When ambitious riders want to improve, naturally the thing they focus on is their training. Usually they take the "more is better" approach, piling on more hours, miles, and intensity. To a point, those are the basic ingredients for getting stronger; you train hard, you get better. "Ride lots" is zen-like in it's simplicity, but it works. And yet, training is only half the story.
The important part of your improvement is not just the training, but almost more importantly, the resting. In previous articles I've written about the cyclical nature of training and the process of stressing a system, letting it heal, adapt to the stress, and improve, and then stressing it again at a higher level. The hard training you do is the stress you place on your body. The improvement, however, doesn't come in the training; it comes in the adaptation to the training. The adaptation doesn't happen without recovery. Recovery is where the actual growth and increase in your fitness takes place.
What does it mean to rest, then, and what is the difference between rest and recovery? Many times you'll see a rider with that far away look in their eyes--they're struggling to finish races they should be winning, they can't sleep at night, maybe they've even got a cold sore or a nagging cough. The usual response when a rider has a poor performance, of course, to go home and do more training. Sometimes someone will at least have enough sense to say, "hey, man, you need a rest week." What, however, does a rest week or even just a rest day entail?
When we talked about training in cycles before, we talked about a 3-on, 1-off structure, both in terms of days and weeks. Three days in a row of training, followed by a day of rest, or three weeks in a row of training, followed by a week of rest. In previous articles I detailed the training part; here I'll detail the recovery.
Single days of rest can take on two different forms: rest or recovery. After a week of hard training and a weekend of racing, Monday is an easy day for most people. I like to describe this day as a recovery day, rather than a rest day. Recovery implies you're trying to heal from what you've just done, rather than thinking ahead and resting to be fresh for what's coming up. It's a matter of semantics, but I feel it helps clients understand what their goals for the day really are. The best way to recover and repair damage from a hard weekend is ideally to ride, but life can often get in the way of your perfect training plans. Monday's recovery day can be a day completely off the bike for both mental and physical healing. If you've got limited training time, it might be the day you get caught up on sleep, school, work, or skip your ride in lieu of a weekly massage.
If you can ride, 30-90 minutes very easy, at a high (above 90 rpm) cadence will help you promote blood flow to damaged muscles and recover more quickly. In some cases, you might find that you need two or more days to recover, and won't be ready to train until Wednesday or later. For many of my clients who have stressful full-time jobs, and especially for my mountain bike racers, this is often the case.
The second easy day of a typical week is more of a rest day than a recovery day, and should come two days before an important event on the weekend, working backwards. If you have races on both Saturday and Sunday, you may want to sacrifice a day of training during the week by taking your rest day on Thursday, and then doing some light training on Friday to open up for the race. If the race on Saturday isn't a priority, then you might choose to train through Thursday, rest on Friday, and then race both days. If the race is only on Sunday, you might again train normally during the week, through Thursday, rest on Friday, and then simply open up on Saturday with a light workout.
On a larger scale, entire weeks of recovery serve the same purposes. After 3-5 weeks of progressive training, your body will reach a point where it has to have some extended time to heal. If you don't give your body that time, it will force you to take it by getting you sick or injured, or at the very least letting some staleness creep into your form. This is where most riders make the mistake of going back and training more, which of course only digs their hole deeper.
After 2-3 weeks of training, your body will begin to adapt to the stresses you place on it with training. Sometimes you can push that adaptation with a 4th or 5th week of training, but you often run the risk of overtraining in that case, and so should always proceed with caution. As a general guide, an easy week of training should consist of 25-50% of the volume of duration and intensity of the heavy training week that proceeded it. If you got in 14 hours as your longest week, 6-7 hours will be sufficient as a rest week. If you got in 30 hours, then 10-15 may be more appropriate.
When an athlete finishes a long block of training, on their rest week I'll have them ride 30-90 minutes easy each day until the first day they can ride without soreness or pain, and have regained enough mental freshness to handle structured training again. That may happen as soon as Wednesday, as late as Friday, or perhaps after a full week to 10 days. If the athlete finished in a good place, it may only require three days of rest and recovery before beginning training again. This works as more of a taper than a complete recovery week, and will leave them open and still riding well in the races that weekend without any interruption in their good form. Often this is the best way to lead into a season peak. Still, at least five is typical, and seven to 10 is not unusual.
If the recovery required does extend into the seven to 10-day range, the body goes into full healing mode, and the first week of training that follows is often a painful one as you force the body open again. Just the right amount of rest and recovery means it should feel good to go hard again, but sometimes you need more than that, particularly if it's an intentional mid-season break. Typically by the end of the first or second week back, you'll feel on top of things and should be racing well and feeling good. You'll be surprised at how little fitness you've lost, and how much being fresh makes up for it.
It can be difficult to rest properly--much more difficult than training. Paradoxically, training hard is just about the easiest thing a rider can do. Anyone can go out and bang their heads against a wall to get better, and riders often let their egos get the best of them by thinking "more means more." Resting takes discipline, patience, and intelligence; because it's actually more difficult to do than training hard, it can be where a disciplined rider really makes the difference.
There are many effective adages out there that will help you remember how important it is to rest. "Train harder and rest easier." "Put the same emphasis on resting as you do on training." "Be as intense about resting as you are about training." I feel as if I've said those words in every possible form to make the point. While they might be clichés, they get repeated often for a reason. Take the advice to heart--rest with same discipline, dedication and self-control you put into your training, and you'll see the benefits of your training magnified as a result.