Recovery 101

Posted by on Jun 19, 2012 in Bike | 3 Comments

TiredOn Memorial Day I raced my bike. I didn’t have a great result, but it wasn’t terrible either. I just didn’t feel very good. My legs felt sluggish and heavy. The next day I rode easy on the pavement. As I spun, I plotted the next few weeks of training. I wanted to ride big miles and big climbs. And I did.

That week I rode 20 hours, 250 miles—including the 100 Miles of Nowhere—and climbed more than 28,600 vertical. It was the most weekly volume I can remember riding. The fatigue set in slowly, but unmistakably. I ignored it. The next week I rode 11 hours, 140 miles, and climbed 13,500 feet, most of which came all at once during the Big Dang Loop, which I slugged out with heavy, dull legs.

There are two kinds of fatigue.

First is the bad fatigue. That irritable, ornery tiredness that signals the onset of sickness, stress, and of being overcooked.

And the second, is one of the greatest feelings an endurance athlete can have. It’s the fatigue of progress and fitness. It leads to good sleep, and fast recovery. It leads to personal records, Strava KOM’s*, and podium finishes.

My eyes have been bigger than my legs.

After my 2-week binge, I was feeling the wrong kind of fatigue. It was obvious that I had ridden too much, too quickly. I needed to rest. And so I have been. And slowly, I am coming back to life. Just in time to spend a week on the beach in San Diego, which was supposed to be the rest week. I’ve been trying to undo the bad fatigue instead of enjoying downtime and the satisfaction of a perfect 3-week block. And how am I undoing the wrong fatigue? Good question.

*Is Strava the leading cause of overtraining these days?

Joe Friel has posted informative recovery articles at his blog recently. He writes:

I’d suggest doing only short duration workouts at low intensity for two or three days. “Short” is a vague word that depends on who I’m talking with. If you train 30 hours per week then that may be a two-hour session. But if your weekly volume is more like six hours then “short” means something like 20 minutes perhaps. Of course, one of these days could be a day completely off from training. And probably for many athletes it should be.

I’ve needed more than “two or three days.”

And some of the days have been, well, not so active.

But active recovery rides are great. No intervals or structure. Just spinning easily on flat, smooth roads. Afterward, a deep stretch, a session with the foam roller, and then a good night’s sleep. Easy, right? It should be. But endurance athletes are ambitious and stubborn. Recovery is for people who aren’t serious riders, and who can’t deal with the stress of heavy training. Well, nobody actually says that. But sometimes we ride like it. An active recovery ride becomes an active ride. And then before we realize what’s happened, it’s too late. Friel argues that serious athletes absolutely need recovery:

Most serious athletes need a recovery week after about two to five weeks of hard training. Again, there’s no way of precisely predicting what you will need as far as timing. The best way of determining this is trial and error. But you need to be cautious with trying to see how much fatigue you can accumulate before taking a break.

Sometimes recovery days are planned. And other times, they are not. But when it’s time to rest, your body will know it, and it will let you know. Don’t do what I did. Don’t ignore the fatigue. The last few weeks have reminded me that (for me) smarter training is better than bigger training. And that, while massive rides with big, impressive numbers look great on Strava, they are not always the best way to prepare for a race, or to build peak fitness.

Low volume, high intensity workouts can help us stay motivated, healthy, and on course. Maybe you’re different. But if you are like I am, building peak fitness is more brains than brawn. Or rather, it takes more discipline than I am sometimes willing to exercise. Sometimes a big ride is too good to pass up. And other days, if the timing is right, they are required. But if the timing is off, everything can go awry very quickly.

But luckily, it can be easy enough to get back on schedule. Just rest as hard as you ride.

Or, to quote Joe Friel once again, this time from his Twitter feed**:


Work hard. Rest hard. Not one or the other, but both.

** “Embed Tweet” is a nice new feature in WordPress 3.4.

Exit Question: What are some of your recovery “secrets”?


  1. Brandon
    June 19, 2012

    Don’t ride and eat ice cream. I felt the Strava Fatigue a couple weeks ago. Out came the road bike for easy farm road miles.

    • Grizzly Adam
      June 19, 2012

      Ice cream is awesome! And riding is the only thing that justifies eating it.

  2. Gavin Macfie
    June 19, 2012

    Last time I bought a pair of running shoes online they sent me free gift, a sachet of vanilla flavoured recovery shake powder with a carefully optimised ‘blend of protein and carbohydrate’.

    Optimised by cows that is. It was vanilla flavoured milk powder.

    Now I reach for a pint of milk after every ride or run.

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