Critical Aspects of Recovery in Training

Title Critical Aspects of Recovery in Training
Lead Recovery is one of the most important and overlooked parts of any training program. Find out about how to recover as hard as you train with this great article from Gordon Wright (Senios ABCC Coach)
Image recovery.jpg
Author Dr Gordon Wright Senior ABCC Coach and British Cycling Coach
Author Url
User 18
Id 6
Timestamp 1,411,470,135
Edited 1
Active Yes



One of the key principles that everyone should be mindful of at any time in the training cycle is the principle of Progressive Overload. Two simple words but very profound in their meaning and absolutely fundamental to any training programme for almost any sport. Progressive meaning literally what it says: training should be progressive and it should build-up gradually and steadily from one week to the next in a controlled way. Overload also meaning what it says: a training load that creates an extra load or training stress on the body beyond normal levels. And Progressive Overload meaning you are gradually progressing the training load week to week or from one training cycle to the next such that additional stresses on the body force it to respond and gradually adapt. And as the training cycles proceed your body gradually becomes stronger, faster, has more endurance, more power, or whatever it is the different training cycles have particularly stressed.

So far this is quite straightforward. However, the missing element is recovery. And everybody knows that you must physically rest to recover after training. It’s during the recovery periods that fatigue from previous training sessions dissipates and should leave a rider more or less fatigue free and slightly fitter and stronger following full recovery. For simplicity we can think of high level fatigue which is what we experience in the period immediately following training. And low grade or low level fatigue that can linger on for many hours and occasionally days in some cases following a training session.

So lets take a closer look at this issue and try to understand much better the key role that recovery plays in the performance improving process. And its so true to say that if you don’t recover well and fully between training sessions you will not be going very far at all in your development, and you could even begin to go backwards. Recovery is king when it comes to performance development. And a lack of it has been the graveyard for many high performers.

Recovery issues in training

A fundamental mistake riders often make time and time again is to underestimate just how much time may actually be required to make a full or at least a very good level of recovery between training sessions, especially after hard sessions or very long sessions. The bottom line is this: if you don’t fully recover after a training session then a certain amount of fatigue is carried forward into the next training session.

This may or may not be a problem depending on your understanding of the situation you are in. If a rider trains hard either by high intensity, or endurance volume and they have not recovered well before the next training session then fatigue is present right from the start of that next session. In these situations fatigue builds on fatigue. And this may get repeated again in the next training cycle. Some riders and particularly experienced ones may choose to do this deliberately, and carry fatigue forward because they want to accumulate volume over two or more training sessions. And this is very likely to be done with a full awareness of what is happening and somewhere further down the line they will most likely undertake a more substantial period of rest to achieve full recovery and an even bigger fitness adaptation. In such cases there should be no major problems as long as full recovery does actually take place. However, too many riders train very hard or very long and carry fatigue forward into follow on training sessions without realising they are doing exactly that. And quite possibly they may have little awareness that low- level fatigue in particular has been taken forward. Low grade or low level fatigue can manifest itself as a jaded feeling, not sparkling and not fresh and really not 100% ready to go again. It means that follow on training sessions will not be quite as good as they otherwise could be and if the process continues thereafter low-grade or possible even some higher grade fatigue can accumulate day after day after day.

Sooner rather than later a rider in this situation realises they are becoming overcooked and they have to back off any further training as the body and legs are telling them so. In the short term progressive training gets disrupted and the whole sequence of any progressive overload goes out the window until such time the rider makes a good recovery and can begin to get things back on track again.

Overloading, Over-reaching and Overtraining.

