Cyclists and sleep: The need to get it right at this time of year

Posted on: October 15th, 2018



Most riders are very good at getting the miles in this time of year, but what about recovery and sleep?

Most riders are very good at getting the miles in over the winter, but what about recovery and sleep?


Aidan Ryan

It doesn’t really matter if you are a professional cyclist or a charity challenge rider, the principles of training are the same.

You may look vastly different decked out in your lycra, but believe it or not, your body and the pro’s are identical in their responses to training.

Our bodies can do something that no machine can do. They can adapt and improve systems in response to stimulation of that system.

Now think about your bike for a minute. Think about repeated pulling of the brakes. The brake blocks will wear down and the cable will eventually fray and snap.

Imagine if we could invent a bike where after your spin, when it was sitting in the shed, the brake blocks could renew themselves and the cables would get stronger as a result of the stimulus of being pulled. Imagine if you could invent a bike that got better the more you used it.

Our muscles and joints put up with repeated strain on them in training. And then we go home, put our bike in the shed; shower, eat and rest up.

Now the biochemical magic goes to work. Repairs are affected to the muscle fibres and the tendons to bring them back to normal so that we recover and are capable of doing a similar training session again.

Our body has another trick. It doesn’t just repair and renew the muscle fibres, it goes a little bit further and improves them so that they are stronger and better able to withstand the rigors of training on the next occasion it occurs.

This improvement is replicated throughout the various parts involved in training. So we get better or fitter after a little recovery.

With all the advancements in technology no machine can match this. The more a machine is used the more it wears out. Not us. So that’s it then, that’s the secret. You train more you improve more. Well not quiet.


Getting the winter miles in has always been the key to good condition come the spring for your racing and sportive challenges. But recovery is just as important.


Training is not what makes us fitter

This sounds like heresy but it is true. Training actually damages the body. Muscles suffer micro traumas. Toxic breakdown products flood the circulation.

It is the body’s response to this damage post training, during recovery, which causes our fitness to improve. So really, it is recovery that brings about improvements in fitness.

Now, before I get quoted out of context and stickybottle readers take to their beds for the rest of the year, let me qualify this.

First, you must train to stimulate the various systems in the body involved in performing. Then you must recover to allow these systems to repair and improve. When this happens you become fitter.

All nice and simple in principle?  There is another “but”

Too much training, too hard training, too much hard training, too little recovery – or combinations of any of these – will prevent proper adaptation/improvements taking place and lead to deterioration in fitness.

So the real secret is balancing your training with recovery. This is not that simple either. To get this balance right you have to figure out your total training load.

As a general rule, the harder and the more intensely you train the more recovery you will need.

If a regular club cyclist goes out and rides at a steady pace, at which they can have a conversation, for 2 hours it is very likely that they will be recovered sufficiently to repeat this spin the next day.

Now, instead let’s send them out to ride the same spin 30% faster. It is highly unlikely that they will be recovered sufficiently to do anything except creep along the road for several days.


There’s nothing like getting into good sleeping habits


If you are doing interval training or spinning classes you will have periods of recovery between the hard efforts. Think about the effect of drastically reducing the recovery period between the efforts and/or significantly increasing the number of hard effort intervals.

What would you be like next day? Ready to do the same again? I don’t think so. More recovery is needed because of the increased training load.

The greater the load the more recovery needed.

Training load is based mainly on 3 variables;

  • Volume (hours of training)
  • Intensity (effort level in training)
  • Frequency (how often you train)

Then you have to take into account your lifestyle and its effects on the load. If you are a bricklayer doing hard physical work eight hours per day then this will be a greater load than if you have an office job where you are sitting for most of the day.

Psychological stress also contributes to the overall load. If your job and family life are stress free and happy then you can tolerate a greater training load than someone in a high stress workplace dealing with family, financial or relationship difficulties.

Below is a rough and very unscientific formula for checking your training load against your recovery.


Load Calculation

Load Calculation


Recovery Calculation

Recovery Calculation


You Load Calculation score should always be less than your Recovery Calculation Score.  So when you add everything up in the first (Load Calculation) box. Then do the same for the Recovery Calculation box. The second box total (Recovery Calculation) should be much bigger than the one above it. Recovery Score should be twice or more than twice the Total Load Score. Or you can calculate late it like this;

Recovery Calculation 

The younger and newer you are to the sport the higher this number should be.

  • Underage cyclists should be getting a score around 3.
  • Seasoned professionals may be able to get away with a score of around 1.5.

So if you have the choice always err on the side of too much recovery. Too great a training load is far more harmful than too much recovery.

This formula is a very rough guideline. If you are unsure about your recovery in relation to your training seek the advice of an experienced coach.


Aidan Ryan has been involved in track & road racing and mountain biking for nearly 40 years. He has won seven national track titles and represented Ireland on a number of occasions. He is a level 3 coach and holds a degree in physical education. Aidan has coached riders of all levels from beginner mountain bikers to European track champions, from leisure riders to ultra-distance record holders.