Back to Basics

Back to Basics: warming-down and recovery

Pav Bryan
Mar 04, 2021
10 min read
Training

Cycling recovery

Cooling down - we're all guilty of letting this one slide more often than we should. It's easy to think that we can cool down by falling onto the sofa and having a cup of tea, especially after a long ride. But recovery is so much more than that.

Why cooling-down is so important

While there might be a number of reasons why athletes spend time cooling-down (also known as warming-down), the number one aim is to aid recovery.

Consider that your next session performance is directly affected by what you do between the end of your last session and the start of the next. Every decision might be considered as having a positive or negative affect on your recovery, and thus your performance during your next session.

Here are some reasons to make sure you've cooled-down adequately:

  • Aid recovery
  • Reduce injury risk
  • Improve subjective measures post-training (particularly after high intensity training)
  • You might feel better after cooling-down from training
  • You might sleep better
  • You might be less energised and alert
  • Gives time to reflect on training
  • Record notes in training diary
  • Meditate

Pav’s 10 minute cool-down routine

This super simple cool-down routine is easy to adapt and individualise. We aren't even going to worry about power during this short ‘effort’.

After you’ve finished your main set, simply reduce resistance and allow your legs to spin freely, we are then going to progressively decrease your cadence - from a rate you consider slightly faster than normal - to a more calmer relaxed pace. If you comfortably ride around at 90 RPM your cool-down might look like this:

Pav's cycling warm-down routine

If at any point during this cool-down you start to feel like you are trying to slow down your leg speed, rather than relaxing, you should continue at that comfortable leg speed until the end.

You might consider watching your heart rate and ensuring you see a steady decrease to an almost pre-workout rate. This might not always happen, but if you see your heart rate not dropping much at all, you can relax a bit more in your cool-down, or extend it past 10 minutes. If your heart rate drops really quickly and you feel like you’ve returned to a pre-workout condition, then you can stop the cool-down early.

While not included in the above protocol, I would recommend you spending 5-10 minutes after getting off the bike doing some stretching, foam rolling, or percussion tool recovery.

Why develop a cool-down specific to you

Much like creating your very own personalised warm-up routine, we often recommend athletes spend some time experimenting with different cool-down techniques.

Thankfully, a cool-down routine tends to be a little simpler to develop and more consistent amongst athletes. Definitely start with this simple 10-minute routine and make subtle changes, each time noting what you did and how you felt after, until you have something that is perfect for you.

Asides from the on-the-bike routine, you might also consider other tactics to improve your recovery speed. Stretching, foam rolling, massage, and other factors might all help you be in better shape for your next session, and with better shape, comes better performance. You might experience quicker recovery from any one of these elements, so tracking it all will be crucial.

Once you have found something that works, be sure to test it repeatedly to rule out any one-off benefits or other factors. There are so many other influences of recovery (sleep, nutrition, stress, hydration, and so on) that it might be hard at first to identify what is helping and what is hindering. Time is your friend on this and, while we want to be close, perfection might not be the ultimate end goal.

Finally, once you have something that works, you might want to adjust your routine to suit the type of session you’ve just completed. A gentle recovery ride needs no cool-down, but an intense zone 5 session does. Play with how you recover from different types of sessions to ensure you give your body the best chance of adapting.

How to transition your indoor cool-down to outdoors

Forgetting to warm-up for an outdoors ride might not be as easy to do as forgetting to cool-down from an outdoor ride. Maybe it’s neither and you just can’t wait to get cleaned up and eat! Either way, it is just as important to cool-down for outside rides as it is inside.

Unfortunately, much like warming-up outside, you might have issues getting the best routine sorted. Factors such as terrain might influence how hard you ride before finishing. For this reason, some people might find it far easier to cool-down on an indoor trainer post-outside ride. It might sound silly, but if it helps you reach your goals, it might be worth trying.

Why cooling down from zone 2 (and lower) is important, but less so

Some might question the purpose of cooling down from something that might not be contributing that much stress, for example, you often might finish a workout in around zone 2 or less anyway - if it’s good enough to finish one session, would we really need to do much else?

