French Flag on Pavement

Recently, I was asked to weigh in on the topic of low-intensity recovery rides and their potential training benefits and I found myself particularly excited for the opportunity to share some information that falls well outside of the traditional energy-focused models of endurance sports performance as well as voice my support of recovery training based on my own experience, past & present. And while our application of recovery rides is in little need of updating, I believe it’s still worthwhile, and if nothing else intellectually stimulating, to contemplate new underlying scientific explanations as they come to light. I’d also like to put forth some suggestions regarding how to best utilize L1/Active Recovery rides to further endurance cycling performance, and if that happens to be all you’re looking to get out of this post, here’s the bullet point version of that portion of this post:

  • Perform your recovery ride within 4-24 hours whenever possible after any & every hard workout, race or ride.
  • Do them on Active Rest days and consider them when you’re too tired to do your scheduled workout which you’ll postpone 12-36 hours.
  • Keep them easy the entire time, 50% of FTP or lower is recommended.
  • Keep them under 60 minutes, well under if you’re really tired.
  • Consider doing them without a fan/AC if heat acclimation is a concern.
  • Use them as an opportunity to refine your position on the bike.

It will probably surprise you as much as it surprised me to find that there is no conclusive evidence linking low-intensity recovery rides with most of the benefits we often confer upon them. While there might exist correlations between glycogen replenishment, tissue repair, lactate removal (which takes place far more quickly than you might think) and many other recovery-related physiological phenomena, they are merely that – correlations rather than the causes we’re quick to view them as. Also, I won’t delve too deeply into the scientific findings and bury you in jargon I only loosely understand myself because I feel safe assuming that the more detail-oriented riders amongst you can surely figure out which words to plug into a search engine in order to further explore the topics I’m about to briefly touch upon.

According to Matt Fitzgerald in his book “Brain Training for Runners” as well as the many scientists and researchers behind the numerous scientific studies upon which his brain-modeled training system is based, our understanding of what’s actually taking place during recovery exercise is off the mark. Rather than the aforementioned physiological occurrences that reportedly don’t occur, there exist overt benefits that many riders, myself previously included, may not understand. Many of these benefits are tied to the cytokine interleukin-6 (IL-6) and include increased fat metabolism, improved resistance to muscle tissue damage and the more recognizable, if less sexy, improved cognitive function. There are also cellular enhancements attributable to a compound called p38 MAPK that become more prevalent when we exercise in a glycogen-depleted state. And here’s your cue to Bing It On.

The gist of these findings is simply that the true benefits of recovery riding – italicized because it could be argued that the use of “recovery” is misleading – lie in the challenge of performing work, even low-intensity work, in a state of glycogen depletion. And while it’s tempting to instead use the term “partial glycogen depletion”, I’ll instead mention that full glycogen depletion only has one outcome: death. For pages & pages of more information on this little nugget of information, check out Tim Noakes’ “The Lore of Running“.

But even before this information had come to my attention, I’d already long been an advocate and practitioner of recovery workouts, whether on the bike, as a runner, or even with respect to weight training. And lately, as I’m becoming more versed in the usefulness and benefits of recovery rides, I’ve reached a point where I feel like my training derails slightly if I miss a recovery ride, even if I buried myself half a day earlier with a brutal workout – ESPECIALLY if I buried myself earlier that day (or perhaps the night before).

Aside from all the regenerative benefits I used to think went along with these short, easy rides, they have always been an ideal opportunity to do 4 things: enhance neuromuscular efficiency, i.e. pedal economy, within muscles that are susceptible to faulty movement patterns as fiber fatigue allows (forces?) you to deepen or open communication lines with similar muscle fibers thereby altering recruitment patterns in a quest to pedal well regardless of the magnitude of fatigue; position refinement that allows you to see & feel just how dialed your position is when your legs aren’t bearing so much of your body weight – modify, modify, modify until it starts feeling exactly right, especially for you IM guys; these rides are excellent for burning a little extra fat as well as conditioning your metabolism to prefer fat as a fuel source as the effort level remains predominantly aerobic whether you’re riding for 20 minutes or 60; and acclimatization, because as indoor riders who park a fan in our faces, turn up the AC & ride in little more than bib shorts, we don’t get the necessary exposure to the heat we’ll face come race day. I recently replied to a support request on this latter matter and I can’t emphasize its importance enough. If we fail to adapt our cooling response to severe heat conditions, we risk fully falling apart should we try to ride hard or even hard-ish in temperatures well outside of those to which we’re accustomed. 2013 Tour of California, anyone?

Personally, I don’t see the need to look further than the first benefit of improved neuromuscular coordination because I’ve always been drawn to the call of improved performance requiring less energy expenditure (a.k.a. “free speed”), but also consider how grand tour riders are on the bike, for multiple hours, on any tour’s scheduled rest days. These riders are continually affecting their fitness, whether positively or negatively, over the course of a 2 or 3-week race and a day without their specific brand of muscle stress often has major, even dire consequences. But I digress…

Time for the specifics of recovery rides. First off, anything over 60 minutes isn’t recovery. Rides start to rapidly branch into aerobic endurance and actually further systemic & local fatigue as the ride duration grows. I like 20 minute recovery rides on days I’m really cooked, 30-40 minutes on most days, and a full 60 minutes if I’m truly not slowing down or increasing RPE and/or HR over that last 15-20 minutes. These rides have to feel easy, the entire time, or they aren’t recovery. Ride until you’re tired and these brief workouts will see to it that your subsequent rides suffer because of them, exactly the opposite effect you’re after. So don’t set a time limit when you throw your leg over the saddle with the intent of recovery; instead, stop riding and call it a day as soon as you feel you aren’t riding easily anymore.

I recommend wearing a Heart Rate Monitor (always really, it’s useful info) just to develop a feel for HR response/activity thereby growing your self-knowledge in terms of recovery relative to all sorts of workouts & events. There are no right or wrong HR’s here, just useful info that can be put to further use as your training database grows and patterns emerge. Shoot for a moderately quick cadence, 85-95rpm, in a light gear that keeps your watts no higher than 50% FTP, all done in the 4 to 24-hour window following your key workout or event. You can ride at higher watts as long as you feel as though you’re recuperating, not working. Always do one within 24 hours after a race too and then probably schedule a full day of rest following this recovery ride.

Train smart, ride hard, have fun.