What's Cool In Road Cycling

Toolbox: Recovering From Roubaix

Tornado Tommeke left a real path of destruction through Northern France this past Sunday. Whether first or last to the velodrome, the pounding of the cobbles are simply relentless. What are some ideas in how to recover from such a beating, and is cold water immersion effective in aiding muscle recovery?

Springtime in Roubaix
Thanks to the wonderful world that is science, I’m currently in Holland working with my colleagues on some cold injury projects. And if you’re in Europe on the second Sunday in April, there’s no place to be but in the middle of nowhere in northern France to see Paris-Roubaix. We dropped into Lille and rode the final 30 km of the course on Saturday, containing the last six sectors of cobbles including Cysoing (4 stars), Camphin-en-Pevele (4), and big bad Carrefour de l’Arbre (5 stars), which was the decisive sector this year in both the Flecha and Hushovd crash.

What an experience riding on the cobbles! There really is no comparison I can think of. Not like a technical section in cross. Not like riding your road bike on gravel roads. Perhaps the only possible comparison is a fast bumpy off-road downhill, but done with skinny-tired road bikes with no suspension. Besides the fear factor, the pounding on your body is incredible, like the All-Blacks just decided to use you for rugby tackling practice. My hands are beat up and blistered; my shoulder, arms, and especially lower back ache. Going out on a ride today, I could feel my neck and shoulders aching still from the beating they took.

After any smack-down like that, whether in training or in racing, the importance of recovery cannot be overstated. Simply put, too many athletes train too hard and recover too little, ultimately steering themselves towards the hazy world of overtraining and sub-optimal performance. The emphasis thus becomes on the efficacy of various recovery modalities.

Polar Bear Swimming
One mode of recovery that has gained great popularity in the world of team sports like soccer is cold water immersion, whereupon the athlete sits in a tub of cold to near-freezing water for brief periods of time. Sometimes, this repeatedly alternates with warm water baths. The general theory behind such a recovery method is that the cold water acts like an ice pack, reducing swelling and inflammation following hard exercise and muscle damage. Warm baths may then help speed up blood flow and accelerate recovery. Such an intervention is especially useful with reducing muscle trauma (Exercise Induced Muscle Damage of EIMD) resulting from eccentric muscle contractions (e.g. plyometric drop jumps, running), where the force of impact exceeds that from muscle contraction, producing structural damage to the muscles. Sounds exactly like Roubaix to me! Such damage can also occur with any large increase in training volume or intensity.

Of course, the body is wonderful in that it can adapt fairly rapidly to almost any load that you place on it. So after the first few days of hobbling around, the next similar bout of exercise doesn’t cause the same aches and pains anymore. This “repeated bout effect” or RBE is commonly ascribed to the muscles and connective tissues building themselves up to become stronger to resist further damage.

The exact nature of how the muscles recover and repair remain unclear, and may involve inflammation being required in order to elicit protein synthesis. Therefore, with a more cellular and mechanistic approach to sport science comes the question: would decreasing the amount of initial inflammatory response to EIMD decrease the rate of subsequent adaptation by not providing the same stimulus of stress to the muscles? And overall, might this relief of pain actually bring lower long-term training benefit?

Howatson et al. 2009
Despite the seeming logic of cold and/or contrast baths and their popularity, there have really been almost no well-designed and controlled scientific studies on their efficacy in reducing EIMD and enhancing overall muscular adaptations. This has led to the use of such regimens due to anecdotal evidence rather than solid scientific evidence. A recent study by a UK research group in the European Journal of Applied Physiology seeks to remedy this gap in knowledge. Howatson et al. 2009 sought to compare the use of cold water immersion (CWI) with no recovery mode on responses to two bouts of damaging exercise. Some key aspects of the research design:

Sixteen recreationally active subjects with no recent experience with plyometric exercise, and who abstained from nutritional supplements and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) like ibuprofen.

Subjects performed a severe workout consisting of 5×20 maximal intensity drop jumps from a 0.6 m height, a protocol that has previously been demonstrated to cause significant muscle damage.

Subjects were then randomly assigned to either a CWI group, where they were immersed up to the waist (iliac crest) in 15oC water for 12 min. This occurred immediately after the workout, and at 24, 48, and 72 h following. The control group remained seated for 12 min each timepoint, but otherwise received no specific recovery manipulation. Measures (see below) were taken upon each visit to the lab.

Subjects returned to the lab 14-21 days later to repeat the drop jump bout. Measures were taken before this second bout and at 24 h increments for 96 h. No treatments occurred after the second drop jump bout.

The experimenters measured various measures of inflammation, muscle range of motion, and muscle strength. These included creatine kinase, a blood marker of muscle damage, thigh circumference to determine swelling, subjective sensation of soreness, range of motion for knee flexion, and maximal voluntary contraction force of the quadriceps.

That Hurts, Now What?
Any of us who has suffered EIMD knows that delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is nasty in that you wake up the next day sore, with nothing to look forward to typically except that you’re going to be even more sore the next day. For me, the record was in 2005 when I stupidly accepted an invitation to hike up and down the 2,900 m Triglav peak in my favourite European country of Slovenia in a single 13 h day in 2005. The DOMS, much to my horror and the amusement of my colleagues, got worse every single day for six days following that bit of insanity before even beginning to ease up.

So it comes as no surprise in this study that all measured variables of muscle damage, except for range of motion, worsened over time for both groups after both drop jump bouts, peaking at about 48 h and then gradually improving.

Other findings:
In large part, no differences were found between the two treatment groups in terms of responses to both bouts of plyometric exercise.

Maximal voluntary force decreased equally after both exercise bouts in both the control and CWI groups.

After the first exercise bout, maximal voluntary force recovered only to about 93-96% after 96 h. Following the second exercise bout, force recovered to baseline levels by 96 h, suggesting that adaptation and RBE did occur. The same pattern of responses was reported with subjective sensations of soreness.

In contrast, creatine kinase, range of motion, and thigh circumference did not see any improved response following the second exercise bout.

So What About Those Paves Then?
It’s hard to break down tradition, but in this case the popular idea of cold water baths enhancing recovery appears to be exactly that – an old “trainers” tale that’s become entrenched in many locker rooms. It’s hard to beat the blunt writing of Howatson et al. when they write:

“Perhaps most importantly, there were no differences in condition in the repeated bout, indicating that the adaptation process was not affected following a repeated CWI regime of this nature.”

I found this study generally well-designed and executed, and I appreciated that it systematically put a popular training methodology under the microscope. What it says to me is that cold water immersion as a therapy may not be all that it’s built up to be, and that we need to look elsewhere to find an optimal active recovery modality for cyclists. Over the course of this year, I’ll go through the latest research on other methods of active recovery.

Personally, I took comfort in celebrating riding a bit of Roubaix Saturday evening with a fine meal and drink with good friends!

Have fun and ride safe!

Howatson, G., S. Goodall, and K.A. van Someren. The influence of cold water immersions on adaptation following a single bout of damaging exercise. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 105:615-621.

About Stephen:
Stephen Cheung is a Canada Research Chair at Brock University, with a research specialization in the effects of thermal stress on human physiology and performance. He can be reached for comments at [email protected] .

Like PEZ? Why not subscribe to our weekly newsletter to receive updates and reminders on what's cool in road cycling?

Comments are closed.