A Beginner’s Guide to Recovery, Part 1: The Need for Recovery, Establishing a Baseline
This (above) is me on a recovery ride. Look how damn happy I am. How did I get here, and why am I bothering to recover?
Someone once wrote that “cyclists (athletes) need to recover as intensely as they train.” I think this motto has a lot of merit for athletes at all levels. Simply put, training is a cycle of tearing down our bodies and then rebuilding them stronger with rest and recovery.
Think of any classic workout image in your head, and all you ever see is pushing, pushing, pushing. You never see the elite runner, cyclist, boxer, or weightlifter sleeping. You are programmed to think that all they do is work out and work out hard. We never visualize Peter Sagan asleep for 8 hours a night, we only see him crushing the Roubaix cobbles or sweating on the trainer.
The cycle that many athletes fall into is training hard on a constant basis. When fatigue sets in, and it always does, the athlete sees a drop off in performance. So, what happens? He or she trains harder. I have personally seen several people start to fall into this cycle of under-recovery. They get sick. They get sinus infections. They feel like crap. When it sets in, it might be a little late, and boom… they have undone the hard work that they expected would help them. More intense recovery is the antidote.
You’re Not Over-trained, You’re Under-recovered
I am not advocating that you should take it easy with your training, but I am saying that you should try to focus more on recovery. The human body can take on huge loads of effort, and if they are built up slowly, you can safely train hard. Really hard. Just make sure that you recover equally hard.
Performance gains come in three stages: First you do a long or intense ride that shocks your system. Second, your body attempts to respond to the shock it was recently confronted with. Changes in hormones, muscle fibers, and all sorts of responses take place. Lastly, recovery allows your body to heal and make the new levels of adaptation more permanent.
Joe Friel wrote a great explanation of this cycle in his blog. “A hard workout only creates the potential for fitness. It’s realized when you recover afterwards. When you take it easy after a hard workout the body’s adaptive process kicks in and you become more fit. During recovery the body restores itself by rebuilding damaged cells, creating new neural pathways, expanding capillary beds, rebalancing its chemistry, developing muscles, and much more. During this physiological renovation it makes all of the body’s systems affected by the workout slightly better able handle the stress that produced the need for rest in the first place.”
Getting a Baseline
I think the first step in training and recovery is to really know your numbers and start to track training stress for individual sessions. To do this, you need to have a heart rate monitor, power meter, or both. As you get several rides in, you can establish your maximum heart rate and functional threshold power (FTP), the maximum power you can produce in one hour.
Knowing your maximum heart rate and FTP allows you to utilize training software to track the intensity of your activities. Zones are established for both heart rate and power that determine whether you are in recovery, endurance, tempo, lactate threshold, or a zone far above all these. Then, as you got out, you know how hard you have worked against your physical potential.
Normalized Power (NP) is an adjusted score that tells the rider how much power they “theoretically” produced in a work out. It balances out all the starts and stops of a normal ride and estimates how much power was averaged. It is a somewhat more useful metric than simply average power because it tries to calculate what would have happened with constant effort as opposed to the ups and downs and no pedaling that average power produces.
Intensity Factor (IF) is a good training number to look at that Strava or Training Peaks will spit out for you. This is simply FTP/NP. If you worked at you max potential for an hour, your IF would be 1.0. Tracking your IF will tell you how hard you rode. So, if I was attempting to recover, I would want to keep my IF low, maybe around .55 or so. If I was racing for an hour, I would hope to see a number above .90 because I should be trying my absolute best (in truth, drafting and "the pack" will keep you from getting to 1.0 every time).
Training Stress Score (TSS) is another metric that will have huge benefits to the cyclist who tracks it. The TSS tells you the training load that each workout puts on your body. So, when used along with IF, you can tell how hard you have worked over the course of a session.
Read up on these three metrics HERE.
So, now we have discussed a little about the training cycle, how important recovery is, and some basic metrics to track your individual workouts. Now that we can start quantifying our sessions, we can now use software to track our weekly training load and start to make sure we are recovering as intensely as we train. Next time we will look at the role basic software can play in recovery by tracking fitness and fatigue.