The impact of mental stress on cycling recovery

Tired cyclistStress. What is it good for? True, we ride hard to stress, and ultimately strengthen, our muscles. Riding a bike can also help reduce our mental stress. Yet what impact does mental stress have on our recovery after a cycle ride? If we are too stressed is our physical ability impacted and thus the quality of our ride dips?



I’ve written a little in the past about the importance of not overtraining or resting adequately. The basic rules apply. Ride hard, ride often. Ride hills, ride at tempo, ride at recovery pace. Rest and recover, improve. Easy right? Yet we are all different. My body in particular is slow to recover. This year my legs are taking longer than ever before to recover. Why?

I’m not tired, I’m exhausted

Tired cyclistCoffee is no use. Amphetamines will not jolt me. I can eat as well as I like but the nutrients are not sticking. Sleep? Yes please. I sleep like a dead man, nothing can wake me. No interruptions, no dreams, I’m gone for hours at a time.

My brain still functions but struggles if called upon to do more than one thing at once. Basic calculations are done in spreadsheets not in my head. I’ve been wearing underwear the wrong way around for weeks.

My body? Face gaunt, eyes weary. My feet hurt. Legs hurt. My ribs feel bruised. I’m no cripple, in fact sometimes I wonder if there’s anything wrong with me at all. And then I stand up. My legs strain under the weight. A dizzy spell every now and then. I may not be broken but something is wrong. I’m malfunctioning.

Why does it take me so long to recover from a hard ride?

I’m getting older for sure, but where just two years ago I could ride two super high intensity rides a week plus some hard commutes, nowadays I’m confined to one ‘training’ ride a week. The rest is recovery in the form of spinning to work on my commute, riding so slowly every other rider overtakes me (that took a while for my inner chimp to accept!).

So why? My riding hasn’t changed significantly. My average heart rate and max heart rate peaks are similar to previous years. Diet? I’ve upped the protein after rides. I continue to eat well.

Overtraining? One big ride a week? I ride gently during the remainder of the week. Rest? I take at least 1-2 days off the bike completely each week and usually a full week off the bike after a big block of riding. There is certainly an element of my rides always being high intensity, this I must address. Yet my recovery is still abnormal.

My latest theory? Stress. I work in a job where the mental pressure is ceaseless. I’m no doctor or finance trader but my role requires my brain at near enough 100% for very longs hours every working day.

Even when not working, I often think about work. I’m not stressed in the medical sense. I don’t need tablets or psychiatric help. I am in control. I enjoy my job.

Yet there’s no denying it leaves me mentally and perhaps psychically exhausted. This week my average bed time has been 9pm. Nine hours sleep each night and I’m still tired. I sleep, I work. Sometimes I ride but mostly I ache.

Stress and athletic recovery

Still got it

Still got it

There doesn’t appear to be a huge amount of research into the impact of ‘life stress’ or psychological stress into athletic performance.

Logic dictates that if you’re stressed you will sleep less. Sleep is very important to recovery, this we all know. So already you know that stress is certainly not helping your recovery.

Yet I’m sleeping well, deep and long uninterrupted sleeps. My problem is staying awake!

Researchers at the University of Texas tested a small sample of students and noted that those more stressed showed slower muscle recovery. Another study of an even smaller number of elite athletes also came to a similar conclusion. Elsewhere the folks at Watt Bike recommend easing the training when stressed to allow your body to recover.

The American Psychological Association explains how muscles are taut and tight when stressed, on constant alert unable therefore to rest and recover. After training your muscles are inflamed and stress adds to this with the inflammation of the circulatory system. And then there’s the impact on the digestive system, stressed, your metabolism changes as too does the rate at which you can absorb nutrients.

It goes without saying that when stressed you are also burning energy. Your nervous system hits a fight or flight button, setting you on high alert, heart beating faster, glucose levels in your blood increasing as your adrenaline levels rise.

This can lower your cortisol levels and over time drains the body. Perhaps that’s why my Saturday bike rides are inevitably harder than the Sunday ride, where I’ve had Saturday to mentally unwind.

The diagnosis

I train in my sleep

I train in my sleep

I am long since beyond tired. Stress at work has probably been compounded by a cycle er, ‘holiday’ climbing in France. The non technical term is knackered. The bar room term is f*cked.

The men in white coats don’t really have a term for it. Tired, some say, under the weather, they say, not so scientifically at all. Burnt out. Most lean towards the term ‘modern life’.

Of course the nutritionists and homeopaths have jumped on ‘adrenal fatigue’, which sounds scientific enough to drive er, their industries and incomes. I don’t particularly care to name my suffering, I only seek a name in the hope of finding a remedy.

Doctor Google

Maybe it’s all in my head? Yes, that’s what I’m trying to tell you! Perhaps though I’m talking crap. I’m the first to agree, being one of the more cynical people you could hope not to meet.

After all, in the internet age everyone is a specialist. Be that a doctor, mechanic, doping expert, you name it. Give a human a little information no matter how credible or understandable, and said human will quickly form a conclusion which soon becomes an unshakable opinion and before long, an ingrained belief. Yes, we’re experts we tell ourselves.

I’m not. But I am chronically tired. I am not ‘stressed’ but do experience significant pressure at work. Correlation = causation? Sometimes. I’ll never know as this isn’t something the NHS can help with and I don’t quite fancy months of expensive tests to find out.

I’ll just lie down for a while and rest. Eat well, work less. Spend some time looking at how I can vary my training intensity too. And then rest some more. The hardest part is ignoring the weeping noises emanating from where I store my bike. Poor thing.

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8 thoughts on “The impact of mental stress on cycling recovery

  1. First of all, you are a very good writer. Like the style. I live the same life and have the same difficulty. Clearly a correlation but I’ve never studied it. I recently hired a trainer and mental stress is one of the things he tracks in establishing my workouts.

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    • Thanks Moore Speed. That’s a good idea to track stress. Are you tracking that as Perceived Mental Stress and giving it a rating on a scale? I’ve only just begun digging into tracking form and workloads myself. Looks like my spreadsheet will get a new column!

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  2. I don’t know a huge amount about the science behind the effect of stress and tension on physical performance, but I got to thinking about it whilst watching Bolt beat Gatlin in the 100m at the world championships last week.

    Taking any suspicion of illegal performance enhancement out of the equation for a minute (if that’s possible in sprinting?!), to my mind the reason Bolt (injured and struggling for much of the year) beat Gatlin (quickest sprinter all year by a country mile) appeared to be his ability to relax and run like it meant nothing. In contrast Gatlin appeared tense, stressed, taught, and slower than Bolt.

    That’s how it looked anyway.

    In terms of cycling I often notice how much better I ride when in a particularly positive frame of mind. Nothing to do with stress, as such, but in that same area I guess.

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  3. Pingback: Cycle training proper – Hello intervals | The Human Cyclist

  4. Pingback: The art of resting – A cyclist’s guide | The Human Cyclist

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