From electrical muscle stimulation to massage, post ride recovery has long been a topic of interest for cyclists.  With the number of recovery methods continuing to grow, what works and what doesn’t?

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the research on several popular methods of recovery.

Active Recovery ($12/hr for a babysitter)

Active recovery spin or day off the bike?  While active recovery has been shown to improve lactate clearance when compared to passive recovery, lactate clearance doesn’t seem to be a valid indicator of recovery quality [1].  In other words, either is probably fine.

My take: If you enjoy active recovery spins then go for it.  If not, skip the ride and invest your time in other projects around the house.

Massage ($60/hr)

Massage is a popular recovery method for cyclists, but does it actually enhance recovery or improve performance?  The short answer is probably not [2].

Contrary to popular belief, massage doesn’t increase blood flow or improve the rate of lactate clearance in muscle [3], mechanisms often theorized to improve recovery.  When it comes to enhanced recovery or improved performance, massage doesn’t make a lot of sense [1].

My take: Massage feels amazing, if it helps you de-stress go for it.  Otherwise, spend your money on other recovery methods or an aero helmet.

Electrical Muscle Stimulation ($250-650)

Electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) devices utilize electrical current to peripherally stimulate muscle contractions.  EMS seeks to enhance recovery by activating the “muscle pump effect” to improve blood flow and enhance tissue repair [1].

Is there any evidence that zapping your legs post ride actually improves recovery and subsequent performance?  Not really.  There is some evidence that EMS might improve subjective measures of pain post exercise [4, 5] but when it comes to enhancing recovery or improving performance the evidence is lacking [6].

My take: Save your time and money for a different recovery method with measurable performance benefits.

Compression Stockings ($20-60)

Compression stockings are supposed to enhance recovery by improving venous return via graduated compression around the legs.  Do they actually work?  Results seem mixed [1].  At the very least, if you believe (placebo effect) compression stockings work for you, they might reduce perceived fatigue and soreness [7].

My take: If you have 40 bucks to burn give them a shot.

Smarter Nutrition (Variable Cost)

Most cyclists recognize the value of nutrition, but what does that mean when it comes to recovery?  In simple terms, if you ride a lot you should eat a ton of carbs and a solid amount of protein.

Carbohydrate fueling post ride is vital to restoring muscle glycogen for future training sessions. Cyclists who crush carbs recover faster, feel better, and ride faster on subsequent days [8].  How many carbs?  Shoot for around 60% of your total energy intake [8].

What about protein?  The more you ride, the more you need.  Adequate protein intake after exercise has been shown to increase rates of muscle glycogen resynthesis as well as protect from injury and illness [8, 9].

My take: If you’re training hard, smarter nutrition is a foundational element to enhance your recovery.

Sleep (Variable Cost)

The science is a bit mixed when it comes to the impact of poor sleep on athletic performance but one thing seems certain.  When your sleep suffers  you start feeling overtrained [10].  What does this mean?

In addition to feeling tired and unmotivated, poor sleep directly impacts your immune system making you more susceptible to getting sick [11].  Sickness kills training momentum and undermines fitness gains.

My take: If you’re serious about recovery, reduce your work hours, stop watching TV at night, and do whatever it takes to improve the quality of your sleep.

Reducing Stress (Variable Cost)

Some of the most current exercise science research seeks to understand how the brain impacts physical performance.  When it comes to recovery, mental fatigue has been shown to negatively impact performance [12].  In other words, unchecked life stress is likely to sabotage how well you train and recover [13, 14].

My take: Recovery isn’t complete unless it includes the brain.  Look for ways to better organize and de-stress your life, you’re going to be faster on the bike as a result.

Foam Rolling ($20-60)

These days every cyclist seems to have a foam roller.  I don’t really know how to use one, but I do know if feels good on my back after I clean the dishes in the evening.  What about enhancing recovery or performance?

The research is limited but it looks like foam rolling might help to attenuate muscle soreness as well as improve muscle activation and range of motion [15, 16].

My take: Foam rollers are cheap and might aid in recovery, you should get one.

Recovery Pyramid

If we think of recovery modalities like the venerable food pyramid this is what we get.  We start at the bottom with foundational methods supported by science.  As we move toward the top we encounter less proven and experimental methods.

