How to strike the balance between training and recovery

With winter turning to spring, it’s at this time of year that many riders either emerge from hibernation, or take advantage of the improved weather and longer daylight hours to get more time in on the bike.

Spring training camps, evening rides and long weekend outings all contribute to an increased training load which will help bring about an improvement in form as summer approaches. However, it’s now all about cramming in as many hours on the bike as possible.

We all know that to improve on the bike we need to push ourselves. This means getting out of our comfort zone, riding hard, and making ourselves tired. The body’s natural response to this tiredness is to adapt and become stronger.

However, this adaptation only happens once that training session has finished and we give our body a chance to recover in order to make the adaptations it needs to become stronger. The harder you train, and the further you push your body, the greater the potential adaptations and the greater the possibility for increases in form. Sounds great, right?

However, push yourself too far and you can become ‘over-trained. This is the point at which the amount of recovery needed to adapt to the fatigue induced by training is so great that by the time you have recovered, you have spent such a long period training at a reduced intensity that any potential gains are lost.

As a result, there is a balance to strike between pushing your body to build towards a peak in form and giving it adequate time to recover. Needless to say, there’s little use in riding for hours upon end if you are in a constant state of fatigue and, come race day or your target sportive, you barely have the energy to clip in, let alone ride to your maximum ability.

So, how to you strike that balance? And how can you recognise the signs of over-reaching?


Sports scientists and coaches refer to the short-term process of pushing your boundaries as over-reaching.

Functional over-reaching is where you are pushing your limits just enough to stimulate your body to adapt and become stronger. The perfect way to do this is to train hard, then recover just enough to allow your body to adapt to the training but not start to lose form. You can then return to training and push your limits a little further and repeat the process. This is over-reaching in a positive sense as you are able to recover from training-induced fatigue with short periods of recovery.

Non-functional over-reaching is when you have pushed the boat out too far in terms of training stress. At this point, the period of recovery needed to allow your body to adapt is greater than the time period in which you will begin to feel the benefit of the training.

If you find yourself in this position then you will likely need two to three weeks of rest to recover before you are able to return to training. Needless to say, non-functional over-reaching is the bad type of over-reaching.

So, where does over-training come in to this? True over-training is actually fairly uncommon. It is, in essence, a severe form of non-functional over-reaching that will require months or even years off the bike. People with true over-training syndrome are likely to suffer from serious illnesses such as chronic fatigue syndrome or glandular fever.

Now let’s consider how far you can over-reach before you tip the balance in the wrong direction.

How far to over-reach

This is the question that every coach should ask themselves when setting a block of training for their athletes, or the question a rider should consider before embarking on a big stint of training.

In truth, there is no exact answer. A lot depends on the recovery capacity of an athlete, prior experiences, and fatigue levels at the start of the block of training.

However, if you train with power, then a good rule of thumb on how far to over-reach is that at the end of a block of training a rider shouldn’t see more than a five per cent drop off in power figures for the same perceived exertion compared to when they are fresh. At the same time, a rider shouldn’t experience a drastic increase in the level of perceived exertion for the same power output compared to when they are fresh.

If you have correctly over-reached then following a period of recovery you should see an increase in power or a decrease in perceived exertion for the same power compared with previous figures.

When training with heart rate, you should notice that, as you become more fatigued, it’s more difficult to sustain higher heart rates. For example, you may only be able to sustain lower zone four during threshold efforts rather than upper zone four. As soon as you are struggling to hit the correct heart rate zone, or can only just get into the correct zone for an effort for two or three days in a row, then it’s time for a rest. Power and heart rate numbers aside, it’s also important to listen to your body. We’ll consider some of the key signs of non-functional over-reaching on the next page.

If following a period of recovery you don’t notice an increase in performance then chances are you didn’t over-reach quite enough. If you experience a decrease in performance following a period of recovery then chances are you got into the realms of non-functional over-reaching.

Signs of non-functional over-reaching

One of the first signs that you have pushed things too far and into the realms of non- functional over-reaching is a loss of motivation.

This is something that I always ask my coaching clients to report back to me. If you lose that desire to ride then chances are you need a break both mentally and physically. Another key thing to look out for is grumpiness. If you watch the television interviews with riders during the Tour de France you will notice a big change in their demeanor from the first to the third week. This is a classic sign that the riders are tired and beginning to struggle with the physical demands of the race. Other ‘human’ signs of non-functional over-reaching are perpetual tiredness and trouble sleeping.

From a physiological perspective, if you are unable to get your max heart rate above zone 4 then chances are you are into none functional overreaching. At this point it is better to stop the training for a period. The final – and definitive – way to tell if you have stretched yourself too far in your last training block is, if on your return to training post a period of recovery, your power figures are less than they were in the middle of the last block. This should be seen as a warning sign that your body needs more time to recover.

If you do find that you have strayed into non-functional over-reaching then, quite simply, you need to rest. This doesn’t just mean simply sitting on the sofa but instead focusing on getting adequate sleep, eating healthily and training at very low intensities. This keeps you active while allowing your body to recover.

Do this until your motivation for training returns and your energy levels are back. I would then recommend giving yourself one or two more days of reduced training to ensure that you are fully recovered when returning to full intensity.

How to avoid over-training

To avoid over-training it is important to build recovery into your training plan. The best way to do this is by applying the rule of little and often.

A short block of recovery taken often will allow you to recover without losing any of the form you have gained. If your breaks in training are too long your will come out of them fresh but will also have lost some of your hard-earned form.

Periodisation is the method that coaches use to do this. Periodisation is essentially the systematic planning of a training plan and recovery is built into the program between each block of training.

In addition, each block of training is slightly harder than the previous block. The progressive nature of this type of training provides a continuous element of over-reaching and the recovery between each block ensures that the athlete doesn’t develop signs of non-functional over-reaching.

When considering the amount of recovery required, it’s really important to consider factors outside of cycling. Our family, social, and work lives take up more time than we spend on the bike, therefore the impacts of these external factors on the amount of recovery needed should always be included in a training plan.

Try and plan ahead to ensure both training and your family, social and work lives aren’t affected by each other. For example, combine a busy week at work with a recovery week. For the average rider with a family and a 9-5 job, I would recommend a least two recovery days per week, one on a Monday and another on a Friday. This breaks the week up and applies the little and often rule of recovery. Concentrate on shorter, more specific workouts during the week when time is limited and then try and get out at the weekends for longer endurance rides.