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CYCLING PERFORMANCE TIPS

  Last updated: 10/19/2015

Post Ride Recovery and Your Training Program


Ask a cyclist about their training program and you will hear about mileage, intervals, and nutritional secrets. Only recently has post ride recovery made it onto the list of priorities. Yet successful cyclists know that preparation for their next ride begins even as the current one is being completed.

I. POST EXERCISE FATIGUE

Lack of attention to the level of personal fatigue after a ride increases the odds of sliding into overtraining with its impact on future performance. A cyclist may experience one of 4 distinct types of fatigue.

  1. The bonk (fatigue resulting from muscle glycogen depletion) usually develops 1 to 2 hours into a ride. It is a particular risk if one starts a ride without a full tank, so to speak, of muscle glycogen. Carbohydrate supplements (goos and gels) used while riding can extend the riding time as they are used in lieu of internal muscle glycogen stores.
  2. Post ride fatigue is the normal response to several hours of vigorous exercise and indicates we are pushing our training limits. It leads to improved performance the next time out.
  3. Over reaching is the fatigue we feel at the end of a particularly hard week of riding. It is really just a more extreme form of post ride fatigue.

    Over reaching is a normal part of the training cycle. It may require several extra (and unplanned) recovery days. But if you find that your performance is not improving with several extra recovery days, it's time to take a break from riding and switch to alternative aerobic activities (at 70% maximum heart rate to maintain your cardiovascular fitness). To push ahead is to risk a level of overtraining which may require a month or two off the bike to recover.

  4. Over training is the debilitating and often long term (lasting weeks to months) fatigue which limits rather than stimulates improvement in performance.
So the FIRST item on your recovery check list is an assessment of your level of post ride fatigue. Walking the fine line separating what we will call normal post exercise fatigue (expected after a hard workout and necessary for improvement) and overtraining (which might hinder future performance). Although it may seem paradoxical, structured rest is a key component of all training programs and may actually be one of the toughest training choices you'll have to make. To minimize the risk of overtraining, you should include at least one and occasionally two rest days per week - the second can be a day of relatively easy spinning.

II. NUTRITION

The SECOND item on your recovery check list is adequate post ride nutrition to replete muscle glycogen and minimize the risks of bonking early on your next ride as well as risking chronic glycogen depletion which can be a part of the fatigue of overreaching.

Carbohydrates (in the form of muscle glycogen) are the primary energy source for all cyclists who push themselves with strenuous workouts and rides. Fats are more important in slower, endurance events and protein is not an energy source although necessary to maintain and repair muscle cells and connective tissue.

The "bonk" occurs when the body's stores of glycogen in the liver and muscles are depleted and the exercising muscle is required to shift to less effective fat metabolism as its primary energy source. Occasionally, after multiple riding days (a week long tour for example) the fatigue of overreaching may result from the failure to adequately replace the muscle glycogen depleted as a result of the daily rides - what might be perceived as a chronic bonk - or in a less severe form, bonking much earlier in a ride than usual. This type of fatigue is a particular risk at the elite athlete level where there may be multiple training sessions (or competitions) per day, and limited time to eat.

It is important to maximize your total body glycogen stores by using dietary carbohydrates to your advantage - before, during, as well as after a ride. Ensuring maximal repletion of glycogen on multi day rides starts even before you get on the bike.

A few additional points to consider in glycogen repletion (post ride recovery drinks):

One reason that protein supplementation might be considered, in my opinion, would be to improve taste and thus optimize supplement use (and thus maximize Calories replaced) both during and after a ride. Especially for those riders who do not tolerate very sugary drinks.

Are there any other tricks to help with glycogen replenishment? It has been suggested that caffeine may boost the glycogen resynthesis rate.

The data in the full paper demonstrated rates of glycogen replenishment post exercise that were, in the authors words.... "to the best of our knowledge, the highest reported for human subjects under physiological conditions."

Is this going to be a significant factor in your next day performance if you are careful to maximize your intake of carbohydrates and glucose post exercise, especially in the first hour? Hard to say. But this is one more reason to grab a caffeine containing cola (Coke, Pepsi) when you get off the bike.

What can we take away from these various studies?

  1. Carbohydrates, ingested at a rate of 1.2 g CHO per kg per hr, enhance post ride muscle glycogen recovery. Aim to drink or eat 3 grams of carbohydrate per kg of body weight over the four hours after exercise - but use some common sense in spreading it over the full four hours - at most 1.0 gm of carbohydrate per kg body weight per hour (at 4 Calories per gram, this would be approximately 200 Calories per hour for the average rider).

