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You Need to Ride Slow Before You Can Ride Fast

In structured training where every pedal stroke is purposeful and important, it can be easy to overlook the importance of rest and recovery. Many newer riders to structured training will see the incredible gains they are making and decide that more is better, foregoing their easy rides and days off in favor of more hard riding. In this article, we will explain how strategically planning easy days in your schedule can be the catalyst for reaching new making you a faster cyclist.

What happens to your body when you train hard?

Before you can understand the importance of rest and recovery, you need to understand what happens in your body during hard blocks of training. Training breaks down specific aspects of your body depending on the types of workouts you use and the training systems you target. If you continue to train harder and harder without ever taking the time to relax and let your body heal itself, you will get weaker as you continue to train.

There are different kinds of fatigue?

There are ways to train specific systems and processes so you can become faster in a specific way. For example, increasing your FTP might not increase your sprint power and vice versa. Knowing that we can target specific systems and processes, it's important to understand that these systems become fatigued at different rates and show different symptoms.

Mechanical fatigue

Mechanical fatigue is possibly the easiest to understand since just about everyone has had some kind of personal experience with it. This is simply when there is damage to the tissues from hard exercise. This can be sore muscles from a hard gym session or riding harder than your body is prepared for or achy joints from the repetitive strain on your tendons and ligaments from riding longer than your body is prepared for.

The recovery process usually takes just a few days and can often be accelerated by using very low-intensity exercise to increase the blood flow to the damaged tissues. However, if there is a tendon or ligament involved that is particularly painful to move, it may be best to take more time off. Tendons and ligaments have very poor blood supply, making the recovery process very long in some cases. This is why if you begin to have joint, tendon, or ligament discomfort during your rides, it is best to cut back on your riding as much as possible to let it heal before it becomes a serious issue that needs months of intervention.

Central nervous system fatigue

closely related to hormonal fatigue, CNS fatigue differs based on the intensity and amount of riding you are doing. Very high-intensity riding will activate your sympathetic nervous system responsible for your flight or flight responses. This will result in hormones released that will affect your recovery as well as keep your brain active enough to hinder sleep.

Conversely, doing loads of volume at lower intensities can fatigue your para-sympathetic nervous system, responsible for your "rest and digest" processes. While activating your para-sympathetic nervous system is important for getting the most out of your recovery, having it chronically activated can lead to other issues. The Vagus nerve (responsible for things like your resting heart rate, blood pressure, etc) is stimulated via the para-sympathetic system, meaning your heart rate will slow down. This is a good thing for recovery, but it is also a sign that you may be getting too fatigued. A low resting heart rate is usually a sign of great aerobic fitness, but if you see changes over relatively short periods, like a month, you may need to cut back your riding a little and focus on recovery.

Another issue with chronic para-sympathetic stimulation is that it will prevent you from accessing your very high end fitness. Say you did a massive month of training doing 25 hours per week, your zone 2 power went up, your resting heart rate dropped, and your ratio of power to heart rate is making you look fitter than ever before. But now you need to go do a hard VO2 max workout, and you just can't get your heart rate up and you are struggling to hit your power numbers. This is precisely what happens when you do too much volume and fatigue your para-sympathetic nervous system. It is often confused for fitness since it results in a lower heart rate, but that is not always a good indicator of performance or recovery, adding RPE with your other metrics will help spot this kind of fatigue high-end.

CNS fatigue takes a long time to recover from so it is best to spot it early and take action quickly. When people complain about taking forever to come out of an overtraining hole, it is usually because of CNS fatigue. Tracking your resting heart rate and ensuring you aren't seeing any drastic or quick changes can help, as well as taking note of your RPE at a given heart rate. If for the same heart rate, your riding is beginning to feel more difficult, you need some time off.

Hormonal fatigue

Exercise naturally results in your body's fight-or-flight response being activated. This means after particularly hard workouts you will notice an increased heart rate and breathing rate due to an increase in adrenaline. This will usually return to normal after a few hours to a day, but this period of increased adrenaline will severely affect your ability to recover.

Adrenaline also comes with cortisol production, and this can lead to longer-term fatigue effects and hindered recovery. While adrenaline may return to baseline within 24 hours, cortisol could take days, meaning if you continue to do hard workouts that stress your body enough to signal cortisol production often enough, you may be severely inhibiting your body's ability to recover from all of your training.

This is why it is generally advised to have a rest or recovery day immediately after hard, high-intensity workouts and to space them out a little further apart. You don't necessarily want to do a full gas anaerobic workout 3 days a week for a month, the cortisol accumulation from that much regular intensity can make you feel full-body fatigue and just be tired all the time.