Low grade fatigue has the potential to be a major problem because its existence is often far less obvious and it can creep up slowly over many training sessions. And it can lead to so called ‘Over-reaching’. This is training too hard or too long too often with inadequate recovery. It leads to poor form, malaise and general staleness. If overreaching continues for too long it can lead to ‘Overtraining’ which is a much more serious situation. Recovery from early stage overtraining, once it is recognised, can take many weeks, even months of rest to overcome its very undesirable effects. There is in fact a continuum of training fatigue types depending on the frequency and duration of training loads. This continuum starts with Overloading which is followed by Overreaching and then Overtraining. Controlled Overloading is a good outcome and with good recovery it leads to improved performance. Its an essential part of the whole fitness development process. Overreaching is the consequence of frequent overloading with insufficient recovery. But Persistent Overreaching can then lead to Overtraining which is always a very bad outcome.

Overloading and Overreaching are mainly physical conditions and only require appropriate periods of rest and recovery time to dissipate the associated fatigue. Depending on the severity, duration and frequency of training a bout of overloading fatigue might take from one to several days to dissipate. Overreaching takes longer and will depend on the duration that a rider has been in an overreaching condition. But it might require from one to two weeks of very easy riding to return to a fully recovered condition. True Overtraining, which can easily be confused with Overreaching, is a much more serious condition, that can take months to recovery from. If it is not recognised in its early stages it can involve serious central nervous system imbalances as well as major physical fatigue and poor performance and psychological disorders. Very serious cases of long term Overtraining can be career ending for other otherwise high performing athletes. It is a serious clinical condition that requires very specialised medical intervention.

The other thing that we should all be mindful of, and it’s pretty obvious when it is said, is the fact that we gain fitness only when we are recovering, not when we are training. So the recovery process is fundamental and critical to gaining fitness in whatever form we are measuring it, be it endurance, power, strength, or a combination of these factors. Short change yourself with recovery and you will most certainly limit your ability to progress your fitness. Look around you and you will see some club mates, colleagues and others riders you know who put in a lot of training over extended periods of time, but don’t seem to get any fitter. And in some cases gradually going backwards.

The Train –Fatigue -Recovery cycle

Let me take all this a stage further and show you a diagram you may well have seen before and it’s one that illustrates the Train- Fatigue- Recovery cycle. It’s a simple diagram but one of the most important you will come across in conditioning principles and practice. It should be self explanatory, but I’ll take you through its basic parts.

It starts at the point where a rider first trains or competes. During the training or competition phase fatigue gradually builds as we all know and we feel its relentless progression. For example, during short high intensity efforts short term fatigue builds very rapidly then dissipates during the short recovery periods between efforts. After the session we experience high level or high grade fatigue for a few hours, but long after the training session we are left with the longer lasting elements of the fatigue, mostly low grade fatigue that can take many hours – even days in extreme cases to fully dissipate. During and immediately after training the training-fatigue- recovery cycle takes a steep dive downwards showing the loss in form and fitness as fatigue bites.

<img src = "" class = "uk-align-center uk-margin-bttom"/>
Diagram 1. The Training –Fatigue –Recovery Cycle

When the training stops fatigue may actually continue on downwards for a while before it finally bottoms out. At this point recovery then begins to take over and the curve begins to climb upwards as the fatigue gradually dissipates. Wait long enough and eventually all training fatigue is gone and the body is back to where it started. Wait even longer and one of the most remarkable things about the human body begins to take place. It’s a process called ‘super-compensation’. During the super-compensation phase our capacity to undertake and absorb a greater training load increases which is of course the desired aim of training. If this is repeated over many training cycles the measurable increase in fitness can become quite substantial.

Fatigue accumulation from very long or intense physical effort is a complex process involving many elements. It’s due to all the various systems in the body that have been stressed during the training or competition. During recovery fuel substrates (mostly muscle glycogen stores) are gradually replenished, muscle damage is repaired, neurological systems are re-balanced, hormonal systems work to make us stronger, and even psychological stress gradually diminishes.

Diagram 1 shows the various phases during the train-fatigue - recovery cycle. You can see three particular markers I’ve identified on the recovery part of the curve. The first one shows the early stage recovery where a rider will usually be very aware they are fatigued. Legs will be tired, and heavy, muscles may feel sore and tender, and there might well be a general feeling of malaise and lethargy. At this point no one will train again, unless there’s a deliberate plan to build fatigue on fatigue and delay recovery for one or more training cycles.

