What a lot of athletes don't realize is: the amount of rest you receive AFTER a workout is equally as important as the workout itself. But even I wonder, at times, how much rest is adequate for my muscles to be ready/fresh for the next workout? Before, we answer that question I think it's important to note what goes on physically within your muscle DURING and AFTER your workout.
During a high-intensity workout, you are actually damaging your leg muscles. That's right- damaging. That sounds counter-productive doesn't it? Oh, I think I'll go for a hard bike ride and damage my muscles. Maybe "damaging" is a little harsh a word. Perhaps, microscopic tears to muscle fiber membranes and protein filaments, or tears to connecting muscle tissue, is more palatable? Regardless, the point is..when you ride HARD you are breaking-down muscle fiber membranes. Your body's natural response to repair this break-down or damage, is to send more blood flow to the area. With that increased blood flow to the area, you get inflammation...and with inflammation you get soreness (tiredness) in your legs. (Physiologically, there is a lot more going on inside your muscle that contributes to muscle soreness during and after exercise). Muscle cells repair and regenerate themselves in the days that follow intense exercise, and they get stronger in preparation for performing the activity again. After this recovery process, the muscles function more efficiently and are more resistant to damage. This process is known as "adaptation."
Proper rest and nutrition (post-workout) will help repair the damaged muscles more quickly and get you back training sooner than later. Proper nutrition AFTER a workout consists of ingesting a 4:1 ratio of Carbs to Protein as soon as your ride (or training session) ends. (For proper nutrition BEFORE and DURING exercise see my prior blog on Nutrition). This ingestion, within 20 minutes of the end of your ride, will promote carbohydrate (glycogen) and protein synthesis within your muscles.
But what about proper rest, how much is enough? Sorry, but I have to give you the classic answer on this (which most PhD weenies give) and that's: it depends. It depends on how hard you rode, how long you rode, what you ate before, during and after you rode, your age, your fitness level, your body's natural ability to recover, etc. If you train/race with power, the good Doctor (Dr. Coggan) explains this very well with the concept of Training Stress Score (TSS) in his must-read book: Training and Racing with a Power Meter. TSS quantifies the overall training load. TSS takes into account both the intensity and duration of your ride/race/training session. I'm not going to get into TSS in any more detail, because I'm sure I could write a book on it myself, but just remember that you would score a TSS=100 if you rode at your Functional Threshold Power (FTP) for 1 hour. Here is Dr. Coggan's recommendation on the impact of Training Stress on Fatigue:
If TSS Intensity Recovery Status
<150 Low Recovery is generally complete the following day
150-300 Moderate Recovery complete by the 2nd day
300-450 High Some residual fatigue may be present after 2nd day
>450 Very High Residual fatigue lasting for several days
For those of you that don't train/race with a Power Meter, I'd say the average (2 hr.) group ride will net you a TSS of 90-125. (Remember, a TSS=100 is 1 hour at Threshold) A Cat 4 road race will net you approximately 125, a fast paced (6 hr.) century ride= 200+. These are just estimates. And remember, everyone is different. The Tour Pros can race every day, for 21 days, with a TSS exceeding a TSS of 300(ala Le Tour de France) and STILL get stronger. (No wonder they all take illegal drugs or blood dope..ha.) Seriously though, these guys are elite athletes and some of the strongest riders in the world. So, there bodies can endure this type of load. Besides, they have some of the best Ex Fizz's (like Dr. Allen Lim) with them on Tour to ensure they are getting the proper nutrition and rest- not to mention post-race massages (which definitely help in muscle recuperation/repair). If I were to race just one Stage of the TDF, I'd have to rest a full week before I was able to ride again..let alone walk the next day.
The best advice I can give you regarding proper rest/recovery is to keep a training diary and try to identify patterns. i.e. note that you always perform well after 2 days of moderate riding/training leading up to a race or that you don't perform well if you take a complete rest day before a race. My diary is kept on Training Peaks WKO+ software. It's got a record of my TSS for each ride and also includes a helpful metric called Training Stress Balance (TSB). TSB could be renamed "Form" in the equation: Form=Fitness + Freshness, where Fitness is the result of load or training stress and Freshness is the result of rest. To be in "Good Form" (which you want to be come race time) you want a good balance between Fitness and Freshness. If you're Fit but not Fresh (you've been riding hard for a week straight without a rest day) you're probably NOT in Good Form. Likewise, if you're Fresh but NOT Fit (you've been sitting on the couch watching TV for a week without riding) you're probably NOT in Good Form either. I can look at my TSB in Training Peaks software and tell you whether I'm in Good Form ready for a race.
Proper rest and proper nutrition is the key for quick recovery. Make sure you're getting proper nutrition BEFORE, DURING and AFTER your training/racing..and make sure you're getting adequate rest. If you're unsure as to HOW MUCH rest you REALLY need..it is better to error on the "more rest is best" side.
Power ON! Coach Rob