We all see the PROs using new recovery tools, techniques & gadgets, but do they really work? In this episode, we take a look at what the pro’s use, what are the Semi-Pro alternatives and should you use them?
Hacking PRO Recovery Tools, Techniques & Gadgets
Specifically, what do the pro’s use, what are the Semi-Pro alternatives and should you use them?
I have to admit, my post-race/ride routine was pretty poor. So I wanted to do an exercise and look into if I was starting from scratch what would I do. I also thought it would be a good time to run through what the pros are currently doing and see if we can incorporate any of that technology into the format. We are aiming here to get a full recovery day-everyday.
Cycling at its core can be broken down into three components, training, resting (recovery) and refuelling. In its simplest form, recovery is just time, much like sobering up. The only effective way to get waste out of your body is by waiting, and unaided the body takes 12-24 hours to flush out all the junk from a hard day on the bike, or the bottle.
PROs rest and sleep, a lot. Can you afford as much time? I’m going to assume you don’t, cause I know I never had time when I was training 20 hours a week with all my other commitments, like a job. So what can we do about it? Well, we see the coverage year after year of teams using new ways of recovering, and no I’m not talking about blood transfusions. OUCH! I’m talking about tools, techniques and gadgets that are used to speed up the process. For PROs it’s important in stage races to recover quickly, but we can take these same ideas and apply them to our own lives to recover under tight schedules with competing priorities.
Let’s get into the fun stuff then, and let me first say there is so much bullshit floating around the internet when it comes to this stuff. Everyone seems to have a load of marketing spin. I want to break it down and look at what we’re actually trying to do in recovery and then how to hack the process without blowing cash on useless products. All the devices I’m going to mention are trying to speed up the process, but which are proven to work and which ones aren’t?
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of trying one then it may sound somewhat familiar. Is the 8 or 9 minutes of cold water submersion or ice baths worth it?
Falling under the broad medical term Cryotherapy, ice baths are said to aid recovery by reducing inflammation, speeding recovery, and decreasing muscle pain and soreness, amongst other things. The main study I looked at, and the only one that I could find with cyclists as the subjects were Vaile, J.; Halson, S.; Gill, N.; & Dawson, B’s Effect of Hydrotherapy on Recovery from Fatigue. Int’l J. Sports Medicine (July 2008).
It found cold water immersion and contrast therapy may actually help recovery from short maximal efforts, or during successive efforts of high-intensity riding such as stage races. The subjects completed a week of intense daily workouts and after each workout, they used one of four different recovery methods. Between each week of workouts, they took nine days off.
The four recovery methods include:
- Immersion in a 15 C (59 degrees F) pool for 14 minutes;
- Immersion in 38 C (100.4 degrees F) water for 14 minutes;
- Alternating between cool and hot water every minute for 14 minutes;
- 14 minutes of complete rest.
The study reported that the cyclists performed better in a sprint and time trial after cool water immersion and contrast water therapy, but their performance declined with both hot water baths and complete rest. Encouraging results, but not really conclusive. It all sounds like a lot of unnecessary pain to me, even the pros that are using it aren’t totally convinced. So are there less confronting alternatives? Ag2r has been seen lugging around and using a “cryo-sauna“ this year. The “cryo-sauna” is a high-tech cryotherapy machine that uses a similar idea regarding using the cold to do the same things as ice baths, at what cost though?
Companies like the one Eric Rapture is the CEO of have started creating these devices for athlete recovery. They a lot more complex than ice baths, which apart from the fancy temp controlled ones are just a kiddie pool filled with ice water. Not many Semi-Pros will have access to one of these though. By the way, this machine costs $50,000 and was responsible for a nasty freezer burn on the side of an NBA player’s right foot at a Nike campus. The bottom line is that there is some evidence that ice baths can reduce muscle soreness, at least when compared to doing nothing or hot showers alone, but it is not clear whether they are more effective than other treatments like compression garments.
In the Australian study, I just referred to I quickly skipped over contrast therapy cause I want to mention it now. It’s a time wise and cost attainable solution if you want to incorporate hydrotherapy into your recovery routine.
I first heard about contrast therapy at an Australian Institute of Sports training camp in the late 90s. So it’s been around and continues to be an alternative. In big facilities like the AIS where they have dedicated plunge pools, it’s easier to muster up the courage to get in. When I was in Turkey earlier this year most big hotels have the same set-up. No doubt for the tingly feeling you after swapping between a sauna and a plunge pool, or just cause it was unisex? It’s hard to replicate at home or in a small hotel on the road. Let’s have a look at what it is before we look for at home solutions.
Contrast therapy is basically just subjecting the body to a temperature deviation as large as possible by alternating between hot and cold water. This debate is going on regarding whether to have a hot shower after ice baths or not. There are also studies that cannot draw conclusions on its usefulness in recovery. I’m not getting into that, I will say though that I have used a quick shower version of this for years. Mainly after hard or hot rides where my core temp is higher than normal. Note if you really want to wimp out, use a detachable shower head on your legs only. Here’s a rundown.
Contrasting should follow the following basic pattern: three to six alternations between heating and cooling. More is probably getting to be a waste of time. Less than three is probably not worth bothering with either.
2 minutes of heating: comfortably hot
1 minute of cooling: cool, not cold
2 minutes of heating: hotter!
1 minute of cooling: colder!
2 minutes of heating: hot as you can handle
1 minute of cooling: cold you can handle
Make sure you finish with cold water. You should usually finish a contrast session with cold water, particularly if you suspect that you might be a little inflamed. Never finish with heat if you’re concerned about aggravating inflammation. You might choose to finish with heat if your priority is to have a more relaxing experience.
