Most experts agree, what you do (or more precisely, ingest) in the 30 minutes after a hard bike ride goes a long way in determining how well your body will recover. But what's the best way to bounce back and be ready for your next big ride?
RoadBikeReview posed this question to three experts in the field of endurance nutrition: Osmo's Dr. Stacy Sims, Skratch Labs founder Dr. Allen Lim, and Infinit Nutrition president Michael Folan. They all agree that getting protein in right away is critical, but how you do that can be a matter of personal preference.
[Editor's Note: To learn more about out expert panelists and their companies, check out part 1 of our Meet Your (Drink) Maker series.]
Skratch Labs' Lim, who's written a pair of cookbooks and spent extensive time working with WorldTour teams and athletes, believes that the ubiquitous recovery drink mixes on the market (including offerings from Osmo and Infinit) are taking advantage of a common misnomer that easy equals correct.
"My approach, whether it's working with pro athletes or amateurs, is after a hard ride get some real food right away," said Lim. "I understand that recovery drinks have been designed to allow athletes to refuel in situations where they can't find real food, but I think convenience has been misinterpreted as this is what you should have after exercise all the time."
Lim claims that most of the athletes he works with only use recovery drinks when there is nothing else available. "I really encourage people to eat real food after exercise," he added. "That's why we don't make a recovery drink. I have worked with some pretty elite cyclists and have rarely seen them drink recovery drinks. What they want is real food, so until I can make a recovery drink that tastes as good as chicken fried race or a gourmet pizza, I'll stick with the chicken fried rice."
Osmo's Sims offers a similar viewpoint, but doesn't completely write-off the usefulness of powdered post-ride elixirs. "If you can get something that is real and has a good hit of protein within 30 minutes then do it," she said. "I'm all about real food. But in a lot of situations, it can be hard to find that good source of protein in that short time frame after stepping off your bike. You have that 30-minute window where you really want to shut down cortisol production, which is the stress hormone that causes things to break down so you can fuel yourself while you are riding. Once you're off the bike you want to stop that cortisol as quick as possible. So getting that immediate hit of protein helps shut that down and starts the recovery process and that's why we offer a recovery product."
So what if finding real food isn't an issue and, just for the sake of conversation, you could order any kind of meal?
"Mexican is a great option," said Sims. "You could get chicken or beef with veggies in a tortilla. That way you are getting a good source of protein and some carbohydrates."
Sims is also a big fan of Greek yogurt. "It's a great recovery food. It has fat, protein, potassium," she said. "A fresh salad with quinoa and a little salmon or tilapia, plus some nuts and some fruit is another great option. There's protein, plus fluids from the veggies and fruit, and a little fat and carbs."
While not against real food, Infinit's Folan likes the ease of recovery drinks. "For me personally, I'd rather drink something after a long ride because it goes down easier," he explained. "But bottom line is that whatever you do, make sure you are getting a big slug of protein and carbohydrates as quick as you can."
Folan also points to what he calls some "interesting science" coming out of the body building industry. "They are looking at blending proteins - whey, soy, casein. By doing a 25 percent whey, 50 percent casein, 25 percent soy, you get a longer duration recovery time that has benefits the next day. Bottom line, do whatever works best for you. Even chugging a coke is better than nothing. Just make sure you do something in those first 30 minutes."
Along with getting protein pumping into your body, Lim stresses the importance of cooling down after a hard effort. "Take a shower, clean yourself up, and try to cool down your body temperature," he suggested. "Cooling the body down is one of first steps to starting the recovery process especially on hot days. When body temperature is high, it stays catabolic and continues to be in that mode of exercise. You need to bring it back to normal to start the process of rebuilding."
Sims echoes Lim's cool-down strategy, adding that compression is also useful, be it with one of the many compression garments on the market, or with a compression device such as the RecoveryPump System RecoveryBoots.
She also says it's important to add in another hit of protein about two hours after a hard ride, and then again before going to bed. "That keeps muscle synthesis going, and helps the immune system and total overall body repair so you can do multiple hard efforts day after day."
Sims suggested options for that bedtime snack include a mug of hot chocolate made with 1% or non-fat cows milk, or if you are sensitive to chocolate or sugar, try Greek yogurt and a couple of berries, or a couple slices of turkey meat.
Alternatively, Infint makes a product specifically for bedtime called :NOCTURNE. Among its ingredients are 15 grams of protein and tryptophan (the amino acid most commonly associated with turkey) which helps the body produce serotonin, a chemical that acts as a calming agent in the brain.
Whatever you do before bed, make sure you get there and stay there for a while, adds Lim. "Ultimately the recovery process is all about resting," he said. "Whether you're a pro or just a regular Joe, one of the most common mistakes is not sleeping enough. That means at least 8 hours. I can't tell you how many times I've seen athletes who started training less and sleeping more and immediately improved their performance. That is why I always say to people, 'Don't plan to train hard unless you can sleep hard.' And if you know that you wont be able to get good sleep, back off on your training."
Editor's Note: Check back soon for final installment of this three-part series where our panelists explain how they would test one product against another and what they think of the endurance nutrition industry as a whole.