The importance of rest days for cyclists

Rest days are important. There’s this mentality that the more you do, the more gains you’ll get. I know that’s my default. But really, the harder you train, the harder you need to rest. Every time you work out, you essentially break down your muscles. They rebuild at rest. If you never rest, you never allow your muscles to rebuild and therefore, they won’t get stronger. You’ll actually make yourself more susceptible to burnout and injury. 

Rest day: What it is and what it isn’t

What it is

Exactly how it sounds: rest. You rest on rest days, physically and mentally. Sleep in. Take a nap. Kick your feet up. Get a massage. Stretch a little. Take an easy walk. Meditate. Take an Epsom salt bath, light some candles, and chill out. 

What it isn’t

Riding at an “easier” pace. Strength training in the gym. Cross-training, like running, hiking, swimming, etc. Abandoning your nutrition plan. Using the extra time to get your to-do’s to-done and adding extra mental stress to your plate. 

Rest versus Active Recovery

Active recovery is the act of moving blood through your muscles to assist in recovery and flush out metabolic waste products through increased oxygen delivery. This would be jogging, swimming, Zone 1 bike riding, rock climbing, hiking, etc. Basically, something that gets your blood moving but isn’t so taxing on your body that you don’t feel recovered the next day. 

When to rest

If you’re working with a coach, they’ll incorporate rest and active recovery days into your training plan. Depending on the length of your training plan mesocycle and the workouts within each week, you may have a recovery week every two or three weeks. Usually, after a solid number of days of hard workouts, you’ll want to give your body some rest.

As most of us are on a strict schedule, it’s hard to squeeze in rest days (or at least we think so) with limited training time, especially for endurance athletes. The best day for rest is probably going to be a Monday or a week day since weekends are open for longer training g days. 

Monday’s are good because an endurance athlete (someone training for a century ride or a marathon or a triathlete) will have spent Saturday and Sunday on long distance and time. Monday allows your body to recover and recuperate from the weekend’s training. 

In my own training plans, I work on a 3-week cycle: 2 weeks of hard workouts and 1 recovery week. I rest every Monday. This allows me a break from the hard work over the weekend and the previous week and the upcoming training. 

Rest days are highly individual. Some people need more rest days throughout their week and others don’t. Some people choose to have a rest day on the weekend so they can spend it with their family while others may have one mid-week. 

You’ll know you need a rest day when you aren’t hitting your numbers in a workout. If your legs feel like they’re wading through mud, your heart rate is elevated upon waking in the morning, or you’re losing your motivation to work out, then it’s time for a rest day. We love our training plans but our bodies know best. 

How can you tell if it’s time for rest or it’s laziness?

Start your workout and see how your legs feel. Do they feel crappy after five or ten minutes? Get off and rest. Or did they feel fine after ten minutes? Then keep going. 

When to do an active recovery workout

After a hard training block is a good time for active recovery. It’s usually called a “recovery week” where there’s a mix of rest and active recovery days. An active recovery workout looks different for cyclists depending on your current fitness level. If you have years of riding and training under your bibs, then an active recovery workout could be 1-1.5 hours of Zone 1-2 riding whereas someone who just started riding may want to stick to 30-45 minutes. 

My active recovery week looks like this:

Monday: Yoga

Tuesday – Sunday: 1.5 hours of Zone 1 riding / Deloading on weights (all weights at 50%) / Extra stretching and foam rolling

Active recovery workouts can also split two hard workouts. If you have two intense workouts on Tuesday and Thursday, a good active recovery day is Wednesday – it keeps the blood flowing, but allows your body to recover between the two sessions. 

When is which one better than the other?

Honestly, it depends on the person. Ask yourself how you’re feeling in the morning? How was your sleep? Where are your stress levels? What’s your resting heart rate (usually if it’s above 5 beats per minute than your average, it’s time to rest)? Get on the bike and see how it feels. 

How to do a rest day

Rest days are important in exercise no matter your level. Your body needs time to rebuild after the muscles are literally breaking down during your efforts. 

Get sleep. I can’t tell you the number of people who don’t prioritize sleep. Sometimes I’m guilty of it too. Sleep is the best recovery tool for your body. Make sure to get plenty of it, especially on rest days. 

