Rest Days and Brick Walls

One of the first things that amateur cycle racers do when they start to get “serious” about competing is hire a coach. Often, new amateurs with full time jobs, families, and other obligations have more money than time to sort out their training plans, and limited time to train in the first place, so it makes complete sense to pay someone else to do it instead. They then feel a strict obligation to follow what that coach prescribes – after all, you’re paying him or her! For some this can lead to a tremendous boost in fitness and results, but for others it can turn into a mire of overtraining, missed opportunities, or never-ending plateaus and frustration. I call it “following your training plan into a brick wall”. But why does this happen, and how do we prevent it?

Generally speaking, that coach is only seeing a snapshot of your life – as is often the case unless you pay a lot of money to have a lot of contact with your coach – and the training plans provided generally assume a “perfect scenario”. This is where the athlete gets enough sleep, can juggle life’s demands around training easily (or vice versa), limits work and family stress, dodges illness, and stays motivated enough to complete the prescribed workouts. Athletes generally want to please their coaches and tell them what they want to hear! “I am getting enough sleep” “I am completing my workouts” etc. Their desire to do what their coach says means I also often hear people saying “this is my rest week” when others are out riding lots or bemoaning lovely weather outside when they are meant to be having a day off training.

In my 15+ years as a self-coached amateur racer, first in triathlon and then as a road cyclist, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is not to schedule rest days. This seems counterintuitive to the idea of hiring a coach, but when I look back on my training blocks, I can see lots of times when I was forced to take a day off or a few days easy, just because life happened. Foul weather, sudden work or school stress, ill children, cancelled races, bike mechanicals, a few bad nights’ sleep, injuries, travel… the list of ways that life has conspired to keep me from training properly goes on and on. And there’s nothing worse than scheduling a rest day or having an easy week because your training plan calls for it, only to find other obligations or issues popping up suddenly to prevent you from training properly in the days that follow – so your scheduled day off the bike turns into two or three days off, or your easy week turns into ten days.

My solution? Be flexible. Temper your training to what your body is saying and ride accordingly. Be in tune with your life stresses and be honest about their effects on you. Invest a few minutes every morning by taking a resting HRV measure and then combine that with a basic log of sleep, diet, and general wellness notes. There are several apps out there that make it quite easy to do this – just add it to your morning routine and within a few weeks you will have some trends to mull over. Finally, talk to your coach when life is getting in the way, rearrange workouts if necessary, or put those hard intervals on hold when your legs and head just aren’t up for it that day.

But at the same time, ride your bike every chance you get, especially on a sunny day. It doesn’t have to be hard, or with a goal in mind. Sometimes a short and easy social spin on a sunny day (AKA active recovery) is exactly what you need. The mental side is as important as the physical, both the stress and the recovery aspects. Hit your workouts hard when life allows, back off when feeling the stress, and the rest days and easy weeks will take care of themselves.

Written by Maryka Sennema - Head of Exercise Science

Maryka is an exercise physiologist as well as a national cycling champion. Find out more about Maryka and the rest of the team here.

Kieran Blay