As recovery continues the late stage recovery point is reached. At this point the body is back to where it was before the training cycle started and riders will feel fully recovered, and be ready and raring to go again. And often they do, unless something stops them. But this can be a danger zone. The problem is they haven’t waited long enough to achieve the super compensation effect. And the result is the body isn’t any stronger than it was before the training cycle commenced. So all they do is get back to square one and train again, but little if anything has been gained. On the other hand if it’s possible to wait just that bit longer to allow the super- compensation effect to occur before training again then the next training cycle starts at a higher level of fitness. And this is the way we gain fitness.

Multiple Recovery Cycles.

So far so good, but life is more complicated. And during the course of a typical week riders will of course undertake different types of training. Some short and high- intensity, some of longer duration and variable intensities and so on. The further complication is these different training rides require different recovery times.

The second diagram which is shown below is one I’ve borrowed from a book called the ‘Science of Winning’ written by Dr Jan Olbrecht. And you can see he has made an attempt to show the different recovery times in hours for different training sessions and types. You can readily see from this diagram that recovery from long but lower intensity endurance training (extensive aerobic) is shown to be quite fast compared to short but very intense training of an anaerobic nature such as high intensity interval training. And generally speaking higher intensity training requires longer recovery periods than low intensity endurance work.

Clearly the underlying value of this model is to make you think carefully about your different training sessions and the likely recovery times necessary to get full recovery from each before you train seriously long or seriously hard again. One thing I will mention at this point is recovery time does not necessarily mean time off the bike. Easy rides can be recovery rides. In fact complete rest after hard training is not always a good thing and very easy rides can assist the recovery process. But don’t get carried away and turn a recovery ride into another training ride. That really would defeat the objective.

<img src = "" class = "uk-align-center uk-margin-bttom"/>

Diagram 2. Multiple Recovery Cycles

So how do we know ?

A critical question is ‘How do we know when we have fully recovered and super- compensation has reached its peak’ ? The simple and not very helpful answer is we don’t know. It’s often a guess in the dark. And the first coach or sports scientist that comes up with a proven method that guarantees to find the maximum super- compensation point after each training cycle will make a lot of money.

It is possible to use resting morning heart rates and note when they are back to normal. There are heart rate variability methods that I’ve researched over a few years that can give close insights. But it’s a complex business that involves looking at the way the nervous system reacts to fatigue and recovery. Some times I think I’m almost there then something occurs which make me feel I’ve still some way to go.

So how are we left to judge when super-compensation has been achieved ? Well by falling back on subjective judgement and using some common sense. The legs will tell you to some degree. Full recovery and super-compensation after one training cycle can be hard to judge. I can usually sense when my muscles are in something of a super-compensated state after several training cycles. As soon as I get on the bike they instantly feel responsive, and the muscles have a feeling of ‘elastic strength’, pliable, feeling firm, smooth to touch and a sense of strength. I can usually trace it back to an overload period spanning a week or so, followed by several days of not doing very much. But these days I need more recovery time than most.

Recognising and understanding the message in the two diagrams goes a long way to making us much more aware of the recovery process and how critical it is. So wait until we have made a very good and hopefully a full recovery and then have the nerve to wait just a bit longer. Look again at Jan Olbrecht’s model and note where the different curves cross the fully recovered line and where they reach the maximum super-compensation point thereafter. The range of ’extra’ recovery time needed to reach the maximum after full recovery varies from something around 6 to 14 hours depending on the type of training that was undertaken. If anything the recovery times shown in diagram 2 are I feel a bit on the optimistic side. So add another 12 hours for good measure. Note also the super-compensation window is quite wide, even though the maximum point probable spans only a few hours. In practical terms it adds up to a 24 hours recovery time after a single long steady endurance ride, but it can be 48 to 72 hours recovery following very intensive interval sessions. This means leaving at the very least one and more likely two clear days between intensive training sessions to be sure of full recovery plus super- compensation. These intervening days should be easy recovery riders, but could include one day of longer low intensity endurance training.