If you don’t like to completely stay off your feet, then do LIGHT activities like an easy walk around the neighborhood or some easy yoga or stretching. A rest day is not getting on your bike. The moment you get on your bike, you’re no longer resting. 

I know several people who will do one, some, or all of the following: Epsom salt bath, compression boots, ice baths, or massages. All of these are supposed to “speed up” the recovery process. 

Stick to your nutrition plan. There’s a time and a place to eat junk and drink booze, but rest days aren’t one of them. Your body needs real food to heal. As my early acupuncturist once told me, “Your body is a temple…”

How to do a recovery day

You still want to prioritize sleep and nutrition on recovery days but you don’t have to go as far as staying off your feet and taking Epsom salt baths. Although, you can take as many Epsom salt baths as you want.

When you get on your bike for an active recovery workout, stay in Zone 1, maybe some Zone 2, depending on how you’re feeling. The point is to flush residual fatigue from your legs. It’s not to continue hammering. 

It also doesn’t mean going out for a three-hour long “easy ride.” At that point, it’s an endurance ride which is not a recovery day. 

After the Zone 1 / 2 active recovery workout, take extra time to stretch and foam roll if this is not already part of your training plan. Too often cyclists neglect this aspect and if you’re one of them, start incorporating stretching and foam rolling into your plan. At the very least, start doing it on active recovery days. 

If you have a strength training program running alongside your cycling training (for which I’m a proponent), you should also dial back the volume in the weight room. In other words, if it’s an active recovery day, don’t go into the weight room to PR your squat. 

On active recovery days, I’ll schedule my strength routine to focus on my upper body which is often neglected by cyclists. But after last year’s experience with horrendous mid-back pain, I realized the importance of hitting ALL your muscles in the weight room. Look at your form on the bike (shoulders and head slouching forward) and you’ll see why strengthening your back is important. 

Forced rest 

Sometimes we’re forced to rest because we’re injured, sick, or overtrained. First, see a doctor and get the okay to train. 

When you’re sick, there are a couple schools of thought. If the cold is above the neck, people will continue working out. This means stuffy, runny nose or sore throat. If it’s below the neck, some folks will opt to rest instead. In other words, coughing, upset stomach, diarrhea, etc.

This, again, is highly individual. When we returned from Mallorca, my husband and I caught the typical cold: runny and stuffy nose, sore throat, and a bit of a cough. I chose to rest and do light activities like walking and yoga. He chose to go mountain biking. I was better in about 7 days. His lasted for two weeks.

If you’re sidelined due to injury, you’re best seeing a specific doctor who can treat you, such as a Physical Therapist. I know a guy if you live in Colorado. They can prescribe workouts to mend whatever’s injured. Only after you’ve been cleared is when you should start again. 

Depending on how long you were off the bike, your fitness will change from before being sick or injured. I’d recommend starting slow so begin with an active recovery workout like easy cycling, walking or light jogging, yoga, or swimming. 

If you haven’t been off the bike for very long, your fitness will return pretty quickly. Alternatively, if it’s been a few weeks or months, you’ll lose a significant amount of fitness and it’ll take longer to gain that fitness back.

Either way, listen to your body. How does your body feel doing an active recovery workout? If it felt great, start incorporating harder sessions. If you have a nagging pain or your cold isn’t healing, you need more time to recover. It’s easy to want to force through pain and discomfort but doing so while injured or sick may cause irreparable harm.

If you’re working with a coach, make sure to communicate with them. They need to know how you’re feeling both on and off the bike in order to assign you proper workouts. 

Final thoughts

  • Rest and recovery will vary between person to person. The biggest takeaway is to listen and trust your body. It will tell you when it needs to rest (elevated heart rate, high level fatigue, negative form, etc) or recover (heavy legs, fatigue from previous day’s session, etc.). 
  • On a rest day, let your body rest. Take an Epsom salt bath, do some stretching, meditate, or Netflix and chill.
  • On a recovery day, stick to Zone 1 or 2 workouts. Dial back the volume in your strength training (50% of your one rep max, lighter weights, less reps/sets, etc.). 
  • Coming back from an injury or illness, start with active recovery workouts. 

What'd you think?