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  Last updated: 10/11/2012

Post Ride Recovery and Your Training Program

Ask a cyclist about their training program and you will hear about mileage, intervals, and nutritional secrets. Only recently has post ride recovery made it onto the list of priorities. Yet successful cyclists know that preparation for the next ride begins even as the current one is being completed.


A cyclist may experience 4 distinct types of fatigue.

A regular rider needs to routinely assess his or her level of post ride fatigue, trying to walk the fine line separating post exercise fatigue (necessary if one is pushing themself) and overtraining (which can only hinder future performance). Although it may seem paradoxical, structured rest is a key component of all training programs and may actually be one of the toughest training choices you'll have to make. To minimize the risk of overtraining, you should include at least one and occasionally two rest days per week along with a day of easy spinning.

Over reaching is a normal part of the training cycle. It may require several extra (and unplanned) recovery days. But if you find that your performance is not improving with several extra recovery days, it's time to take a break from riding and switch to alternative aerobic activities (at 70% maximum heart rate to maintain your cardiovascular fitness). To push ahead is to risk a level of overtraining which may require a month or two off the bike to recover.


Carbohydrates are the primary energy source for all cyclists who push themselves, while fats are more important in slower, endurance events. Protein is not an energy source, but maintains and repairs cells and tissue.

The "bonk" occurs when the body's stores of carbohydrate (glycogen in the liver and muscles) is depleted and the exercising muscle shifts to fat metabolism as its primary source of energy. Occasionally overtraining may be the result of failing to adequately replace the muscle glycogen depleted as a result of daily training with the onset of what might be considered a chronic bonk type situation - or at least bonking much earlier in a ride than usual. this is particularly a risk at the elite athlete level where there may be multiple training sessions (or competitions) per day, and limited time to eat.

To minimize the risk of early bonking and chronic glycogen depletion as a possible cause of overtraining, it is important to maximize your body glycogen stores by using dietary carbohydrates to your advantage before, during, and after a ride:

For the pre ride period, the traditional carbohydrate loading program (which traditionally includes a carbohydrate depletion phase for several days followed by forcing carbohydrates for the 3 days immediately prior to the event)to maximize glycogen stores is not essential. A high carbohydrate diet alone (without a preceding carbohydrate depletion phase) will provide 90% of the benefits of the full program while avoiding the digestive turmoil that can occur during the carbohydrate depletion phase. {NOTE: Although any increase in glycogen stores WILL increase the DURATION of exercise to fatigue, they WILL NOT increase MAXIMUM PERFORMANCE (VO2max)}

Maximizing carbohydrate replacement while riding is important for events of more than 2 hours. At least 1 to 2 grams of carbohydrate per minute can be absorbed and metabolized to supplement pre ride body glycogen stores. This additional carbohydrate fuel will prolong the time to the bonk. In extreme events such as the Tour de France, as much as 50% of the daily energy expenditures can be provided by supplements taken while on the bike.

Finally, take advantage of the glycogen repletion window that is open in the 4 hours immediately following vigorous exercise. During this time, any carbohydrates you eat will be converted into muscle glycogen at 3 times the normal rate - and some data suggests there is a 50% fall in this super charged repletion rate by 2 hours with a return to a normal repletion rate by 4 hours. (Ivy JL et al,J Appl Physiol 1988 Apr;64(4):1480-5). The slowing rate of glycogen storage occurs even when plasma glucose and insulin levels remain elevated with oral supplements. It has been suggested that the initial elevated replacement rate is insulin independent, while the slowing at 4 hours is a shift to the normal insulin supported muscle cell absorption rate.

After this initial 4 hours, muscle glycogen stores are replenished at a rate of approximately 5% per hour. And while it may require up to 48 hours for complete muscle glycogen replacement following a 2 hour ride, for all practical purposes glycogen stores are almost completely rebuilt in the first 24 hours post event. But for the athlete who is on a daily training schedule, or is in a multiday event, the glycogen window can be used to get a jump on the normal repletion process and minimize the chance of gradually developing chronic glycogen depletion (and the fatigue that goes along with it).

But getting to the bottom line, a study, done in cyclist, looked at the ultimate test - performance itself. This study did demonstrate an improvement in a time trial run, done the same day (not 24 hours later) with a post event CHO-Protein supplement versus CHO alone. What can we take away from these studies?

Does it make a difference how one eats their Calories in the 24 hour post exercise period? Burke LM et al could not show a difference in postexercise glycogen storage over 24 h when a high-carbohydrate diet was eaten as multiple small snacks or as large meals. However there did appear to be some advantage of eating carbohydrates with a high glycemic index.

