How many rest days are needed in cycle training?

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When training, I used to frequently asking myself – how much do I need to rest before the next hard training session? The amount of rest is a key factor in determining the quality and efficiency of training. If you gave insufficient rest, training will become counter-productive. Take too much rest and you never stretch yourself satisfactorily.

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Pro Perspectives

Bradley Wiggins said that the best preparation for riding the Olympic Time trial (2012) was riding the three week Tour de France – finishing nine days before. The Tour de France has two ‘rest days’. But for Wiggins a rest day meant a three hour ride with an alpine climb – not my kind of rest day.

In the nine days between the Tour de France and the time trial, Wiggins was riding hard – including burying himself in the 250,m road race. Many less capable cyclists would have turned up to that time trial – not in a peak state of fitness, but complete exhaustion. During this particular racing period, Wiggins is taking very little rest.

Obree method

At the other end of the spectrum, in Graeme Obree’s training manual – he states that after a really hard training session, it could take him up to four days to fully recover before the next full-on training session. Obree’s philosophy was that to make progress, you have to train at a higher level than ever before. To transcend previous achievements you need to be fully recovered. If you train when already tired, you can’t make the same progress.

So with two very successful professional cyclists – you have two very different approaches to the amount of rest needed. For amateur cyclists aiming for maximum fitness with limited time, rest days take on more importance.

On the one hand, coaches often stress the importance of rest days to allow full recovery – but then the best cyclist are those who race 100 days a year and ride three-week tours.

Rest and Recovery Days

It should be stated that pros like Wiggins will definitely have recovery put into their training schedule, at different times of the year. For them, recovery days may involve 1-3 hours on the bike. This is called ‘active recovery’ Low intensity gives the muscles a chance to gently recover without going to sleep.

Some days I don’t cycle because my schedule doesn’t allow it. If I have time, I like to have an hour’s gentle cycle rather than full day off bike. I feel these aids recovery more than stopping completely. If I have a race the next day, I will always try and warm up the day before. However, these active recovery days are often a luxury for amateur cyclists. If you have to sacrifice a few hours training, these low intensity recovery days may be the first to go.

How Many Rest Days Do I Need?

Firstly, you can’t judge your need for rest days by copying the program of a professional athlete who has years of building up their aerobic capacity. The first step is to realise that the amount of recovery will be individual – depending on your base fitness, and your bodies capacity for recovery (and other factors like age/type of job you have e.t.c.)

Also, when training, I found it varied throughout the season. (see hill climb section at the end)

It also depends on the experience of the cyclist. When I started cycling (and had little base fitness or muscle memory), I seemed to need more recovery. But, after a few years cycling, you build up more base strength.

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Some times, I raced on consecutive days and felt I did better on the second day of racing! There are no hard and fast rules, but in a week, I usually had 1-2 rest days, plus 1-2 easier days.

Listening to the Body

It is a useful practice to try ‘listen’ to the legs and body and work out how much recovery is needed. After one day’s recovery, I may go training the next day but find I still can’t reach that target of performance I want. Therefore, the training session misses its targets. There just isn’t the same responsiveness.

Yet, the day after this intended interval session, you may be fully recovered and you know that now you can race/train at the highest intensity.

It’s hard to explain, but sometimes you go out on the bike, and you just know you won’t be able to reach that peak of performance. You could ride all day, but something prevents you going into the real red zone. I take this as a sign that you need to change your training plan and cycle at a lower intensity and come back the next day.

Sometimes after a ‘failed interval day’ the next day feels perfectly fine.

The length of recovery will depend upon various factors:

  • Duration of ride. A 20 minute 10-mile time trial can be quite quick to recover from. A four hour ride with periods of high intensity will take twice as long.
  • Experience. The more you cycle, the better recovery becomes. When I first started cycling, I wouldn’t think of racing on consecutive days, but after several years of training, it is much easier.
  • General health and condition. If you are a little off-colour with minor cold or poor nutrition, recovery can be much delayed.
  • Accumulated fatigue. Sometimes fatigue can accumulate. The same ride may suddenly need more recovery than earlier in the training cycle. This is why it is sometimes good to have a light week once a month.
  • Psychological motivation. A key factor in training at high intensities is having the motivation and enthusiasm to push yourself. Sometimes an ability to train hard may be due to a simple mental fatigue as much as physical fatigue.

Signs you need more rest days

  • Heart rate. An elevated resting heart rate – can be a sign of overtraining, though bear in mind heart rate can also be influenced by temperature and other factors
  • Low max power.
  • A feeling of listlessness and tiredness. (but it is a skill to distinguish between real physical fatigue and the mind’s tiredness.) Sometimes, I felt mentally tired, but going out on the bike showed by body was really in top shape.

Three Day Cycles

Another training philosophy used by British Cycling is to use three consecutive days of training followed by a days rest / active recovery.

Then I heard about the British Team pursuit squad which had days where they had three training sessions – in a single day! Something which would take us all week to do!

Confused about how many rest days to take? Just use your common sense and you should be OK. But, don’t be afraid to mix it up. One week training block, followed by much easier week.

Time trials and days off

When I was training for long-distance time trials, I was less worried about days off. I was training more at endurance/sweet-spot level. This is hard, but doesn’t create too much intense muscle damage and fatigue. With time trial training, there is a greater effort to maximise training load and time off.

Hill Climbs and days off

In the short 8-10 week hill climb seasons, days off became more critical. In this period of training it felt like training was more “All or nothing” Full on hill climb intervals followed by days off.

Sometimes in September, I might do three really quite hard interval sessions – with three of four days off the bike (or active recovery). However, after a few weeks of this ‘training overload’ I found the best way to see a 20 watt improvement in power was to take three-four days off the bike. Nothing was as reliable for getting max power than three days of doing nothing. Of course, when you’re highly geared towards training, it can take a lot of discipline and self-restraint to actually do it. But, towards the peak end of the hill climb season, there were definitely weeks when I was training quite low mileage.

2017/18 rest days.

These days I am definitely doing very well in making sure I have plenty of rest days!

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