How long does it take to recover from a big ride or race? How do I know that I am recovered?

These are great questions. A friend of mine recently asked me this. I’m grateful to him for these questions; they get to the heart of being a successful endurance athlete. Because recovery is so important and I don’t feel that I had a totally adequate answer in the moment, I wanted to write more about it so my friend and anyone else might hopefully benefit.

So, we have some good questions, right?!… Great! Now all we need to know is how long we need to recover from any given stress and we’ll be well on our way to reaching our full potential! Easy! If we know what we need to recover, then we can time it just right every time and totally optimize our cycles of training and recovery. Right?! Ha. Well, unfortunately it’s not quite so easy or binary. Usually a binary, monolithic answer to a complex question is not a good answer. Good answers to questions about complex issues will involve nuance. And I think we all have some understanding that many things in biology are going to be best understood with bell curves and probabilities. Still, even while we acknowledge a degree of individual and contextual variability, there are some core guidelines and principles that we can keep in mind.

  • After an easy workout, allow 1-2 days to recover.
  • Hard workout = 2-3 days
  • Peak workout or race = 3-4 days
  • After an intense, one-day endurance event that felt like it destroyed you, it may take a week or more to fully recover.
  • Always 100-200g of carbs and 20-30g of protein within the first 1-2h after hard training or racing. It will jump start your recovery.
  • 8-9h of sleep each night is great for recovery. Most of us don’t get enough sleep.
  • If you’re stressed, traveling, don’t eat well, or have trouble sleeping, then your recovery will be compromised and your recovery will take longer.
  • Mental and emotional stress can significantly reduce your ability to perform well and recover from physical stress. Even if you’re physically ready, stress, anxiety, or feelings of depression can significantly reduce your ability to perform at anything. But, when these things are affecting us, exercise is one of the things that can most help us mitigate these unpleasant experiences. I’d encourage us all to try to get in some light to moderate exercise and not feel bad that you feel unable or unmotivated to train hard at that moment in time.
  • The fitter you are the less recovery you will need.
  • During your normal training routines, you can learn how long it usually takes you to recover after harder workouts. You may also become better at assessing your sensations and readiness to train.
  • Monitoring your resting heart rate and heart rate variability can give you extra input on your recovery and ability to train well again. They don’t tell the whole story, but there is useful correlation.
  • Similarly, if in training you see normal power numbers but low see low heart-rate numbers, this can be a sign that you are fit enough and recovered enough to do some good training today, but the lack of a responsive heart rate can be a sign that you should plan an extra day or two of recovery after today’s session. For me, I would still do the session if the power comes easily, but I’ll know that I want to take one more easy day after today’s session.
  • Don’t worry. Anyone can get this wrong. Please don’t feel bad. Try to make wise adjustments when you notice that you’re getting off course.
  • Ultimately these are guidelines, and you should know that you are recovered when you are able to train again and perform at your normal level without unusually high levels of fatigue. Listen to your body. If you try training hard, but feel terrible when you start, it’s okay to back off and give it another day or two.

For us to get fitter and grow as athletes we must continually create training stresses and repeatedly recover from them. It’s in these cycles of balanced stress and recovery that we get better. I think we all understand this and that’s where we sometimes become driven to train harder and more frequently. But if we jump back into hard training too quickly, then we may not get the full benefit of the training we’ve done. On the other hand, if we regularly give ourselves more time to recover than we need, then we may be missing out on an opportunity to train and keep moving forward. In an ideal world, it would be great to know exactly how long we need to recover from any specific ride or race. As much as our brains enjoy simple, clear-cut, easy answers, our bodies are usually not so simple. So, we must be attentive to our sensations and mindful of our training and recovery practices.

Training stress and the recovery needed to adapt to it are multi-variable. Fortunately our brains have evolved to be pretty good at letting us know how we feel (most of the time), and can help us know how we are doing at a given point in our training. If you feel recovered and can go out and perform, then you are usually pretty well recovered. If you try to train but feel tired and incapable of your normal level of performance, take another easy day or two before hitting it hard again.

If you really are tired, then your desire to train and feel good can’t override your brain and body’s experience of fatigue and make you perform. As motivated endurance athletes we can convince ourselves to keep pushing, but it’s good to be self aware and notice when our desire to train has led us to push when we should take it easy.

Above I suggested that 1-2 days is good recovery from a moderate workout, 2-3 days for a hard workout, and maybe 3-4 days for a peak workout or race. That’s generally a good guideline, and you can try to follow this in your normal training routines. If you feel that you are recovering more quickly than this, then it may be that you could increase the difficulty of your workouts if you are trying to train for a peak in your season. Or, if you are early in the season and building up for a long term goal, then you may choose to increase the frequency of your workouts. But, no matter what the situation, if you feel like you’re getting more and more tired from week to week, then you should add more recovery to the mix. This may mean one more easy day each week, one more day off, or an easy week before returning to your normal routine.

As you get fitter, what qualifies as a hard workout will change. Likewise, how long it takes to recover can change, even for what seems to be a similar demand on your body. For example, doing the Leadville 100 in 9 hours may feel like it nearly killed you one year and take more than 3 weeks to recover from it. But the next year with better training, you may feel fine just 1-2 weeks later after just a few easy 1-2h rides. You may have been pushing very hard both years, but the higher level of fitness carried you to a faster time and much faster recovery.

Or, on the other hand, if 2-3 years ago you were training 12-15 hours a week and racing every other weekend, then you may find that you need more time to recover now from the same workouts because your personal situation has changed and you’re currently only training 6-8 hours a week. Try not to get too attached to an idea that you have about how fit you have been in the past or what training you used to do. Try to pay attention to how your body feels now and what the current situation is really like for your body.

As much as I wish there were easy, clear-cut answers to questions like these, our bodies are complex and there are so many variables that affect them. Don’t worry! Even world class pros with full time coaching staff can make major mistakes in their training! Or they can realize they need sufficient carbs for good training and racing and reach new heights! Again, sometimes the best athletes in the world make mistakes even when their whole job is focused on paying attention to their body and treating it well so that they can perform their best on race day. So please go easy on yourself if you find that you’re not recovering well, or that you kept pushing your training for an extra few days or weeks after you started to know in the back of your head that you needed more recovery.

Listen to your body. Practice self awareness and good recovery habits in training. Day to day and week to week, the more you develop skill at recovering well and listening to your body, the better you will be able to tell how much recovery you need at any given time.

And, finally, if you’re having trouble knowing how well recovered you are, one classic piece of advice I still remember from my early learning about endurance sports training comes from Better Training for Distance Runners. David Martin and Peter Coe trained many of the world’s top middle and long distance runners for decades. They suggest taking some days easy and then going out to perform one of your favorite benchmark workouts. In my own formulation, this could be your favorite threshold workout on a familiar climb with a pretty standardized warm-up routine. Or, it could be a time trial on a favorite climb… Whatever it is for you, it should be a workout that usually excites you and has some pretty objective measures of success (e.g. pace on a run or power/time on a climb). Go out, warm-up thoroughly, and give it a go. If your feelings of lackluster performance melt away and you enjoy doing a very solid session, then you are probably doing fine. If you go out and can’t get into your workout, suffer through the first few minutes, and hate the way you feel, then call it off, take it easy, and give yourself more time to recover.