So what does all this mean? Aim to drink or eat 3 grams of carbohydrate per kg of body weight over the four hours after exercise - but use some common sense in spreading it over the full four hours - at most 1.0 gm of carbohydrate per kg body weight per hour (at 4 Calories per gram, this would be approximately 200 Calories per hour for the average rider). If you have trouble eating after exercising, a recovery drink that contains complex carbohydrate will maximize the Caloric density of the drink and help you get in the carbohydrate Calories. And if you can't find those liquid carbs at the end of the ride? Don't worry, you will catch up on your muscle glycogen repletion by eating a high carbohydrate diet over the next 24 hours. In other words, these tips on the 4 hour post exercise replacement interval may be of practical significance only to those who are competing with multiple events in a single day OR are riding a stage race with daily rides of multiple hours each.

And it doesn't have to be pure carbs either. Burke LM et al (J Appl Physiol 1995 Jun;78(6):2187-92) decided to investigate whether the addition of fat and protein to carbohydrate feedings in the 24 hour post exercise period affects muscle glycogen storage. Eight well-trained triathletes undertook an exercise trial (2 h at 75% peak O2 consumption, followed by four 30-s sprints) on three occasions, each 1 wk apart. For 24 h after each trial, the subjects rested and were assigned to the following diets in randomized order: control(C) diet (CHO = 7g/kg/day), added fat and protein (FP) diet (C diet + 1.6 g/kg/day fat + 1.2 g/kg/day protein), and matched-energy diet [C diet + 4.8g/kg/day additional CHO (Polycose) to match the additional energy in the FP diet]. Meals were eaten at t = 0, 4, 8, and 21 h of recovery. There were no differences between trials in muscle glycogen storage over 24 h in equal Caloric diets of carbohydrate alone (approx 10 grams of CHO per kg body wt per 24 hours (sic)) vs. CHO/Pro/fat. (C 85.8, FP 80.5, matched-energy, 87.9 mmol/kg wet wt).


Question: "I am a 33 year old avid cyclist and local racer who trains from 1 to 1.5 hours a day during the week and 4 to 5 hours on the weekends. I am a fairly strong Cat 4 rider that wants to move up to Cat 3, and wanted to get some feedback on whether or not I should pursue a protein/carbohydrate recovery drink mix like Endurox R4/Accelerade to help aid recovery and restore my glycogen levels. I'm sure you're aware of the claims being made by the various supplement manufacturers of how it can increase performance but I wanted to get your take on it." --TD

Answer: After a ride it is important to replace muscle glycogen. You can calculate the exact amount by calculating the Calories you used in the event/ride (see below) so you don't over do and begin to add weight. It is best to take the replacement carbohydrates early (first 30 minutes), and as simple sugar (glucose) which is rapidly absorbed (Coke is great).

A little protein may help, but my bias is that 90% of the benefit is in eating CHO of any sort early after the ride and protein adds only a few extra %. Personally I'd just drink a bit more Coke and let it go at that.

The issue really comes down to whether the cost of those special drinks (with a bit of protein) are justified and the answer is that it depends on the amount of free cash you have. Your success as a competitor will almost certainly rest on an overall sound training and eating program, not on the presence of protein in a post ride drink. And remember, there is always chocolate milk as an option!


Estimating your Caloric replacement needs is always a challenge. And as


you will see the results reflected in the bathroom scales.

Regular physical exercise will help to protect your muscles (at the expense of fat) during periods of negative Caloric balance so you will not lose significant muscle mass even if you underestimate your Calorie needs. However, if you overshoot on the Calorie replacement, and especially if you have been exercising at a slow pace (which will preferentially burn fat Calories while maintaining muscle glycogen stores), any post ride carbohydrate loading may find muscle glycogen stores already "filled" and any additional carbohydrate Calories will be converted directly into fat.


Eat a high carbohydrate diet(60 to 70% carbohydrate, low in fat), the diet that is best for endurance performance . Do weight training to maintain upper body muscle mass. And keep an eye on the bathroom scale to determine if you have estimated replacement needs correctly. With a regular exercise program, a modest weight gain should be in muscle mass and any weight loss from fat.


Although water does not provide Caloric energy, adequate hydration is at least as important to good athletic performance as the food you eat. One of the biggest mistakes of many competitive athletes is failing to replace fluid losses associated with exercise. This is especially the case in cycling as rapid skin evaporation decreases the sense of perspiring and imparts a false sense of only minimal fluid loss when sweat production and loss through the lungs can easily exceed 2 quarts per hour. For a successful ride, it is essential that you start off adequately hydrated, begin fluid replacement early, and drink regularly during the ride. In fact, a South African report on two groups of cyclists, one consciously rehydrating, the other no, exercising at 90% of their maximum demonstrated a measurable difference in physical performance as early as 15 minutes into the study.