This is purely from my experience but I find the sensation after getting out of the shower enough to convince me that it’s doing something. So my recommendation is to give it a try, and since you’re going to be showering anyway, it won’t hurt. Yeah right!
I’m bringing up compression garments here even though I’m assuming that you have a formed opinion on them. They’ve been around since, who knows, and by now you either own a pair or you don’t. I don’t, except for the compression socks I use for running and flying (on aeroplanes). This field is where the marketing bullshit radar really goes haywire. Just for some fun, I wrote this press release:
Compression Crock: Using a dynamic gradient strategic pressure flow compression and high grade elastomeric yarns to squeeze tighter. The superior grade circular knit structure with bioAcceleration technology permanently bonds hydrophilic molecules to mid-weight and heavyweight synthetic fiber surfaces. While enhanced procipitation uses accelerated moisture transport and modular protection zones that are treated with antimicrobial agents and body molded panel technology to let you recover faster.
There is even a product that combines compression and ice – Blitz 110%. This is all besides the point though. I know PROs use compression gear, so is there scientific evidence that they work? The evidence is still quite weak when looking at making you ride faster; however, there is some evidence that they help you recover after a hard workout. A study called the Positive effect of lower body compression garments on subsequent 40-km cycling time trial performance has some intriguing results.
The study consisted of fourteen trained cyclists that did a 40-km time trial, there average was 66 minutes. In recovery they were given either a pair of full-length graduated compression tights or an ordinary pair of spandex tights, which they wore continuously for the next 24 hours, removing them only to shower. Then they did another 40-km time trial, to see which group had recovered better. A week later, they did two more 40-km time trials using whichever pair of tights they hadn’t used the week before. The results are as follows:
Overall, the cyclists finished the second time trial 1.2% faster if they’d worn graduated compression leggings for the 24-hour recovery period, which is pretty significant. The researchers aren’t clear why this happened, they didn’t see a clear difference in how much oxygen the cyclists used, or in their perceived exertion. One theory they suggest is that enhanced blood flow helped restock the glycogen stores in the cyclists’ leg muscles a little more quickly.
Now, this is just not the be all and end all of the compression garment studies. Using two types of tights is a clever way of tricking a subjects’ mind because for a long time I have thought that if nothing else compression garments could help put your mind at ease. To think that you are doing everything possible, even when you are sleeping or travelling by plane, is a big advantage regardless of what any studies say. So whether the subjects were actually told that the purpose of the study was to compare two different types of compression legging could make a difference to how I feel about the study. It would be interesting to know whether it was obvious to the subjects that the compression garment was more “real” than the plain legging, but the study doesn’t tell us how much they guessed.
The bottom line is there is still no overwhelming proof that compression garments speed up the recovery process. This one again comes down to personal choice. My advice doesn’t waste your money!
Active recovery is when you are actually doing something, like coffee shop rides, but did you know you can also be sitting down and doing active recovery? Introducing the Recovery pump – compression legging things. It more like a massage with a masseuse. From its website:
Replicating the action of the muscle pumps in the legs, Active Compression temporarily increases circulation and venous blood flow during use, reduces swelling from inadequate venous flow, massages all of the muscles in feet, ankles, calves, thighs, all of the lower extremities and much more! Treat to reduce aches and pains caused by fatigue – nothing is left untouched, from the surface to the deep tissue, from the toes to the hip.
At $1000 bucks for the entire set-up, I’m not sure they are worth it.
The use of electrostimulation or EMS, which is the little machine that sends electrical pulses into the muscle is a form of recovery used widely. Apparently, it does give you that extra bit of recovery. It can act like a massage in that it stimulates the blood flow and creates a pumping effect. Electronic muscle stimulators can help to induce a relaxation state and also break down adhesions that may exist between muscle fibres. You have to own a machine for it. I’m not sure about this one, it seems a little like the same type of product that was sold in infomercials as an alternative to exercise. Have anyone experienced this one? Please let me know, for now, there is no way for me to recommend them. It seems like more marketing spin to me, for $849 they can keep it.
Ice baths – No
Contrast therapy – Try them in the shower
Compression garments – No
Muscle Stimulation – No
Basically just return to the classics because it seems like anything the PROs use is just marketing or hype with nothing to back the goods up. They may be on the edge, but I will let them keep trying these new tys until science or strong popular opinion makes me looks twice.
Here’s how one PRO team recovers after a stage of the Tour.
Rehydration – 3.5L
1. 120 cal/1.5 L sports drink
2. 400 cal/1 L 40g protein drink
3. 400 cal/1 L sugar vitamin C solution
White rice with eggs and potatoes, scrambled eggs, fruit.
1. Showers straight away to stop infection. (You could do hydrotherapy here).
2. Massage, physio, doctor, chiropractor.
Like we discussed last week, sleep, sleep and more sleep.
Tech, Hacks & Products Section
This week’s hack is how to not ride hills to do well on hills. We all know that smashing out hills is a great way to get an intense workout. In fa, t it’s my preferred way because I don’t have to use metal effort to stay in my training zone. But what if you live in a flat area? Listen to local weather reports and note the direction the wind, then ride into it! A strong head wind can simulate hill climbing, you need to push hard into the wind using a big gear for at least six minutes and no longer than 45 minutes once or twice a week to get the aerobic benefits of climbing big hills and you also get the tail wind all the way home.
A headwind not only simulates climbing it will build mental toughness because we all know that riding into a headwind sucks. I work under the theory that if everything you do is hard, when it comes time to step up or step down, it will be easy. An example is training on McDonalds and Coke then switching to whole foods on the week of a big race…just kidding!