I remember asking the now retired Brent Bookwalter when he was riding for BikeExchange, how he'd sum up racing the Tour de France. "There are four things you do at the Tour," the American reflected. "Eat, sleep, transfer and race. Three of those are predominantly about recovery."
Ineos Grenadiers' Luke Rowe says the Tour winner is the rider who sleeps the best. For a sport associated with suffering and speed, a Grand Tour winner is seemingly the one who can relax and recuperate the fastest — while his competitors flounder with fatigue. Optimum recovery can be the difference between victory and defeat, which is why WorldTour teams are so meticulous about managing their superhumans. Thankfully, most of these ideas apply to normal humans like us, too.
EVER-DECREASING POWER OUTPUT
Image by Zac Williams/SWPix
This year's Giro d'Italia measured 3,445.6km. The Tour de France 3,349.8 and the final Grand Tour of the season, the Vuelta a España, comes in at 3,280.5. These races are fought over 21 stages and through thousands of metres of vertical elevation. Therefore, to recover and refresh from one day to the next, riders need a flawless recovery strategy. But, let's be clear about this, this strategy does not maintain physiological perfection; it's only to reduce the losses.
In 2017, a group of researchers led by Jose A Rodriguez-Marroyo tested seven Continental riders before and after the Vuelta to see just how much fatigue had affected their performances. The riders performed exercise tests one week before the race and, rather brutally, just one day after the race.
But before digging more into those physiological numbers of the study, let's look at some of the facts and figures from that Vuelta. The race was 3,265 km long, and the stages' average length 155.5 km. That included 2% of time trials, 46% flat, and 52% mountain terrain. The overall kilometres per week spent in the mountains went from 340 in week one to 525 in week two and 645 in week three. Finally, the riders were riding from sea level to a maximum altitude of 2,257 metres. In short, it had been a brute.The peloton at the 2021 Vuelta. Photo: Getty Images.
But how tough that race truly was, it became clear only upon an analysis of the results after the race was over. For example, participants' average VO2max dropped 9% from 81.8ml/kg/min to 74.4. Their functional threshold power plummeted 10.3% from 437.8W to 391.5W. And their maximum heart rate dipped by 6.7%, from 191 to 179 bpm.
Overall, the seven riders endured a 10% physiological drop due to several possible reasons: difficulty in maintaining high muscle glycogen levels, a decrease in catecholamine sensitivity (exhaustion of the neuroendocrine system), a reduction of the heart's cardiac output, and muscle damage — especially in the last two weeks.
CHOOSE YOUR PARENTS WISELY
Who could cope the best with these monstrous demands on the body? "Cyclists with more efficient adaptation mechanisms might be more able to sustain considerably higher exercise intensities for longer periods and/or have less body stress," the researchers concluded. Here, we're talking about the cream of the WorldTour crop rather than Conti riders, particularly the likes of two-time Tour winner Tadej Pogačar.
Pogačar and Vingegaard head to head at the 2022 Tour de France (James Startt)
Pogačar's VO2max has been reported at 89.4ml/min/kg. That's immense but comparable to many of his contemporaries, including Egan Bernal. The Slovenian has an edge, though, and that's another physiological parameter that doesn't garner headlines like VO2max, but it's equally essential to increase recovery: lactate clearance.
"I've never seen anyone with Tadej's capacity to clear out lactate," explained UAE Team Emirates head coach Iñigo San Millan. "It's truly remarkable." This fact is paramount. Lactate is the by-product of burning glucose to generate energy. As the intensity rises, so does lactate production, alongside the release of hydrogen ions that lower the blood's pH. This acidic muscular bath is linked to a decreased muscle contractile capacity and a drop in power. And this is usually every rider's worst nightmare. But not the Slovenian's. "Lactate is also a fuel, so firstly you try and recycle it in your mitochondria [the cell's powerhouses]," San Millan explains. "These are mostly present in the slow-twitch muscle fibres. This is efficiency. Riders like Tadej have a huge mitochondrial function."
This efficiency means Pogačar shows an incredible trait of riding at a high intensity without draining precious glycogen. "The elites have around 500g of glycogen stored in their body, which is needed for real hard efforts," says San Millan. "What we see with Pogačar is that he continues to burn fat, even during intense efforts. That not only saves his fast-twitch fibres for the end but also prevents him from falling into a catabolic state." That's also crucial, because — as a GT rider — if you start eating your own muscle, you're doomed.
MANAGE YOUR POWER OUTPUTMathieu Van Der Poel wearing the maillot jaune at the 2021 Tour de France. (Getty Images)
So, the first feather in a rider's recovery cap is genetics. That's pre-determined, so there's little you can take from that apart from admiring Mr. and Mrs. Pogačar's genes. Instead, your recovery programme should start with managing your power output. Over to Ciaran O'Grady, performance coach at Israel-Premier Tech.
