How to Choose the Optimal Amount of Recovery Between Intervals

By Jim Rutberg, CTS Pro Coach

So, you’re all ready to go out for your workout. You have food in your pocket, your bike is gleaming in the warm sun with a bottle of water and bottle of sports drink, your glasses are sitting in the helmet draped over your handlebars, and your GPS unit is quietly waiting to record every last bit of data. Great job, you have all the right gear, but what about your workout timing – specifically the amount of recovery you’re getting between intervals?

Just as intervals of different lengths lead to unique physiological adaptations, manipulating the recovery time you give yourself between intervals can also change the demands – and hence the results – of your workouts. The big question is, how much recovery do you need to get where you want to go?

Scenario 1: Super-Short Interval – Long Recovery (Relative to the Interval)

Intervals that only last 5-15 seconds are almost always done at a super-high intensity. We’re talking about standing starts and accelerations on the bike and run sprints. To get the most out of each effort, you have to be able to produce maximum power, which means the recovery period between efforts has to allow your muscles to be fully recharged.

Such short and intense intervals call upon the ATP-CP system, which is more simply known as the “immediate energy system.” To completely oversimplify what’s going on in your muscles, you burn through available ATP in a handful of seconds, and the CP (creatine phosphate) recharges the muscles’ ATP stores to make this important energy source available again. This is why you want to take 5-8 minutes of easy recovery walking/jogging/spinning between sprints.

Scenario 2: Short Interval – Short Recovery

These are typically your highest intensity workouts, like speed work and VO2 intervals. The goal is to make an athlete adapt to repeated maximal efforts, and in order to be effective, it’s imperative that the easy periods between intervals are purposely too short to allow for complete recovery.

This means that the easy periods are the same length or shorter than the work period. Fortunately, these intervals don’t need to be very long (30 seconds to 3 minutes); your goal is to add more intervals or an additional set rather than making these efforts 5 minutes long.

Scenario 3: Long Interval – 50-100% Recovery Time

Workouts designed to improve your maximum sustainable pace typically feature intervals that are 8-20 minutes long, sometimes even longer. The intensity for these intervals is typically at or a little below your lactate threshold, and the idea is to accumulate as much time possible at this workload in order to push your body to adapt.

If you’re looking to run a faster marathon or ride a faster century, these are intervals you either are or should be very familiar with. Adequate recovery between efforts – anywhere from 50% of the interval length to the same length of the work period – allows you to maintain the right intensity/pace in your second, third, and maybe even fourth interval.

More novice athletes might start with 8min intervals and 8min recoveries, but as you get to 12minutes and beyond you’ll be down at the 50% recovery times, or 12min intervals separated by 6 minutes of recovery.

Athletes often make the mistake of shortening their recovery periods during these workouts because they feel rested well before the next interval is supposed to start, and they pay for it when they fade due to fatigue before they should. I don’t care if your second interval doesn’t feel hard enough; I care that you have the energy to complete your fourth interval at the appropriate pace/power!

Scenario 4: Super-Long Interval – No Recovery

No recovery!? That’s just cruel. In reality, there are times when the work period of an interval is so long that you only need to do one. This is the case with runs or rides at a steady aerobic intensity. The intensity is above your normal cruising pace, but you’re still well within your aerobic system’s capacity to supply the necessary energy.

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To be effective, these work periods need to be very long and preferably uninterrupted – you want to accumulate as much continuous time as possible at that effort level. These efforts are sometimes split into two or even three intervals for beginners, but more experienced runners, cyclists, and even swimmers benefit more from settling in for the long haul.

Fuel for Your Intervals Properly

Of course, a perfectly-structured set of intervals will do you no good if you’re not properly fueled. A pre-workout snack that’s high in carbohydrate is a good start. During workouts that are shorter than 60 minutes, focus on fluids and electrolytes during the workout, but not calories. You start with enough calories to get through even the hardest one-hour workout.

For your longer workouts, you’ll want to ingest carbohydrate, fluids, and electrolytes so you have consistent performance right to the last interval. For most athletes during 1-4 hour workouts, I recommend an electrolyte-rich drink coupled with calories from energy bars; this allows you match your fluid and electrolyte consumption to your sweat rate while keeping your caloric intake more closely tied to your energy expenditure (25-35% of hourly caloric expenditure). And your post-workout nutrition will help you rebuild and be ready for another high-quality session tomorrow.

So get out there, your workouts are waiting for you.

Jim Rutberg is a Pro Coach for Carmichael Training Systems, Inc. and co-author of seven books with Chris Carmichael, including the NYT Bestseller “Chris Carmichael’s Food for Fitness”, “The Time-Crunched Cyclist, 2nd Ed.” and The Time-Crunched Triathlete

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Comments 30

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  8. Tesouro Direto é investimento mais assegurado do mercado e
    também tão assegurado quanto a notória caderneta de poupança.

