5 Ways to Know You’re Recovered Enough to Train
Recovery tracking is important for endurance athletes – and big business for app and device makers. There’s been an influx of new technologies that provide coaches and athletes with an unprecedented amount of data. Some of the data is useful and some of it is just noise. For recovery tracking, there are tools like Whoop, Oura Ring, heart rate variability monitors, and all manner of sleep trackers. Although these technologies provide insights into an athlete’s readiness to train, athletes must also learn to interpret how they feel. If a device says an athlete is recovered and ready for hard training, how do you know if it’s right?
Subjective feedback is crucial. Your power file may show that yesterday and today you held 240 watts for 20 minutes, with similar heart rates. However, the data file can’t tell whether perceived exertion was a 6/10 yesterday and a 9/10 today. Data does not always convey the exertion required to produce it. Likewise, data related to recovery does not always tell the whole story. How you feel – on and off the bike – provides invaluable context.
So, whether you have all the latest devices or none at all, here are some of the low-tech, old-school ways to know you’re recovered and ready to start training with higher volume and/or intensity again. Keep in mind, there are no red light/green light indicators here. Just like learning how you respond to training stress, you must learn the patterns your body follows in response to rest.
On the Bike Signs You’re Recovered
Your heart rate is responsive to changes in effort
A suppressed heart rate is a common consequence of fatigue. That’s not always a bad thing. Often, an athlete can repeat an interval workout and produce the same power outputs, at a similar perceived exertion, but at a lower heart rate during the second workout. That’s fine. It becomes a problem when you keep the training pressure on too long. At that point, heart rate stays suppressed, power output drops, and perceived exertion increases.
When an athlete is rested, heart rate rises and falls quickly in response to changes in effort level. There isn’t really a rate of change that signals rested vs. fatigued. It’s highly individual, but you can discern patterns on the fly by watching your heart rate values.
Accelerations are easy
You can often tell how another rider is feeling by the way they accelerate from a stoplight or out of a corner. And as a rider you can feel the difference yourself. I’m not talking about the behavior of sprinting back up to speed after a stoplight (don’t do that if we’re riding together, please). When you’re fatigued, accelerations feel like you’re dragging an anchor. You can get up to speed, but it’s a lumbering, unpleasant slog. When you’re rested, the accelerations – whether from a standing start, a slow corner, or to close a small gap in the group or pace line – are notably easy (or at least, easier). Riders often refer to this as having some ‘snap’ in their legs vs. having ‘heavy’ or ‘dead’ legs.
You want to go fast
Rest to an athlete is like a missed meal to a lion. At some point they both get hungry and are ready to jump on anything that moves. One of the biggest problems we have with athletes during a pre-event taper is keeping them from constantly testing their strength and speed. They have high fitness and are reducing training stress to diminish fatigue, and just as the event approaches and they start to feel great, they go out and charge every hill and crush every Strava segment and end up getting to the start line of their event fatigued.
The Transition Period, or any extended time of reduced training, is similar to prolonged taper. Only, you’re not trying to bring about peak performance at the end of it. Rather, you’re resting longer and achieving deeper recovery from a long season of effort. But that feeling of “I just want to go!” is what you’re after at the end of both.
Off the Bike Signs You’re Recovered
You’re getting antsy to train
With the exception of professional athletes, none of us have to train. We do it because we love the process and like the outcomes. And it’s fun and gives us some cool goals to shoot for. That doesn’t mean training is always easy or enjoyable. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes your goals demand that you have to work out when you don’t really feel like it. That’s part of the process. But when training is a chore and a bore and you have to fight and bargain with yourself just to get out on the bike, it’s time for extended recovery or a significant change in activities.
For a lot of athletes, the Transition Period is about 6 weeks of less structured riding, at about 50-75% of their normal weekly volume. All I ask is that they incorporate some short, high intensity efforts on hills a few times a week, as that’s about all it takes to blunt the short-term decline in VO2 max and power at lactate threshold. And we still talk on the phone. After about five or six weeks, I will typically get the unsolicited question: “So, when can we get going again?” or comments like: “I’ve been thinking about doing X, Y, or Z workouts this winter, what do you think?” If they’re not giving me indications they’re eager to increase the structure and focus of their training, I’ll give it another week and then start directing our conversations to find out whether there’s something beyond fatigue we need to work through.
