Cycling without sufficient rest can lead to muscle strains, chronic fatigue, injuries, or even cause lasting damage. Many athletes struggle with taking time off, especially when training for an event or competition. However, not giving your body time to rest and recover can stall, or even reverse, the progress you’ve made.
A cyclist should take a minimum of two rest days per week. However, the optimum number of rest days will vary for every individual. Typically, cyclists need more rest as they age, so older riders may require an additional day off. The same is true for anyone recovering from an injury.
Throughout this article, I’ll discuss how much rest you need and why it’s essential. I’ll also give you some tips for your rest days and how to know when you really need to take some time off.
What Is a Rest Day, Anyway?
Before we get into how much you need to rest, it’s important to understand what I mean by the word.
According to Medical News Today, a rest day involves taking a break from your regular workout routine for the purposes of muscle repair and recovery.
However, that can still mean different things to different people. Many athletes engage in active recovery on their rest days, which is activity at a much lower intensity level than usual.
The alternative is when your body is entirely at rest, which is also sometimes called passive recovery. Whether you are passive or active, your rest day should include refueling your body with nutrients, protein, and plenty of water to prepare for your next ride.
A rest day may include therapeutic recovery methods, like massage, stretching, or compression therapy. Research has shown that massage is one of the most effective ways to prevent or control delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and perceived fatigue.
Sleep and Recovery
The most crucial aspect of your rest day is getting a sufficient amount of sleep. It’s widely known that how much (and how well) you sleep has significant impacts on how well you can function during the daytime.
We’ve all heard that adults should get eight hours of sleep each night, but there’s a good reason for that number. Science has shown that when adults get six hours of sleep (or less) for four nights in a row, it impairs cognitive function, mood and impacts physiological functions like appetite regulation, glucose metabolism, and immunity.
So, while planning for your training and rest, it’s important to also plan for your eight hours of nightly sleep to prevent curbing the effects of your rest day and to maintain healthy energy levels.
Rest vs. Active Recovery
Most athletes become very uncomfortable when they go too long without activity. Active recovery is a technique where you can do lighter activity than normal to give your muscles time to recover and repair.
Many people believe that active recovery is superior to passive recovery because it increases blood flow and helps to clear out lactate and other metabolic waste more quickly. Research has shown that there is some benefit, but it mostly depends on the intensity level of the active recovery workout.
However, others believe that there’s little evidence to support this belief in practice, which leaves it up to the personal preference of each athlete to decide which rest and recovery method is best for them.
Those who participate in active recovery typically do things like swimming, walking, yoga, jogging, or light cycling. The most important thing is to keep the activity at a low-intensity level, with your heart rate in the recovery zone (zone 1), or 65-74% of your maximum heart rate.
You shouldn’t practice active recovery if you’re feeling acute pain or if you believe you may have sustained an injury. In that case, you should consult a doctor before doing any additional activity.
Active Recovery Rides
Some cyclists swear by active recovery rides to help flush their legs and finish out the training. These rides typically involve:
- An average heart rate under 68% of your threshold heart rate.
- Using about half the amount of power.
- Extremely low exertion.
- Minimal pressure on the pedals.
- Duration 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the rider.
How Much Rest Does a Cyclist Need?
The frequency of rest days is specific from person to person, and the only way to know exactly how much rest is needed is to listen to your body’s signals that it is becoming fatigued. However, according to Cycling Weekly magazine, every cyclist needs at least two days dedicated to rest.
There are some exceptions to this, including the extended periods of rest that professional cyclists take after the race season ends. During this transition period, cyclists typically take off anywhere from two to four weeks.
This break from cycling is vital to prevent burnout, chronic pain and allow for the recovery of any strains, sprains, or injuries. It’s imperative after intense activity where you’ve depleted your body’s glycogen stores. Replenishing your energy can take anywhere from 36-48 hours, especially if you’ve been doing intense cycling for a couple of days or more.
However, professional cyclists who are used to continuous, intense activity may be able to go more days in a row without a rest day because their body is more adjusted to it. But even the pros will need more rest, more frequently during race season.
A good rule of thumb is that more strenuous workouts and more challenging rides will require more frequent rest days with less activity (so, more restful).
Some cyclists determine their rest day frequency by measuring their fatigue. You can do this using your heart rate variability (HRV).
|If your HRV…
|Then you should…
|Decreases by more than 30%
|Decrease training intensity
|Decreases two days in a row
|Take a rest day
You should also plan a recovery week if you’re doing extensive, ongoing training for an extended period. A weeklong rest period will give your body time to recover, as well as your mind. If you’re training for a month straight, you should plan a recovery week for the fourth or fifth week.
During a recovery week, you should do about half of the amount of riding you have been doing up to that point, and they should be primarily low-effort. You can use this time to focus on skills, breathing, stretching, or whatever other activities will benefit your overall well-being.
Here is an example plan for a recovery week:
- Day 1: Rest – no activity
- Day 2: Very low intensity; heart rate at zone 1 (65-74%).
