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How can I get the most out of my recovery rides?

Chris Saunders
16 Nov 2020

Your easiest spin of the week holds the key to you building true cycling power. Here’s how to roll and relax the right way…

If you are following a regimented training programme building towards a big race or sportive, chances are you will be asked to go for a 'recovery ride' most weeks.

Now, it is pretty clear that this should be your easiest ride of the week, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a vital part of your cycling regime. In fact, it plays a critical role in making sure that your fitness progresses effectively and you continue to become a better rider.

How? Because it’s during a recovery ride that your body gets the breathing space it needs to repair muscle fibre destroyed on longer, harder and faster rides.

And that allows you to come back all the stronger. Get it wrong and you’ll stop progressing, lose motivation, and increase both your chances of burnout and risk of injury. So get it right, just follow this simple seven-step guide…

How to get the most out of your recovery rides

1. Prepare for your recovery ride

An easy mantra to remember is: ‘Your next workout starts with the current one.’ In other words, the ride you’re currently on impacts on the following one. And, yes, that does mean your recovery ride can be detrimentally affected.

The general rule is don’t exhaust yourself by making sure that you fuel and hydrate appropriately. If you allow your energy reserves to become too depleted, or you get too dehydrated, you’ll significantly increase the time that you need to recover.

This will either knock your training schedule seriously off kilter or, quite simply, reduce what’s left of it to a living hell.

Remember to finish off any high-intensity riding with 5-10 minutes of easy ‘Zone 1’ riding (the cycling equivalent of a stroll) to allow your body to cool down and let your heart rate return to something approaching its normal rate.

2. How often and how hard should I go on my recovery ride?

You should work recovery rides into your training schedule once or twice a week, ideally immediately after or before hard training days or races.

Your body is programmed to try to recover as much as possible when it gets the chance, so if you have a day off the bike, your body grabs this opportunity and will often go into shutdown mode.

If you try to complete a set of hard intervals after a rest day, it’ll often take you a few efforts to get going again, seriously affecting the quality of your session.

Doing a recovery ride in the interim keeps your body ticking over, meaning that come the next hard session, you’re ready to fly.

Make it easy on yourself by picking the easiest, flattest route available and keep it short. The optimum time you should be aiming for is around an hour at most (30-45 minutes is usually plenty) and certainly nothing over 90 minutes.

Resist the urge to over-exert, and stick to around 60-70% of your maximum heart rate and no more than about 50% of your functional threshold power.

You should still be able to easily have a conversation at this pace without breathlessness or panting. Around 85% of cyclists go too hard on their recovery rides, defeating the purpose entirely, so aim to join the 15% club.

A recovery ride shouldn’t give your body any real training stimulus at all. In other words, it should be of a level so easy that you’re not actually exercising. Which brings us to the next point…

3. Inspect your gadgets 

When taking such a laid-back approach, it’s very tempting to turn off your gadgets. Don’t do it. It seems counter-intuitive but this is the time when you can get a lot out of your bike tech, because the extreme metrics you’ll get from a recovery ride is great data to compare with your more intense efforts.

This data will also help you make sure you’re actually cycling in that all-important recovery zone where your heart should be working at 50-60% of its capacity.

Look into the best cycling GPS computers on the market here

If you’ve got a heart monitor, strap it on. If you know your VO2 max you’ll be able to gauge this quite accurately.

Also, make sure you log those kilometres. Every single one. You may be taking it easy, but they still count and you’ll find they have a motivating effect when you tot up your weekly or monthly totals.

4. You’re allowed the odd sprint

What? First we tell you take it easy and now we’re telling you to chuck in the odd sprint? Madness! No, not exactly. Light sprinting can actually help your body recover faster from that last beast of a session.

Studies show that completing high-cadence sprints can encourage the body to release more human growth hormones. These are the things that tell your muscles they need to rebuild and repair themselves.

You’ll also trigger something called muscle activation, or how well your neuromuscular system can activate or ‘fire’ your muscle fibres.

Simply put, the more fibres you can get to fire at once, the more powerful the contractions will be in a given muscle group. And how much a muscle group can contract plays an important role in how much it can expand. The result is greater strength and greater flexibility. 

For best results, aim for five or six high-cadence sprints of five or six seconds each in an easy gear, with five minutes downtime between sets.

You won’t be exerting any serious power through the pedals, but you’ll still be working on your race-winning sprint while your body’s in recovery mode.  

5. Enjoy riding your bike

The aim of a recovery ride isn’t for you to test yourself, rather it’s for you to enjoy yourself. For that reason, it’s often much more beneficial to go out on your recovery rides alone rather than with a group.

That way you avoid getting sucked into any kind of competition, which often happens when you get in among a bunch, even if they’re pals.

A word on how cycling can help you overcome depression

Alternatively, go out with a newbie or even your kids, putting the focus solely on them enjoying themselves. If you have an old beat-up road bike that you never take out any more, use that and leave your best go-faster kit in the drawer in favour of the casual look.

This will give you a constant mental reminder that you aren’t out to break any records. 

6. Cadence drills

As recovery rides mean dropping down to your lowest gear, they’re an ideal time to experiment with cadence (the rate at which your legs spin around). Because you aren’t putting so much stress on your muscles, it’s beneficial to use a higher cadence (around 80-100rpm if you’re an enthusiast, even higher if you’re more hardcore).

To measure this, just count how many times one leg pushes down on a pedal during 60 seconds of cycling on the flat (or use a cadence sensor).

Dive further into our guide on how to improve your cadence here

This exercise is particularly useful for identifying any weaknesses in your pedal stroke. If you find yourself ‘bouncing’ in the saddle, then there’s a dead spot somewhere in your pedal stroke which you need to identify and – with practice – eliminate.

Try a block of five minutes at the maximum cadence you can sustain without bouncing, then apply the same technique when you’re in higher gears on training rides.

Another good cadence drill for recovery rides is cadence switching. By alternating between, say, 120rpm for 60 seconds and 100rpm for 60 seconds (repeated four or five times during the ride) greater muscle memory will develop.

7. After the ride

It’s common knowledge that a five-minute stretching routine before a ride strengthens the muscles, improves performance and protects against injury, but it’s just as important to stretch after a ride to help maintain your flexibility and maximise recovery.

The main muscles you need to focus on are the quads, hamstrings and glutes, which naturally get tighter during the course of a ride.

Check our post-ride stretching guide here

Many cyclists experience problems with tight hamstrings, mainly because when you’re in the saddle, the leg never fully extends. This can lead to pulled muscles and lower back pain. Stretching eases the tension in the muscles and helps prevent soreness the next day. So make sure you stretch. 

As with any ride, it’s also vital to take on carbs and protein within 20 minutes of finishing because that’s when your body is especially receptive to macro-nutrients.

The carbs will be channelled straight into your glycogen stores, while the protein will work their magic on your muscle tissue.

You can give your body what it needs via recovery drinks, which also replace lost salts and minerals, or a post-workout supplement. Failing that, a banana blended into a pint of full-fat milk is a tasty alternative that even the most culinarily challenged cyclist can knock up!

This article first appeared on in September 2016

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