"Our 4iii power meters give us the ability to capture how demanding each stage is. And that allows us to effectively manage the riders' tasks and support their recovery" he says. Over 21 stages, that's key as, for example, on one day a domestique might be required to spend much of the day driving on the front, while on another, they can 'enjoy' a relatively low workload in the peloton. "We have a wide range of rider types in a stage race, from climbers to sprinters, so on any given day there could be a large variance in energy expenditure and power outputs generated by each rider. This means nutrition and recovery can be individualised effectively using our analytic software."
This is something the recreational rider should capitalise on, as there are several tools and apps on the market designed to manage the recovery process. If you have a power meter, like those from SRM or Stages, invest in a proven piece of software like Training Peaks. For little more than a tenner each month, you're given access to a range of online analysis tools that will help you to manage fatigue and peak at the right time. The software's Training Stress Score (TSS) is a handy metric to gauge how hard or not you should train after your ride.
Other metrics like blood glucose levels are also becoming increasingly popular among professionals and amateurs alike.
Heart-rate variability (HRV) is another popular metric used by WorldTour teams, while tools like those from Omegawave measure variations in the beat-to-beat timing of the heart to reflect the body's level of stress. Greater variations between beats are associated with parasympathetic activity (rest and recovery); while a reduction in the variations between beats is associated with sympathetic activity (fight or flight). If a rider wakes up and the HRV score is low, that could mean they're neurologically fatigued. So their role could change for the day.
Like with every other technology, the more time you spend with it, the more helpful it becomes. But consider these tools as a part of the picture, and not the whole one. "We complement power-meter data with subjective feedback from the rider to determine tactics," says O'Grady. "We also monitor perception of effort, mood, stress and other subjective feelings as this can sometimes tell us more than the numbers." The take-home message? Complementing the numbers with your feelings is the most powerful training tool you’ve got.
REFUEL, REHYDRATE, REPAIR
The other most powerful training tool is fuelling. "The nutritional side of recovery can be broken down into refuelling, rehydrating and repairing/reconditioning muscles," explains Ineos Grenadiers' lead performance nutritionist Javier Gonzalez. "To accelerate refuelling, we provide riders with rapidly digested carbohydrates as soon as possible after the stage. If it's a key stage for recovery, like between mountain stages, we'd also include some fructose [fruit sugar]. This is because most carbohydrates are mainly taken up by the muscles to replenish their glycogen stores. However, fructose is preferentially taken up by the liver to replenish liver glycogen stores, in essence increasing the amount of glycogen you'll have access to." Ineos Grenadiers' nutrition partner is British outfit Science In Sport, so they'll use products from their range. But every team has different support and ways to approach nutrition.
"For rehydration, when riders are significantly dehydrated, we provide them with an individual rehydration plan to ensure they drink enough fluid before the next stage. We'll also include electrolytes (sodium), which help the body hold on to the fluid that's been drunk and so better maintain hydration," says Gonzalez.
Every WorldTour rider will be weighed in their respective team bus before and after a stage. And there's often a set of scales located in the team's hotel corridor for another late weigh-in, too. Urine charts are also common and are based on urine colors: brown means very dehydrated, lighter colour means more hydrated. It's also not unheard of for teams to use urine-specific gravity tests. As the name suggests, this measures the specific gravity of your urine by measuring the kidney's ability to balance water content and excrete waste. These are more accurate than simple colour charts but more cumbersome.
Dries Devenyns rehydrates after a hot stage two at the 2019 Tour Down Under. Photo: Zac Williams/SWpix.
"Finally, for muscle reconditioning, we provide high-quality protein, containing all the essential amino acids, in the form of either whey protein from a shake or low-fat yoghurt soon after the stage finishes," adds Gonzalez. "The riders will then enjoy more high-quality protein in their post-race meal and dinner."
The post-race fuelling can also be something like chicken and rice spooned from a Tupperware when riders transition on the bus to the hotel. Later on, they will still have a proper dinner, where carbohydrates and protein will again be the focus alongside antioxidants from colourful salad and vegetables and good fats from nuts and fish.
Timing is essential because of the so-called window of recovery. Enzymes and transporters are up-regulated [increase in the number of receptors on target cells] after exercise, which means there's an increased glycogen and protein synthesis rate. So if you miss out on consuming the proper nutrition in the first 2 hours after a hard ride, you only take up 50% of what's possible to refuel. And in the long run, it might take 40+ hours to recover instead of 24.
It's essential to have a recovery snack shortly after every session, and it's best to consume some carbs and proteins in the first two hours after the ride
"But this must be quality protein," explains Asker Jeukendrup, head of nutrition and sports scientist at Jumbo-Visma. "The effect of protein builds up over time, so it's very important to get this right via quality ingredients over time rather than just on the day."