You’re getting fidgety
A long time ago I worked with an athlete whose wife would call me in the fall to let me know her husband was ready to start training again. Or rather, she was ready for him to start training again because he was driving her nuts. He was starting projects he wouldn’t finish, rearranging furniture she didn’t really want moved, and generally making a nuisance of himself. Training gave him structure and focused his attention and energy. When he started getting fidgety, it was time to get back to training. We used to joke that his cycling habit was essential to their happy marriage, and there was probably a lot of truth to it.
When you’re feeling energized and creative and looking for something to do, you’re rested. That doesn’t mean you should jump back into hard training to suppress those feelings, but rather that you’re recovered from training or other stresses that had previously diminished them.
Combine Technology with Observation
My advice is that training and recovery technologies can’t be used in isolation. Athletes are not machines and cannot be reduced to numbers on a screen or lines on a graph. Use sleep trackers, track heart rate variability, and monitor fatigue with Whoop or an Oura Ring, but always check the data against subjective feedback. Humans have known how to rest – and what it feels like to be rested – for far longer than we’ve known how to measure restfulness. Gather the data, verify with perception.
By Chris Carmichael
CTS Founder and Chief Endurance Officer
Experience tells me walking up the stairs is a great indicator of recovery. Tired means it can be very hard work. Easy means you are rested. It does work.
Thank you, as mentioned, good timing as we move into the indoor smart season! Also good things to look for, your motivation. You mentioned sleep indicators a few times. Please, about some more info on how sleep quality changes with recognizing over training, and resting enough. Is it as simple as over training produces restless nights?
Long do we ride! Thank you, charles
Another big stressor on our body is work and family commitments. Long days at work sometimes require me to dial back the training. knowing yourself is the best training advice.
Thanks Cris, for sharing your wisdom, these are valuable tips for us. 😀💪👍
I would propose loss of libido as a potential sign of excess fatigue and return of libido as a sign of getting enough rest. This effect is probably greater in the older athlete.
Yeah, my dumbest thing was training for Cycle to the Sun and doing an easy ride and feeling good. Then a guy flew past me and I had to jump on his tail. Which about killed me after a half hour at full steam. Later I realized it was the Devil in disguise.
Great article. It sounds like it was taken from my old days when I was a swimmer. The approach was the same when no monitors and the like were available. I’ve applied the same to my cycling but your article reminded me of my past which I’ve been applying to my cycling in my old age but sometimes forget the enjoyment etc. I’m from the old school so to speak and not a pro. I don’t race or participate in master events, or for recognition etc. I ride because I enjoy it whilst trying to balance things to improve but I sometimes forget I just can’t ride up a hill for example as others some decades younger than me and think well I need an electric. However, I’m not there yet ready to change to electric as I think it’s cheating. If and when it gets to that point I’ll probably just be doing my grocery shopping 🥴. Despite the before, I have recognised, against reflecting on my past and resurrecting some thoughts from your article which I’d forgotten or put out of my mind during the Covide lockdowns by doing too much smart trainer work without a suitable resting. However, I did recognise the error of my ways whilst apart from wanting to ride I finally was able to get my motivation and was back on an outdoor ride without the encumbrances of having to stay within the 5km radius of home and virtually doing “repeats” or circuits with as some variation apart from the smart trainer which some could equate to “repetitive strain injury”, Ha. Whilst swimming possibly popularised “interval training” during the 1950’s it was probably around before without the recognition and I believe it still remains a today and in all sports with the training philosophies whereby one doesn’t gets transfixed as variation is needed with recognising that the body needed resting which is also is important to maintain both mental and physical health, irrespective of the level at which you are participating inclusive self satisfaction. A great article and reminder.
As usual your tips are insightful, precise and immediately useful ! Thank you Chris!
Thank you Chris. Great advice.
Very timely for me Chris,