I don’t pretend for one moment that it’s easy to determine when full recovery and super-compensation has been achieved . But if you don’t get some or all of the super-compensation effect after training you will not advance your fitness. It’s that simple and brutal. It does not mean super-compensation has to be achieved after every training session. But it must occur often, otherwise you will not see much uplift in your form and you might go from week to week with little to show for your training time. It might seem a bit like splitting hairs, but the fact is no super-compensation no fitness gain.

Speeding up the recovery process

So far I’ve talked about the train fatigue recovery cycle and its various phases and Jan Olbrecht’s model focuses attention on the fact that different types of training will require different recovery periods. Another issue to think about are the actions we can take to speed up the recovery process, rather than just wait for it to take its natural course. This whole area is very large and a full discussion is way beyond what I can cover in this relatively short article because there are so many factors to think about. So I’m going to refer you to a nice handy handbook called ‘Recovery Training’ written by Angela Calder of the Australian Institute of Sport. Just so you don’t think I’m attempting to op-out at this point I will cover a few issues about recovery, but I will certainly not attempt to cover the subject as comprehensively as Angela Calder does in her handbook. I recommend you all download a copy and give it a careful read.

The first thing after any form of training is to think about replenishing energy substrates and this is principally carbohydrates. This is where energy drinks, and recovery drinks come into their own. So lesson one is to consume carbohydrates during and then as soon as you have finished a training session. The same goes for competition.

If the training has been a particularly hard session, or hard race, then the carbohydrates should be mixed with protein in something like four parts carbohydrate to one part of protein, and diluted down to a solution of some 5% to 8% which aids fast absorption from the gut. It is now well understood in the sport science world that the body is very receptive to taking up carbohydrates and protein to assist recovery processes in the two hour period immediately following training or racing. That two-hour window is critical and this is where your recovery drinks such as Science in Sport (SIS) Rego or Hi Five’s Energy Source can be very helpful. Some recent research in this area even refers to the first 30 minutes following training as the critical window of nutrient replacement to aid recovery.

The other critical element immediately following training or racing is hydration. You should be hydrating well during training and competition of course everyone knows that, but you often need more fluid than you might realise and you must certainly make sure you fully hydrate during the early stage of recovery.

Amongst other things to think about during the early hours of recovery is to try and put your legs up and rest them for a few hours. And certainly don’t go and do activities like digging up the garden, or moving heavy objects around, or even shopping. Walking around for lengthy periods can have a very debilitating effect on tired cyclist’s legs, and it just delays the recovery process.

Recovery massage is very helpful in restoring some life back into very tired muscles. This can be self massage, or you can find a good physiotherapist who really understands what they are doing. And if you are very brave you might consider alternating hot and cold whilst you are in the shower. This hydrotherapy approach is thought to greatly reduce inflammation in muscles that have been worked very hard. I first came across cold hydrotherapy methods at the 2004 Olympic training camp in Cyprus when I found myself talking to Kelly Holmes as she stood waist deep in a wheely bin full of ice water ! It must have done something as three weeks later she won two gold medals at the Athens Olympics.

As already mentioned easy recovery rides on recovery days will certainly help as well. But the key word is easy. The last factor I will mention is good quality sleep. Try to get to bed early-ish and get a good solid eight hours plus as it’s during sleep when so many of the repair processes become very active.


I hope this article has provided some deeper insights into the recovery process after training and of course the same thinking goes for competition. Being much more aware of the need to factor in sufficient recovery time to training programmes is critical to the whole process of becoming fitter and stronger on the bike. And reaching the super-compensation point after most if not all you training sessions is also critical to become a fitter bike rider. Here’s a small equation that sums it up:

Smart Training + Quality Recovery + Supercompensation = Improved Fitness

1. The Science of Winning. Jan, Olbrecht
2. Recovery Training, Angela Calder. Australian Institute of Sport.