Well, perhaps yes, and it involves looking at the bigger picture.

Ending an easy ride with some mindfulness around your recovery, will prompt you to give your body that extra little boost. It might be a very minute of benefit, but these marginal gains all add up!

Consider why you might do a recovery ride in the first place. We aren’t introducing more training stress, we are looking to aid recovery. This small ten minute window at the end of your session is exactly that. A little helping hand to your body as we look towards the next session.

Here are some other tips to aid recovery:

  • Rehydrate straight away and consider electrolytes (especially if you ever see salt deposits on your clothing)
  • Have a stretch or use a foam roller, or other recovery tool
  • If possible, a salt bath will be of benefit
  • Again, if possible, nap - if that’s not possible, consider getting off your feet and elevating your legs

Why cooling down from zone 3 and 4 is important

We know why cooling-down from training is important, but there’s an added benefit to being cooled-down from training that isn’t quite high intensity, but isn’t low neither!

It’s common to feel a little tired after training, but you might also be experiencing jadedness, lethargy, low mood, possibly nauseas, and from training at this intensity, hungry. Don’t worry, this will pass, and with the help in this short guide, you will be feeling amazing again in no time.

The biggest challenge, around recovering from training at upper endurance (typically zones 3 and 4), is around how your body has fuelled the effort itself. At this intensity, given the likelihood that you have done longer intervals (if you have just started they may be short, but they will progress in duration fast!), you may have made a dent in your body’s supply of glycogen, even if you have adapted your body to be very efficient at burning fat as a fuel.

To give you a rough estimation of the duration to refill those glycogen stores. If you were to deplete them, say a 90 minute sustained, yet all out effort, it might take around 2 days to get back to pre-workout levels of glycogen stores.

While this session may not have depleted them entirely, we might want your levels high enough to attempt another session in a few days. As you start to add sessions together, and factor in day-to-day life, you can see that it would be in your best interest to refuel as quickly as possible.

Of course, there are a number of other factors that will aid recovery, but making eating your priority, might be the best way to ensure you’re ready for the next session.

Here are some other tips to aid recovery:

  • Rehydrate straight away and consider electrolytes (especially if you ever see salt deposits on your clothing)
  • Have a stretch or use a foam roller, or other recovery tool
  • If possible, a salt bath will be of benefit
  • Again, if possible, nap - if that’s not possible, consider getting off your feet and elevating your legs

Why cooling-down from zone 5 (and higher) is crucial

We know why cooling-down from training is important, but there’s an added benefit to being cooled-down from high intensity interval training.

Due to the more intense nature of this training, it is critical to your recovery to spend a little more time cooling-down. The quicker you cool-down, the better you’ll perform during your next session!

Recovering from high intensity training

After you complete your training, you might be feeling incredible. We all know the mental health benefits of exercise. There are sometimes, however, when we have mixed emotions or are even feeling somewhat negative. This is very common and not a problem at all.

It’s normal to feel less than your ‘normal’ self post-training, in reality anything above a simple recovery ride might leave you feeling ‘different’. How athletes experience this will be affected by a number of factors, including how the session went, the intensity, how well they fuelled or hydrated, and many other factors.

It’s common that high intensity training can leave us feeling somewhat jaded, maybe lethargic, sometimes nauseous, or many other challenges. In order to bring yourself back to baseline as quickly as possible, here are my top tips:

  • Rehydrate straight away and consider electrolytes (especially if you ever see salt deposits on your clothing)
  • Have a stretch or use a foam roller, or other recovery tool
  • Eat next. As long as you are eating enough protein throughout the day, don’t worry too much about protein and focus on getting carbohydrates in instead
  • If possible, a salt bath will be of benefit
  • Again, if possible, nap - if that’s not possible, consider getting off your feet and elevating your legs

Stretching

While there is little scientific evidence to suggest that stretching works on a performance or recovery basis, you might consider a stretching routine to improve your mental well being and overall health.

