This is a recurring question for both serious and casual athletes. We all know that more training = more fitness, but there is also substantial evidence that insufficient recovery and rest can undermine fitness gains or even lead to serious health issues. Use these strategies to determine a good answer to this question.
One approach is to have regular rest/recovery days planned each week. This guarantees at least partial unloading of training stress as part of your ongoing schedule. Usually 1-2 rest/recovery days per week is enough to manage fatigue and allow your body to “catch up” and “bank” the training you are doing on other days. Every 4-8 weeks it can be good to have a “light week” with no hard training sessions. This helps to protect against any chronic fatigue or overtraining and keeps you mentally fresh and enthusiastic about your training over the long term.
Another approach can be to train when your body is ready for it and rest/recovery when it isn’t.
This determination can be made day-to-day, but the difficulty is in determining your readiness by accurately assessing various feedback signals. By using a combination of objective and subjective measures you can assess the readiness state of your body. Remember you are assessing not only whether the body is able to complete a training session, but also whether your body is ready to absorb the training. There are studies suggesting that when the body is overly fatigued it is unable to properly absorb the training and adapt. This means wasted training time, chronic fatigue, and decreased performance.
Resting Heart Rate (RHR)
By taking your pulse first thing each morning you get objective feedback about whether your body is in an elevated metabolic state. An increase in resting heart rate above baseline can indicate residual physical or mental strain. An elevated HR means your body is working harder to deal with some stressor: fatigue, illness, etc. Small variations in your RHR are natural, but larger moves usually mean something. If my RHR is more than 10% above normal, or is trending up for a few days, I know I am fatigued and need to consider inserting some rest/recovery.
Heart Rate Variability (HRV)
HRV is another objective data point that is based on the evaluation of the beat-to-beat times for your heart. Your HR tells you your average beats per minute, HRV tells you about the actual time between successive beats. The science indicates that HRV analysis gives us insight into the status of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). When we are under physical or mental stress, our ANS behaves differently than when we are rested, refresh and relaxed. Many things affect HRV including training, work stress, lifestyle, sleep and diet. I use the app HRV4Training to measure each morning (it also captures RHR, so 2-for-1). The app provides various data points that can be useful to monitor for acute and chronic changes. Interpreting HRV is a little more complicated than RHR but it can still give you another view into your physiology and help you decide when to back off a little, as well as, to steer clear of chronic overtraining. As with RHR, if I see a significant negative change or trend, I start to build in some rest to get back to baseline.
Muscle Fatigue and Soreness
Objective data like RHR and HRV give you valuable feedback about internal systems. Often, however, these values will remain in the normal range while you have other acute sensations associated with fatigue and a lack of readiness. One of the most common is localized soreness or heaviness in your working muscles–for cyclists this your legs. You may notice this in the morning as you wake or during normal off-the-bike activities. Often this initial tightness or heaviness subsides once you start to move around. Other times it lingers throughout the day. Usually, this soreness is attributable to prior training and signals that the body is in repair and regeneration mode. If these sensations are mild, I usually proceed with a training day but may lighten the workout depending on how I feel after I warm up. If the sensations are intense, it is best to scrap any plans for a hard training session and recover/rest instead.
Overall Fatigue & Energy Levels
Another useful subjective data point is your overall fatigue and/or energy level. This is a little fuzzier to describe and may include things like: sleepiness, general low energy, lack of motivation, difficulty concentrating on work/school tasks, irritability, etc. When I am feeling one or more of these symptoms I almost always shift the focus to rest/recovery. These sensations mean your body is seriously busy dealing with any lifestyle or training stress than has been previously imposed. Continuing to stress your body in this condition may overwhelm its capacity to remain healthy and strong. Sickness, hormone imbalances and other serious conditions may develop. I usually find that one rest day can reverse these symptoms and I can get back to quality training.
We hear this term quite frequently, but usually it is misapplied. In fact, very few athletes become truly overtrained. Overtraining describe a chronic fatigue state with decreased performance and other physiological symptoms that cannot be corrected without weeks to months of complete rest. Most athletes simply experience acute fatigue that requires a short recovery period before performance is restored or even improved.
What Constitutes Rest/Recovery?
You basically have 3 options to choose from for a reduced intensity session: low intensity, active recovery, or full rest. On any given day, you selection should be guided by where you sit on the fatigue spectrum. It can be as simple as the more symptoms of fatigue you have, the easier the session should be. Over time, by paying close attention how you feel entering and exiting a fatigued state, you will get better at selecting what you need to achieve acute recovery and avoid chronic fatigue (overtraining).
A low intensity ride is typically going to be a low-Zone 2 ride. This NOT a recovery ride, but does allow some recovery to occur because it is not very taxing. However, the longer this session is, the more training load you will incur and, therefore, shift away from recovery.
An active recovery ride is very easy and short–typically 60-90 minutes in Zone 1, like an easy stroll, but on the bike. Many people make the mistake of going too hard on an active recovery day. Usually, this ride is not hard and you could do more, even if fatigued. That means you must be disciplined to manage your pace and stick to the plan of maximizing recovery.
Full rest is just that, a day completely off the bike. This day should not include any other activities either. For example, doing strength work on a “day off” defeats the purpose in that you are simply imposing a different type of training load, NOT resting. Often, the primary benefit of full rest is mental. These days give you a brief break from the bike and let you spend some time doing other things in your life (just don’t tackle other stressful things on these days, like doing your taxes!).