Cycling Recovery Ride vs Rest Days

Last year I reached a point in my life where I was training hard every day. I knew I shouldn’t be. I knew it wasn’t helping my performance but I couldn’t stop it. 

I also didn’t know how I should be spending the days I’m not training – are recovery rides or rest days better? 

It’s an interesting debate, right? 

Let’s find out more…!

What Is A Cycling Recovery Ride?

A recovery ride is considered to be a ride you would do after a tough or long day in the saddle. The idea of a recovery ride is that you ride at an easy pace for around 60 – 90 minutes. Stick to Zones 1 and 2 during this ride. Though I try to lean more towards Zone 1.

It’s important to give your muscles some gentle exercise, this can help to prevent them from tightening up and more generally help with the repair of the muscle. 

The Importance Of A Recovery Ride

A recovery ride will help you to flush out toxins that linger in the muscles when you’ve had a hard workout.

Whilst rest days have their place too, remaining stationary after a tough ride can cause your muscles to tighten and cramp up.

Not taking a recovery ride can have a negative impact on your performance and your progress as a rider. It’s actually one of the reasons why cyclists can experience a plateau in their performance.

Failing to recover after a long ride can also lead to illness and overtraining. Not only does it impact you physically, but it also affects you mentally too. You start to lose your ‘freshness’ and (believe it or not), you get sick of training.

I know I have woken up feeling unmotivated to jump back on the bike after taking a day off. Doing enough to keep your body moving but still recovering can be key to your training efforts and motivation levels. It can also prevent waking up feeling like I have!

Cyclist taking a break

When Should You Do A Recovery Ride?

This does depend on how often you’re cycling and the nature of your rides, I’d suggest a recovery ride around twice a week. Let’s say you do two or three days of big rides (or a single ride, if it’s a huge effort) then take a recovery ride. 

Another thing to be mindful of is when you set out on a big ride and you’re pushing too hard, you’re too tired to keep going at that pace. Tone it down! Listen to your body. It can prevent you from overtraining. Turn it into a recovery ride. 

At the end of the day, if you push your body too hard, it’s going to resist. Be that an injury or slow your training progress down, you aren’t going to see a benefit to taking it too hard. 

Want some tips as to how to take a recovery ride? Here you go!

How Long Should A Recovery Ride Be?

I said earlier a recovery ride should be between 60 – 90 minutes and that’s a pretty good guide (even if I do say so myself!). Though it does come down to how often you ride and what type of ride you’re recovering from. 

Ideally, you want your legs to be spinning more than would normally. This is a point I struggle with, although over time, I am seeing the benefit so I do recommend it!

Hills are where it can be easy to forget you’re supposed to be taking it easy. Without thinking, you can find your heart rate going up and bam, you’re in zone 2 or 3. Which isn’t where you should be!

Take hills slowly, focus on spinning as easily as you can.

One way I try to discipline myself is by keeping myself in the small ring. It forces me to spin when I wouldn’t normally. Try to find flat routes for your recovery rides, somewhere that has little traffic too. 

Personally, I’d highly recommend choosing a route with a good coffee shop on the way round. Not just for the coffee and cake but it keeps the ride relaxed.

Related article – Best Stretches For Cyclists To Help Recover Faster

The Importance Of Rest Days For Cyclists

Riding a bike can be addictive. When it becomes a part of your routine, it can be difficult to know when to stop. I know I’ve been guilty of this. One thing I learned was that rest days are just as important and can actually help to improve your performance on the bike.

Whilst training super-hard on a consistent level will put stress on your body and actually breaks down your muscles, a rest day can repair all of this and leave your muscles stronger than they were.

A rest day can leave you feeling fitter and more able to produce a more sustained power on your bike. It sounds great, doesn’t it?

White Pillows to sleep and recover

Should You Take Rest Days From Cycling?

Absolutely! 

Nobody can sustain an effort of giving everything at work all day every day, can they? You burn out, you become unproductive and less effective, you don’t get a chance to recover. It’s exactly the same principle as riding a bike. Your body needs time to repair.

If you think of training as a process. You break your body down and overtime, you rebuild it. The rebuilding part is key, but that doesn’t happen until your body is resting. So without rest, your body can’t rebuild.

If you’ve really had a tough day in the saddle, your glycogen levels will have depleted. Resting gives you a chance to top these up. Getting your energy levels back up to where they started from can take around 36 – 48 hours if you’ve seriously pushed yourself.

The fibers in your muscles will have become damaged and broken down during exercise. Resting allows them to knit themselves back together and be stronger.

Related article – Best Massage Tools For Cyclists – Help Recover Faster!

How Many Rest Days Should A Cyclist Take Each Week?

How much time you need to take off will depend on you – your body should tell you what it needs. A pro athlete can do up to seven days of intensive training and not suffer however I do not fall into that category so I take two days off a week.

This strikes up a good balance for physical and mental recovery. It can also become quite easy to let cycling dominate your life and two days off helps it from doing so. I know that two days off may seem like a lot to some people but what you will find are those days you do train, will become more intense and be more effective. 

It’s important that rest days are just that. Restful. No heading to the gym or running around the block. Feet up and relax!

Want to know how to spend your rest day like a pro? Find out here!

Signs You Need A Rest Day

Overtraining Syndrome (OTS) is the point when our body is taking on more damage than it can repair. Cyclists often tread a fine line between being at their peak and overtraining. 

It can be easy to fall into overtraining. Recovering and finding your form after this can be a long process so it’s best to be aware of the signs and take preventive action.

Not Being Able To Sleep – Even though you’re tired, you’re not falling asleep or your sleep pattern is interrupted. You could even be waking up feeling more tired than when you went to sleep. 

Changes In Your Heart Rate – A study conducted in 2013 by Wyatt researched the impact OTS had on our heart rates.

The results found that a change in your heart rate, either faster or slower can be a sign that you need a rest. To monitor this, you should track your heart rate when you’re feeling good and use that as a guide. 

You Get Dropped When You Shouldn’t – If you don’t normally get dropped but you are, then that could be a sign to take a day off. If you have a power meter, you can monitor this more easily….

You are probably aware of how many watts you can usually do at certain points on your ride, but if you’re no longer hitting those watts, think about when you last took a break. You may be overdue!

Looking for a bit more information on recovery? See how to recover like a cycling pro!

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Cycling Everyday Bad?

Cycling every day isn’t bad…in theory. 

You just need to be mindful as to how you’re cycling. If you’re in the saddle every day, recovery rides should be playing a part in your week. 

The key thing to remember is, every day shouldn’t be a training day. 

Also, listen to your body. It will tell you when you’re pushing it too much. 

What Is The Best Recovery Drink After Cycling?

Milk is a solid option as it contains a lot of nutrients that help your body recover. 

Energy drinks are also popular and a good choice. With these, you get carbohydrates that can be digested easily and electrolytes. If you’re looking for a more natural source of these then honey and coconut water could be your answer! 

Final Words

That’s my take on recovery rides vs rest days. Speaking as someone who felt like they were close to overtraining, I don’t think I can over-stress the importance of either a recovery ride or a rest day.

Have you got your cycling training plan sorted for the summer?

Hi, I'm Harry, the owner of this site! A 30-something MAMIL - a middle-aged man in lycra. An avid cyclist who is looking to maintain a baseline level of fitness to be able to enjoy the great outdoors on weekend rides with his mates!

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