Yoga is a great way to stretch out your body. Consider starting with just ten minutes after each training session, then progress. Keep track of this in your training diary, so you can quantify how you feel.

Foam rolling

Probably one of the most cost-effective tools to improve recovery. While not a replacement for massage, a foam roller can replicate some of the benefits; improving the rate at which your body removes certain toxins caused by training and everyday movements, repairing sore muscles and improving mental fitness.

Salt baths

While there is little evidence that hot baths improve your ability to adapt to riding in the heat, something which was once thought, a relaxing hot salt bath (Epsom salts) might help your body recover quicker.

The magnesium and sulfates in the salts might be absorbed into your skin to help repair your muscles; the hot bath alone might be enough to relieve sore joints and muscles.

Massage

While massage is possibly the most expensive recovery tactics you could employ, and also one of the least readily available (unless you live with a sports therapist!), it can be hugely beneficial to schedule regular visits to see a sports/massage therapist.

A qualified therapist will be able to identify and remedy any issues that are causing you a lack in performance or potential injury risk. You will also get ‘worked’ more by a therapist than you would self-massaging or using other recovery techniques, such as percussion tools.

When choosing a massage therapist, try to find one who specialises in cycling and that will give you the right treatment plan.

The importance of sleep

Arguably the most important factor in your recovery. Aiming for at least 7 hours per night will transform your recovery, mental fitness, and physical performance.

Some top tips to enjoying a good night sleep:

  • Got to bed earlier and at the same time every night
  • Turn off all electronics at least an hour before going to bed
  • Relax before trying to fall asleep; try meditation or reading a book
  • Try to avoid eating too late
  • Use earplugs to dull any noise pollution
  • Use blackout blinds to dull any light pollution

Recovery rides

In a similar way to cooling-down after training, a very easy ride can help you perform better in your next session by aiding your recovery.

Not everyone experiences the same benefits from a recovery ride, and there is a lot of misinformation on what a recovery ride actually is. It’s best to do some testing, getting the structure of a recovery ride correct, and see how you feel. You might find that you benefit greater from full rest or an easy walk instead.

Recovery rides need to be very easy. They might be best described as so slow that old ladies are riding past you on their shopping bikes! With that said, you can imagine it being hard to actually complete a true recovery ride outside; given the nature of terrain, stops and starts, plus many other factors you can’t control.

Recovery rides should be kept inside. You should limit the time you spend during the session, somewhere between 30-60 minutes should be enough, and it should be kept very easy. Cadence might be a little higher than you normally pedal, but you should be feeling no strain on your body, you should be breathing comfortably, and your heart rate will remain relatively low. If you’re not doing this, you’re actually creating more stress, thus training, rather than actually recovering. Remember our golden rule to be recovery focused to ensure that you can perform best in training.

Other recovery techniques

There are many various other recovery tools available to help aid you, such as, percussion tools, compression garments (both traditional and air compressed), plus nutrition.

Percussion tools were evolved from someone sticking a golf ball on the end of a jigsaw, and they work in a similar way to a massage. You can target sore muscle areas, loosening them up, and they will aid in your body flushing out waste toxins. While they have a considerable cost to purchase, they will easily be more affordable than a massage in the long term. The downsides are that they rely on you to target sore muscle areas and put yourself through some discomfort.

Traditional compression garments have been used by athletes for many years. They are essentially very tight garments that compress certain muscle groups, commonly calves, but are available for most muscle groups. They can be very affordable and work by helping the body flush out and replace old cells, toxins and old blood, by increasing blood flow.

Air compressed compression garments, typically legs, work in a similar way to the traditional variety, except they compress with a far greater amount of pressure. Similar to the feeling you get when you take your blood pressure with a sphygmometer, they are a much more intense and effective way of helping the body flush out and replace old cells, toxins and old blood, by increasing blood flow. Often these tools are very expensive, but you can get similar results with a foam roller.

Don't neglect your cool down and recovery routines. They're essential to a well-rounded athlete, preventing injury and keeping you fresh.


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