by Tim Curry, MS ACSM-RCEP

No matter the sport or athlete (whether amateur or experienced) I’ve witnessed similar major mistakes repeated consistently over the past decade. Perhaps the greatest issue is a lack of recovery time. There’s a failure to plan for or incorporate this vital practice effectively into their training. Do you have enough recovery time in your own training plan? Let’s find out!

Training Makes You Slower, Recovery Makes You Faster

What exactly is it that makes recovery time so important? On the physiological level, recovery time allows adaptations in response to the stressors you place on your body while training. Every time an athlete lifts weights, rides their bike, runs, or completes other training there’s a certain amount of stress applied to the body. If there’s enough stress applied, we create a state called functional overreaching. Functional overreaching represents a stress load on our body sufficient enough to force our cells to adapt, but not so much that we can’t recover in a short period of time. This state is contingent on the ability of the body to recover and allow adaptations to continue improving your fitness. Sufficient recovery allows you to increase your speed capabilities heading into key events. 

How Much Recovery Do I Need?

The general rule of thumb for most athletes is at least one full rest day (without activity) and one active recovery day each week. Of course, this is a general rule of thumb and can vary based on the individual. For example, a world-class athlete may only take one day off out of every ten; due to their fitness, they can handle much higher training loads than the average person. On the other end of the scale, someone who is brand new to working out and has low fitness may require more than one day off per week. Start with the recommendation above, and adapt it based on your individual needs.

What Does Recovery Mean?

Recovery can include the following items:

  • Rest day - This is a day off from doing any training. It does NOT mean a 90-minute hot yoga class or a 60-minute “easy ride to the store”. Rest means rest...nothing, nada. On this day, you are the most chill potato around. If you have a hard time refraining from exercising find a hobby to distract you. My favorite story is from a team where the athletes became enthralled with MMO video games. The coach was so pleased as it stopped them from messing up their rest days!

  • Zone 1 ride (aka Active Recovery) - A zone 1 ride is a short (20-60min) effort completed at a very low intensity. The purpose of a zone 1 ride is to increase blood flow to the working muscles while limiting training stress. When done correctly these rides can help enhance recovery time; however, if they are done incorrectly you end up with just another training day, which delays and impairs your progress.

Aim to get at least one day each of rest and active recovery per week, ideally spaced several days apart.

How Hard is “Zone 1” Training?

Zone 1 is extraordinarily easy, easy effort that is! In fact, it’s so easy that many athletes struggle to stay in the zone while completing these workouts. Here are a few ways to approach this deceptively tricky zone:

  • Rating of Perceived Exertion - .5-1 on a scale of 10. This correlates to a very, very easy exertion level. I like to tell my athletes it’s the intensity of riding a bike around the neighborhood with a 5-year-old.

  • Heart Rate - A standard threshold used for heart rate in line with zone 1 is up to ~50-55% of your functional threshold heart rate. 

  • Talk Test - This is my favorite measure for Zone 1 because it is easy to understand and implement. Here are the instructions I give my athletes: Pretend you’re on a phone call with some team members for a work (or school) project. While working out you have to be an active participant and help your team create a presentation. In zone 1 your team wouldn’t know you were completing an active recovery session. If you reach the point where you could still participate BUT they could tell that you were exercising, you are going too hard. 

It’s often a constant battle not to go too hard! If you find yourself consistently going past zone 1, try a different exercise modality like walking instead of biking, or do the activity in your normal clothes rather than athletic gear. I know athletes who are so competitive that they have to dress in street clothes and ride their heavy townie bikes for active recovery to ensure they take it easy. 

How are you doing?

I encourage you to take some time to assess your own recovery practices when it comes to your training. Is it spot on or lacking? If you’re coming up short on recovery time (as many athletes do) take the time now to write the recommended days into your training calendar for the next couple of weeks. Keep track of how you feel and your performance, then adjust as needed. Up next, we'll cover Zone 2.

To learn more about the concepts covered in this article while earning NICA CEUs, check out our recommended courses below!

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