We have all been there: You smash out that big ride on the weekend and then 24–48 hours later you stiffen up and have incredibly sore legs. While it’s not unusual to be sore after a hard ride, we don’t expect to have the same soreness as runners or weightlifters.
If you have persistent or intense soreness after cycling, it is worth reflecting on whether you are following best practices and seeking help if you don’t see improvement after trying these suggestions.
It is OK to be sore and tired after your big workout of the week or after a hard week of training. We want to overload our body periodically to cause it to adapt to higher loads. Challenges, group rides, and even races can help where training is consistent but missing the occasional big workout.
That said, you want to avoid feeling sore every day and ensure you get back to feeling good weekly and certainly monthly. If you are chronically sore, your body is not functioning at its peak and needs recovery. This reduced performance state means your next workout won’t be executed as intensely or with the proper form. If your intervals are at lower intensity levels than intended, then we risk getting a decreased benefit or even an overall decrease in performance despite working harder. As time goes on, this reduced state increases the risk of injury and illness.
Embrace soreness as an indicator of when you need to take an off-day or do a low-intensity endurance session. For many cyclists simply adding a rest day and several disciplined endurance days (less than 75% of max heart rate or passing the ‘talk-test’) allows the body to recover and get stronger for your next high-intensity day.
How your body feels can be a great guide for what training you should do and how to modify your training plan day-to-day. Many times over the month you could choose to do less volume or intensity or skip a hard workout to allow for a better session in a day or two. This disciplined approach requires you to take a long view of your training instead of a single (epic) day.
If you could do less to get the same benefit would you? Most people would answer yes, but then go out and train harder as their performance decreases. As soreness and fatigue build, we turn to anti-inflammatories, inflatable pants, and perhaps the latest antioxidant supplement to try and train more. Your body gives you these signs and symptoms that you could get faster by recovering more, rather than training more.
But, squashing these signals can reduce the benefits you get from training and risk injury if we then push through pain signals. Many interventions and supplements aimed at reducing soreness or speeding recovery have downsides that reduce health. Anti-inflammatories can affect kidneys, antioxidants can reduce the benefits of training, and most gadgets/supplements have minimal to zero benefits but do have very high costs. Be skeptical of magic pills and focus on consistent training.
To reduce soreness, or at least how often you are sore, your primary defense is to train at your level more often. This sounds simple but it is very hard in practice with epic rides and intense HIIT sessions. Many of your rides should be normal, even unremarkable. Having a long ride, an intense workout and an off day (or two) sprinkled in each week is a great strategy; watch that each ride you do doesn’t become ‘hard’ or the same. This variation allows for adaptation and recovery but also allows you to train more often. Training consistently is very important but commonly overlooked aspect of training that is lost in favor of single epic workouts that require days to weeks to recover from.
Beginning cyclists, especially, need to be cautious about comparing themselves to those who have built up their cycling experience. New cyclists are starting at zero, so even 10–30-minute rides would be acceptable ‘normal’ rides that help raise their level if done consistently. Too often, beginners are taken on their more advanced friends’ rides and then forced to take many days (or weeks!) off the bike because they are so tired and sore.
Eating enough can be hard as your training time and intensity goes up. It makes intuitive sense that having nutrients to fuel your workouts, adequate fuel to finish your workouts, and allowing for post-workout recovery by eating after sets you up to better adapt to workouts. You can often reduce chronic soreness by increasing your food intake before, during and/or after rides.
This is simple to say but often difficult to execute because it can involve eating more than we are accustomed to, learning to eat while riding or trying a different strategy for weight-loss involving more activity and food.
Soreness is your ally on your cycling journey. Learn to use it as a guide to your best training routine and to guide your recovery and fueling practices. By training consistently, and appropriately, you will find this ally is not limiting and tends to appear when you expect it to, after a long, hard ride or training block as you enjoy a relaxing and well-timed recovery week.