What's Cool In Road Cycling

Toolbox: Recovery and Fatigue

Train. Recover. Repeat. This is the accepted model for success. While many athletes have a firm grasp on what “training” is, recovery is less well understood, and certainly less well applied. This is perhaps more true in the amateur population, where limited training time begets high intensity efforts and a mindset of always being behind in one’s preparation. Perhaps a better model is Train Specifically, Recover Maximally, Repeat When Prepared! So, let’s talk recovery…

By Matt McNamara

To start off, this is part one of a multi-part look at recovery. The subject is simply too broad and the innovations too interesting to fit into one column. Instead, let’s try to break the topic into a couple of manageable bites. This one will focus on defining recovery and some of the metrics that matter to your personal development. Next time, we’ll look at the leading edge of recovery from a couple of different perspectives.

Recovery Defined
The first step in this project is to define “recovery.” Easy enough right? Recovery is the activity that follows training! From the dictionary we get:


Noun – A return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength. The action or process of regaining possession or control of something stolen or lost.

The two take aways for me: return to normal state and regaining possession of something lost. More on that in a bit…

To this base definition we must add some perspective, so I asked a few people I respect and they added some important qualifiers to the above definition:

“…a qualitative definition for recovery might be something along the line of having your body able to perform as you’d expect it to, given your recent workload and your upcoming workload.” – Stephen Cheung, Pez Toolbox Editor

“The primary measure for recovery (or level of fatigue) is performance related, i.e. changes/impact on power output (be it acute or chronic), combined with subjective information from the athlete, such as RPE, mood markers, and perhaps indicators of hydration (e.g. post ride urine colour) and glycogen replenishment. I also monitor the Training Stress Balance (related to power measurement) of an athlete to keep an eye on cumulative and acute fatigue levels.” – Alex Simmons, RST Coaching Technical Director

That helps. A bunch. But then again…are we speaking of very short term (within a workout), short term (eg overnight), medium (eg during a macro-cycle), or long term (year over year) recovery? Whew, this gets confusing fast. For the sake of this series, and perhaps even a bit of clarity, let’s consider recovery of primarily short and medium duration as in from a bout of exercise overnight, or from a block of training up to several weeks long. These are great starting points because they are easily relatable for most athletes and offer a wide variety of metrics and research findings.

Metrics That Matter
Most any discussion of recovery includes admonitions about the necessity of sleep, the 90 minute window for carbohydrate replacement, the value of massage, and the essential importance of hydration. While these recommendations are based in science, why are they essential? In addition, what are the metrics of merit that might actually help you know day-to-day if you’re recovered?

As Alex Simmons and Dr. Cheung mentioned, power is a central element in determining fatigue levels. Indeed, the ability to repeatedly produce sufficiently hard efforts is a great indicator of relative freshness. Similarly, power based training will often include a metric like Training Stress Balance (TSB) as developed by Dr. Andy Coggan and based on the Impulse Response Model originally proposed by Bannister et al in 1975.

In addition to power based metrics, many athletes and coaches use heart rate based measures to gain insight into the physiological consequences of the stress/strain relationship of training. It is this balance between what the body can do (ie the power it can produce) and what is actually happening in the body during recovery to allow these adaptations. Which brings us back to the two elements of recovery I noted earlier – a return to the normal state and recapturing that which has been lost.

My hope is that in the second article we’ll be able to parse through the two sides of the question, look at what the research postulates, and provide you with some additional insight and ideas that might help your training and recovery. Hope you’ll join me…

About Matt McNamara: Matt is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach with over 20 years of racing, coaching and team management experience. He is the founder and president of Sterling Sports Group. If you have any questions or comments please feel free to contact him directly at [email protected]. You can learn more by visiting his website at www.sterlingwins.com.

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