Recover to Perform – Recovery Part 3

Michael Guilford Coaching, library

Mastering your sport or game requires gaining an understanding of the subtleties of competition, in a unique way for you. High-level performers interpret the game in a way which is specific to them.

This article is the last in a series on recovery:

The aim of this article is to give some insights into how recovery can be made rider and discipline specific. In this article, I explain a few of topics from the ones listed below and  give examples.

  • Nutrition
  • Physical therapies
  • Sleep
  • Focus zones & micro recovery
  • Warm up/ cool down routines
  • Mindfulness
  • Reflection techniques
  • Sleep
  • Strength & coordination
  • Meso cycle & micro cycle structures for learning
  • Sleep

“Recovery is the time set aside in between training and/or competition, with the purpose of adapting to stimulus and improving performance”. Recovery interventions should be in line with the stimulus in a way which is both rider & competition specific.


I love Josh Waitkin (The Art of Learning) phrase:  ‘form to leave form’ or ‘numbers to leave numbers’. This means, structure can be used to learn a skill, but in the end result the structure is obsolete.

Example: As an endurance athlete, you learn to tune out some of what your body is saying, the screaming pain of your legs in the last 10s of race. Outside of training, this can lead to not hearing the signals that you are wearing yourself down, or expending unnecessary energy. The best improvements I have seen in athletes that I coach, is the development of an intuitive awareness of when and how they need to recover. However, in most of these cases this comes from a place of starting with a structure, a routine.

How could this work? You could learn a meditation, yoga or tai chi routine, some practice that is focused on listening and getting feedback from your body. Then structure this into your daily schedule, maybe 10mins 3 times a day. Then you can adapt the structure and make it 5mins 6 times a day. As your awareness improves and you feel the benefits of the practice, you will fit the routine in as and when you need it.

Aside from the dire health warnings about how we are a sleep-deprived society due to modern technology, sleep quality and volume underpin recovery. Other people have covered the topic better than me, so I recommend you try the straightforward approach of Nick Littlehales, in his book ‘sleep’.

This is a topic where I think people get overly bogged down in what pro athletes are doing, cryotherapy, hypobaric oxygen, massage, recovery suits…people  cherry-pick exciting sports science studies which highlight the benefits of a new intervention. However, these studies don’t take into account the nuances of a discipline or an individual’s needs.

Work out what your specific needs are for physical recovery and focus on that. Some people are prone to chronic fatigue and illness, others it may be sore muscles and long recovery times, others it maybe mental recovery and reducing stress and anxiety. It’s probably best to start with the interventions that can be repeated regularly with less time/cost. If they are built into a routine they can have a psychological and tactical benefit as well.

My example: My main physical recovery need is muscle imbalance and degrading movement quality. Throughout the season my endurance benchmark benchmarks are fairly consistent and my legs usually don’t feel sore even after stage races, but racing and training feels less fluid. I get niggling and intermittent back, knee and hip pain. So this is how I manage it:

  • End-of-season – get assessment from physio and highlight any particular issues. Check bike fit and make small adjustments.
  • Off-season- replace cycling with  swimming, running & gym training. Swimming and gym training  help to restore muscle imbalances and movement quality and training off-the-bike helps to maintain a basic level of fitness & motivation.
  •  During the off-season I learn a new sport/skill. Last winter I started learning figure skating. The varied technical challenges are stimulating which in turn increase body awareness.
  •  Mid season breaks- I always try to find a point in the season where I don’t race for at least 2 weeks. This can be tricky because I want to keep improving on my previous race result.
  • Throughout the year – I follow a physical exercise routine, given to me by a physio.

I still have plenty of room for improvement, but most interventions will fit into this routine.

The stomach has been termed our ‘second brain’ gut-related symptoms have been linked with anxiety and depression. So it’s worth paying attention to the quality of the food you eat. Here are some of the basics:

  • Eat enough – this is particularly important for younger riders and those looking to get more powerful. The key thing here is to eat enough carbs during endurance training so that you can recover. For long rides (>2hrs) aim to replace the calories you burn, (this is where a power meter can be useful). For a 3-4hr ride, this could be as much as 3000kcal, but some of this can be incorporated into post/pre ride fuelling.
  • Don’t do fad diets- you need carbohydrate, fat & protein, any diet that attempts to exclude any of those things, long-term, probably isn’t going to help your athletic performance or health.
  • Gut health – cut back on sugar, alcohol and processed foods, then look at how you can improve gut health in other ways: soluble fibre, glycaemic index, FODMAP etc.
  • Sleep – think about how your nutrition fits in with sleep. Sugar, alcohol and caffeine are all obvious things to cut out before sleep. Even if you get to sleep OK, the quality of sleep can be affected.

Do you ever find it difficult to switch off in the evening after a race or stressful day at work? Without realising it we can be in an overly ‘switched on’ state a lot of the time. Mindfulness & meditation aims to give you better control of how you interact with your feelings. The result is that you can focus harder when you need to.

