Sports nutrition for optimal muscle recovery, applied to typical long-distance events

by Ed Burke, Ph.D. and John Hughes

John Hughes is a former director of the WUCA, an NSCA certified personal trainer and a USA Cycling coach. Learn about Hughes’ coaching at

See part 1


Long-distance cyclists place great demands on their bodies, by virtue of all the miles in the saddle. And we love it! But it comes with an “ouch factor” – fatigue and muscle soreness. One of the keys to our sport is effective recovery – getting over the ouch – whether we are participating in the WUCA Mileage Challenge, taking a multi-day tour, or riding a randonnée.

In part one of this article, we reviewed nutrition for optimal muscle recovery:

  • Replenishing fluids and replacing electrolytes
  • Replacing muscle glycogen
  • Rebuilding muscle protein
  • Reducing muscle and immune-system stress

In part two, we discuss non-nutritional aids to recovery to:

  • Relieve muscle soreness
  • Promote muscle repair and growth
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Improve circulation
  • Remove waste products

The primary causes of muscle soreness are:

Mechanical damage: When you over-load your muscles, either by significantly increasing the amount you ride or by riding much harder, the result may be microscopic tears in your muscle fibers. Over the next 24 hours after the ride, the muscles may become inflamed. There may be increased blood flow to the muscles to help repair the damage. When you try to move your stiff muscles the next morning – ouch! This article will describe various ways of treating mechanical damage and the resulting ouch factor.

Free-radical damage: As discussed in the first part of this article “free radicals are one of the sources of muscle soreness. A free radical is highly unstable molecule that is short one electron. The harder and longer you exercise, the more you become an ultra generator of free radicals. Free radicals can damage muscle cells and mitochondria and are one of the causes of muscle inflamation and soreness.” (UltraCycling, v. 10, #3, pp. 59-60) Taking antioxidants such as Vitamin C and E can help to reduce post exercise muscle soreness.

The cortisol response: When the body is under stress, the adrenal glands release cortisol to help mobilize energy. When you train hard, cortisol will increase the rate at which protein in the muscles is broken down for energy. Cortisol will also impede the transport of amino acids to the muscles, instead the amino acids will go to the liver to be metabolized for energy. In part one of this article, we recommend eating recommend eating sufficient carbohydrates during and after exercise, which will stimulates the production of insulin and reduce the cortisol response.

Treatment of mechanical damage:
Much of the muscle soreness can be relieved through gentle movement. The day after a hard ride, going for a 60 minute spin, swim or walk, will start to loosen tight muscles and improve the circulation. The healing process can be accelerated by more direct techniques such as massage and stretching.


Dr. Andy Pruitt, director of the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine, recommends that serious cyclists receive massage at least every two weeks. Massage improves the circulation of bodily fluids and prevents blood from pooling in the muscles’ capillaries. The improved circulation enhances the exchange of nutrients and waste products between the muscles and the blood. Massage also reduces swelling and stretches sore muscles.We don’t all have access to (or the budget for) professional massage; however, self-massage is quite practical. Josh Simonds’ excellent how-to article on “Self Massage: On the Road to Recovery” is summarized in Self-Massage below.

If a muscle is injured (rather than just sore), deep massage is not recommend for 48 – 72 hours. The signs of injury include deep muscle trauma, pain, road rash swelling and warmth, and tendinitis.
Self-massage: Begin by sitting on an exercise mat, towel, on the edge of a chair, or on the curb outside a motel room. Have available massage oil, creme, or unscented talcum powder. A good home-made massage lotion is:

  • 8 oz. rubbing alcohol
  • 8 oz. witch hazel
  • a little wintergreen (for warmth)
  • a little olive oil (for body)

Warm-up: Start with one hand on either side of the thigh and make rapid up and down motions, like you are brushing your hands. The purpose is to warm the muscle. Continue until the quadriceps and hamstring feel warm, about a minute. Then move down to the area around the knee and massage for a minute. Then massage the lower leg until it is warm. Repeat on the other leg.

Stretch: After both legs are warm, sit with one knee slightly bent and the muscles relaxed. Grab the quadriceps with both hands, and then move the right hand slightly to the right and the left hand to the left, stretching the muscle. Continue stretching and kneading the quad for a couple of minutes, then the hamstring, then the calf. Repeat on the other leg.

Flush: After stretching, apply massage oil to one quad. Start by stroking gently from the knee to the hip for a couple of minutes. Then stroke in the opposite direction, using more pressure. After the quadriceps, work on the hamstring, and then the calf. Repeat on the other leg.