Total body fluid losses during exercise lead to a diminished plasma volume (the fluid actually circulating within the blood vessels) as well as a lowered muscle water content. As fluid loss progresses, there is a direct effect on physiologic function and athletic performance. An unreplaced water loss equal to 2% of base line body weight will impact heat regulation, at 3% there is a measurable effect on muscle cell contraction times, and when fluid loss reaches 4% of body weight there is a measurable 5% to 10% drop in performance. In addition, one study demonstrated that this performance effect can persist for 4 hours after rehydration takes place - emphasizing the need to anticipate and regularly replace fluid losses. Maintaining plasma volume is one of the hidden keys to optimal physical performance. So make it a point to weigh yourself both before and after the ride - most of your weight loss will be fluid, and 2 pounds is equal to 1 quart. A drop of a pound or two won't impair performance, but a greater drop indicates the need to reassess your on the bike program. And use the post ride period to begin replacement of any excess losses. If you do so, you will be well rewarded the next time out.

But as a word of warning to those who practice the philosophy of "if a little is good, a lot is better", there are also risks with overcorrecting the water losses of exercise. There have been reports of hyponatremia (low blood sodium concentration) with seizures in marathon runners who have over replaced sweat losses (salt and water) with pure water. And this risk increases for longer events more than 5 hours). Weighing yourself regularly on long rides will help you tailor YOUR OWN PERSONAL replacement program. A weight gain of more that 1 or 2 pounds will indicate that you are overcorrecting your water losses and may be placing yourself at risk for this unusual metabolic condition.


Question: I am a fairly strong Cat 4 rider that wants to move up to Cat 3 and wanted to get some feedback on whether or not I should pursue a protein/carbohydrate recovery drink mix like Endurox R4/Accelerade to help aid recovery and restore my glycogen levels. Up until this point I've just tried to maintain a balanced diet but as with most Americans, don't always get the best-balanced nutrition after a ride. I'm sure you're aware of the claims being made by the various supplement manufacturers of how it can increase performance but I wanted to get your take on it. I've also found a great website, nutritional that I think might help me choose the diet best suited for a recovery meal.- TD

Answer: After a ride it is important to replace muscle glycogen. You can calculate the amount by calculating the Calories you expended in the event/training ride (this is important to avoid over doing and gaining weight). It is best to take the carbohydrates early (first 30 minutes after the ride) and as a free CHO (which is more rapidly absorbed - Coke is great).

There is literature that suggests a little protein may help absorb and replenish muscle glycogen, but my bias is that 90% of solution is to take CHO of any sort early, and protein adds only a few additional %. Personally I'd just drink a bit more soda and let it go at that. The issue is really whether the cost of those special supplement drinks (with a bit of protein) are justified. And the answer is "It depends" on the amount of free cash you have. Your success as a competitor will almost certainly rest on an overall sound training and eating program, not on the presence of protein in a post ride drink.

Question:I thought I saw on your site somewhere a recipie for making your own recovery drinks? I cant find it anywhere. Thanks for all your efforts.

Answer:I regularly receive questions as to the "best" recovery drink. There is a lot of folklore and annecdotal experience floating around, and recovery drinks are a big business. In 2007 sports drinks sales in the USA alone accounted for more than $1.5 billion. With so much money at stake in the sale of supplements it's hard to get solid information on what is optimal and what is just marketing hyperbole.

Research shows us that post-exercise nutrition can improve the quality and the rate of recovery after a bout of serious exercise. Signs of poor recovery include fatigue, poor workouts, and perhaps prolonged muscle soreness. Nutrition ingested right after working out, and up to two hours later can drastically improve one's recovery time.

The following are what I feel are supported by the facts:

  1. Liquids are usually better tolerated than solid food after a workout. Liquid also has the advantage of replenishing fluid lost during exercise, and is digested and absorbed more rapidly than solid food.
  2. Two hours is the magic period where carbohydrates eaten are preferentially processed into glycogen.
  3. First priority - replacing internal glycogen stores you have utilized. Any carbohydrate works but simple carbohydrates may have a slight edge. Coke is my favorite. (And remember that if you are rigorous about taking nutrition while cycling, the amount of post exercise replacement will be less.)
  4. There is evidence that a small amount of protein may help in recovery so I use low fat chocolate milk if I can find it. Is protein a big deal? It may lead to a small improvement in your next days exercise (and is measurable in the lab) but is probably of limited ifany benefit for one eating a normal diet.
  5. Second priority - replacing fluids. Dehydration is a risk with any strenuous activity and will increase your feeling of post exercise fatigue and perhaps muscle soreness.
  6. Electrolytes are generally replaced with a normal diet. There is no harm in using a drink that contains electrolytes and “micronutrients” but also no evidence they are helpful. When I am exercising regularly I cover my bases with a daily multivitamin and a stress tab (B plus C) every morning.
  7. Antioxidants are unproven - but popular in commercial drinks.

Bottom line - take that daily multivitamin, eat something with carbohydrates immediately after the ride, and drink an extra glass of water or two.

I decided to see what I could find in a quick look on Google and here is a summary:

Questions on content or suggestions to improve this page are appreciated.

Cycling Performance Tips
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