Whether you are a beginner triathlete training for your first sprint triathlon or an experienced cyclist training for your fifth Gran Fondo, understanding the concept of a recovery ride and how to incorporate them into your training plan is essential for reaching your endurance goals.
Recovery rides have long been misunderstood by many well-meaning coaches and cyclists, which creates a lot of confusion about what the effect, purpose, and proper training methods are for recovery bike rides.
We'll clear that up for you today so you'll get the absolute most out of your recovery rides.
In this article, you will learn:
- What is a recovery ride
- Do you even need to do recovery rides
- What are the benefits of recovery rides
- How long should a recovery ride be
- When you should do recovery rides in your training plan
- Should you do a recovery ride on software like Zwift or Peloton
- What to eat before and during recovery bike rides
What is a Recovery Ride?
Recovery rides are very short, low-intensity cycling workouts included in well-designed training plans for triathletes, cyclists, and duathletes who do four or more weekly bike workouts. This is different than a rest day or a recovery day, where many people do no activity at all. While the name suggests these rides increase recovery, this isn't entirely true.
Science has found a recovery ride's benefit is minimal as it won't reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) as much as a massage or ice. However, people often feel better physically and mentally after a recovery ride, and this type of workout does provide an additional training effect.
A recovery ride shouldn't be anywhere near your typical training pace; the pace is meant to be extremely easy. In fact, it should bso easy that you end the session feeling guilty about how easy you went. As it relates to FTP (functional threshold power), a recovery ride would be 30-50% of FTP.
This slow pace will provide you with an additional bike workout while keeping your stress response very low so you don't build up lactic acid and cortisol. To ensure you're riding at the correct pace, we've provided calculators below to help dial in your recovery ride intensity.
The Science of the Recovery Ride
They Don't Enhance Recovery
For a long time, coaches and cyclists believed these rides were essential to training, helping speed up the recovery process after hard rides by stimulating blood flow.
However, recent studies have questioned this belief. They have shown recovery rides may not be as beneficial for recovery as previously thought.
Most of the research on active recovery is done on running. One study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found recovery runs did not enhance muscle recovery or reduce muscle damage. The study found recovery runs might actually create more muscle damage and that recovery techniques like massage or cold water immersion worked much better for recovery.
They Improve Endurance
Just because recovery rides don't reduce DOMS, doesn't mean they don't have training benefits. They have many.
Training in a pre-fatigued state, as you do in recovery sessions, can be very beneficial. One study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that training tired legs, even with the same total training load, increased endurance by as much as 90% in the legs that were trained tired.
It is important to note that training with tired legs all the time can increase the risk of injury. As such, recovery rides should be used as a tool in a well-balanced training plan. Incorporating these workouts in a planned and strategic way can be an effective way to increase endurance race performance without risking injury.
4 Benefits of a Recovery Ride
As we've discussed, recovery rides don't promote recovery very well but that doesn't mean they're not beneficial. There are four primary benefits of recovery rides:
- Benefit #1: Improved fitness and performance. One of the key benefits is that this kind of workout helps triathletes and cyclists learn how to ride frequently, even when tired. This is an important skill for riders to develop because, during races, there will be moments where you will need to push through fatigue to finish fast and maintain proper riding technique. By consistently incorporating recovery sessions into your training plan, your body will become better adapted to riding when tired, making it easier to push through those tough moments during races.
- Benefit #2: The body feels better. While the physiologically measurable benefits are debated, most people say they do feel better after doing one. You get your blood flowing and you’ve loosened up your muscles.
- Benefit #3: Fat burning. Riding at a low intensity teaches your body to be metabolically efficient and burn fat as fuel which is critical to success as athletes step up to half-IRONMAN (70.3) races, IRONMAN races, Gran Fondos, and other longer races. To optimize this benefit, it is important to keep muscle glycogen levels low by not having a lot of carbs before or during a recovery ride. Pairing the correct nutrition with every workout is a great way to get more out of every single workout.