  2. if you cannot tolerate sugary drinks (ingest the ideal amount of carbohydrate per hour), protein Calories can supplement CHO Calories. Another strategy is the use of complex carbohydrates to increase carbohydrate Calories in a drink that is not as sweet tasting.

  3. The sooner after exercise you begin your recovery drink program the better.

  4. An unanswered question is whether there is a positive impact from any protein ingested in this early post exercise period on muscle repair. There is no data to support a benefit to eating protein immediately, in this 4 hour time interval, as compared to the entire 24 hours post exercise.

If you don't manage to replace glycogen during the 4 hour window, don't worry. You can also catch up on your muscle glycogen repletion by eating a high carbohydrate diet over the next 24 hours. In other words, these tips on the 4 hour post exercise replacement interval may be of practical significance only to those who are competing with multiple events in a single day OR are riding a stage race with daily rides of multiple hours each.

After the 4 hour window, does it make a difference how one eats their carbohydrate Calories? Burke LM et al could not show a difference in post exercise glycogen storage over 24 h when a high-carbohydrate diet was eaten as multiple small snacks or as large meals. However there did appear to be some advantage of eating carbohydrates with a high glycemic index.

And it doesn't have to be pure carbs either. Burke et al decided to investigate whether the addition of fat and protein to carbohydrate feedings in the 24 hour post exercise period affects muscle glycogen storage. Eight well-trained triathletes undertook an exercise trial followed by equicaloric diets of mainly carbohydrates or a combination of fats, protein, and carbohydrate. There were no differences between diets in muscle glycogen storage over 24 h between equi-Caloric diets of carbohydrate alone (approx 10 grams of CHO per kg body wt per 24 hours and a mixed diet of CHO/Pro/fat.

SPECIFIC POST RIDE (RECOVERY) DIETARY RECOMMENDATIONS:


REFUELING AFTER EXERCISE - IS MCDONALD'S JUST AS GOOD AS CHOCOLATE MILK?

A recent article suggested that the emphasis on recovery drinks may be overdone, and fast food might be just as good, and tastier to boot. The study examined the effects of isoenergetic sport supplements (SS) versus fast food (FF) on muscle glycogen recovery as well as subsequent exercise performance as assessed by a time trial ride. For those interested in more detail, the link. Does this mean all prior investigations that have studied the nuances of glycogen replacement erred by studying only glucose (and some glucose/protein combinations)? A few thoughts.

  1. First, this study notes that "each trial included a 90-minute glycogen depletion ride..." But all "depletion rides" are not equal when one is studying the rate of muscle glycogen repletion. The intensity of the depletion ride in this study is not indicated in the abstract. I suspect it was just enough to deplete muscle glycogen stores. We know that short term high intensity exercise increases the rate of glycogen repletion compared to less intense levels of exertion. Several factors differ in the post-exercise recovery period after short term, high intensity exercise compared to prolonged, less intense exercise. The extremely fast rate of muscle glycogen re synthesis following short term, high intensity exercise is presumed to be related to these differences. And other depletion/repletion studies such as this example , also include sprints in the depletion ride. "..70 min on a cycle ergometer at 68% VO2max, interrupted by six 2-min intervals at 88% VO2max ..." So the unanswered question (from this fast food abstract) is 90 minutes AT WHAT RIDE INTENSITY?

  2. And interestingly the rate of re synthesis in this paper was lower that has been reported in other studies, again suggesting a slower depletion ride. Current study - "...rates of glycogen recovery were not different across the diets (6.9 1.7 and 7.9 2.4 mmol/kg wet weight- 1hr-1 for SS and FF, respectively.." How does this compare to rates with other studies that specifically included intense exercise? A bit lower than has been reported. "...re-synthesis after short term, high intensity exercise (15.1 to 33.6 mmol/kg/h) is much higher than glycogen re-synthesis rates following prolonged exercise (approximately 2 mmol/kg/h), even when optimal amounts of oral carbohydrate are supplied (approximately mmol/kg/h)."

My take on this article, and the fast food, more liberal repletion concept? As the intensity of a ride does make a difference in the subsequent rate (per hour) of glycogen replacement, for those who are recreational riders, or doing LSD (long, slow distance) rides, eating french fries for recovery nutrition may be just as helpful as a coke or chocolate milk. But if you are training intensely, especially if sprints or intervals are part of your daily training program, I'd stick with the more tried and true chocolate milk and other high carbohydrate liquids in the immediate post ride 2 hour period. And then head to McDonald's.