What if you you like zapping your legs, getting a weekly massage, or going for regular active recovery spins?  Keep doing what you’re doing, but only after building your recovery foundation.

recoverypyramidfinal

Summary

  1. Active recovery (vs. passive recovery) probably doesn’t do much.  Take the day off and focus on non-cycling related tasks to better organize your life.
  2. Massage probably doesn’t improve recovery.  Unless you feel it’s a vital de-stressing tool, you’re probably better off using other recovery techniques.
  3. Electrical muscle stimulation doesn’t seem to improve recovery.  Save your money and buy faster wheels.
  4. Compression stockings might improve recovery.  They’re not that expensive, go for it.
  5. Crushing carbs and eating an adequate amount of protein will improve recovery and enhance performance.  Make smarter nutrition a central component of your training.
  6. Improving your sleep quality will make you more resistant to illness and overtraining.  If your sleep sucks you should change your habits.
  7. Mental fatigue impedes recovery and negatively impacts performance.  Focus on de-stressing in addition to physical recovery.
  8. Foam rollers might improve recovery, get one.

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Nate Dunn, M.S.
Data Driven Athlete
@ddacoaching

References

1.  Barnett, A., Using Recovery Modalities between Training Sessions in Elite Athletes. Sports Medicine, 2012. 36(9): p. 781-796.
2.  Poppendieck, W., et al., Massage and Performance Recovery: A Meta-Analytical Review. Sports Med, 2016. 46(2): p. 183-204.
3.  Weerapong, P., P.A. Hume, and G.S. Kolt, The mechanisms of massage and effects on performance, muscle recovery and injury prevention. Sports Med, 2005. 35(3): p. 235-56.
4.  Babault, N., et al., Does electrical stimulation enhance post-exercise performance recovery? Eur J Appl Physiol, 2011. 111(10): p. 2501-7.
5.  Tessitore, A., et al., Effectiveness of active versus passive recovery strategies after futsal games. J Strength Cond Res, 2008. 22(5): p. 1402-12.
6.  Malone, J.K., C. Blake, and B.M. Caulfield, Neuromuscular electrical stimulation during recovery from exercise: a systematic review. J Strength Cond Res, 2014. 28(9): p. 2478-506.
7.  Chan, V., R. Duffield, and M. Watsford, The effects of compression garments on performance of prolonged manual-labour exercise and recovery. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab, 2016. 41(2): p. 125-32.
8.  Abbie E. Smith-Ryan, P., CSCS*D, CISSN Jose Antonio, PhD, FNSCA, FISSN, CSCS, Sports Nutrition & Performance Enhancing Supplements. 2013, Ronkonkoma, NY: Linus Learning. 404.
9.  Flakoll, P.J., et al., Postexercise protein supplementation improves health and muscle soreness during basic military training in marine recruits. Journal of Applied Physiology, 2004. 96(3): p. 951-956.
10.  Fullagar, H.H., et al., Sleep and Athletic Performance: The Effects of Sleep Loss on Exercise Performance, and Physiological and Cognitive Responses to Exercise. Sports Med, 2014.
11.  Prather, A.A., et al., Behaviorally Assessed Sleep and Susceptibility to the Common Cold. Sleep, 2015. 38(9): p. 1353-9.
12.  Marcora, S.M., W. Staiano, and V. Manning, Mental fatigue impairs physical performance in humans. J Appl Physiol (1985), 2009. 106(3): p. 857-64.
13.  Minett, G.M. and R. Duffield, Is recovery driven by central or peripheral factors? A role for the brain in recovery following intermittent-sprint exercise. Front Physiol, 2014. 5: p. 24.
14.  Rattray, B., et al., Is it time to turn our attention toward central mechanisms for post-exertional recovery strategies and performance? Front Physiol, 2015. 6: p. 79.
15.  Cheatham, S.W., et al., The effects of self-myofacial release using a foam roll or roller massager on joint range of motion, muscle recovery, and performance: a systematic review. Int J Sports Phys Ther, 2015. 10(6): p. 827-38.
16.  MacDonald, G.Z., et al., Foam Rolling as a Recovery Tool Following an Intense Bout of Physical Activity. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2013: p. 1.

Written by Nate Dunn, M.S.

Nate’s entire career has been spent in education and coaching. As a former teacher and now Founder/Head Coach at Data Driven Athlete, he is most excited about helping clients discover more about themselves as they achieve their goals on the bike.