I’ve long heard it touted that training twice daily is one of the best ways to further training adaptations and consequently performance; but just as often, I hear this very same training addition blamed for hampering recovery and furthering cumulative fatigue.
So a question I see pretty frequently in the realms of multisport and endurance cycling is whether or not there’s any merit to training twice daily. And as always, the reply is the unintentionally furtive and very often apropos, “It depends…”
There’s plenty of research on the recovery benefits of cooling strategies & devices, nutritional timing and supplementation, even on the buzz-y topic of compression garments, but nothing – not one article I could find in a number of reputable research journals – to support a recovery benefit to recovery rides or runs.
So what gives? Why even get on the bike later in the same day within which you already gutted yourself?
I see the potential benefits boiling down to only a few sought-after outcomes, at least from an endurance athlete’s perspective: additional aerobic adaptation, increased pedal economy & energy efficiency, and increased fatigue resistance.
Additional Aerobic Adaptation
By working already semi-exhausted muscles, a rider has little choice but to shift the muscular demand off of the more active contributors to less-utilized muscle fibers.
Put another way, you’re go-to fibers are fatigued from your earlier workout, so recruitment patterns are altered and the workload has to be performed by lesser-used fibers.
This not only spawns an increase in the number of active fibers but enhances the aerobic conditioning of these less relied upon fibers, i.e. increased mitochondrial proliferation, muscle capillarization, aerobic enzyme activity; you know, the big-three of aerobic adaptation.
Improved Pedal Economy & Energy Efficiency
Then there’s the simple matter of increased training volume, and not necessarily in the sense that more miles make you stronger but from the perspective that another 20-60 minutes on the bike provides literally hundreds & thousands of opportunities to practice a repetitive motion.
The outcome? Potentially improved biomechanical economy and even improvements in the utilization of energy since you’re growing your ability to better utilize fat as fuel as a result of the previously mentioned aerobic adaptations!
Increased Fatigue Resistance
Finally, there’s the matter of increased fatigue resistance and how it ties to the idea of deplet-ed riding, as opposed to the typically deplet-ing nature of endurance training – especially high-intensity endurance training.
Tim Noakes and Matt Fitzgerald both opened my eyes to the power of the brain and its influence & regulation on our performance capabilities, but it was Matt’s offered insight into Interleukin-6 (IL-6) that really drove the nature of depleted training home.
But let me back up for just a moment.
Matt describes recovery runs (Matt’s a runner, but the implications on cycling are similar) as easy runs that take place in the 4 to 24-hour window following a harder run. He makes a point to mention that no real recovery takes place during these follow-up efforts and there’s no (none!) research to back up the restorative nature of so-called “recovery” exercise.
This, of course, led me on my own exploratory mission to find something, anything, that might demonstrate a recovery benefit inherent to these lighter, later workouts. What’d I find? Nothing.
Turns out, the real benefit in “recovery” workouts isn’t the lactate removal (which actually happens pretty rapidly whether your rest is active or not), not the increased blood flow and delivery of nutrients to the muscles, nor the expedited replenishment of muscle glycogen. So what is it?
Without delving too deeply into an explanation of IL-6 and all its characteristics, both in terms of in-exercise fatigue as well as post-exercise adaptations, suffice it to say that a proper level of fatigued exercise can have a tremendous benefit on the way your body responds to the added stress.
In a nutshell, you’re not furthering or enhancing your body’s recovery but rather you’re furthering the training stress in a potentially productive manner.
Note my use of italics on the word “potentially” just above. The problem common to recovery training is that far too many athletes don’t understand the difference between riding easy and riding easy enough to avoid further fatigue and thereby postpone or deny necessary rest.
The fact of the matter is these second workouts can’t be long and they can’t be hard; furthermore, they have to be short and they have to be easy.
Unfortunately, when the option – and it should always be optional – of an additional ride is on your calendar, most type-A athletes (also read as: successful athletes) feel obligated to get on the bike knowing full well it’s going to negatively impact their recovery.
So while a workout may call for a 60-minute recovery ride, it’s upon each rider to recognize that training adaptation is a very subjective process and what may be short & easy for one rider is neither for another.
And I feel an obligation to underline the importance of understanding training/adaptation-subjectivity in that all riders need to learn when their fatigue has reached a level that any time on the bike is unlikely to be productive.
But some common parameters do apply to most riders. 1 – Keep your recovery rides under an hour, and 2 – keep the intensity low enough that you feel no more fatigued getting off the bike that you were getting on.
Two-a-day regimens aren’t necessarily a wise addition to an athlete’s training load and it’s up to each athlete to determine if this extra dose of stress is a productive one. Often enough, the smallest of changes are those straws that break the camel’s back, whether from emotional, mental, or in the case of “recovery rides”, physical stress.
Finally, I’d like to make a brief mention of my own, anecdotal experience with two-a-day training, both positive and negative.
Even though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was performing my own n=1 experiment on myself as a small business owner who ran indoor, power-based training cycling classes.
I’d lead my typical early-morning, 6am interval class where I’d bury myself along with the other 7 members of the class and then I’d often enough return for the 4:30pm repeat session where my level of residual fatigue all but ensured I’d do nothing but noodle through this follow-up ride.
I didn’t see this as anything more than a way to fight off the bored clock-watching I’d otherwise resign myself to if I taught the class from a chair or only slightly more entertaining Swiss ball.
I later recognized that this single training manipulation, though not the only change (competitive riders are not ideal lab rats since we all inevitably introduce multiple unintended variables into our training regimens as we look for any & every attainable advantage), was the most obvious alteration from the same training schedule I’d maintained for the previous two seasons.
The result? I was crushing the riders who usually put the hurt on me and I was hanging with (and beating at times) the riders who usually crushed everyone. And this was at the Masters 1/2/3 level and extended to regional & national time trials, criteriums, road races & stage races – some big ones too!
On the flip-side of this is my own stubborn pig-headedness – and this was intentional, fully conscious decision-making that flew in the face of training basics.
No matter how tired I was, no matter how deep my fatigue became, I was so intent on using my additional daily rides to drop an extra kilo or two that I ignored all signs of overtraining until I reached a point where – though 5 lbs lighter and arguably more aerobically adapted – I faced a precipitous decline in sustainable power. And just in time for Masters Nationals – awesome.
So be sensible. Pay attention to how you’re responding to additional weekly & daily workouts. And always try to see the bigger picture and recognize that stress comes at us from all angles over the course of our training & competitive seasons, not just on the bike.
Best of luck. Train smart, ride hard, have fun.