Cycling Recovery: 7 Things You Need To Be Doing

Just because you’re not a professional cyclist, doesn’t mean you should take cycling recovery seriously! In fact, it might be even MORE important for you to take advantage of every recovery hack you can find.

Professional athletes are often able to do a workout and then rest for the remainder of the day. For us normal folks, we squeeze in a ride in between work meetings, mowing the lawn, and taking the kids to soccer games. If you don’t take your recovery seriously, you’re body isn’t going to be happy and you want make the gains and progress you’re hoping for.

Here are seven things you should be doing after every ride–and especially after hard races, rides, or high volume training weeks. And aside from getting good sleep, most of the them don’t take much time or effort either.

cycling recovery

Cool Down

Remember in P.E. class, how you’d run the mile, and then walk for a while to “cool down”? There’s actual science behind that concept. If you go directly from a hard effort, to nothing, your blood flow drops rapidly. This keeps blood from returning to your muscles to give them adequate nutrients and aid in repair.

When you cool down, you prevent this drop in blood flow. So, make sure to spend the end of every ride doing some easy spinning. You shouldn’t go directly from an interval to hanging the bike up in the garage.

The other part of “cooling down” literally has to do with your body’s temperature. If your core temperature stays elevated after a ride, you prolong your system staying in a stressed state.

If you are still hot at the end of your ride (this is particularly common in the summer), take a moment to hop in a cold shower. It doesn’t have to be an ice bath (though if that’s your thing go for it), it can simply be some cool water to help bring down your core temperature. If you can go for a swim in a pool, lake, or river, that works too!

Refuel

The most critical thing you can do after a ride to help your body recover is to refuel. If you’ve ever done a big, hard ride and waited too long to replenish yourself afterward, you know what I’m talking about. You’ll end up spending the rest of the day feeling weak, tired, and cranky.

What kind of refueling you need to do depends on how long and how hard your ride was. For a casual hour long ride, you don’t need any special refueling effort when you finish your ride. Simply eat a healthy, whole food diet with a good mix of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, and your body will get what it needs.

For longer and harder efforts (for me, this is usually anything over 2 hours), it’s important to refuel right away. You should make refueling a priority any time you finish a ride feeling depleted.

In this case, the timing is critical. You need to have a snack with a mix of protein and carbohydrates within 30 minutes of finishing your ride. Miss that window and you’ve critically impacted your body’s ability to recover.

As women, we want to shoot for 25 to 30 grams of animal protein (or 50 grams of vegetarian protein) within 30 minutes. This should be eaten in tandem with some carbohydrates.

An ideal recovery snack is a smoothie with banana, yogurt, and whey protein. Another good choice is a turkey sandwich.

recovery smoothie

Whether your ride is long and hard or short and easy, your body’s recovery is largely dependent on your day-to-day diet. Following fad or restrictive diets–or on the flip side, eating a diet full of junk food and sugar–will keep you from performing to your full potential.

Female athletes need a diet of real food (think unboxed and unprocessed) with all three macronutrients: carbs, protein, and fat. A diet that restricts any of these, will hurt your athletic performance and recovery. You should aim to get 40% of your calories from carbohydrates, 30% from protein, and the remaining 30% from fat. There are plenty of apps you can use to track your food for a few weeks to see if you’re getting an adequate mix.

Rehydrate

Ideally, you should be drinking enough on the bike that you finish your ride without being dehydrated. However, we know that’s not always the case. You may have forgotten to drink enough on your ride, or it may have been a particularly hot day.

To know if you need to rehydrate after a ride, jump on the scale. For every 1 kilogram lost, you need to drink approximately 1 liter of fluid.

And no, you shouldn’t chug a bunch of water. Slip it slowly over the next several hours until your rehydrated. Once your pee is clear, you’re fine.

Use A Foam Roller

Massage is super helpful for cycling recovery. It aids your muscles by pushing out stagnant fluid, increasing blood flow, and working out any knots.

That said, most of us can’t get daily, weekly, or even monthly massages. (Though if you can, go for it!)

For the rest of us, 10 minutes on a foam roller can provide many of the same benefits of a professional massage, and costs way less! I like to use the foam roller while watching TV or chatting with my family in the evenings.