Example. If you want to do a 5min hill climb race, but your training consists of 4hr long endurance rides every day, how easy is it going to be to incorporate specific interval training into your schedule? And then how are you going to transition from your 4hr/day endurance training, to the all-out effort required for a 5min hill climb. Similarly, we can train our brains to chug away in a semi-alert state, or we can learn to switch off enabling us to be more alert when needed.

In endurance events like road, cyclocross & MTB you cant be ‘switched-on’ all the time, maintaining the same narrow focus. Instead there will be points where you have to focus intently, and others where you can recover from this focus. There are two ways (among many) of looking at working around this event demand.

Example 1. When I was racing cross-country mountain bike, I worked with a sports psychologist in an attempt to improve my technical consistency. When riding with friends who were faster than me or during the first 10mins of a race, I could maintain the speed without making mistakes. Later on in the race I made more technical errors, particularly during the higher pressure points of the race.

Focus zones categorise specific focus based tasks (such as negotiating a tricky downhill corner) as: narrow vs broad, and internal vs external. By assigning certain tasks to each of these areas you can learn focus on the right goals at the right time.

Learning this technique has helped me to be more resilient to mistakes or problems outside of my control. I once had a puncture rolling down to the start of Crystal Palace crit race, (a dodgy bit of tarmac sliced through my lightweight tyre). I had 5mins to change a tubular tyre. Rather than getting caught up in the external noise of the race getting ready to start, I focused on the process of changing the tyre, and completed it in a record time of 5mins, ready for the start of the race!

Example 2. In order to master road racing, you need to be able to respond to tactical cues at the right time, such as movements and sounds of other riders, as well as your assessment of how hard the race is at any one point. If you are always switched on to all these cues, you might struggle to follow your strategy or you might be overly responsive, your ability to process the race will fade and you can become confused and overwhelmed by emotion.

Observe experienced riders in road races. Those racing ‘above themselves’ physically, relying on tactical nuance rather than brute force.  What I have seen is that these riders make clear transitions between being ‘switched on’ and ‘switched off’. They might shelter mid-pack when the race is tiring (switched-off), up until opportune moments, then they are ‘switched-on’ they attack when it’s not expected and they get away easily. Once they are in a breakaway group they return to ‘switched-off’ mode, saving energy for the final moments of the race.

The riders who I compete with or coach who make rapid progress appear to reflect on performances in a helpful way. If they are disappointed with a race they recognise and face up to what they need to do better.

Reflection is the way in which we process emotionally challenging experiences, we can use the information and feelings from them and create something useful from it. The famous marshmallow study gives one explanation as to why some people are better at this than others. Children with the ability to ‘self-comfort’ tend to be more successful later in life. Reflecting on a negative experience requires this same self-control.

This is how I think people tend to respond to a disappointing performance.

  1. A few second/minutes after the performance they feel negative, maybe overwhelmed with the details of what went wrong or simply berate themselves for not doing better…
  2. …as emotions calm down, they start to put the facts into place & draw a realistic picture of what happened…
  3. … they identify the things they could have done better, and maybe things which were outside of  their control.

Now, this is where people tend to deviate.

  • Some people will face up to the uncomfortable emotions and connect this with what they need to do better. They will assess their current actions/ability with respect to what is required to get a better result. This can be called ‘contrasting’.
  • On the other hand, some people will avoid making this connection because it’s too uncomfortable. They might identify what they need to do better, but they won’t connect it to the emotions from the experience.

Contrasting is a helpful tool for self-motivation, but it contradicts some goal setting psychology which suggests you should be unwaveringly positive, only looking forward to how you want to perform. The reason why I think contrasting is more effective is that it’s very hard to overlook the specifics of what the target level of performance looks like.

When experienced athletes are learning a technical skill (e.g. ice skating, dirt jumping, BMX), they naturally tend towards a routine that allows for recovery. They might practice a new technique with a few seconds recovery in between each try, and then allow a longer recovery period between blocks of 10.

For a complex technique, you need time in between attempts to get back to your comfort zone. Attempting the technique requires imagination/visualisation of how the technique looks/feels, which can make you, feel disconnected or unstable from what you are familiar with. Recovery helps you to return to the posture and movement which helps you to feel grounded.

Example. When I was learning to ride dirt jumps, I needed to recover in between attempts so that I could feel centred and stable on the bike. Without sufficient recovery my take-offs from the first jump in the line would be unstable which makes continuing difficult.

Recovery could be exercises that help you feel grounded. For me learning new ice skating techniques, it was a two-foot slalom, the shift in body weight felt similar to riding a mountain bike which I am confident in.

When learning a new technique, you can use regressions of the technique as recovery. For example if you are learning to jump, a manual has a similar but more stable movement to your take-off movement. So as recovery, you could practice gentle manual movements, focusing on feeling your weight centred on the bike, and feeling the contact points with the bike.

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