How to Create Recovery Weeks That Really Work!


By Jim Rutberg,
CTS Pro Coach, co-author of “The Time-Crunched Cyclist” and “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning”

Athletes consistently undervalue the necessity and benefits of recovery weeks. Following a productive training block, taking a recovery week is one of the best things you can do for promoting adaptation and progress.

Here’s what recovery weeks look like, how and when to incorporate them into your training, and what you should do during a rest/recovery week.

(Note, I use the terms ‘rest week’ and ‘recovery week’ interchangeably. Both are used in this article on purpose. I also recommend listening to this Time-Crunched Cyclist Podcast on recovery weeks with Reid Beloni and Nina Laughlin.)

What is a recovery week?

A recovery week is a short period of reduced training workload. Although the term “recovery week” is convenient, the period does not need to be exactly seven days. It also doesn’t need to align with the standard Monday – to – Sunday week.

Rest and recovery play a role in all training timeframes. You have recovery periods of seconds or minutes between intervals during individual workouts. And athletes typically take 1-3 complete rest days, or at least recovery days with light activity, every 7-10 days.

Athletes on annual periodization plans also take scheduled transition periods following peaks. If you plan to peak once a season, your transition period might be a month of reduced training load and unstructured rides. If you use shorter build periods and peak 2-3 times a year, your transition periods after each peak may only be about two weeks.

Recovery weeks fit in the middle between rest days and transition periods. They are essential for providing adequate time for adaptation to prior training stress. They are also necessary to reduce the drag fatigue places on future workout performance.

Recovery Week Video with Coaches Reid Beloni and Nina Laughlin


How often should you take a recovery week?

The most common formula you’ll find in training plans is ‘3 weeks on, 1 week off’. This is convenient for coaches and athletes because it generally syncs training blocks and recovery weeks to a 4-week calendar month. However, as Coach Jason Koop explains in this article, the ‘3 on, 1 off’ paradigm can be problematic.

A personalized approach bases the timing of rest weeks on the preceding training block. First, the duration of the block is based on the specific workload needed to cause the desired stimulus. Then, the end point is adjusted by the athlete’s response to the training.

Two weeks of high intensity workouts or ultra-high training volume can be enough. If you’re already seeing diminishing returns at the end of two weeks, grinding through a third week is unproductive.

On the other side, athletes with long training histories typically have greater durability than beginners. They can handle higher cumulative training workloads (i.e. higher Chronic Training Load, or CTL). Such athletes may be able to handle a 3– to 4-week block of easy- to moderate-intensity endurance training (mostly Zone 2) before needing a recovery week.

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So, from a practical standpoint, what should you do? Use the ‘3 on, 1 off’ paradigm as a starting point because it’s familiar. Just don’t be dogmatic about it. At the end of an effective training block, performance in individual workouts will start declining. Once you see declines over about 3 consecutive workouts, consider ending the block and taking a recovery week. Another sign is depressed mood for three or more days, even if training performance is still hanging on.

What does a recovery week look like?

Do you need to take a whole week off for recovery? No. The term ‘week’ is convenient, but you don’t have to sit on the couch for seven days. In many cases, maintaining your exercise pattern is also important for your schedule. This is especially for Time-Crunched Cyclists.

Training Week Pattern – 5-6 sessions/week

training pattern 5-6 days

Recovery Week Pattern with return to training by weekend

recovery week 5-6 days

Training Week Pattern – 4 sessions/week

training patter 4 days

Recovery Week that maintains 4-day training pattern

recovery week 4 days

In the examples here, athletes return to normal training by the weekend. This means the ‘rest week’ is really 5 days. It is not uncommon for the rest week to extend through the weekend. Despite the number of wearable devices and apps dedicated to scoring recovery, your subjective feedback is still the most accurate sign of readiness to train. If you are still feeling physically or mentally sluggish on Friday, take the weekend easy.

What to do during a recovery week

Recovery weeks shouldn’t be complicated. From a training standpoint, you’re simply doing less. Your rides are shorter and easier. You’re taking more time off the bike. But that doesn’t mean you should fill your time with other activities. Here are the best things you can do (and not do) during a recovery week:

  • Sleep

    Sleep is the absolute best thing you can do to promote recovery. Rest weeks are a good time to focus on good sleep hygiene. Schedule naps for times when you would normally be riding. Think of them as placeholders to keep that time from being siphoned off to other tasks.

  • Active recovery activities vs. passive rest

    Some people fill recovery weeks with activities that are less stressful than normal workouts. Things like walking, yoga, hiking, even the recovery spins in the sample weeks above. The idea is that movement facilitates recovery better than passive rest.

    Research doesn’t clearly show an advantage from active recovery activities compared to complete rest. And many endurance athletes are really bad at going slow and keeping any activity at a recovery intensity. If you’re one of them, you’re better off staying on the couch.

  • Don’t pile on tasks and projects

    All stress contributes to training stress. Don’t substitute lawn moving, house painting, and deck building for your training rides. Most likely you’ll need to continue normal household tasks, just try not to add more. Ideally, less time on the bike shouldn’t equate to more time for yard work.

Rest week nutrition guidelines

Athletes often ask if they should eat less during recovery weeks. Even though you’re training less for a few days, you shouldn’t necessarily eat less. Recovery requires nourishment, so restricting calories during a recovery week is counterproductive. Instead, focus on the following:

  • Consume high-quality protein and plenty of fruits and vegetables.
  • Don’t significantly reduce carbohydrate intake. Rest weeks are not low-carb weeks.
  • Listen to your cravings. If you want dessert, eat dessert. If you want protein, or salty foods, go for it.
  • Don’t pay attention to the scale. Your weight may fluctuate significantly during a rest week due to hydration status and glycogen storage.


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Comments 5

  1. Pingback: Carefully Curated Triathlon News for September 14, 2023 - TriathlonWire

  2. Great read. In my 70’s I sometimes bypass the importance of rest and recovery. But articles like this help me to get back on track to proper rest and recovery. Thanks.

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