The key to success in any endeavour is to perform at your best and give it your all. In endurance sports such as cycling, that has to be tempered by preparation, nutrition, hydration and rest. Yes, rest.
Most of us know that to go further and faster we have to ride further and faster. To push beyond our limits we need to push those limits on a regular basis. What fewer people know is that an important part of athletic performance is recovery. So as well as riding hard, we need to rest hard too.
Break it down and build it up
Strenuous use of any muscle causes micro tears to form in muscle tissue. Rest allows your body to repairs those tears with stronger muscle tissue. It is getting fit at its most basic. You break muscle down by putting it under pressure and your body responds by building back up stronger and better than before. It is this process that any athlete uses to make gains.
Unfortunately, many of us concentrate too much on the breaking down part and not enough on the building up. As well as good nutrition, rest is an essential part of this process. Your body needs time to rebuild muscle tissue, which is why rest and recovery is so important.
The other thing rest does is give your body time to replenish glycogen and nutrient stores. Muscle glycogen is your secondary energy source after carbohydrate. It’s the slow burn store that takes longer to metabolise but is essential for endurance sports such as cycling.
If you don’t give your body time to replenish these stores, you will begin to find it harder and harder to perform.
The same can be said for protein, vitamins and minerals. Your body uses a lot of resources repairing after exercise and preparing for the next session. It’s no good giving your body the nutrition it needs if you don’t give it the time it needs to process those nutrients.
The importance of sleep
Sleep is probably one of the most important elements of recovery. So much so that pro teams such as Team Sky, take the rider’s own bedding into each hotel and make their bed the same way every night to maximise their chances of a good night’s sleep. The average pro rider on tours gets around 70 hours rest per week, as much of that as possible is sleep.
Not only does your body heal, repair and replenish, your brain does too. Sleep enables the brain to ”clean itself” and process whatever else you have going on in your life. This helps focus and concentration, which hugely influences motivation.
Age, condition and recovery rides
The amount of rest you need is entirely subjective and you will need to either get professional help or listen very carefully to your body. The younger you are, the less need for recovery. The older you are, the more recovery you will need.
The same goes for condition. While rest is vital regardless of fitness level, the more years you have been riding, the more used to the process your body will be.
Recovery rides can be useful for maintaining mileage between reasonable efforts but have been known to hamper recovery between hard efforts. If you’re trying to get into top condition or are preparing for a race, the current advice is to avoid recovery rides if you can. According sports scientists, any exercise that elevates your heart rate reduces metabolism, which your body needs to process carbohydrate, protein and nutrients and make the necessary repairs.
A good training plan will incorporate rest days into it. Those rest days will depend on the intensity of the rest of the program, your age, fitness and what you want to achieve. It helps to consider rest periods as an essential part of that training plan, otherwise you will end up doing what I did and burning out through overtraining. Then you end up ill and not wanting to ride your bike for a couple of weeks. Not a good place to be!