The Huge Benefit of Recovery Rides

by Troy Jacobson

RECOVERY RIDES, Question: I have heard people talk about recovery rides but have never really thought about what it exactly means. Does "recovery" refer to something that actually enhances recovery or is it just an easy ride that doesn't do any damage.


In order to get faster and stronger, the endurance athlete requires a combination of work days (training) and rest days (recovery). Training stress, which can also be described as ‘controlled injury’, as it breaks down the muscle and other tissues, must be followed by rest days and sound nutrition, allowing the body to compensate and rebuild to get stronger. This cycle of work – rest – compensation is repeated over and over again and results in improved performance in one’s chosen sport. 

For years, coaches and athletes have incorporated ‘active recovery’ workouts into their weekly training programs. Active recovery refers to short duration exercise days following more intense bouts of training, at roughly 60-70% of maximum heart rate, or in the case of cycling, less than 60% of one’s functional threshold power (FTP). Active recovery days are different compared to complete or “passive” recovery days, where the athlete does practically no metabolism boosting activity beyond stretching or a light walk. Both protocols deserve a place in a systematic training program.


Active recovery days on the bike are beneficial in that they enhance blood flow and nutrient delivery to muscles broken down by an intense training session. They also serve to maintain (or enhance) body composition by burning calories as well as keep the athlete “in the groove” in terms of muscle coordination and technique. Most endurance athletes will confirm that short ‘easy does it’ workouts help them maintain momentum and allow them to feel stronger for future intense training days. As a case in point, it’s noted that riders in multi-day stage races, like the Tour De France, will ride easy for 1-3 hours on a rest day in order to feel strong for an ensuing mountain stage.bicyccycling

For the age group triathlete who typically trains on the bike 3 or 4 days per week including a long aerobic endurance day, a lactate threshold focused day and a brick workout (bike to run) day, it might be advised to add a 30-60 minute easy spin to their weekly ride after a hard day or a race day. This ride can be done on the roads or the trainer and consist of a 60-70% effort (i.e. low intensity), with light gearing focused on a cadence range of 90-100rpms to “shake the legs out”. 

The danger in adding recovery rides is that some athletes will tend to overdo it and misuse the ride, therefore just adding ‘junk miles’. This usually occurs when the intended low intensity recovery effort becomes a full-blown “gray zone” ride, defined as a Zone 3 or steady effort just below lactate threshold heart rate, sabotaging the benefits of the recovery ride and possibly contributing to a state of over-reaching or over-training. 

As a practical matter, when used for their intended purpose, recovery rides can benefit the age group triathlete by helping them bounce back from hard training sessions, manage body weight and maintain their training momentum.