Use the foam roller on your glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, calves, back, hips and IT band.

Anytime you feel some soreness on the roller, that’s a good sign that the muscle is knotted up and isn’t smooth. That said, you shouldn’t be gasping in pain. If you are, stop rolling. You’re simply stressing an injury further.

Get Plenty Of Sleep

It’s sort of boring, but true–getting a good night of sleep is one of the most important things you can do to help your body recover. The hormones responsible for building muscles increase while you’re asleep, and are critical for repairing and rebuilding.

While you should always aim for 7 to 8 hours of sleep, after hard days or high volume weeks, you may need even more sleep. Many professional athletes sleep for 9 or even 10 hours a night.

If you’re getting plenty of sleep, and still don’t feel recovered, that’s a sign that it’s time to take a break from the bike. Take some recovery days and focus on good nutrition as well.

Elevate Your Legs

This is a super simple and effective cycling recovery technique. Simply lay on your back and place your legs straight up against the wall. Then watch TV, listen to a podcast, or take a nap.

Elevating your legs can help reduce swelling and drain any fluid. You know that heavy feeling you can get in your legs after a hard ride? This will help.

Use Compression Clothing

The science on compression clothing is a bit conflicting, but many cyclists swear by it (myself included). Compression socks or compression tights can help push blood back toward the heart, aiding in recovery.

If I’ve done a hard effort and my legs feel heavy, I’ll wear compression socks for a few hours in the evening, preferably with my legs propped up.

Other Stuff You Can Try

Active recovery

Active recovery (i.e. moving your body) can help get your blood recirculating. The problem is that active recovery needs to be EASY, and many athletes simply don’t know how to do EASY exercise.

Ideal active recovery would be some mellow yoga, or a slow stroll around the block. If you’re overly exerting yourself, you’re not recovering.

Meditation

Stress is stress is stress. Your body doesn’t differentiate between physical stress and mental stress, which means if you’re emotionally taxed, your physical performance will suffer.

Even if you’re taking all the right steps after a ride to recover, if you’re still mentally stressed, your body won’t recover properly. Meditation and other mindfulness activities can make a big difference in helping your body recover.

Compression pumps

Similar to compression clothing, but more expensive, compession pumps are boots with a motor that you zip on to literally pump your leg muscles. This pushes stagnant fluid out of your muscles and drives blood back toward the heart.

When you unzip the boots, re-oxygenated blood rushes back to the muscles with nutrients to help repair damage.

EMS devices

EMS (electrical muscle stimulation devices) are another expensive, but effective way to help your muscles recover. The machines sends a electric impulse to your muscles to cause them to contract, and increases blood flow to the muscle.

I’m Still Not Recovering!

If you’re taking all the steps above, and still not recovering, I hate to break it to you, but you’re overtrained! You’re going to have to back it off and let your body recover.

To avoid overtraining, make sure to take at least 1 day a week completely off. (Walking the dog is okay). This is tough for many of us to do, but essential!

Additionally, you need to alternate hard days with easy ones. You shouldn’t be doing more than 3 hard rides a week, and the rides in between need to truly be easy ones. Train too hard, and you won’t make the progress you’re looking for!

Finally, pay attention to the clues your body is giving you. Do you wake up feeling energized and ready to go? Excellent!

If not, you may need to increase your rest and improve your nutrition. Check your heart rate first thing in the morning (an Oura ring is great for this). If it’s elevated, take the day off.

Similarly, if you are feeling depressed or cranky, that’s another sign that you may need to back off on your training and increase your recovery. You should feel good each day. If you don’t, something isn’t right!

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About The Author

kristen bonkoski

Kristen Bonkoski is the founder and owner of Femme Cyclist.

An avid cyclist for a few decades now, she took to cycling during her late teen years — a time when she needed something to help boost her self-esteem and confidence.

Mission accomplished, the sport has become an important part of her life.  Kristen’s favorite disciplines are mountain biking and bike commuting, although you can also find her cranking out a century on her road bike and touring with her husband and son.  If it has to do with two wheels, she enjoys doing it.

Kristen is a certified USA Cycling coach, and she runs Rascal Rides, a website about biking with kids.

IG: @kristenlbonkoski

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