Recovery rides are generally underrated, and people’s most common mistakes are skipping them or not going easy enough and, therefore, never experiencing the value of a true recovery spin.

Peer pressure or FOMO can also get in the way of your easy days on the bike.

“I have been in this situation a lot, as many of my friends in Whitefish, [Montana], are mountain bikers and are constantly going on alpine adventures that I know would be more “fun” than just doing the training as planned,” pro rider Sam Boardman, who rides with the Legion of Los Angeles crit racing team, tells Bicycling. “Still, I have to convince myself that I have my own racing goals bigger than myself that I need to be prepared for.”

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But what do recovery rides do for our legs, exactly? Couldn’t we instead just spend that time on the couch? Well, you could, but according to Kristen Arnold, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., a level 2 USA Cycling coach at Source Endurance Coaching, that’s not the best idea.

“Recovery rides can gently open the capillaries and promote blood flow to aid the body’s adaptation to training and get ready for the next day’s training session,” Arnold tells Bicycling. “If your training is as strenuous as it should be on your hard days, your mind and body will be craving the recovery ride days.”

Think of it as a flush-out massage on the bike. Without the high stress on the muscles from riding hard, during this easy ride, the increased blood flow will enhance and speed up your recovery.

How exactly do you do a recovery ride?

The sweet spot for a recovery ride is between 30 and 75 minutes on a route that is as flat as possible and with few stops. Common mistakes are picking a hilly route that will, at times, require a low cadence and a high power output, as well as routes with too many stops for lights or stop signs.

“It would be better to do several loops or out-and-backs of a flat no-stop route than to make a longer route that requires stops and climbs,” says Arnold.

Boardman, who averages 20 hours of riding per week, tries to fit in two recovery rides per week.

“Usually, my coach pencils in two recovery rides a week, almost always on Mondays and Fridays. It totally depends on whether I think a recovery ride would be helpful or not on that day. Still, I would say that if it does nothing for me physically, it always puts me in a better mood—and mental recovery is just as important as physical.”

For a proper recovery spin, you should ride at a comfortably high cadence, making sure your legs are spinning at all times, avoiding coasting. Here is how you can take measure:

  • If you have a power meter, do not ride over 55 percent of your functional threshold power (FTP.)
  • If you are using a heart rate monitor, do not ride over zone 1 heart rate.
  • If you do not have power or heart rate data, do not ride harder than a 5 out of 10 relative perceived exertion (RPE).

“More often than not, my recovery rides consist of me playing the game with my partner to see who can get the lowest wattage throughout the ride. Most likely, this isn’t the most effective recovery technique, but when I say easy, I mean easy,” says Boardman.

To get in the mindset of riding easy, Arnold makes a habit of riding her commuter bike in regular clothes when she does her recovery rides.

“If I am traveling with my team in which recovery rides are standard practice, I will wear my casual sunglasses to get me in the easy-riding mood,” she says.

Boardman recently relocated to Whitefish, Montana, from sunny California, which has also changed his mind on indoor riding.

“For days when you just want to do a quick and effective recovery spin, not having to put on all of your kit and then deal with lights or traffic makes a lot of positive difference,” he adds. And Arnold agrees, saying there is nothing wrong with doing your recovery rides indoors, especially if it facilitates the experience.

How do you balance recovery and life’s demands?

Athletes who have a hard time maintaining an easy effort should consider swapping the ride for another activity that can give you the same benefits. Arnold recommends active recovery activities, such as intentional and gentle foam rolling, restorative yoga, or a light walk.

“I assign recovery rides to all of my athletes unless they are pressed for time during the week and are better off having a day off the bike,” says Arnold.

Got a coach or trainer? It may be a good idea to make them aware of other stressors in your life that may be contributing to fatigue. Ideally, a coach will anticipate when the athlete needs recovery before it’s too late and additional rest days are unavoidable. Arnold also educates her athletes on optimal life-to-training workflows. A key guideline is to stack hard activities together.

“If an athlete has a lot of gardening and yard work [to do], do the yard work on a Saturday after a long and strenuous ride,” Arnold says. “Save the more sedentary chores like folding laundry, accounting, and travel planning for your rest days.”

For coaches and athletes, data has become an essential part of planning out training blocks. Coaches want to make sure their athletes are being challenged, as well as making sure they are resting when they need to.

“I am a huge data nerd, and while there is a lot to be said for just going based on how you feel, I believe using metrics to help corroborate that is extremely useful,” Boardman says. “Just the other day, I was attempting a workout, and it was going horrifically. I felt awful, and as I looked down at power numbers that I usually can do very easily, I noticed my heart rate was wildly high. I stopped the workout and determined I just needed to take a couple of easy days to let my body recover more, and now I am in the midst of a block where I am seeing and feeling fitness come back to me that I haven’t felt in a month.”

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Rosael Torres Davis
Special Projects Editor, Bicycling, Runner’s World & Popular Mechanics

Rosael is an avid cyclist and seasonal runner who is in the pursuit of getting more people on bikes. All bodies. All bikes. As the editor of special projects, she gets to work on initiatives that further engage our audience and provide additional value to our readership. Lately, she has been dipping her cleats into gravel racing and other off-road adventures.