You just pulled into your driveway after a long, challenging ride, and all you want to do is eat everything in your fridge and then take a nap. But you feel pretty gross…and let’s be honest, you probably don’t smell too great either. Better clean yourself up first.
Here’s something you might not have considered. Is it okay to take a bath after cycling? If so, Is a bath or shower better? And does the water temperature matter?
Your primary goal after a tough bike ride should be muscle recovery. A cold shower or bath (or even an ice bath!) after high intensity exercise is great for reducing both inflammation and perceived muscle soreness. A hot bath or shower just won’t offer the same recovery benefits.
Pair this with proper nutrition, hydration and rest, and you’ll be ready for your next ride a lot sooner…and in much better condition!
In this article, I’ll cover:
Effects of a Hot Bath After Cycling
Heat therapy is great for relaxing muscles and provides an optimal environment for increasing flexibility. However, when you’re really sore after a tough ride, heat is not your friend.
Inflammation as a response to muscle damage – which is a necessary process of building bigger, stronger muscles – is the main cause of post-exercise soreness. Heat exacerbates inflammation by acting as a vasodilator – it expands your blood vessels, increases blood and fluid circulation to the damaged muscle tissue, and causes swelling.
Increasing blood circulation is a lot more beneficial before exercise to prepare the muscles for activity (why a proper warmup is so important!), rather than after when they need time to rest and recover.
Effects of a Cold Bath After Cycling
Why do so many athletes hop in a tub filled with cold water and ice after training? Because even though it looks awful, it’s a great recovery tool!
Cold baths act as a vasoconstrictor – they narrow the blood vessels to reduce blood circulation. This helps reduce swelling and muscle tissue breakdown, while also decreasing perceived muscle soreness. In other words, the cold water numbs your muscles so you feel less sore than you actually are!
Think about it: why does IcyHot exist but not HotIcy? Or HeatyIce? Ok, that’s a terrible name…
Physical therapists know you need to reduce swelling and perceived discomfort before applying heat and increasing blood flow. Adding heat first will only make the swelling and discomfort worse. Then when the pain is at its most severe, applying ice would constrict the blood vessels and prevent nutrient-rich blood from flowing in to start the muscle repair process.
More pain and less healing? That’s a lose-lose situation.
This is why cold baths are a much better choice after high intensity biking. So head down to the grocery store and pick up a few bags of ice for an even better recovery session.
Few things will wake you up and have you feeling more invigorated than a little time spent in an ice bath…if you can stand it!
For a more detailed comparison between hot and cold therapy, check out this article.
Is a Hot or Cold Shower Better After Cycling?
The effects of a hot or cold shower are similar to a hot or cold bath, though maybe not as pronounced due to the lack of complete immersion in water. But if a shower is what you prefer, definitely opt for a cold one!
However, allow me to suggest a third option: contrast showers.
To take a contrast shower, you will simply alternate between periods of hot and cold water in the following manner:
- Start with very warm water for a few minutes to dilate your blood vessels
- Switch to water as cold as you can stand for one minute
- Switch back to hot for one minute
- Repeat this process for a total of 5-10 minutes, ending on cold water
What’s the point of this?
Alternating between constricting and dilating your blood vessels helps flush out lactic acid (a byproduct of intense exercise that creates that delightful muscle “burn”) and aids in quicker muscle recovery.
Give it a try: it actually feels pretty good. And it’s way more tolerable than sitting in an ice bath for 15 minutes!
Should You Take a Bath or Shower Before Cycling?
Given what we now know about the effects of cold and hot therapy, would there be any benefit to taking a bath or shower before cycling? Let’s break it down.
We know cold water reduces blood circulation and inflammation. While this is great for muscle recovery post-exercise, reducing blood flow before cycling is not ideal. We need our muscles working at 100% during a ride, and rely on blood to carry oxygen and nutrients so they can do just that. Cold therapy hampers this process.
So we need to warm our muscles up and increase blood circulation. A hot bath or shower before a ride sounds perfect then, right?
Not so fast.
Sure, hot water does these things, but it also increases our core body temperature and our heart rate…neither are things we want to happen before a ride. As someone who bikes in Florida, I don’t want to be any hotter or sweatier during a ride than I already am!
So ditch the hot water before and after a ride, and save the cold water for your post-ride recovery.
Speaking of recovery, what steps can we take after biking to help our muscles recover faster?
Four Tips for Recovery After a Long Bike Ride
1. Take a Cold Bath or Shower
I know, the whole article has been about this topic. But I just wanted to remind you.
Do this as soon as you get home to kickstart the recovery process.
2. Get Proper Post-Ride Nutrition
I won’t lie: sometimes all I want after a tough ride is some greasy fast food. But that’s not going to help the recovery process at all!
Proper nutrition is vital for optimal recovery from any intense exercise. High intensity endurance exercise like cycling relies predominantly on carbohydrates as muscle fuel. That’s why a lot of riders will pack plenty of sports drinks and energy gels in their packs. They’re loaded with carbs!
But we want to get the right balance of carbohydrates, protein and fat. When planning out a post-ride meal, here are some general guidelines to follow:
- Ideally, eat within 1-2 hours of finishing your ride
- Carbs: 1.5g per kilogram body weight (kilogram = pounds x 2.2)
- Protein: .5g per kilogram body weight
- Fat: 1-2 thumb-sized portions of healthy fats
- Ex.) olive oil, avocado, nuts, fatty fish (like salmon)
Whole foods are great, but if you struggle to eat a big meal after a ride, you can make a post-ride protein shake instead!
For a deeper dive into the science of post-exercise nutrition, these articles from the International Sports Sciences Association and Precision Nutrition provide a great introduction!
Your body is roughly 60% water. So it must be kind of important for daily life.
You can lose A LOT of water during a long ride, so ensuring you replenish it is really important.
How much should you drink after cycling? To figure this out, weigh yourself before your ride and again after you get home. Then drink 24 ounces of water for each pound you’ve lost.
This is a common way coaches of many different sports will ensure their athletes are properly hydrated after practices or sporting events.
Have you heard the saying that your muscles grow and recover not when you’re working, but when you’re resting? Well it’s true!
After a ride, take some time to just relax and let your muscles heal. Sit on the couch, watch some TV, read a book–do anything that doesn’t require you to move around a lot. If you’re like me, it won’t take too much to convince yourself to melt into the sofa for an hour or three.
Ride, Recover, Repeat!
Biking is a lot of fun, but make sure to take time to let your body recover in between rides. Just like any fitness activity, recovery is just as important as the exercise itself. So recover the right way and you’ll be able to get back out on your bike a lot sooner!