III. FLUIDS/HYDRATION

Although water does not provide Caloric energy, adequate hydration is at least as important to good athletic performance as the food you eat. As one of the biggest mistakes of many competitive athletes is failing to replace fluid losses associated with exercise, re-hydration is added as the third item on our recovery checklist. Dehydration is especially a problem in cycling as rapid skin evaporation decreases the sense of perspiring and imparts a false sense of only minimal fluid loss when sweat production and loss through the lungs can easily exceed 2 quarts per hour. And again, just as with carbohydrates, it is essential that you start off adequately hydrated (before), begin fluid replacement early, and drink regularly during the ride (during). And make sure you have rehydrated in the recovery period (after). Although there is controversy as to the effects on performance of developing dehydration while riding, numerous reports suggest that comparisons of two groups of cyclists, one consciously rehydrating, the other not, exercising at 90% of their maximum can demonstrate a measurable difference in physical performance within the first hour of a ride.

Total body fluid losses during exercise lead to a diminished plasma volume (the fluid actually circulating within the blood vessels) as well as a lowered muscle water content. As fluid loss progresses, there is a direct effect on physiologic function and athletic performance. An unreplaced water loss equal to 2% of base line body weight will impact heat regulation, at 3% there is a measurable effect on muscle cell contraction times, and when fluid loss reaches 4% of body weight there is a measurable 5% to 10% drop in performance. In addition, one study demonstrated that this performance effect can persist for 4 hours after re-hydration takes place - emphasizing the need to anticipate and regularly replace fluid losses. Maintaining plasma volume is one of the hidden keys to optimal physical performance. 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 begin replacement of any excess losses. If you do so, you will be well rewarded the next time out.

But as a word of warning to those who practice the philosophy of "if a little is good, a lot is better", there are also risks with over correcting the water losses of exercise. There have been reports of hyponatremia (low blood sodium concentration) with seizures in marathon runners who have over replaced sweat losses (salt and water) with pure water. And this risk increases for longer events more than 5 hours). Weighing yourself regularly on long rides will help you tailor YOUR OWN PERSONAL replacement program. A weight gain of more that 1 or 2 pounds will indicate that you are over correcting your water losses and may be placing yourself at risk for this unusual metabolic condition.

IV. COOL DOWN

Do you need to stretch BEFORE exercising and cool down AFTER? I was reminded again of the entrenched idea of a post exercise "cool down" at a spin class last week when the instructor warned us all to be sure to "wash out the lactic acid" before we got off the bike.

As Dr. Mirkin reminds us ".... cooling down has not been shown to:

But a cool down may help those who experience lightheaded-ness after competition or strenous exercise. The reason? A combination of dehydration and a sudden pooling of blood in the legs which together lead to a drop in blood pressure. When your leg muscles contract, they squeeze veins in the nearby tissues and keep blood moving back to the heart. When exercise stops abruptly, the veins near them fill with more of your circulating blood volume and the amount getting back to the heart to pump decreases. Your blood pressure drops and less blood gets to the brain - the result is a feeling of light headedness or even passing out. If this is a problem for you, focus on maintaining hydration while riding, and add a cool down to let your heart gradually adapt to the lower volume of returning blood.

On the other hand, a warm up BEFORE you go all out and stretching AFTER a workout do work.

QUESTIONS

Question: I am a fairly strong Cat 4 rider that wants to move up to Cat 3 and wanted to get some feedback on whether or not I should pursue a protein/carbohydrate recovery drink mix like Endurox R4/Accelerade to help aid recovery and restore my glycogen levels. Up until this point I've just tried to maintain a balanced diet but as with most Americans, don't always get the best-balanced nutrition after a ride. I'm sure you're aware of the claims being made by the various supplement manufacturers of how it can increase performance but I wanted to get your take on it. I've also found a great website, nutritional data.com that I think might help me choose the diet best suited for a recovery meal.- TD

Answer: After a ride it is important to replace muscle glycogen. You can calculate the amount by calculating the Calories you expended in the event/training ride (this is important to avoid over doing and gaining weight). It is best to take the carbohydrates early (first 30 minutes after the ride) and as a free CHO (which is more rapidly absorbed - Coke is great).


