There’s a plethora of techniques and gadgets to “enhance” recovery and, along with nutrition, it is one of the areas of cycling fitness which suffers from hearsay, misinformation, confusion, and pseudo-science. I’d always argue though, that if it feels good, it’s probably not doing you any harm but, whether it’s aiding your recovery is another matter - no one is ever going to persuade me to have an ice bath after a hard ride! There are however some definite recovery do’s and don’ts.

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The 'Recovery Ride'

On the rest days of a Grand Tour, almost all riders will head out for two or maybe three hours of riding. With the main aim to prevent stale legs the next day, especially after a long transfer, some riders will keep it all steady, some might include some “leg openers” but there won’t be any significant sustained efforts or climbs.

This type of Stage Race Rest Day Ride does differ slightly in its objectives to a Recovery Ride but both share the number one priority of not accumulating any unnecessary fatigue. As previously mentioned the Rest Day Ride is about preventing staleness and staying sharp whereas the Recovery Ride is about facilitating recovery.

For a Recovery Ride to achieve its goals of facilitating recovery without adding any fatigue, it has to be really easy. However, judging by the number of 20mph / 35kph+ “recovery rides” I see posted on Strava, the message still hasn’t got through.

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As a method of facilitating recovery the day after a hard ride, a gentle recovery spin is highly effective but, if there’s one thing hardly any amateur riders do right, it’s a recovery ride.

To be effective, a recovery ride has to be ridiculously easy. Both heart rate and power have to be strict Zone 1, you should imagine your cranks are made of glass and grannies on shopping bikes should be leaving you for dead. If you don’t stick to these strict criteria, you won’t be aiding recovery at all. In fact, as previously mentioned, you’ll be achieving the exact opposite and just accumulating junk miles and additional fatigue.

To be effective, a recovery ride has to be ridiculously easy. Both heart rate and power have to be strict Zone 1, you should imagine your cranks are made of glass...

So, if you don’t think you have the discipline to allow you to ride that easy, try doing it in “secret” (indoors) or try some dedicated recovery activity instead of riding. Spending the time doing some foam rolling, some gentle stretching, or even just having a lay-down on the sofa would all be far better for you than a non-recovery ride.

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Planned and structured recovery

Recovery has to be planned for - and stuck to - with the same diligence as you apply to your riding. This means planning rest days each week following hard sessions and not just battering yourself day after day. If you fail to do this, aside from the potential risk of burnout/overtraining in the long term, you won’t be getting the maximum gains from the hard sessions you do and will be compromising the effectiveness of the next. With its addictive quality, a Zwift racing habit can easily take you down a hole of deep fatigue so, if you find you are racing back-to-back days consistently, maybe get your partner to lock your turbo away.

You also need to plan for recovery weeks, where you significantly cut volume and intensity and you give your body that chance to recover, adapt and become stronger. I always tend to work on three weeks of build followed by a recovery week. Always resist the temptation - especially if you’re a kilometer logger, to just keep on building and building or doing the same week after week.

Full-time pros can take their recovery extremely seriously. Photography by: Monkey Business

Life loads

Full-time pros can take their recovery extremely seriously and, if you’ve ever spent any time with top riders, you’ll know how staggeringly lazy they are when not riding. However, for us mere cycling mortals, life/work/family etc is often unpredictable and gets in the way of our riding.

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I remember coaching a rider who, despite managing to do all the workouts I was setting for him, was tanking in terms of his performance. I just didn’t get it until I finally noticed that all of his sessions were at 0400. I rang him and he eventually confessed that his work had ramped up to crazy levels but, rather than telling me this so we could accommodate this additional load, he just carried on battering himself.

Life loads must be taken into account and cutting back on rest/recovery/sleep is not the way to achieve this.

Life loads must be taken into account and cutting back on rest/recovery/sleep is not the way to achieve this.

The Recovery Drink

Another rider I was working with was doing all of the workouts I set him and swore blind that he was eating well but was still consistently gaining half a kilo a week. It turned out that, after every ride, even short sessions and genuine recovery rides, he was downing a carb/protein recovery drink!

Recovery drinks can be effective and convenient - especially if you’ve just completed a long ride and aren’t sure when you’ll be eating. Finishing a sportive and then having to get straight into the car is a good example.

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However, if you’re riding from home and you’ll be eating your post-ride meal within an hour or so, there’s no need for the expense or extra calories of a recovery drink. Similarly, if it’s a short 45-90 minute weekday evening ride - maybe a Zwift race, there’s no need for a recovery drink - just time your next meal for post-ride or, if you feel you do need something extra, just blend a banana into some milk/soya milk.

In my next blog, I tackle the other great area of cycling misinformation and give you no-nonsense and proven strategies to fuel your rides.