Most non-athletes think that the key to racing well is putting in a ton of training, day after day. All the blood, sweat and (admit it) tears will eventually transform into a killer performance come race day. And while, to a certain extent, they’re right, this formula leaves out one incredibly important variable: recovery. As Monedero wrote in a study on lactate threshold, “The recovery process in sport plays an essential role in determining subsequent athletic performance.”
If you’re anything like me, you race a full season. In my case, that means from September through January, nearly every weekend, I’ll be racing cyclocross both Saturday and Sunday. And since I have a job that revolves around cyclocross, it also means a lot of travel to the big races, like CrossVegas. When you go an entire week with a maximum of two hours of sleep per night, spend your day on your feet working the room at a conference, eat when you think of it, drink even less, and then jump between time zones twice in one week, all between race weekends, it’s time to start thinking about how to recover quickly to preserve performance. I trained for cyclocross all summer long and it paid off with two great finishes the first weekend of racing. But between upgrading and my CrossVegas antics, when I got to the line last weekend to start in my first ever UCI Elite race, I was far from race ready, and it showed.
So I started thinking long and hard about how to recover this week. My coach had simple instructions for me: “Sleep! Eat right.” Check, and check. But how exactly does recovery work, and what are some of the best ways I can make sure I don’t have another disastrous race weekend?
First of all, did you know that after strenuous exercise, it can take the body up to 24 hours to reach pre-exercise oxygen consumption? That means that even when you finish a race and start to feel human again, you probably have a long way to go before you’re back to “normal.” Of course, the more your body is trained aerobically, the faster it learns to recover, so seasoned athletes have an advantage when it comes to faster recovery.
There are two kinds of post-race recovery: active and passive. Active recovery includes the obvious cool-down rides, which can decrease the risk for muscle cramping and stiffness. Passive recovery can be as simple as lying down post-race, or can include more “fun” options like ice baths, massage, and drinking cold liquids. Active recovery is considered better for lactate removal, especially following a race that is “non-steady state,” like a cyclocross race.
A big chunk of the recovery process depends on lactate removal in the athlete, and a study in the International Journal of Sports Medicine by the aforementioned J. Monedero looked at the various ways that lactate can be removed following a hard effort. The study focused on four types of recovery: active, passive, massage, and a combination of active and massage components. The winners of the study? When Monedero looked at eighteen cyclists and measured their various recovery times after using the different recovery methods, he concluded that either active recovery or the combination of active recovery and massage were the best options for a speedy recuperation.
What does that mean? Don’t collapse at the finish line, that’s passive. Instead, make sure you have a good cool-down, no matter how tired you are.
But what about nutrition? Everyone has heard about the need to quickly eat or drink post-race to make up for the nutrients lost during the race. Protein in a necessity for muscles to recover properly, and carbohydrates are vital when it comes to replenishing glycogen stores that have been decimated by prolonged or high intensity exercise.
In an article published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, author David Rowlands says, “Nutrition is an important aspect of recuperation for athletes during multi-day competition or hard training. Post-exercise carbohydrate is likely to improve recovery, but the effect of protein is equivocal.” Rowlands tested 12 elite cyclists, giving some high carbohydrate recovery drinks, and others a combination of carbohydrate and protein. He gauged results by looking at certain “stress markers” like creatine kinase, and inflammation and muscle damage. He found that the protein and carbohydrate combination did in fact reduce creatine kinase levels, which would aid in recovery, but effects on inflammatory markers didn’t show any difference. He concluded that while a protein and carbohydrate combination post-race may not have any immediate benefits, there is a delayed performance benefit, so ingesting something with both carbs and protein post-race may aid in recovery in the days after racing.
Nutrition aside, are there other scientifically proven methods for speeding recovery? One study I looked at judged the effect of a five minute ice bath after exercising in heat. Published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, J.J Peiffer studied ten male cyclists, measuring recovery by having the men perform a 25 minute cycling session, then either a 15 minute seated recovery or a five minute ice bath, followed by a four kilometer time trial. Results indicated that after the ice bath, power output in the time trial was significantly higher, leading the author to conclude that, “exercise performance in heat may be improved when a short period of cold-water immersion is applied during the recovery period.”
What does this mean for racers? Well, after a hot race (still a possibility for the next month or so!), it might behoove cyclists to go hop in a nearby lake, or just go home to a quick ice bath, in order to speed recovery.
The biggest problem for athletes who travel from race to race, in my mind, is sleep deprivation. I learned a lot in the past week about how much my personal performance is affected by how much sleep I get, and I was using caffeine (in the form of espressos practically in an IV drip) to stay awake and moving. Was this a good move? While losing too much sleep is never a good thing for an athlete, it doesn’t have to be a death sentence for your race. Rather, break out that coffee pot, because in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, researchers have noted that, “Acute sleep deprivation affects performance of a simple repeat skill in elite athletes and this was ameliorated by a single dose of either caffeine or creatine. Both may offer practical and viable options prior to training and competition to assist skill performance when sleep loss has occurred.”
There’s a lot of research being done on recovery these days, and there are always new methods to try. As for me, from now on after a race, I’m going to make it a point to a) cool down by riding around, and b) make sure that I actually eat or drink some kind of combination of carbohydrate and protein. Additionally, while a single dose of caffeine might ameliorate the effects of sleep deprivation, I’m going to be trying to get a full eight hours on race nights. At least, a girl can dream, right?
*Image of Francis Mourey courtesy of DarkSideX
**Image of ice bath by Dr. Karyn Marshall
***“Effects of Sleep Deprivation” by Mikael Häggström, public domain