Every year a team of CTS Coaches and nearly 20 athletes rode every stage of the Amgen Tour of California. Our group had a head start on the pro peloton, VIP access to parts of the course that were closed to the public, pro-level support on the road and between stages, and the opportunity to share meals with the pro teams. And just like the pro riders, our riders had to focus on recovery between stages in order to be ready to climb onto their bikes each morning to ride another 100-mile fast-paced miles. Anyone with a multi-day cycling tour or amateur stage race on your calendar, like the Pikes Peak Apex Mountain Bike race, Breck Epic, or Ride the Rockies needs to focus as much on between-stage recovery as you do gaining the fitness necessary to complete each stage. Here is how we keep Team CTS athletes on top of their game during multi-day endurance events.
1. Focus on Fluid Intake Throughout the Afternoon/Evening
In multi-day endurance events it becomes impossible to replace all your fluids during each stage, leaving you at least somewhat dehydrated at the end of each ride. Once off the bike rehydration should be your first priority because it can take many hours for your body to absorb fluids and bring levels in muscles, blood plasma, and intracellular fluid back to normal.
It’s helpful to weigh yourself before and after a workout or event so you can estimate how much fluid you lost and how well you stayed hydrated during the ride. Following a stage you want to consume 150% of the fluid weight you lost within the first 4-6 hours afterward. In other words, if you lost 2 pounds (32 ounces), you want to consume 48 ounces in those 4-6 hours. These fluids should include both plain water and drinks containing electrolytes, and should ideally not include alcohol. If you decide to drink alcohol, since the event is likely a vacation as well as a cycling event, do yourself a favor and limit consumption to one drink.
2. Replenish Energy Levels With Quality Nutrition
In recent years sports nutritionists and Registered Dietitians have moved away from recommending post-workout recovery drinks after every workout or ride. The primary goal of a post-workout recovery drink are to accelerate the replenishment of muscle glycogen so you can start your next ride with full glycogen stores. However, glycogen stores will be 100% replenished with about 24 hours regardless of whether you consume a recovery drink in the first 30 minutes post exercise. This means that if you are training 4 days a week and there’s a rest day between hard workouts, you probably don’t need a recovery drink and can achieve full replenishment through your normal diet. Recovery drinks become far more important during multi-day endurance events because glycogen stores are likely depleted every day, and you will be on the bike again in less than 24 hours. At the ATOC, we finish our rides about 1pm and everyone has to be back on the bikes between 6:30-8:00AM, depending on the day. This only provides a maximum of 19 hours between rides, which increases the importance of immediate post-ride carbohydrate replenishment.
Recovery begins on the bike, meaning we encourage riders to continue eating and drinking during the final 90 minutes on the bike. Some people mistakenly stop eating and drinking as the finish approaches. They can “smell the barn”, so to speak, and figure they don’t need more food or fluids to reach the end of the day. That may be true, but the food and fluids consumed in the final hour are important for recovery and setting up a successful tomorrow.
A big thing to remember during multi-day events is that your long day in the saddle today doesn’t give license to gorge on crappy junk food between stages. Yes, you burned a lot of calories, but you want to give your body good fuel it can use for recovery and replenishment. This means focusing on whole food sources of carbohydrate, plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and limited desserts. Pro team meals during the stage races are served buffet style at a team hotel. Typically, the catering staff includes extensive dessert options, like they would for corporate events. The pros partake, but sparingly, and so should cyclists presented with similar options during multi-day cycling events.
3. Get More Sleep
Multi-day endurance events induce a higher level of muscle damage than a normal training week, and there are a lot of hormonal, neurological, and physical repairs that needs to be done for the body to recover. Much of this happens while we are sleeping. Deep sleep is crucial to an athlete’s recovery because this is when human growth hormone is released, which stimulates muscle growth and repair. For optimal recovery, most athletes need between seven and ten hours of sleep a night.
It’s also imperative that you get quality sleep as disruption to deep to sleep can hinder the release of human growth hormone and subsequently hinder your recovery. To help avoid interruptions to your sleep, try to sleep in a cooler environment (set your bedroom temperature between 65 degrees and 72 degrees Fahrenheit), limit your exposure to light (especially back-lit screens) before going to sleep, eliminate as much light as possible during sleep, and avoid consuming alcohol before going to sleep. When you are physically exhausted and have another 100-mile ride ahead of you tomorrow morning, calming the mind can be an important component of getting a restful night’s sleep.
4. Utilize Compression and Proactive Cooling
In an earlier article, we dispelled the myth about elevating your legs to help drain lactate and prevent blood from pooling in your legs, however, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any benefits at all. Elevating your legs, using compression garments, and pneumatic compression (Normatec boots) may help with reducing swelling from extracellular fluid and lymph. This may be especially true during multi-day events because they tend to bring on more swelling in the first place. Research on compression for recovery doesn’t provide complete agreement on whether it is helpful or not. You can find studies on both sides, including one from Born, et al. that looked at the effect of compression garments on recovery and showed a reduction in muscle swelling and perceived muscle pain, and observed a positive effect on recovery of maximal strength and power. One thing is certain, however: pneumatic compression boots make you sit still and rest, which is good for recovery and something many athletes simply don’t do or won’t do for long enough.
Some athletes have asked about the efficacy of ice-baths between stages of a multiday cycling event. The science is even more divided about ice baths than it is about compression. Our current stance on the issue is that immersion in cool water may be beneficial for recovery, especially in terms of bringing core temperature down following a long, hot day in the saddle. However, because cycling is not a weight-bearing sport there is far less acute muscle damage and consequent inflammation compared to distance running or ultrarunning. Some of the studies around ice baths has shown it can inhibit recovery by blunting the physiological response to hard exercise (inflammation), which may be necessary for stimulating optimal recovery and adaptation. While the science around ice baths is equivocal, there is little doubt elevated core and skin temperatures hinder recovery and diminish sleep quality. Sitting a cool bath, relaxing in a cool hotel pool, or finishing your shower with a cooling rinse is probably the more useful to a cyclist during a multi-day event than a full-on ice bath.
Van Cauter E, Plat L., “Physiology of growth hormone secretion during sleep.”
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Born DP, Sperlich B, Holmberg HC., “Bringing light into the dark: effects of compression clothing on performance and recovery.” Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2013 Jan;8(1):4-18.