smash your recovery with this essential advice

In my role as a coach, I am acutely aware of the importance of promoting recovery after training.  Recovery allows your body to return to a physiological steady state and promotes adaptations to occur.  When planning your training you should therefore also think about planning your recovery.  Here are some thoughts and tips to help you with this.

A cyclocross competitor sat on the ground getting some post-race recovery

Time for recovery

An important thing to consider when planning recovery is that every physiological response to training takes a different length of time to recover.  Heart rate, body temperature and blood lactate may take minutes to return to pre-exercise levels. However, muscle glycogen (carbohydrate) and muscle damage may take days to restore.  

Not all cycling training is the same with some sessions requiring additional recovery.  For example, intense anaerobic capacity training is best followed by at least one or two days of light aerobic training.

You must also consider that two riders may respond very differently to the same session.  I have found that elite cyclists can complete long low intensity rides with relative ease.  In fact, these training sessions can have a restorative effect.  Whereas non-elite riders may require a day’s recovery following such a ride.

Multi-day stage races can be exceptionally demanding.  Again, a seasoned professional can recover from a seven-day stage race with a couple of light training days.   A developing amateur may take much longer. 


You will no doubt have experienced this even though you might not know the term.  Supercompensation occurs when the body has been stressed through training or competition.  As described above, there is a period where the normal capacity to exercise is reduced.  If training is optimally prescribed the body will recover to the previous level and then supercompensate.  That is, the capacity to exercise will rise to a greater level – you get fitter!

Unfortunately, not everyone is the same. Even individuals of the same age and ability undertaking identical training will respond differently.  As a consequence, I have riders I coach following individual plans with tailored cycles of work and recover

Planning recovery

When designing training it is imperative that you plan your recovery strategy, including recovery days and weeks.  As I have already stated, everyone is different, but I can provide some general guidelines which can be adapted.

There is an old saying (I don’t know who it is attributed to) that has some sense in it.  It basically goes along the lines that you should have one recovery day in every week, one recovery week in every month, and one recovery month in every year.  As a rule of thumb this works okay and should help avoid overtraining.

Incidentally, overreaching is a good thing as it is what promotes supercompensation.  If, however, you overreach for too long then it ceases to be functional and training can be detrimental to your athletic ability or even make you sick.  If this continues for a long time then overtraining may develop.  Recovering from chronic overtraining can take months or years so it is best avoided.

Patterns of work and recovery

When you know your body better you can try slightly different approaches to recovery.  Elite athletes may not have a full rest day and instead perform light training.  This works well for them as they have greater powers of recovery.

If you are an older masters athlete you may find that one rest or recovery day is not enough.  I have one very successful masters athlete who trains two days on with one day of complete rest.  In fact you can devise any number of patterns.  A marathon runner I work with follows a pattern of ‘train, train, rest, train, rest, train, rest’ during her week.  Experiment to find out what works best for you.

As for recovery weeks, some people need a whole week, others perhaps only three days.  If you decide to take a recovery week treat it like a taper.  Cut back volume and maintain a little intensity to help keep your fitness.

Schedule relaxing activities

Remember that mental recouperation is as important as physical recovery.  Training to the best of your ability is mentally demanding regardless of your competitive level.  Balancing relationships, family life, work, study and training can take its toll.

Plan your recovery ahead of time and schedule relaxing activities.  I often find athletes have made such sacrifices in their personal lives that they neglect things that other people take for granted.  This could be something as simple as going to the cinema or meeting friends for a meal. 

Having something planned in advance can provide that ‘light at the end of a tunnel’ to help you through a tough block of training.  When you have a day off you’ll find that the mental break and distracting activities will do you the world of good. And, of course, your friends and family are less likely to feel neglected.

be aware of cucmulative stresses on recovery

I’ve already noted how mental stress can have a profound impact upon well-being.  In fact there is an interaction between both physical and mental stress with one affecting the other.  Be aware that the effects are cumulative and training load and recovery may have to be adjusted accordingly.

For example, during a busy time at work it would be wise to reduce the overall training load.  The same is true for anyone sitting exams. An intervention such as altitude exposure is an additional stressor. Compensate by reducing the volume and intensity of training to give your body the capacity to adapt. 

A tool you may find useful for managing these stressors is the Daily Analysis of Life Demands of Athletes (DALDA) questionnaire.  Completed daily, the questionnaire can provide useful insights into the stresses you are under.

avoid over racing

This is one of those ‘How long is a piece of string?’ questions.  Just how much racing you should do is something you have to determine for yourself, or with the help of a coach.  Some athletes thrive on frequent competition whereas others prefer to focus on fewer events.  Your ability to recover comes into this as well as the type of events you choose to compete in.  Track sprint cyclists tend to race less often and need greater recovery to train at the very high intensities demanded by their sport.

Cyclocross is another cycling discipline where it pays to carefully manage racing. Cyclocross is a winter sport and both training and racing are undertaken in difficult conditions.  It is especially challenging for the amateur rider who may be training in the cold and dark before or after work.  This is tiring and with a higher prevalence of winter germs the risk of illness is much greater.  It therefore pays to schedule breaks from racing for recovery.  A short break followed by a missed weekend of racing allows valuable time to catch up on endurance training in daylight hours.

