Photo: Tim De Waele | (File).

Relax and recover: The art of resting hard

Ice, stretching, NSAIDs — there are a lot of ways to recover, but there's not a lot of hard science about what truly works.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the November 2015 issue of Velo magazine.

The hour after a long ride was once my favorite thing in the world. I’d come home, make myself a giant smoothie, watch a TV show I’d never admit to enjoying, and relax with a good stretch. But in the year I was both a rider and team manager, things had to give. I lost that hour-after routine. I was still able to stretch, but I fit it in while doing other things.

Something strange happened that year. My calves started to cramp, and I struggled to push myself on rides. It became an issue that dogged my entire season and only cleared when I finally found those relaxing hours again. Apparently, I needed more than the stretch.

Athletes use a variety of techniques to aid recovery, including stretching, foam rolling, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), compression clothing, ice baths, and calorie replacement, among many others. It can all add up to a lot of time and money. But it’s an investment we all seem willing to make. Is it worth it?

Many recent scientific reviews, including a 2015 analysis led by Dr. Andrew Peterson, the director of primary care sports medicine at the University of Iowa, found little evidence to support many of these techniques. And that may actually be exaggerating the benefits, according to Peterson, who feels a lot of studies with negative results never get published. “If they did, we’d see even less effect,” he says. Some recovery tools, such as heat and NSAIDs, may even hurt performance.

But before you throw out the foam roller, Peterson warns that the lack of evidence may be a research issue. The only way to truly determine if a recovery tool works is to look at its effect on performance. But there’s no big money in recovery, so it doesn’t command the hefty research budgets. Without expensive population-based studies, direct conclusions about its effects on performance are not so simple. “Improvements in performance are either so subtle that you can’t detect them or they’re frankly not there,” Peterson says.

Instead, we have to rely on indirect markers of recovery. The two most common are lactate clearance and delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Lactate naturally returns to baseline levels within 90 minutes, making it a poor measure of long-term fatigue. And DOMS, which is caused by performing unfamiliar eccentric exercises, isn’t something trained athletes normally encounter. This is especially true with cyclists, since riding a bike is not an eccentric activity. (Eccentric exercises involve lengthening a muscle under load, like lowering a dumbbell during a curl.)

“DOMS doesn’t really happen in cycling,” says Dr. Ben Rattray, an assistant professor at the University of Canberra Research Institute for Sport and Exercise, where he researches sports physiology. “So why treat it?”

Furthermore, a 2014 review out of the Queensland University of Technology found that the time course of recovery from DOMS didn’t match up with the recovery of muscle strength and prior performance levels.

What did match up was EMG activity. There was reduced brain activity during the fatigue stage, indicating a lowered “neural drive” that returned to normal along with the athletes’ strength and performance levels.

One athlete who seems to have found his way to that on his own is Taylor Phinney, who says he focuses “more towards the mental side of recovery” and feels that emotional and psychological rest is more important than any technique. “No one likes ice baths,” Phinney says. “You just went training for a long time and you were just uncomfortable. So why would you make yourself more uncomfortable?”

Still, according to Rattray, we haven’t necessarily gone in the wrong direction with current recovery techniques. “I just think maybe we haven’t thought about all the options,” he says. It may be that research shows few benefits because it has focused solely on peripheral recovery.

In fact, Phinney could be off about the ice baths in some circumstances. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology that tested cyclists who raced in the heat found that cold-water immersion restored Beta activity in the brain, the loss of which has been associated with fatigue. So ice baths, which athletes use to reduce core temperature, might have indeed been helpful all along, just not in the way we thought. If more research began to look at the neural effects of recovery techniques, scientists might discover what’s really going on.

There is one recovery technique with proven peripheral gains: The restoration of muscle glycogen through consumption of simple carbohydrates soon after exercise or competition is indisputable. “For me, a sport like cycling is about restoring energy,” Rattray says. “But what we’ve probably neglected is that the brain uses fuel, as well. Staying motivated is actually a high-fuel task for the brain. Depleting that fuel has been shown to lower a rider’s drive and hasten the time to exhaustion.”

Ironically, the newest side of recovery science may actually take us back to the oldest techniques. “I think a lot of real recovery is about what you eat every day, and the sleep that you’re getting,” Peterson says. As Phinney points out, some people’s recovery process is what is hampering their ability to relax and recover. In other words: If you’re stressing out about recovery, you won’t recover. You may be best advised to take a nap.