One of the main differences between amateur and professional riders is not the amount of training they do but their quantity and quality of recovery time. When they are not riding, pros will focus 100% on recovery, knowing that is when their bodies adapt and they become stronger. ~ British Cycling
If you are a fan of professional cycling, then you absolutely know the post-race protocols of your favorite cyclists better than your own kids’ birthdays. After six tough hours in the saddle on a Tour de France stage, your favorite cyclist doesn’t just stop pedaling. He or she brings their bike over to the team bus in hops on to the stationary trainer. There they will cool down slowly to prepare for the next day and shed the fatigue from the work they have done.
Even rest days, days that are completely off from cycling, athletes or ride their bikes. The goal here is to keep the fluency of riding into not start to backpedal physiologically from the rest.
You might not fall into the category of being this serious, but you can absolutely benefit from taking lessons from the pros to make sure that each and every session is your best.
Here is a sequential protocol that you can use either after a cycling workout, or between events.
The Seven Step Cooldown Process
Proper Fueling and Hydration
Just how much your body has to recover is a function of how far you have pushed it. One of the best ways to ensure that you haven’t done significant damage is to properly fuel and hydrate during each and every session and race.
If you visualize recovery as filling in the hole that you’ve dug through your effort, the rate at which you refuel determines just how deep that hole is. The deeper the hole, the more work you will have to do to fill it back in again.
You should already have a baseline nutrition plan that includes both hydration and calories. While the dynamics of training and racing don’t always allow you to refuel properly, you can still “catch up” at the end of the session if required.
Make sure you have a digital scale and weigh yourself in minimal clothing before and after your session. Note the difference, and do your best to replenish that with electrolyte-infused fluids.
If you’ve lost a pound, for example, when you have approximately 16 ounces of fluid or just less than a full bake bottle, on your agenda.
Note: If your performance is consistently undermined by poor fueling and running out of energy, it’s worth taking the time to revisit your system. What elements are you missing? What’s the block that’s preventing you from staying on top of the basics? The sooner you solve that, the faster and stronger you will be.
The Gradual Exit
After a tough training session or race, it’s tempting to stop. Nobody wants to rest and there’s a certain amount of instant recovery that’s required. But coming to a complete stop is one of the worst things you can do. It’s the human equivalent of just starting your engine on a cold day and trying to drive. Your body needs time and assistance in winding down.
Within 15 minutes of completing the session, you should be back on the bike and slightly dry or clothing if possible. Take advantage of an indoor trainer or some flat terrain (a parking lot?). Your job is to “spin down” and help your body relax.
They should be done at a very low effort. During this time you might be working on some hydration or just sorting out in your mind what happened. We recommend roughly 15 minutes of easy spinning for every 45 minutes of hard work.
During this time you should notice your heart rate dropping, and your perceived exertion being almost nonexistent. Your breathing should return to normal and you should begin to feel more human.
Protein and Carb Recovery
Speaking of recovery, we can’t ignore the role that protein plays in getting you back on track. The protein provides essential amino acids that speed up the process of repairing your muscles. Every hard session results in damage to your body, tiny micro-tears, and exertion that cumulatively lead to sore legs, cramping, and general discomfort.
The ideal ratio of carbohydrates to protein is 3g Carbs : 1g Protein. The easiest way for the average person to do this is to have a glass of chocolate milk after your session. It shouldn’t be too difficult to drink because your body is likely craving the protein.
If you’re not a dairy person, you can make a recovery shake using a non-dairy protein powder. There are even distinct recovery products on the market that are formulated to handle this ratio. All you need to do is add water!
Elevate Your Legs
Once you finish the aerobic cooldown and consumed your protein, the next step is to make recovery much easier for your body. With the work “done” behind you, it’s time to give the body an opportunity to heal. As the saying goes, “Why stand when you can sit, and why sit if you can lie down?”
Depending on your situation you may need to get a little creative about finding a place where you can comfortably lie down and elevate your legs. Some athletes prefer the legs to be straight, while others will keep them bent at the knee. This is 100% personal preference.
We recommend approximately five minutes of elevation for every 45 minutes of hard work.
A nice addition to this process of elevation is also compression gear. You can use compression socks or even compression tights. Regardless of what you choose, the focus is on providing improve recovery through facilitated circulation.
The compression prevents fluids from pooling and assists the body in pumping blood throughout the system. The movement of blood is what brings new oxygen and fuel to the body during this recovery window.
Every session, whether it’s a workout or a race, has something to learn from. Do yourself a favor and don’t simply skip ahead to the next training session. Instead, take a few moments to capture your notes about what happened. What words? What didn’t? What would you change moving forward? What would you tell a new athlete to watch out for?
These are notes that you can put into your training log or diary. Some athletes or even use the comment section of their Strava workout. Wherever you put it, write them down. Simply the act of capturing this information will help you make better, more informed decisions next time.
All of the work you’ve done in recovery this far has built up to this point. Sleep is perhaps the most comprehensive recovery mechanism you have in your arsenal.
It helps you both physically and mentally recover. It forces you to lie down, and it gives your subconscious time to review what happened, all while your body moves into a restorative state.
Power Napping: Find a place where you can stretch out. Ideally a cool dark place. Or at least have a way to cover your eyes. Set an alarm for about 20 minutes. Focus on your breathing. Play some ambient music or use your headphones. Bonus if your headphones can block out background noise. Focus on your breathing and do your best to stay calm for approximately 20 minutes.
Re-Entry to the Real World
Done right, you should actually be slightly disoriented emerging from your complete recovery cycle. It might take you a few minutes to get back to feeling normal. Take it easy with slow movements. Once again, focus on hydration and do some light stretching if you have the time.
Become aware of your surroundings and begin to focus on what’s next. If you’ve got more to do that day, it’s time to start budgeting your energy so that you have enough time to warm up.