Question: I feel like I’ve gotten very contradictory advice about what to do at the end of a training ride. Nutritionists say the top priority is to prepare and eat a meal within 30 minutes, to get carbs and protein into the bloodstream before the glycogen window closes. Physicians advise that the first order of business is to get those shorts off and immediately hit the shower, to reduce any chance of bacterial infection and the resulting saddle sores. Physical therapists assert the importance of doing post-ride stretching exercises as soon as possible, before one’s muscles cool off and tighten up. What my body tells me, however, is to pass out for 20-30 minutes while my heart rate and body temperature return to more moderate levels. All four of these might be important, but realistically you can’t fit more than one or two of them into the first 30 minutes after a ride. What’s the real relative priority (and preferred sequence) of these recovery tasks, and which can be put off for an hour or two? — Ornoth from Boston
Alan Bragman, D.C., Replies: Proper recovery after exercise is crucial for preparing your body for future workouts. Strenuous exercise leaves the body in a state of physiological and immunological depletion, and vulnerable to fatigue, infection and overuse injuries.
After a workout, glycogen synthesis from carbohydrate intake takes place most rapidly within the first hour following exercise. It takes place at a moderate level for the second hour and is still taking place even at up to six hours afterward, though at a greatly reduced level.
There are many companies offering what they consider to be the perfect recovery drink or meal. Joel Stager, an exercise physiologist and director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Indiana University, has another recovery drink to add to the list — chocolate milk. (He’s certainly not the first, nor only, scientist to sing the praises of this childhood elixir. Another recent study by The University of Texas at Austin College of Education’s Department of Kinesiology and Health Education reached the same conclusion.)
Stager studied chocolate milk as a recovery drink on a group of cyclists in his lab. The results were recently published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. The high levels of water, protein and carbohydrate in chocolate milk make it an excellent recovery drink. So after your next ride, try a large glass of low-fat chocolate milk. For those allergic to lactose, several companies sell lactose-free chocolate milk.
Wet riding clothes are a perfect environment and breeding ground for bacteria, fungus and many other assorted little nasties. Following a ride, immediately remove those wet, nasty riding clothes, go take a shower or dry off and change into clean, dry clothing. If you are unable to shower after riding, some people wipe down those sensitive areas with rubbing alcohol or wet wipes to reduce the risk of infection.
Recovery not only involves replenishment of protein and carbohydrate stores, but also involves rest, light exercise, stretching and adequate sleep. Stretching and flexibility exercises following a hard workout are helpful but not always necessary. Many cyclists find that stretching prior to a hard workout is most effective, while others prefer to stretch following the workout. Some riders like me do their longer primary stretching prior to the ride, followed by a short session afterwards. Find a stretching regimen that works for you.
Finally, while recovery and post-ride activities are very important, they can be greatly simplified and shortened. (How long does it take to drink a glass of chocolate milk, after all?) You should be able to develop a good post-ride routine that leaves plenty of time to pass out after hammering for three hours with the pack.
Alan Bragman is a chiropractor living in Atlanta, Georgia. He is a former Cat 3 cyclist and nationally ranked inline speed skater. He was on the medical advisory board at Bicycling magazine for 10 years and has written for other sports publications.