How Much Recovery Do You Need?

By Coach John Hughes

We are proud to offer an article by the highly regarded Coach John Hughes, who has written extensively about bicycle training including nutrition, conditioning, slowing the aging process and otherwise keeping fit.  Among his personal accomplishments in endurance racing,  John set the course records for the Furnace Creek 508 in 1989 and Boston-Montreal-Boston in 1992.  He has been a USA Cycling certified coach since ’96, and has lectured on endurance at numerous events.   John has coached CRW members and has earned high praise for increasing their fitness in preparing for ultra-endurance cycling events and facilitating recovery after major surgery.

Training Stress + Rest = Success.

I cut back on almost every new client’s riding because he or she has too much training stress, not enough rest and therefore isn’t as successful as possible. Recovery is an integral aspect of conditioning, because most adaptations occur when the body is resting, not while riding. 

How much recovery do you need? We used to look at two different things to see if we were recovered: an elevated heart rate before getting out of bed or a change in morning weight. However, scientific research has found little relationship between morning heart rate or morning weight and recovery from riding. (Some digital gadgets using things like these purport to show if you’re not recovered.)

Research shows there are two ways to tell if you’re riding too much and recovering too little:

    • Performance – if you can’t ride as well as before you may not be recovered enough.  We all have off days but if you have multiple days of poorer performance then you need more recovery. This is hard in practice. We think that if we aren’t riding as well we need to train more … but that’s wrong.
    • Mood – If you really don’t want to get on the bike then don’t force yourself. Your negative mood about riding indicates you need more time off the bike.

How much riding is too much? You should finish every ride feeling like you could have done a little more.  If you rode 20 miles you should always feel like you could have ridden two or three more miles.  If you climbed hills you should always feel like you could have climbed one more. You should not feel like you barely made it home. I ignored this mountain biking last week. I went down a steep descent, barely made it back to the top and still had a mile of dirt to get home. I was still exhausted the next day.

Tired legs. If you feel a little tired and aren’t sure if you should ride, you might get on the bike and if after a half hour or so you’re still tired, then go home.

Embarrassing recovery rides. If you have tired legs but still want to get out then go for a very easy recovery ride.  Many riders’ recovery rides are still too fast.  You should ride so slowly that you’re almost embarrassed to be seen on the bike. Experienced riders benefit from active recovery rides like this. Beginning riders should skip the recovery rides and take rest days.

Rest days for all. Every rider should take at least one day a week off the bike.

Real recovery and rest days. Don’t substitute other activities that are cardio using your legs like running, hiking, weight-lifting, etc. Instead go for a walk or swim.

Do less. If you’re not sure if you should ride more then don’t!

Recover more.  Pro Brent Bookwalter advises that if you have another 15 minutes to ride, then spend the time recovering instead.  Bookwalter has been racing professionally since 2008 and currently races for Michelton-Scott.

Include easy weeks.  After three to five weeks of progressively more riding, cut back your riding by 20 to 40% for a week.

Take a week off.  Every two or three months park your bike in the garage and take a complete break.  You’ll recover fully and ride better starting the next week.

How Much Recovery Do You Need? is a recent column of mine.

I’ve written an eBook on Optimal Recovery for Improved Performance. I describe nine different recovery techniques illustrated with 14 photos. Optimal Recovery for Improved Performance is just $4.99.

Coach Hughes has written over 40 eBooks for RoadBikeRider.