Question: "I am a 33 year old avid cyclist and local racer who trains from 1 to 1.5 hours a day during the week and 4 to 5 hours on the weekends. I am a fairly strong Cat 4 rider that wants to move up to Cat 3, and wanted to get some feedback on whether or not I should pursue a protein/carbohydrate recovery drink mix like Endurox R4/Accelerade to help aid recovery and restore my glycogen levels. I'm sure you're aware of the claims being made by the various supplement manufacturers of how it can increase performance but I wanted to get your take on it." --TD

Answer: After a ride it is important to replace muscle glycogen. You can calculate the exact amount by calculating the Calories you used in the event/ride (see below) so you don't over do it and begin to add weight. It is best to begin the replacement carbohydrates early (first 30 minutes), and as a simple sugar (glucose) which is rapidly absorbed (Coke is great).

There is no data that a combination of protein and carbohydrates is any better than carbohydrates alone (assuming you take adequate Calories). Taste alone would be a reason to consider a combination replacement.

The issue really comes down to whether the cost of those special drinks (with a bit of protein) are justified and the answer is that it depends on the amount of free cash you have. Your success as a competitor will almost certainly rest on an overall sound training and eating program, not on the presence of protein in a post ride drink. And remember, there is always chocolate milk as an option!

How much should you eat? Estimating individual Caloric replacement needs is always a challenge. And as

CHANGE IN WEIGHT (IN LBS) = (CALORIES BURNED - CALORIES CONSUMED)/3500

you will see the results reflected in the bathroom scales.

Regular physical exercise will help to protect your muscles from being cannibalized during periods of negative Caloric balance so if you are riding regularly, you will not lose significant muscle mass even if you underestimate your Calorie needs. However, if you overshoot on the Calorie replacement, and especially if you have been exercising at a slow pace (which does increase the use of fat Calories while maintaining muscle glycogen stores), any excess post ride carbohydrate loading may find muscle glycogen stores already "filled" and at that point any additional carbohydrate Calories will be converted directly into fat.

To pull this all together, I'd suggest a high carbohydrate diet (60 to 70% carbohydrate, low in fat). Wight training to maintain upper body muscle mass. And keeping an eye on the bathroom scale to determine if you have estimated replacement needs correctly. With a regular exercise program, a modest weight gain should be in muscle mass and any weight loss from fat.


Question:I thought I saw on your site somewhere a recipe for making your own recovery drinks? I cant find it anywhere. Thanks for all your efforts.

Answer:I regularly receive questions as to the "best" recovery drink. There is a lot of folklore and anecdotal experience floating around, and recovery drinks are a big business. In 2007 sports drinks sales in the USA alone accounted for more than $1.5 billion. With so much money at stake in the sale of supplements it's hard to get solid information on what is optimal and what is just marketing hyperbole.

Research shows us that post-exercise nutrition can improve the quality and the rate of recovery after a bout of serious exercise. Signs of poor recovery include fatigue, poor workouts, and perhaps prolonged muscle soreness. Nutrition ingested right after working out, and up to two hours later can drastically improve one's recovery time.

The following are what I feel are supported by the facts:

  1. Liquids are usually better tolerated than solid food after a workout. Liquid also has the advantage of replenishing fluid lost during exercise, and is digested and absorbed more rapidly than solid food.
  2. Two hours is the magic period where carbohydrates eaten are preferentially processed into glycogen.
  3. First priority - replacing internal glycogen stores you have utilized. Any carbohydrate works but simple carbohydrates may have a slight edge. Coke is my favorite. (And remember that if you are rigorous about taking nutrition while cycling, the amount of post exercise replacement will be less.)
  4. There is evidence that a small amount of protein may help in recovery so I use low fat chocolate milk if I can find it. Is protein a big deal? It may lead to a small improvement in your next days exercise (and is measurable in the lab) but is probably of limited if any benefit for one eating a normal diet.
  5. Second priority - replacing fluids. Dehydration is a risk with any strenuous activity and will increase your feeling of post exercise fatigue and perhaps muscle soreness.
  6. Electrolytes are generally replaced with a normal diet. There is no harm in using a drink that contains electrolytes and micronutrients but also no evidence they are helpful. When I am exercising regularly I cover my bases with a daily multivitamin and a stress tab (B plus C) every morning.
  7. Antioxidants are unproven - but popular in commercial drinks.

Bottom line - take that daily multivitamin, eat something with carbohydrates immediately after the ride, and drink an extra glass of water or two.


Your question prompted me to take a quick look on Google. A few additional thoughts:


Questions on content or suggestions to improve this page are appreciated.

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