Balance energy intake with training load

Athletes can become obsessed with maintaining a low body weight.  However, a severely restricted energy intake can hinder your recovery, training and performance.  It can also have an adverse effect upon your health.

Your energy intake should be balanced against your energy expenditure.  But be careful as the arithmetic isn’t as straight forward as it seems.  The energy of highly processed foods, for example, is more accessible than foods high in undigestible fibre.  But that’s not to say you should eat processed foods!  The point is, that merely counting energy consumed isn’t enough to determine the correct energy balance.

Like many issues in training it is useful to experiment to find what works well for you.  Periodically measure energy intake, including the types of foods you consumed.  You can then track these data against your training to determine if there is a relationship between what you eat and how you perform.

Some forms of training such as high intensity intervals can deplete glycogen reserves.  Generally speaking a high carbohydrate diet will support this form of exercise.  However, I do work with riders who train very well on low carbohydrate diets, emphasising the point that everyone is different. 

When you are ill or injured your overall energy consumption and protein intake may need to be increased to support your immune system and to assist recovery.  And don’t forget the overall nutrient content of your diet too.  Adjusting your diet in response to the varying demands of training is known as ‘dietary periodisation’.

monitor training load as best you can

As mentioned above, it is important to ensure your energy intake supports your training load.  These days nearly all athletes (nearly, but not everyone) record their training data on sports/smart watches and computers (including devices for bikes and ergometers).  These data can then be analysed using commercially available packages like Today’s Plan.  Golden Cheetah is a great free package if you don’t want to pay a subscription.

Within these packages there are tools for monitoring training stress but be aware that that all have weaknesses.  For example training stress score (TSS) weights volume of training over intensity. I’ve had riders complete intensive blocks of high intensity, low volume inetervals to see their overall training load apparently, fall despite feeling thoroughly exhausted.

Over the years I have attended many sports science conferences and symposia and have sat through numerous presentations and seminars on monitoring training load.  What I can tell you, and all of the researchers say the same, is that there is no single objective method of assessing load.  The issue arises because, as I stated above, many different factors can contribute to the stress you experience and there isn’t a way of accounting for all of these.

Having said that subjective methods get pretty close.  In other words, monitoring how you feel is probably a better way than any to get a handle on how hard the session was and how you are coping with it.

The session RPE

In another post I mentioned the session rating of perceived exertion (sRPE).  You simply rate the overall difficulty of the session 30 minutes after you have completed it.  This is done using the 1-10 RPE scale. Once you have rated the session multiply this value by the number of minutes you spent training.  This will give you a pretty good indication of the daily variation in load.  Remember that the reason this works fairly well is that your brain is the only ‘device’ that integrates all of the physiological and psychological information that you receive each day.  Your sports watch just can’t do this.

Get some sleep!

One of the most important recovery strategies is ensuring you get a sufficient quality and quantity of sleep.  You can improve your sleep by keeping to a regular sleep schedule and creating a relaxing bedtime routine.  Avoiding large meals, alcohol and caffeine in the evening and eliminating screens from the bedroom can help with this.

I can highly recommend this book by Matthew Walker (no relation!) as an excellent guide to the benefits and physiology of sleep. 

Consider other recovery interventions

Recovery has become pretty commercialised in recent years with a plethora of recovery devices and supplements being launched each year.  There are even dedicated recovery centres that you can visit and choose from a menu of recovery methods.

Some examples of recovery methods include hydrotherapy, compression, sauna, whole-body cryotherapy, floatation tanks and stretching. Unfortunately, the evidence for many of these methods of recovery is pretty weak despite many top athletes’ endorsements.  If you want to explore some of the recovery myths Christie Aschwanden’s book Good to Go is an excellent read.

Recovery after training – top tips

If your acute and chronic training loads are balanced with enough recovery you will see more benefit from your training. Sadly, some athletes fall into the trap of paying great attention to training but forget their need to recover.  This can mean they end up digging a training hole and once they are exhausted at the bottom it is extremely hard to climb out.  Simply planning ahead and devising a recovery strategy can help avoid a catastrophic downturn in performance and a long road to recovery.

Here is a recap of the key things that make a good starting point when planning for your recovery after training. You can then adapt as necessary:

  1. Include one full rest day per week and one easy week per month.  Take a minimum of two weeks off at the end of the year or have a very easy month.
  2. If you know you are coming up to a stressful time in your life, plan your training around it so that you don’t have a high training load at the same time.
  3. Find a pattern of training that facilitates sufficient recovery between sessions
  4. Avoid scheduling long periods of racing without any sort of a break.
  5. Monitor your training load.  The session RPE is an easy, cheap way to do this.
  6. Ensure your energy intake meets your body’s requirements when taking into account the type of training you are doing.
  7. Monitor your nutrient intake to ensure you are getting everything needed to support training.
  8. Be sure to get a good night’s sleep.
  9. Feel free to explore other recovery methods and products but examine the peer reviewed evidence very carefully before spending your money.

Promoting recovery after training is very important for both professional and amateur riders.  I hope this helps you to gain an understanding of some of the things to think about.  I’d love to hear if you would like any more in-depth information about any of the specific things talked about. Please contact me or comment below with your thoughts.

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