The Essential Role of Recovery

When to ditch the go-hard-or-go-home mentality and take it easy.

Woman drinking water during recovery period of spin class
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If you want to achieve optimal fitness, it’s a mistake to exercise at full throttle all the time. That’s true of indoor cycling as much as any other physical activity. It may sound counterintuitive but recovery really is an integral part of maximizing your benefits from indoor cycling. Recovery basically involves giving your body ample time to restore the different energy pathways that are necessary to regenerate ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the immediate source of energy for muscle contractions, along with time to remove metabolic by-products and repair damage to your muscles and other tissues, according to the American Council on Exercise.

The Neglected Workout Element

Recovery is sometimes referred to as “the forgotten training variable” because so many fitness programs—including lots of HIIT workouts—neglect to include it. Many of the benefits from an exercise regimen occur after the workouts, when your body is recovering and adapting to the mechanical stress that was placed on your muscle tissue or the metabolic stress that was placed on your cardiovascular system. Without sufficient recovery, your body may not gain the fitness benefits you’re aiming for; worse, you could set yourself up for overtraining syndrome, injury, and other physiological problems.

This doesn’t mean you should lie on the couch with the remote in hand between sessions. There are, in fact, many different ways to recover both during and between indoor cycling sessions. Generally speaking, research suggests that when it comes to many forms of exercise, including indoor cycling, active recovery (continued exercise at a lower intensity) is more effective than passive recovery (complete rest).

After all, active recovery helps flush excess lactic acid from the body and increases blood flow and oxygen circulation to fatigued muscles, tendons, and ligaments.

How and Where Recovery Fits In

During an indoor cycling class or solo session, high-intensity drills (such as sprints) or rigorous hill-climbs should be followed by an active recovery interval (generally 2 to 4 minutes) where you continue pedaling with light resistance on the bike so your body and mind have a chance to recharge.

The optimal length of time spent in recovery depends on many factors, including the intensity of the overall workout and the rider’s fitness level.

A 2010 study at the University Castilla-La Mancha in Spain found that longer (6-9 minute), low-intensity recovery intervals helped remove the high lactate concentrations produced by bouts of high-intensity cycling better than shorter, higher-intensity recovery intervals did among moderately fit cyclists; by contrast, more highly trained cyclists may find that shorter recovery intervals are sufficient. Meanwhile, a 2005 study from the University of Edinburgh in the U.K. found that longer recovery periods (30 seconds) helped cyclists achieve higher power output and lower levels of fatigue during a workout that included multiple sprints.

You can also include recovery sessions between high-intensity workouts—by opting for a yoga or Pilates class instead of an indoor cycling class or simply taking a moderately brisk walk or swimming. There’s nothing wrong with exercising every day—in fact, it’s good for you, as long as you alternate between high-, moderate-, and low-intensity workouts (this is called periodization).

If you enjoy high-intensity classes such as strength or race-oriented rides, it’s also a good idea to include recovery rides in your training regimen now and then. With these rides, you’re trying to relax and replenish your energy, so the intensity stays in the range of 50 to 65 percent of your maximum heart rate. There aren’t any jumps or hills on these rides; it's all seated or standing flats. By using visualization exercises and paying attention to your breathing rhythms, these rides are almost like meditation on a bike—an excellent choice when you’re tired or you’ve been riding hard for several consecutive days.

Paying It Forward

Maintaining good nutrition and proper hydration and getting plenty of sleep also play a role in helping your body recover from intense workouts. Think of all these strategies as ways to give your body the TLC it needs to make the next leap in fitness and prepare you well for future workouts. In other words, it’s a mistake to constantly adhere to the “Go hard or go home!” mantra. Sometimes downshifting your intensity for part of a ride or an entire workout really can upgrade your strength, conditioning, and performance for the long haul. 

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