- Day 3: Short and low intensity
- Day 4: Rest – no activity
- Day 5: Short and easy ride, low intensity
- Day 6: Short right, slightly more intensity. May include zone 2 heart rate if the rider feels up to it
- Day 7: Longer, more intense, aerobic ride
Signs That You Need Rest
Many cyclists think that racking up as many miles as possible is the best way to meet their training goals. However, overtraining and burnout are real risks for athletes, as are injuries and fatigue.
Everyone has different needs when it comes to rest and recovery, but there are some physical and mental signs you should watch for to help you know when your body has hit its limit.
- Difficulty sleeping: Ironically, sleep disturbances have been shown to be a primary symptom of overtraining, with an increase in training demands causing a reduction in both quantity and quality of sleep. The buildup of cortisol and adrenaline in your body can also contribute to problems getting a good night’s sleep.
- Excessive muscle soreness: While some muscle soreness after training is entirely normal (and expected), excessive, persistent, and ongoing soreness can be a sign of overtraining. If you don’t give your muscles time to recover from the damage they sustain while exercising, they will become damaged further and cause ongoing soreness.
- Consistent fatigue: Like soreness, some fatigue is normal after a hard workout or long ride. However, fatigue that feels more like exhaustion or that continues even after you get some rest could be a sign that your body still needs more recovery time.
- Lack of motivation: If your motivation and performance are lagging, it’s another sign that your body may need rest. This is because training takes a lot of you – both mentally and physically. If there’s a time where you’re just not “feeling it,” it could be your body telling you to slow down.
- Loss of appetite: Too much athletic training can cause a loss of appetite. Scientists believe this is due to a disturbance in the sympathetic nervous system and the hormones which regulate appetite.
- Weakened immune system: Some studies have found a connection between overreached athletes and the prevalence of upper respiratory tract infections. This suggests that too much activity without sufficient rest may weaken immunity and a greater chance of illness. This can open you up to the potential for colds and illness to take you out of the race.
- Mood swings: Hormones released during exercise, like cortisol and serotonin, can become imbalanced when your body is overworked without sufficient recovery time. Some people also have bouts of feeling “down” or anxious when they overtrain.
Benefits of Rest Days
There are many physical and mental benefits of rest days, which means that you should consider planning them into your training schedule. You should also keep in mind that your body may need an extra rest day here and there, so listen to it!
Here are some of the health benefits to taking rest days:
- Achy muscles have time to recover
- The body has time to rebuild energy stores
- Repairing the tiny muscle tears that occur during training
- Reduces stress and allows the mind to rest
- Prevents injury due to overwork and strain
- Less fatigue and better quality sleep
- Improved work-life-balance
Risks of Skipping Rest Days
If you don’t take regular rest days, especially while cycling regularly or training for a race, you risk becoming both physically and mentally exhausted or experiencing burnout.
According to ACE, exercise causes metabolic stress and mechanical stress to your body. Skipping rest days prevents the body from having the needed recovery period to repair muscle proteins and replace the lost glycogen during training.
Not to mention that if your body doesn’t have time to repair and recover, they become more likely to suffer an injury in the future.
How Many Days Should You Rest Before a Cycling Race?
When training for a race or other big event, it could be tempting to skip rest days and keep training until the day of. However, this is not a good idea because you should plan for your body to have a complete recovery before the race.
According to endurance coaches at CTS, most amateur cyclists should stop their regular training routine 7-10 days out from the event and then follow with a short taper.
Stress leads to fatigue in the short term, and training is stress on the body. You don’t want training to damper your final performance when it counts the most.
Remember, you won’t be able to make any significant gains within a single week before your race, so there is no need to risk injury or fatigue trying to cram in last-minute training. That doesn’t mean that you should give up all activities entirely, but your training plan will need to train drastically.
Balancing Rest and Training During Race Week
It may be challenging to find a good balance between cutting back your training, getting enough rest, and keeping your body primed during the days leading up to your event. It’s a good idea to reduce your frequency by around 50% the week before, meaning that instead of a 2-hour ride, you should just do one hour.
During this week, you should still take one or two full rest days off and use the tapering technique for the remainder.
According to PezCycling News, tapering is the idea that once you get to a certain fitness level, a short recovery period with lower intensity training will allow you to recover from built-up fatigue and have an overall better outcome at the goal event.
Alternative Activities for a Rest Day
A true rest day doesn’t involve getting on your bike or setting out with the goal to train. Giving your mind and body a complete “day off” is essential, and you should try to do so at least once every seven to ten days.
Health and fitness expert Pete McCall recommends other activities besides physical exercise to make the most of your rest day and improve your mental and physical health. He suggests things like:
- Spend time with your kids or other loved ones
- Learn or practice an instrument
- Perform volunteer work
- Coach a team or youth activity
- Get ahead at work
- Read a book
- Binge-watch a TV show
Even elite athletes need time and activities that allow the mind and body to fully recover from the stress and strain of intense exercise and training. It doesn’t mean that you’re lazy – you’re actually just committing to the recovery phase that your body so desperately needs.
A cyclist should rest at least twice per week unless they’ve been training hard leading into a race. In that case, the process should start at least one week early and taper activities until the big day. Rest can be true, passive rest, or active recovery, depending on your average activity level and preference.
Whatever you prefer, make sure that you plan rest into your training schedule and stick to it, adjusting only by adding more rest if your body needs it.