Active Recovery - A Sufferlandrian’s best friend or Couchlandrian nonsense?

Active recovery: We know, it sounds like an oxymoron, or what a Couchlandrian does while waiting for dessert to arrive. But what if I told you that active recovery can actually help you improve your speed and power on the bike? This isn’t a trick, this is the Science of Suffering.  

What is Active Recovery?

There are two distinct types of active recovery.  The first refers to the time spent between intervals. The second refers to those days after a brutal bout of Suffering where your training plan (or common sense) calls for an easy ride.  Let’s tackle the time spent between intervals first.


The Calm Before (and After) the Storm

Most people don’t think about the time between intervals as being very important. After all, it’s the work you do during the interval that makes you faster, right?  While that is true, the time spent in between that sweet, sweet Suffering has a much bigger impact on the quality of your intervals than you might think.

Does this sound familiar? You find yourself in your bike torture chamber going head to head with Revolver: that classic one-minute-on, one-minute-off workout. That gunshot goes off and over the next minute you’ve completely emptied the tank, shedding holy water and flinging pain suckers off your legs in the process. You promptly slump over your handlebars, exhausted, cursing GVA and The Minions. You stop pedalling because, uh, this is a downhill section!

But don’t get too comfortable. You have another effort coming up. As tempting as it is to stop pedalling and give yourself sixty sweet seconds of relief, that’s not a great idea. Why? Apart from angering the Minions, stopping completely between intervals can actually hinder recovery. Active recovery, or really easy pedalling, is what you should be doing. Skeptical? Let’s dive into how the human body works.

Keeping that blood pumping

First we need to look at how blood makes its way around your body during exercise.  

  • During exercise, the blood vessels in the working muscle will relax and get a bit wider, allowing more blood to flow past those muscles.
  • After the blood supplies oxygen to your muscles and enters your veins, most of the pressure from your heart is gone. As a result, the body can’t rely on your heart to send the blood back out of your legs.
  • When a muscle contracts it squeezes the veins and forces the blood forward, sending it back up to your heart.
  • When you’re really working hard (AKA, Suffering), the contraction of your muscles will squeeze your veins and the blood along each section until it can make its way back to your heart.

Now think about what happens when you are at your max after an interval and just stop pedaling:

  • You aren’t contracting your muscles anymore.
  • No muscle contractions means your veins are sending less blood back up to your heart.

The result? Your blood pools in your legs, those same legs that were just producing massive amounts of Hydrogen ions and other metabolic byproducts. If you’re not pedalling, those byproducts hunker down in your legs. And that light-headed feeling? That’s the blood that was destined for your brain, now stuck in the acid pool of your legs. Joy!

Our advice: keep spinning so that you muscles continue to push that blood back up to your heart and through the rest of your body.  Different parts of your body are tasked with processing and eliminating the various byproducts that your legs have created through all that Suffering. The more you keep that blood moving, the faster your body can clear itself out and be ready for that final fifteenth….ahem, sixteenth interval of Revolver

Easy Days: The Other Active Recovery

The principle of Active Recovery extends beyond those recovery periods between intervals. There are days when an easy spin is just what the doctor ordered (shhhhh, don’t tell Grunter!).

Active Recovery - lies, rumours and vicious innuendo

While many people say a recovery spin is needed the day after a hard workout to “get rid of the lactic acid” this is simply not the case, strictly speaking.  Your body is capable of using lactate as a fuel source.  As it turns out, it only takes a couple of hours after an intense bout of exercise for your body to fully remove any excess lactate.²  So if you don’t have any lactic acid to remove, what’s the point of an easy spin? Good question.

Why is it important to ride easy?

Getting faster while riding really slow? I know it sounds Couchlandrian, but there’s some hard science to back this up. Here’s why you should throw in some easy rides between your Suffering:

  • Keep the blood flowing:  Even extremely low-intensity exercise will cause the blood vessels in working muscles to dilate and increase blood flow.
  • Feeding your muscles: Increased blood flow allows more nutrients to make their way to your battered muscles.
    • After a hard workout your muscles will be a bit damaged.  
    • Light exercise will increase blood flow to your muscles, but won't be hard enough to do further damage
    • That increased blood flow will increase the speed you deliver building blocks and other nutrients to those muscles.
    • Light exercise also opens up the channels in the muscle cells that allow nutrients to enter the cells, so those extra nutrients pumping through your blood will have a place to go.
    • The faster you get those building blocks to your muscles, the faster they will repair themselves, and the sooner you can get back to more suffering!

You need to remember one thing though, Active Recovery is EASY. Really easy! *gasp* That isn’t a problem for most people in the time between intervals, because you probably don’t want to be pedalling at all.  Where most people get it wrong is on recovery rides.  These need to be ridiculously, almost frustratingly easy.  In the words of Sir Neal Henderson “You should feel embarrassed to be seen riding so easy”.  The best riders in the world know how to ride really hard, but just as importantly they know how to ride really easy.


Some common FAQs

Does Cadence matter?
Yes!  Riding 50W at 40rpm is very different to riding 50W at 95rpm.  Active Recovery should always be done at a relatively high cadence, with 80rpm being on the low side.  The lower your rpm the more muscle force you have to produce, which can be counterproductive when you are trying to give your muscles a break!  Riding at a higher cadence will put more of the stress on your cardiovascular system, which means you will get more blood pumped down to your muscles, which is what you want!
    What if I don’t include Active Recovery rides into my training?
    Assuming you are still including days fully off of the bike in your training week you can get away without utilizing Active Recovery rides.  However, they can result in better recovery than doing nothing at all.  If you are someone who wants to get the most out of your training then you absolutely should include Active Recovery rides, especially after particularly hard days of training.

    How do I know I am riding easy enough?
    Do you feel embarrassed to be riding so slowly?  Are you in your small chainring? Does it feel like you’re almost not even pushing down on the pedals?  If you can say yes to all of these, chances are you’re doing it right.


      1. Ahmaidi, S. A. I. D., et al. "Effects of active recovery on plasma lactate and anaerobic power following repeated intensive exercise." Medicine and science in sports and exercise 28.4 (1996): 450-456.
      2. Mazzeo, R. S., et al. "Disposal of blood [1-13C] lactate in humans during rest and exercise." Journal of Applied Physiology 60.1 (1986): 232-241.


      Read more from Coach Mac Cassin

      Mac Cassin has been coached by Sir Neal Henderson since 2009 and is a coach at APEX Coaching, with a focus on masters and junior racers. As an elite cyclist who also has to balance the demands of ‘life’ with his goals as an athlete, Mac has a deep understanding of how to get the most out of those who have limited time to train. Mac has raced at the World and PanAmerican championships and holds several US national and state titles. His studies were in Integrative Physiology from the University of Colorado and has worked as a research assistant in the CU Neurophysiology lab.

      Add a comment

      Try the sufferfest for free

      One subscription works across Windows, Mac, iPad and iPhone devices. Try it for free for 7 days. Cancel easily at any time. If you continue, it’s just $10 USD/month or $99 USD/year.

      That's it. No games. Just getting faster.