Ask cyclists about their training programs and you will usually hear about mileage, intervals, and nutritional secrets. Only recently has post ride recovery made it onto the list of priorities. Successful cyclists know that preparation for the next ride begins even as the current one is being completed.
Post Training Fatigue
A cyclist can experience 4 distinct types of fatigue.
- The bonk (fatigue resulting from muscle glycogen depletion) usually develops 1 to 2 hours into a ride. It is a particular problem if "on the bike" glucose supplements are not used to extend internal muscle glycogen stores.
- Post ride fatigue is a normal response to several hours of vigorous exercise and indicates you are pushing your training limits. It leads to improved performance the next time out.
- Overreaching is the next step up - the fatigue you feel at the end of a particularly hard week of riding. It is really just an extension of post ride fatigue, and will, with recovery, make us faster and stronger.
- Overtraining is the debilitating and often long term (lasting weeks to months) fatigue that limits rather than stimulates improvement in performance.
A regular rider needs to constantly assess his or her level of post ride fatigue, maintaining sensitivity to the fine line that separates post exercise fatigue (a stimulus to improvement) and overtraining (which can only hinder future performance). Most training programs should include at least one and sometimes two rest days per week as well as a day or two of easy spinning as insurance against overtraining.
Over reaching is a normal part of the training cycle, but if you find that your performance is not improving with a few recovery days, it's time to take a break and switch to alternative aerobic activities (at 70% maximum heart rate) to maintain your cardiovascular fitness. The alternative is to risk entering the zone of overtraining which may require a month or two to recover.
Although it may seem paradoxical, rest is a key component of all training programs and may be actually be one of the toughest training choices you'll have to make.
Carbohydrates are the primary energy source for cyclists involved in performance events. Fats are more important in slower, endurance events, while protein maintains and repairs cells and tissue.
Muscle fatigue (the "bonk") occurs when the body's liver and muscle carbohydrate (glycogen) is depleted and the exercising muscle must by necessity shift to fat metabolism as a source of energy. One component of overtraining may be a failure to adequately replace the muscle glycogen depleted as a result of daily training.
To minimise the risk of the bonk and overtraining, it is important to maximize body glycogen stores by:
- eating a high carbohydrate diet in the days and hours before your ride
- using carbohydrate supplements while riding
- using the immediate post ride recovery interval to begin rebuilding carbohydrate stores.
As far as the pre ride period, the traditional carbohydrate loading program (which includes a carbohydrate depletion phase by avoiding all carbohydrates for several days followed by forcing carbohydrates for the 3 days immediately prior to the event) to maximise glycogen stores is not essential. A high carbohydrate diet alone (without the preceding carbohydrate depletion phase) will provide 90% of the benefits of the full program while avoiding the digestive turmoil that changes in diet required by the carbohydrate depletion phase can produce.
Maximising carbohydrate replacement while riding is important for events of more than 2 hours. At least 1 to 2 grams of carbohydrate per minute can be absorbed and utilised to supplement pre ride glycogen stores and help sustain prolonged exercise. In extreme events such as the Tour de France, as much as 50% of the daily energy expenditures can be provided by supplements taken while on the bike.
Finally, one needs to take advantage of the glycogen repletion window that is open in the 4 hours immediately following vigorous exercise. During this time, orally ingested carbohydrates will be converted into muscle glycogen at 3 times the normal rate - and the earlier the better as some data suggests a 50% fall in the repletion rate by 2 hours and a return to a normal repletion rate by 4 hours. The slowing rate of glycogen storage occurs even when plasma glucose and insulin levels remain elevated with oral supplements. Overall, muscle glycogen stores are replenished at a rate of approximately 5% per hour. And while it may require up to 48 hours for maximal muscle glycogen replacement following a 2 hour ride, for all practical purposes these glycogen stores are almost completely rebuilt in the first 24 hours post event.
For the cyclist involved in a rigorous daily training program, or in a multiday event, this glycogen window can be used to get a jump on the normal repletion process, thus minimising the risk of chronic glycogen depletion (and the fatigue that goes along with it). There is also suggestive evidence that the muscle stiffness occurring after vigorous exercise is related to muscle glycogen depletion. If so, rapid repletion may have the added benefit of minimizing this day after effect as well. One caution - many simple carbohydrate snacks such as chocolate chip cookies are more than 30% fat and if eaten in large quantities might exceed the recommended daily fat intake of 20-30% of Calories. Complex carbohydrates such as pasta, bread, and rice offer an alternative with significantly more carbohydrate per gram. And over the last few years, there has also been a push to market special recovery drinks. However any high carbohydrate food or drink will work as well and save you a few pounds.
SPECIFIC POST RIDE (RECOVERY) DIETARY RECOMMENDATIONS:
- take in 3 to 4 gm carbohydrate/kg BW in the 4 hours post ride - start immediately
- consider using a high Caloric density glucose polymer sports drink
- eat at least 600gm carb per day for the next two days to maximise repletion of muscle and liver glycogen