DEVIL IN THE DETAIL
Whether you'll dig down to the level of detail of Jumbo-Visma remains to be seen. The Dutch team is renowned for measuring everything, from ratios of ingredients to plate size. And this can cause a headache for the nutritional staff. "It depends on the rider's role, the rider's physiology, the actual power output and the various intensity zones (higher intensity will require more carbohydrate)," says Jeukendrup. "The weather can play a role, too. Riding at 300W in hot conditions is not the same as riding 300W in cold conditions."
What's more accessible for the recreational rider is adding something tart to your recovery larder. "Cherry juice and similar products that contain anthocyanins have been claimed to help with muscle soreness and there's some evidence behind those claims," says Jeukendrup. "So it could possibly help, especially in a Grand Tour."
"Ultimately, though, when it comes to nutrition, it's about the detail," Jeukendrup continues. "Most riders get it roughly right most days, especially the first week when the gastro-intestinal tract works just fine and fatigue doesn't affect appetite too much. This is very different in the third week where the normal natural signals to keep the body in balance are disturbed. Riders are less hungry when they need more and more food, and they are less hungry when they need less. This is where the level of detail comes into play. Accurately balancing intake over a three-week period has little or no effect over the first few days but, in the final week, things start to add up. Don't get it right every day and you'll start to pay the price.”
Though you may not be a Grand Tour rider, this does hammer home the need to keep on top of your nutrition most of the time. At the same time, you're not a monk either, so aiming for the 80:20 idea where you eat well for 80% of the time and treat yourself 20% of the time is a sound place to start.
MASSAGE AND COMPRESS
A post-ride massage is maybe ambitious (and expensive) if you're an amateur rider, but once a month could be a good starting point. (Photo: Allan McKenzie/SWpix)
So, our GrandTour rider's recovery state has been assessed, and they've fuelled optimally. What's next? It's time to squeeze out the toxins."Between each stage, riders will usually have a massage plus physical treatment, such as a visit to the osteopath or chiropractor," says O'Grady. "These practitioners may use ultrasound therapy to aid recovery, as well as Spidertech taping. The riders also have access to the Hyperice Normatechboots, which provide pulsing compression to the riders' legs, allowing them to start their recovery in the bus on the way to the hotel after the stage. Riders might also use the Hyperice Hypervolt, a mobile massage gun, to get their legs ready for the massage treatment at the hotel."
A daily massage for the recreational rider's a tad ambitious, if not mightily costly. But once a month is an excellent start to iron out knots and ease tight muscles. Massage guns are proving increasingly popular, though ask your masseuse to show you how to use one properly. And you can replace those boots with a pair of compression socks. Though the evidence is equivocal, many riders anecdotally swear by compression socks.
The idea is that a sock with greater pressure at the ankle than the calves will act as an extra heart, accelerating the venous return of blood from the lower limbs. In other words, they send the free radicals in the blood back to the heart faster, which accelerates their breakdown and oxygenates the blood at double speed. Some cyclists swear by compression socks, but the science behind it is still equivocal. Photo: Paul Seiser / www.photosport.nz/SWpix.
The fit of these socks is vital, as the benefits of compression require eliciting enough pressure, but also not too much. In tech-talk, research has shown that femoral blood flow increases to 138% of the norm when the garment has ratings of 18mmHg at the ankles and 8mmHg at the calves.
SLEEP YOUR WAY TO THE TOP
Finally, we should go back to the beginning and Rowe's assertion that the Tour winner is the rider who sleeps the best. Why sleep is so important is down to various mental and physical processes that occur at night. The result is improved glucose metabolism, better cognitive performance and appetite regulation, and a happier mood. You also release bucketloads of growth hormone when sleeping, which helps muscle repair.
"Good sleep is one of the most fundamental aspects of effective recovery, so the sleep hygiene of the riders during racing and training is extremely important," says O'Grady. "We work with Italian company Manifattura Falomo, who provide high-quality mattresses and pillows in order to ensure that riders sleep on consistent surfaces every time they move hotels. It's not easy to ensure that beds at race hotels are good quality, so making sure the riders are sleeping comfortably and effectively is a big boost for their recovery."A good mattress is among the best investments you can do to improve your recovery, but sometimes even a stretch of road would do... (Photo: Alex Broadway/ASO/SWpix)
Suppose you're happy with your current mattress. Further sleep-improvement tips include no caffeine after 2pm, not eating within two hours of bedtime, banishing phones from your bedroom, and using sheets instead of a big duvet as it's easier to regulate temperature. The importance of good quality and quantity of sleep on cycling performance can't be understated. Yes, one or two bad nights aren't such an issue. But studies have shown that you begin to see decreases in power output, reaction time, and decision-making after four or five nights of poor sleep.
So there you have it — your perfect recovery programme. The ideas utilised by GrandTour riders apply to all roadies and don't require a support team packed with the world's best exercise physiologists. All you need is the thirst to improve and know that your adaptations and your improvements happen once you dismount the bike. Let that sink in, and you'll be on your way to, if not the Parisian podium, at least your own peak performance.