  9. Hello Jim (and anyone else here)
    i find that for rides longer than 4 hours i need a protein based energy drink like Perpetuem.. or my legs get that oh so burny sore feeling…does this sound right or am i waisting money? Could be the placebo effect kicking in huh?

  10. Dear Sirs:

    1. I agree with Mercer’s comment dated June 5, 2014. Product comments are off-putting.
    2. You need an editor: these articles are rather repetitive. See the date on Mercer’s comment AND note that the second half of paragraph 1 (” Such . . . .”) in Scenario 1 is identical to the second paragraph ((Such . . . .sprints”) and, again, the second half of paragraph 1 of Scenario 2 (“This means . . . .) is identical to the next paragraph. Are you being paid by the word?

    1. Not everyone wants to take the time to research the hundreds of nutritional products available. I appreciate the coaching tips and product recommendations coming from a trusted source such as CTS.

    2. Post
  11. Nice article!

    Linking information, the scenarios are related to:
    1- Sprints, Hill Sprints
    2- Power Intervals
    3- Steady State
    4- Tempo

    Am I right?

    Thanks in advance!

  12. I have been doing the (Scenario 3) long Intervals mainlywith some shorter intervals interspersed in. These intervals have made the biggest difference in my speed, increased aerobic capacity and duration since I started doing them a few years ago. I swept all 3 gold medals in last years Senior Olympics and will be training for Nationals this year in July. My best advice is to start slow then gradually increase time and intensity. CTS rocks when it comes to coaching such as this.

  13. Thank you for all the CTS technical explanations and making them simple. I value the source.
    The product recommendations are always welcomed and worth a try. It narrows down the list of great nutritional products on the market.

  14. I was coached by CTS when they were partnered with PowerBar and have been using the Endurance product for several years. I have done Leadville 20x and have fought cramps on probably 15 of them, usually at 50 miles on the Columbine climb or later in the race. I shoot for a bottle an hour. In each 20 0z. bottle I use 3 scoops of Endurance, 2 ground up Thermotabs (salt tablets) and a Nuun tablet. Would you have a recomendation for something better? I will be 51 this year.
    Thank you,

  15. Wow !!! excelente articulo, sigo todos sus consejos desde CHILE !!!

    Sus entrenamientos de intervalos disponibles en STRAVA son fantasticos, ojala puedan incluir más !!!


  16. Thanks! I now understand the intervals my coach assigned. 🙂 I like the Osmo that I had at your Tri-camp and plan to order some. Less sugar is so much better than the nasty sports drinks that I’d tried to get used to. Thanks for the reminder!

    1. Post

      Good question. It depends on the athlete, but generally 30minutes for a beginner/intermediate, 45min for intermediate/advanced, and 60min or more for advanced riders. A single long interval is typically a Tempo interval, which is at an aerobic intensity (a bit more challenging pace than your endurance pace, but not all the way up to a lactate threshold intensity). Intermediate and advanced athletes may also do single time-trial efforts as intervals, as well. – Jim Rutberg, CTS Pro Coach

      1. Thanks for the reply Jim, if I could bother you with a more specific question. I have have been doing 3×20 minutes intervals for about three weeks up a grade that averages about 3.5%. I wanted to test my Theshhold power. I did two twenty minute intervals @ 255 watts each and then I tested for my TP and averaged 318 watts for 20 minutes. Based on the last interval my TP is 301 watts according to training peaks. Now in theory I should be able to sustain for 301 watts for one hour but I have only been able to sustain about 270 watts for an hour. Do I need to do longer interval sessions to align this weakness? Thanks for your time.

        1. Post

          Your interval training ranges may need to be adjusted. If the 20-min intervals were meant to be lactate threshold intervals, the power output was too low at 255 watts. For you those would appear to be more like Tempo intervals (challenging aerobic intensity). We use a slightly different field test and set of intensity ranges, and I can reach out to you via email to provide more details. In theory, you’re right that you should be able to maintain your lactate threshold power output for an hour, but that’s easier said than done. A one-hour time trial is an effort that requires a lot of skill to execute well. That’s one of the reasons it’s not a field test that many people use. Nearly everyone sees a lower power output than predicted, not because the predicted number was wrong but because of the learning curve involved in executing the time trial. – Jim

  17. I really appreciate the advice Jim. Also don’t mind the plugs from sponsors as this leads to trying new products that may work better for the rider than their old stuff. Thank you!

  18. I appreciate that there are sponsorships involved, but your articles would be better served if you didn’t advertise those products. It’s a put off.

  19. Nice, simple and to the point. Goal is to finish Wildflower 70.3 feeling good about my race, not “just making it.” I know these are important to incorporate into my workouts so I better get on it! 🙂

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