Metabolic fatigue

To make this as simple and easily understood as possible, metabolism simply refers to the utilization of fuels to create energy. These fuels are things like carbohydrates, lactate, ketones, fats, oxygen, etc and the energy produced is used to propel your bike forward. Many ongoing processes occur in your body to create energy and these processes create new products that can be used for further energy production or simply waste byproducts.

If you spend lots of time riding near your second lactate threshold, for example, you will accumulate a lot of lactate and hydrogen ions through the lactate fermentation process. These hydrogen ions change the acidity of your muscles, blood, and other fluids surrounding your body, and your body likes to stay in a very narrow range before damage occurs. This large accumulation of hydrogen ions can cause your breathing rate to increase above what is normal, your muscles feel weak and tired, and you may be more susceptible to cramping.

Metabolic fatigue like this is generally acute, meaning it goes away during your workout or pretty soon afterward. Since this type of fatigue is based on fuel utilization and related waste products created by those fuels, replenishing these fuels post-workout (or during) can help to speed up the recovery process.

What happens when you recover?

After a hard block of training, if you didn't dig too deep into any of the different kinds of fatigue mentioned above, you will undergo a process called super compensation. All of that hard training will push you to varying levels of fatigue, it overloads your body and it can't fully cope. When you rest, you allow your body to not only repair itself from all that damage, but it make changes and adapt so the next time your body is exposed to those stresses, it is more prepared for them.

Changes are made specific to the processes that are stressed, if you train a lot of endurance but no threshold level or above work, the processes involved in your endurance riding will get stronger. This means things like fat oxidation rate, fatigue-ability of muscle fibers, and blood supply and capillary density to the working muscles are all improved. What isn't improved in this example are the processes involved in lactate production and clearance, structural changes to the heart that affect VO2 max, and your muscle's ability to use glucose in the absence of oxygen.

How can you maximize my recovery?

Quality sleep

It is no secret that sleep is the best method of recovery. If you have the opportunity to go to bed earlier, sleep in longer, or take a nap during the day, it will help you tremendously over the course of a training block and season. Coming into each hard workout after a great night's sleep will help you get all the performance out of it as you can and further improve your training. Similarly, catching up on your sleep leading up to your big race will help get rid of any last fatigue that may hold you back.

Designate recovery days

Many riders fall into the trap of having every ride be somewhat hard, but not quite hard enough to make adaptations. In the last few years with the influx of science-based training and having so much information available to the masses, many people are learning that a periodized approach to training is more effective. What many people don't understand about this periodized approach is how different workouts can be difficult and fatiguing in different ways.

This is a significant issue when riders begin to incorporate strength training along with their regular riding, it is possible to quickly become overwhelmed with fatigue. Riders may want to focus on their hard interval workout for the day, so they take the day off the gym. But then they go to the gym on an easier endurance day, or worse a recovery day. Strength workouts should be difficult and taxing if you are doing them properly, so alternating between hard riding days and hard gym days won't allow you any real time to recover between each workout. I recommend doing your hard gym sessions on the same days as your hard endurance workouts to consolidate all of your fatigue into a single day while doing the same with recovery and maximizing it with a full day of rest. If it is early in the year and you are prioritizing the strength gains, do your gym workout first, otherwise do your riding workout first and deal with the slightly diminished gym performance.

I have a whole article on consolidating rest and recovery into a single day, you can read more about it here.


Along with sleep, proper nutrition is a small change that can make massive improvements over the course of a year or more. Ensure you are eating enough carbs to properly fuel each workout, taking advantage of the ~1 hour post-workout glycogen loading window, and consistently consuming around 1.5 grams of protein per kg of body-weight. After these primary goals, you should work on hitting your recommended daily allowances for your micro-nutrients like vitamins and minerals. You can find tables for RDAs for vitamins and minerals nearly everywhere online, but I linked a few for you here. Along with these few targets, you should be looking to maintain proper hydration by sipping on small amounts of water often throughout the day.

There is a lot of information to digest (pun intended) here about nutrition and it can be overwhelming. I recommend simplifying everything as much as you can so you can be consistent with it. If this means taking a daily multivitamin to hit all your necessary micronutrients, that's perfect. Find a solution that works for you and don't over-complicate it. Taking all kinds of expensive supplements and searching for the newest superfood will never create as much of an impact as simply sticking to the basics and doing it consistently.

Listening to your body

One of the single most important skills to have as an athlete is understanding how your body feels and why it feels that way. If you wake up the morning after a hard day of training and you just want to keep laying in bed exhausted, you probably require a little more rest.

Take the time throughout your training process to take note of how you feel after rides, the day after, and even weeks after a hard training cycle. Keep a diary of how you feel, you can use the notes and comments feature in TrainingPeaks for this too so you can look back and see what workouts might be affecting you. You can ask a mentor, training partner, or coach for advice on what these feelings mean and how you can make changes to your training and lifestyle to make you feel more rested and increase your performance.


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