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Does Elevating Your Legs Improve Recovery?

By Jiri Kaloc

Is leg recovery in cycling as important as training for improved performance? Have you ever heard that you need to keep your legs elevated after a hard training session to maximise the recovery process and muscle repair? And have you been doing it? Let’s take a closer look at how this is supposed to work and whether it is really effective, or just another cycling myth.

What leg elevation supposedly does

Elevating the legs as a concept was created to solve several issues. It was thought that after a hard training session blood would pool in your leg muscle fibres unless you elevated them. A hard workout also meant the build-up of lactic acid and residual metabolic waste that stays in your legs, slowing down post ride recovery. Raising legs above the heart was supposed to increase blood flow and thus boost blood oxygen levels that aid in supplying essential nutrients that repair leg muscles while eliminating all that bad stuff.

A cyclist riding with no hands on an open road with no cars.
The heart of a healthy person can circulate blood against gravity with no problems. © Profimedia

The myth debunked

Unfortunately, this is not exactly what happens inside your legs. This myth was probably started because ultra distance cyclists sometimes develop swelling around their ankles due to the pooling of lymph and extracellular fluid there as a result of the constant pull of gravity. Elevating legs in this scenario would indeed help reduce swelling.

Blood, on the other hand, is not affected by gravity in this way. The heart of a healthy person has no problem circulating blood against gravity. If a body needed help to evacuate blood out of limb extremities, it would be due to an existing medical condition, and not the result of a hard training ride.

How it actually works

The lactate that’s produced in your legs during exercise is automatically and constantly circulated throughout the entire body to be broken down and used for energy in muscle tissue. So, you don’t need to worry about lactate after a tough session, normal aerobic metabolism will sort it out without any effort required on your part.

A lone road cyclist on an open road in the mountains looking at his cycling computer.
If someone needed help to transfer blood out of extremities, it would be due to a medical problem, not as a result of a hard training session. © Profimedia

Should you ever elevate your legs?

Elevating can help as a preventative measure against swelling as mentioned above. It can be especially effective in combination with compression clothing. But if you choose to elevate your legs, make sure to sit up or walk around every few minutes or so. But your normal workouts should not result in cellular inflammation; it might be a warning sign that something is wrong.

Additionally, even though elevating your legs won’t have any magical recovery effects, it can make you relax more. There are certain athletes that find it hard to slow down and even take a rest day, if you’re one of them, keep elevating your legs after training, or better yet, take a nap and your recovery will get a real boost.

How do you make your legs recover faster after cycling?

Hydration after a hard workout is essential. Drinking plain water isn’t enough. A quality recovery drink can be a great first step in replenishing glycogen stores in damaged muscles. A recovery ride where you spin easy the day after a big race or a long ride that caused heavy muscle breakdown is an undisputed form of beneficial active recovery to alleviate muscle soreness and help your body recover.

Anther good recovery method post muscle damage is visiting a massage therapist or practicing self massage. It can significantly increase blood flow to muscle cells, stimulate blood vessels, reduce muscle fatigue, remove waste products and improve circulation overall. Professional cyclists who push themselves daily reduce recovery time and the risk of injury with almost sports medicine professionals and daily massages.

It’s a great method if you can afford it. Many cyclists can only count on doing using their own ice baths, adapting training goals to fit other commitments, trying to get more sleep, taking a rest day or even five minutes for a bit of post ride stretching. Whatever you do, don’t lose motivation. A day or two off the bike may be just what you need, and you’ll come back even stronger.