“That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger." It’s a widely known saying that exemplifies the principle of overload in athletic training. Each practice you challenge your muscles, technique, and your mind to tolerate a little more stress and over a season your body responds by adapting to a higher threshold. We think that working harder makes us stronger, but did you know that your body actually becomes stronger in between your training sessions? During your hard efforts you actually create micro tears in muscle fibers. You stimulate cortisol and a cascade of stress hormones. You diminish your water levels and electrolyte supplies. You empty the tank. It’s time to ask yourself if you are doing everything you can to recover after races and between practices to rebuild and prepare for your next big effort. Here’s a checklist of easy recovery techniques to add to your training habits. Experiment and be consistent with those that resonate with you.
1. Post-race cool down As much as you’d like to lie on the ground and die, within minutes you should be back on the bike for an easy 10-20 minute pedal. The effort should be equivalent to a walk (and a walk will work, too.) The purpose of this is to keep blood from pooling in the legs but it also helps your lymph system do its job of removing waste and fighting infection. If you’ve ever gotten sick after a race, incorporate this pronto.
2. Eat and Drink Your “glycogen window” slowly closes within the 1-2 hours after your workout. The sooner you can refill the muscle tissues with glycogen (high quality carbohydrates), the better. Post race nutrition should supply 2 calories of high nutritionally dense carbohydrates per pound of body weight every hour until your next meal. Incorporate 20-30 grams of complete protein with your carbs for muscle repair and strength adaptation. Wash it down with 16 fl. oz. of water per pound of weight lost during the race. Add in some healthy fat, that which has some Omega-3 content such as walnuts, chia or flax seeds, tuna or salmon, egg yolks. A tunafish sandwich on seedy bread or a bar made with these ingredients would do the trick. Too much math? Figure this out beforehand and have your snacks ready in your bag!
3. Self massage Foam rolling, using the R8 roller (a.k.a. my pet alligator), using tennis balls, using compression socks, cold baths, contrast showers and massage are all versions of blood exchange. We use these to get old, tired and waste-filled blood out of muscles and deliver new nutrient-carrying blood in. Press your thumb into your forearm for a few seconds and release—see how it turns white then pink again? You’re literally pressing blood out and bringing new blood in in order to feed your mitochondria and clean house on a cellular level. Use moderate pressure to foam roll your quads, glutes, hamstrings and upper back/shoulder blade area. If you’re very tender, back off until you can tolerate the pressure as you don’t want to create more inflammation than necessary. Ever put your feet in a cold Colorado stream after a ride? Your feet turn white then bright pink, right? Fill a bath with cold water and dunk as much of your lower body in as you can for two minutes or more to get this same blood exchange. If you’re not quite up to that yet, use the shower head to apply cold water for 20 seconds then warm for 10 seconds for the same 2:00.
4. Hot bath + stretching These two together can make a big difference in your ability to train hard. Over a season, your muscles may develop knots or adhesions and the fascia that surrounds them may begin to tighten. You will find these are the tender areas when you’re using the foam roller (see above). We need our tissues to be stable yet flexible, so do some active stretches after a ride or a hot bath to mobilize those tired tissues. The couch stretch opens up your hip flexors and quads, the Frankenstein stretch for the hamstrings and calves, and the pigeon for the glutes are the basics to start with. (I’ll discuss more of these stretches in a future post.)
5. Sleep It's the big Kahuna of recovery and many of today’s teens do not get sufficient hours of sleep on a regular basis for ideal recovery. For people 13-18 years old, the NIH recommends 8-10 hours of sleep per night, most nights. This is when teens emit the most growth hormone, boosting muscle mass and repairing tissues in the heart and blood vessels. Other hormones are being calibrated during sleep such as insulin, which regulates how your body deals with blood sugar, ghrelin and leptin, which regulate hunger and satiety. Your immune system relies on this time to stay effective. Sleep is a major factor in mood regulation, and newsflash--no one likes a grumpy teen. This is the short list of what happens when you sleep! To maximize your chances of getting these benefits, you must manage your time. Get homework started earlier and dinner eaten a few hours beforehand. Eliminate caffeine late in the day. Log out of Snapchat and all screens emitting blue light an hour before sleep and pull those blinds tight.
Just as you maintain your bike, remember to maintain the highly complex machinery of the body riding the bike! Do you know the saying “Garbage in-garbage out”? Dumping in whatever food, lacking sleep, riding hard and “putting it away wet” will eventually drive you into the ground. If you treat your body as your number one ally in pursuit of your mountain biking goals, it will pay dividends toward those goals. With recovery habits that refill your reservoir, who knows how much you can accomplish!