This is why our app provides nutrition recommendations alongside each and every workout, like the example below for a recovery ride in a half marathon training plan.
- Benefit #4: Mental health improvements. These workouts have mental and emotional benefits. Exercise is known to improve mental and emotional well-being, particularly during a hard period of a training plan. As the body becomes accustomed to the endorphins released during exercise, it can help alleviate stress and anxiety.
5 Steps to Incorporating the Recovery Ride into Your Training Plan
Understanding how to properly incorporate recovery rides into your training plan is important to see the most benefit. Without a proper structure, you'll just do more rides without any purpose, opening the door for injury and overtraining.
Step 1: How Fast Should These Rides Be?
The first step is calculating your training zone heart rates and power zone numbers.
Most people do their recovery activity much too fast; recovery pace is extremely slow, keeping your heart rate very low in Zone 1. There's a reason recovery rides are also called "coffee rides." The effort and length should be like riding to the coffee shop.
We prefer to use heart rate to dictate low-intensity riding instead of power because it automatically adjusts based on all factors associated with your current stress and training levels. Recovery rides should be done keeping your heart rate between Zone 1 and 15 beats per minute from the top of your Zone 2.
You can use the calculators below to calculate your training zones for heart rate and power. Click here if you want to know more about how to calculate your heart rate zones and perform low heart rate training. Click here to learn more about calculating your bike power training zones and performing interval rides.
Once you have your training zones, your recovery outings should be entirely in your low heart rate training zones.
Here's an example of how we prescribe these rides in one of our triathlon training plans.
Step 2: When Should You Do Them?
It's important to remember they should only be added after you already have a long ride, an interval workout, a tempo ride (what we call a Steady Ride in our app), and workouts in place from all of the other disciplines you need to train for.
Once you have your key workouts in your training plan, you can start adding recovery sessions on days when you expect you'll want to give your body a rest. We like to schedule them on Fridays to recover from shorter, intense training from Tuesday to Thursday and prepare for endurance-building workouts on the weekend when more time is available.
You can see a sample recommended weekly schedule from our IRONMAN Training Plans as an example of how much training needs to be done each week before you start planning for a regular weekly recovery workout.
Step 3: How Long Should They Be?
They should be kept short, with 30-60 minutes being plenty to get the blood moving. The point is to make this workout so short and so slow that you almost feel guilty by the time you finish for doing "so little".
Many people have a hard time with an ultra-easy workout like this because it's so short and non-taxing that athletes don't feel like they're being productive. A good use of your time is to do them on Zwift or Peloton, where you can catch up on work emails or take a call during the workout.
Step 4: How to Change These Workouts As Your Fitness Changes
It's always important to keep your power zones updated as you progress through your training. Our athletes rarely update their heart rate training zones because these tend to always stay the same within a few beats per minute, but training power numbers get updated with the test shown below and the pace calculator above every 2-4 months.
Step 5: When to Skip Them
Successful endurance athletes should skip some easy rides, and turn some intense or tempo rides into recovery sessions. We give our athletes full credit for reaching their training plan goals if they complete 80% or more of their scheduled workouts; endurance athletes should skip or alter the occasional workout.
You should skip a recovery workout if you're not sleeping enough and could use the extra hour of sleep. This will create much more recovery in your body and result in better training than any easy ride can. You should swap intense rides and steady rides for recovery if you're feeling chronically sore from workouts, had a particularly rough night, or are starting to feel sick.
Always listen to your body's signals and take it easy when hard training days have caught up with you; downtime is important to help you maintain your health.
Recovery rides are excellent if you're training a lot throughout the week and need an easy day in the saddle to balance intense training. However, performing them properly and having them scheduled correctly in your training plan is critical. Otherwise, you could be doing additional muscle damage and getting further away from reaching your goals.
Hopefully, you found this article helpful. If you want help with creating a personalized training plan that includes all of the methods we discuss in our articles, we'd encourage you to give our training plan app a try.
It's the only app in the world with training plans designed specifically for the needs of ordinary people who want to accomplish something extraordinary in endurance sports.