Rest and recovery: the importance of taking a break from your cycling

Cycling appeals to the masochist in us all. Whether we’re watching the yellow jersey explode off the front of a group at the end of a long climb, or we’re indulging in our own epic century ride, the endurance and resilience that cycling demands are undoubtedly a part of its appeal.

However, cycling improvement requires more than just training. While pushing limits and clocking the kilometers are both crucial aspects, a lot of cyclists make the mistake of ignoring the significant role that rest and recovery play. In this blog post, we look at what the science says about stepping off your smart bike from time to time and why rest and recovery should be non-negotiable components of your training plan.

The physiology of recovery

When you cycle, your muscles undergo stress, leading to micro-tears and fatigue. These tears are part of the process of muscle growth and adaptation. However, they also require time to repair and rebuild. This is where rest comes in. Rest days allow your body the necessary time to heal and adapt to the training load.

Studies have shown that during rest, muscles repair damaged fibers and replenish glycogen stores, crucial for sustained performance. Inadequate rest can lead to overtraining syndrome, characterized by decreased performance, increased fatigue, and even mood disturbances. 

Rest can take several forms:

  • Rest days after the hardest sessions or runs of sessions, which involve no training and maybe only some light stretching. These days are as much for mental recuperations and physical recovery.
  • A well-periodized training plan will have easier weeks after several build weeks. These weeks will usually see a drop of 20-40% in terms of time or intensity and provide the opportunity for the body to freshen up before the next heavier block.
  • If you’re preparing for a big event, a taper period is essential – a week or so during which your training load is reduced significantly, giving your body time to freshen up so you’re ready to fire on race or event day.
  • At the end of a long season of cycling (especially if you’re a cyclist who does races or big events), you should take a few weeks off the bike entirely for some well-earned rest and recovery before starting preparation for the next season. 

The ultimate recovery tool is your bed

There’s a whole industry of massage equipment, stretching aids and supplements aimed at cyclists, but when it comes to the best form of recovery, sleep reigns supreme. It’s during sleep that your body releases growth hormone, essential for muscle repair and regeneration. Sleep also plays a vital role in consolidating motor memory, crucial for skill acquisition and refinement in cycling.

Research indicates that athletes who consistently get optimal sleep durations exhibit improved reaction times, better endurance, and enhanced overall performance compared to those with poor sleep habits. So, if you want to maximize the efficiency of your training, you’ll need to ensure that you consistently get your eight hours, or more, of shut-eye each night.

Fueling your recovery

You wouldn’t put cheap fuel in a race car; your cyclist’s body also needs the proper fuel to run efficiently and recover effectively. After a grueling ride, your muscles crave replenishment. Studies have shown that consuming a combination of carbohydrates and protein post-exercise enhances muscle glycogen storage and promotes muscle protein synthesis, leading to faster recovery and improved performance in subsequent workouts.

Aim to eat (or drink) a balanced meal or snack containing both carbohydrates and protein within approximately 30 minutes to 2 hours after finishing your workout, to kickstart your body’s replenishing of  glycogen stores and facilitating muscle repair. The better you dial in your on- and off-bike nutrition, the sooner you’ll be ready to dig deep again.

Differentiating rest days and recovery sessions

While complete rest days are crucial, active recovery sessions can also provide numerous benefits. A recovery ride, for instance, involves hopping on to your smart bike or smart trainer for a light, low-intensity cycling aimed at promoting blood flow to tired muscles without causing additional stress. Don’t fall into the trap of going too hard and turning recovery rides into zone 2 sessions. Aim for 30-60 minutes at 50-55% of your FTP. These sessions are ideal for the smart bike or smart trainer, as you can set and forget the power while catching up on some essential Netflix watching.

Similarly, cross-training activities like swimming or yoga can aid recovery by engaging different muscle groups and promoting flexibility and mobility.By incorporating these active recovery sessions into your training plan, you can stay active while giving your cycling-specific muscles a well-deserved break. Moreover, these activities can provide variety, help prevent burnout and reduce the risk of overuse injuries.

In conclusion

No matter how relentless you are in the pursuit of cycling excellence, be aware that progress isn’t solely achieved through endless hours in the saddle. Rest and recovery are equally vital components of the equation. By understanding the physiological mechanisms behind recovery, prioritizing quality sleep and nutrition, and incorporating diverse recovery strategies into your routine, you’ll improve sustainably and continuously over the months and years ahead, while reducing the risk of injury and ensuring longevity in the sport. 

So, put rest days, easy weeks and recovery rides at the heart of your training and you’ll be able to embrace the suck and lean into those epic days while feeling better and stronger than ever before.