As we ride, our muscles tighten and then start to hurt. We can alleviate this by stretching before and/or after each ride. Stretching beforehand will start to warm the muscles, improve the circulation, and increase the supply of nutrients to the soon-to-be working muscles. Stretching afterwards helps to remove waste products and to speed the re-fueling of the muscles.

There are several types of stretching. A stretch held passively is called a static stretch and is more effective and safer than ballistic stretching, which uses a bouncing motion. You should stretch slowly and hold a the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds. Remember to breathe. With each exhalation, relax and stretch more fully. Stretching is to increase flexibility. Don’t stretch until it hurts; the pain will cause your muscles to tighten.

If you are pressed for time, stretching for as little as five minutes a day will yield much of the benefit of a longer session. If you can only stretch once, stretch after your workout, when your muscles are warm and more elastic.

Recommended Stretching

These simple stretches, done at a rest stop or after a workout, will loosen you up and relieve the pain.

Overhead: Interweave your fingers, reach overhead and push your palms toward the sky. Stretch and imagine your spine elongating.

Cat: On your hands and knees, slowly arch your back up and roll your head forward and chin down toward chest. Starting with your pelvis, slowly reverse, pushing abdomen toward floor and finally rolling your head back slowly. Repeat three times. You can also arch and lower your back on the bike; a great way to loosen up after climbing.

Back rotation: Sit with your left leg extended on floor. Bend your right leg and place your right foot flat on the floor on the left side of your left knee. Place your right hand on floor behind you, wrap your left arm around your right knee, and rotate your trunk to the right. Repeat to right side. You can also do this with your bike: Stand with both feet on the ground, straddling the bike. Rotate to the right, grab your seat with your right hand and your stem with your left hand. Then reverse.

Quadriceps: Lie on your left side with your left leg slightly bent. Bend your right leg until you can hold your right ankle with your right hand. Keep your pelvis forward and gently pull your foot toward your butt until you feel your quad stretch. Repeat with the other leg.

Hip flexor: Kneel with your left knee on the floor and your right foot flat on the floor in front of your body. (Right knee and hip should be at right angles). Push your pelvis forward and you should feel a nice stretch in the left hip flexor/quadriceps. Repeat with other leg.

Hamstrings: Lying on your back, bend your left knee so that your foot is flat on the floor. Hook a towel over your right foot. Hold on to the ends of the towel and lift your right leg straight up toward the ceiling, keeping the knee joint straight., Use the towel to pull your foot over your head until you feel a gentle stretch in your hamstring. Repeat with other leg.

Gluteals: Lying on your back, bend your left knee so that your foot is flat on the floor. Bend your right knee outward and rest your ankle on your left knee. Grasp your left thigh with both hands and pull it slightly toward your chest. You should feel a stretch in your right gluteal. Repeat with the other leg.

Groin: Sit with your knees bent about 90 degrees and out to the side and the soles of your feet pressed together. Bend forward at the hips (not the lower back) and you’ll feel a stretch in your groin.

Achilles: Stand with your left leg straight and your foot several feet away from a wall. Slowly lean toward the wall to stretch the left Achilles. Repeat with right leg.

Calves: Stand with your left leg bent about 20 degrees at the knee and your foot several feet away from a wall. Slowly lean toward the wall to stretch the soleus muscle. Repeat with right leg.


Gentle exercise, massage, and stretching are all active techniques to warm the muscles and increase the blood flow, which will speed the removal of waste products and the replenishing of nutrients. Applying heat is a passive technique to achieve some of the same benefits. Soaking in a hot bath, sitting in a hot tub or relaxing in a sauna can help relieve tight muscles as well as relaxing you for a good night’s sleep.

If you seek heat, take a water bottle with you; you don’t want to get dehydrated! If you have inflammation (swelling), and not just sore legs, then heat is not recommended. It would increase the blood flow to the legs, rather than reducing swelling.


For inflammation, the most effective treatment is to apply ice to the affected body part for 15-20 minutes. If you apply ice for less time, you won’t chill the area enough to reduce the inflammation. If you apply ice much longer, the body may send blood to the affected area to prevent freezing, which will increase rather than reduce the swelling.

Applying ice can reduce the risk of injury. If you have a history of knee problems, applying ice to your knees after each hard ride can reduce inflammation so that the knees move smoothly during the next ride, rather than grating and causing injury.

If you have an acute injury, Lulu Weschler recommends applying ice up to three times a day: in the morning, in the afternoon (especially right after a ride), and before going to bed. She also suggest that alternating cold (<70 F) and heat (104-106 F) may be effective. For example, you could ice your knees, then soak briefly in the hot tub, and then ice again. Or alternate applying an ice pack and a hot pad. Start and finish with cold; let your body be the guide to the duration of each cycle. (“Care and Repair of the IT Band”, UltraCycling, v. 9 #5, p. 40.)

