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  Last updated: 7/4/2015

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 their next ride begins even as the current one is being completed.


Lack of attention to the level of personal fatigue after a ride increases the odds of sliding into overtraining with its impact on future performance. A cyclist may experience one of 4 distinct types of fatigue.

  1. The bonk (fatigue resulting from muscle glycogen depletion) usually develops 1 to 2 hours into a ride. It is a particular risk if one starts a ride without a full tank, so to speak, of muscle glycogen. Carbohydrate supplements (goos and gels) used while riding can extend the riding time as they are used in lieu of internal muscle glycogen stores.
  2. Post ride fatigue is the normal response to several hours of vigorous exercise and indicates we are pushing our training limits. It leads to improved performance the next time out.
  3. Over reaching is the fatigue we feel at the end of a particularly hard week of riding. It is really just a more extreme form of post ride fatigue.

    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.

  4. Over training is the debilitating and often long term (lasting weeks to months) fatigue which limits rather than stimulates improvement in performance.
So the first item on your recovery check list is an assessment of your level of post ride fatigue, trying to walk the fine line separating normal post exercise fatigue expected after a hard workout and necessary for improvement if one is pushing themselves) and overtraining (which will 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 relatively easy spinning.


Carbohydrates (in the form of muscle glycogen) are the primary energy source for all cyclists who push themselves with strenuous workouts and rides, while fats are more important in slower, endurance events. Protein is not an energy source, but is necessary to maintain and repair muscle cells and connective tissue.

The "bonk" occurs when the body's stores of glycogen in the liver and muscles are depleted and the exercising muscle is required to shift to less effective fat metabolism as its primary energy source. Occasionally, after multiple riding days (a week long tour for example) the fatigue of overreaching may result from the failure to adequately replace the muscle glycogen depleted as a result of the daily rides - what might be considered a chronic bonk type situation - or in a less severe form, bonking much earlier in a ride than usual. This type of fatigue is a particular risk at the elite athlete level where there may be multiple training sessions (or competitions) per day, and limited time to eat.

So the second item on the recovery check list is pushing post ride nutrition to minimize the risk of bonking early on your next ride as well as risking chronic glycogen depletion which might be part of the fatigue of overreaching. And as mentioned in the first paragraph, it is important to maximize your body glycogen stores by using dietary carbohydrates to your advantage before, during, as well as after a ride. Ensuring maximal repletion of glycogen on multi day rides starts even before you get on the bike.

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.


A recent article suggested that the emphasis on recovery drinks may be overdone, and fast food could be just as good, and tastier to boot. The study examined the effects of isoenergetic sport supplements (SS) versus fast food (FF) on muscle glycogen recovery and subsequent exercise performance as assessed by a time trial ride. For those interested in more detail, the link Does this mean all prior investigations that have studied the nuances of glycogen replacement erred by studying only glucose (and some glucose/protein combinations)? A few thoughts.

  1. In this study, it notes that Ďeach trial included a 90-minute glycogen depletion ride...Ë But at what intensity? Just enough to deplete muscle glycogen I suspect. But we know that short term high intensity exercise increases the rate of glycogen repletion compared to less intense levels of exertion. " ╔.Several factors differ during post-exercise recovery from short term, high intensity exercise compared with prolonged exercise. The extremely fast rate of muscle glycogen re synthesis following short term, high intensity exercise may originate from these differences. First, peak blood glucose levels range from 6.6 to 8.9 mmol/L during recovery from short term, high intensity exercise. This is markedly higher than the blood glucose values of 2 to 3.4 mmol/L after prolonged exercise. In response to this elevation in plasma glucose levels, insulin levels increase to approximately 60 microU/ml, a 2-fold increase over resting values. Both glucose and insulin regulate glycogen synthase activity, and higher levels of them improve muscle glycogen synthesis. Secondly, high intensity exercise produces high levels of glycolytic intermediates in muscle, as well as high lactate levels ([La]) in muscle and blood. Finally, fast-twitch glycolytic muscle fibers are more heavily used in short term, high intensity exercise. This promotes greater glycogen depletion in the fast-twitch fibers, which have a higher level of glycogen synthase activity than slow-twitch fibers. While the exact contribution of each of these factors is unknown, they may act in combination to stimulate rapid muscle glycogen re synthesis rates."

    And other depletion/repletion studies have specifically included sprints in the depletion ride. " ╔.70 min on a cycle ergometer at 68% VO2max, interrupted by six 2-min intervals at 88% VO2max ..." So the unanswered question (from the abstract) is 90 minutes AT WHAT RIDE INTENSITY?

  2. And the rate of re synthesis in this paper was lower that has been reported in other studies. Current study - "╔.rates of glycogen recovery were not different across the diets (6.9 ▒ 1.7 and 7.9 ▒ 2.4 mmolßkg wet weight- 1ßhr-1 for SS and FF, respectively╔.." How does this compare to rates with other studies that specifically included intense exercise? A bit lower than has been reported. "╔.re synthesis after short term, high intensity exercise (15.1 to 33.6 mmol/kg/h) is much higher than glycogen re synthesis rates following prolonged exercise (approximately 2 mmol/kg/h), even when optimal amounts of oral carbohydrate are supplied (approximately mmol/kg/h)."

My take?

  1. Repletion of muscle glycogen is a key component of any recovery program.
  2. There is more rapid replacement muscle glycogen replacement in the first 2 hours (maybe 4) post exercise.
  3. The intensity of the ride does makes a difference in the subsequent rate (per hour) of glycogen replacement.
So if you are a recreational rider, or doing LSD (long, slow distance) rides, eating french fries for recovery nutrition may be just as helpful as a coke or chocolate milk. To quote from the recent paper: "There was also no difference across the diets for TT performance (34.1 ▒ 1.8 and 34.3 ▒ 1.7 minutes for SS and FF, respectively. These data indicate that short-term food options to initiate glycogen re-synthesis can include dietary options not typically marketed as sports nutrition products such as fast food menu items."

But if you are training intensely, especially if sprints or intervals are part of a daily training program, I'd stick with chocolate milk and other high carbohydrate liquids in the immediate post ride 2 hour period. Then head to McDonald's.


Although water does not provide Caloric energy, adequate hydration is at least as important to good athletic performance as the food you eat. As one of the biggest mistakes of many competitive athletes is failing to replace fluid losses associated with exercise, re-hydration is added as the third item on our recovery checklist. Dehydration is especially a problem 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. And again, just as with carbohydrates, it is essential that you start off adequately hydrated (before), begin fluid replacement early, and drink regularly during the ride (during). And make sure you have rehydrated in the recovery period (after). Although there is controversy as to the effects on performance of developing dehydration while riding, numerous reports suggest that comparisons of two groups of cyclists, one consciously rehydrating, the other not, exercising at 90% of their maximum can demonstrate a measurable difference in physical performance within the first hour of a ride.

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 re-hydration 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 over correcting 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 over correcting 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 recipe 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 anecdotal 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 if any 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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