A physician may also recommend taking a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAISD) such as ibuprofen to reduce inflammation.

How to Ice

The most effective way to ice is to put a bucket of cubes into a wet bath towel. If you wet the towel with hot water, it won’t be such a shock when you apply it to the skin. Fold the towel over the top, so that only one layer of towel is between the ice and the injured part. The wet towel will transmit the cold quickly and chill the injury more effectively than putting ice in a plastic bag.

If you’re going to be icing a lot, then buy something like a Colpack™ which is filled with a slimey looking stuff and is eminently re-usable. Put a wet towel between it and the skin, and ace-wrap it on.

You may also rub a chunk of ice directly on the injured part for 5 – 10 minutes. Water frozen in a paper cup is handy for this. Tear some of the paper away from the ice so that the ice cup looks like an ice cream cone. Hold the cone part to apply the ice.

Elevating the Legs

Another way to reduce inflammation is to elevate the legs, which will help the blood flow back to the core of the body. For example, you could lie on the floor with your calves resting on a couple of gear bags, so that the legs are supported and the knees are not hyper-extended. You can even do this with ice packs applied.

A more aggressive regimen is to do three gentle stretches while elevating the legs. Start by lying on your right side with your buttocks against the wall and your legs extending extended along the wall. Roll over onto your back, keeping your buttocks pressed against the wall and extend your legs up the wall. Hold for about five minutes while gently stretching your hamstrings and gluteals. Bend your knees 90 degrees and roll them outward toward the wall and let the soles of your feet come together. Hold for about five minutes while gently stretching your groin muscles. Finally, straighten your legs and then let each leg fall gently toward the outside, so that your legs form a V. Hold for about five minutes.


We don’t have time to apply all of these techniques after each ride, nor do we need to (unless we just finished RAAM!) But applying these techniques selectively can speed recovery and reduce the ouch factor. Here are some suggestions:

During regular training:

  • Take a few minutes most days to stretch; this will significantly increase your comfort on the bike.
  • After a hard weekend training ride, use gentle massage on your legs to improve the circulation and loosen the knots.
  • After the massage, use ice or contrast ice and heat on any particularly sore areas for 15-20 minutes. If you use contrast, begin and finish with ice. Remember Lulu’s advice: apply heat first – in this case, warming massage- followed by cold.
  • Every week or two, go for (or give yourself) a deep sports massage. You may be sore afterwards, so get massage early in the week.

On a multi-day tour such as PAC Tour or PCT

  • Organize your gear the night before, so that you have a few minutes in the morning to stretch before breakfast.
  • Seize opportunities to stretch on the bike or at rest stops.
  • Instead of sitting in a chair eating chips and chewing the fat at the end of the day, lie with your feet on the chair while snacking.
  • Before dinner stretch for a few minutes, and then after dinner take a short walk ó for ice cream!
  • If you have any particularly sore areas, swap massages with your roommate and then apply ice while watching the Weather Channel.

On a 1200 km randonnée or RAAM

  • Get in the habit of stretching your upper body on the bike.
  • Learn to multi-task: stretch while standing in line for food and ice your knees while eating your pre-sleep snack.
  • If you need to take a power nap, lie down with your feet above your head.
  • If possible, get (or give yourself) a massage just before your sleep break, to speed recovery.
  • Ice any potential problem areas, like the knees, every night. Injured areas can be iced three times a day – the quickest method is to rub a chunk of ice directly on the injury for 5-10 minutes. If you can’t get ice, not to worry: use anything cool, e.g., cold water from a spigot or hose, a cold soda bottle etc.
  • Ice while riding – secure a bag of ice with a knee warmer, elastic bandage, etc.
  • After a sleep break, give yourself (or receive) five minutes of warming massage on each leg.

Achieving your peak performance requires pushing your body hard in training and competition and actively rebuilding energy stores and repairing muscle damage. In the first part of the article, we described how consuming enough water, carbohydrates, protein and electrolytes at the right time can rebuild your energy stores. In this part we review techniques you can use to reduce the “ouch factor” so that you can ride hard – without whining!

More information:

  • Anderson, B. “Stretching”, Shelter Publications, 1980
  • Burke, E., “Optimal Muscle Recovery”, Avery Publishing Group, 1999
  • Meagher, J. “Sports Massage”, Station Hill Press, 1980
  • Simonds, J. “Self Massage: On the Road to Recovery”, UltraCycling, v. 9, #2, pp. 29 – 32