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Dear Coach: How Should I Plan My Recovery Days?

Adequate rest and recovery are key to getting fitter—here’s how to time it right.

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Recovery can never be a “one size fits all” topic—it is as unique to you as your training—and what works for one person can be disastrous for the next. Rest and recovery days are essential for a number of reasons, including rebuilding and repairing muscle tissue; strengthening joints and ligaments; replenishing fluids and energy stores; refreshing your mental energy; reducing the risk of injury; avoiding overtraining and helping to improve your performance and results. 

There are three different types of recovery days: complete rest days, a day off your legs (so swim-only days), and active recovery days. They can each serve different purposes at different times in your training, but how do you know when to plan them? 

Active recovery is usually swimming, easy riding/spinning, or stretching/mobility work. It can be anything from 20 minutes to 90 minutes, and should help to increase blood flow and reduce muscle soreness and inflammation. It definitely needs to be easy pace, low resistance, light load and zero impact. I do not recommend running or strength/gym work for triathletes when it comes to active recovery.

A day off your legs is highly recommended for high load training periods or for athletes who need significant soreness removed from their legs. Swimming is recommended here. For example, if you’ve had a high volume/high intensity weekend of training, then taking a Monday as a day off your legs day is a perfect way to expedite recovery. 

Complete rest days are exactly as they sound: no training at all. On these days, I recommend some gentle stretching, massage, and good self care.

RELATED: Dear Coach: Do I Have To Take Rest Days?

When building a training plan, there should always be systematic recovery and regeneration built in. Here are some fundamentals:

  • At least one full day per week should be assigned to active recovery.
  • Allow for one to three regeneration days within periodization.
  • Every season, there should be a more extended period of planned regeneration, typically five to 10 days, and this often comes in the form of a mid-season break (during a regular race season).
  • Monitor the easy/light training sessions/days as carefully as you would the hard/intense ones;
  • Always try to ‘individualize’ your training schedule and load—do not blindly follow a pro athlete’s regime!
  • Establish a sound history of basic training involving a critical mass of low intensity training prior to attempting to increase the percentage of high intensity interval training within a given program.
  • Keep a training log, and track volume and intensity.
  • Limit the number of really intense training sessions to three/four per seven to 10-day cycle (depending on the athlete and period of year).
  • Allow for full recovery every season depending on athletes total load for the season in training and competition.
  • Always strive to maintain a basic level of health.
  • Eat wisely, eat enough, and ensure adequate hydration.
  • Restoration of energy and water stores before and after training and competition should be a major priority.

You should also view training stress load as part of your overall life “stress load”—your training does not and cannot exist in a vacuum, so if you are experiencing stress in another part of your life, never be afraid to dial back training volume and/or intensity to compensate for this. There should be three pillars to recovery: sleep, training, and nutrition. All three need to be repeatable and sustainable in order to achieve consistency. 

RELATED: Life Stress, Work Stress, Training Stress—Your Body Can’t Tell the Difference

Monitoring your recovery is as important as monitoring your training and can be tracked very easily in the following ways: 

  • Morning resting heart rate
  • Overall difficulty of your training  
  • Overall life stress
  • Your ability to complete your training week as planned

You should also think about the following, as they are great indicators of recovery:

  • Sleep quality
  • Nutrition
  • Hydration
  • Injury/illness
  • Life management (e.g. school/work/family stress)
  • Stretching/massage/body work
  • Fatigue level
  • Muscle soreness
  • Willingness to train and execute sessions

RELATED: Real, Concrete Steps to Rebalance Your Tri Life This Spring

These guidelines will help you develop an understanding of how often and what type of recovery you need in your program. Remember, too, that it might change throughout different phases in your athletic career and within each year.

Marilyn Chychota is a high-performance coach who’s been in the sport since 1999. She’s worked with a broad range of triathletes, from beginners to professionals—sending athletes to world championships in iron-distance, 70.3, USAT short-course, and XTERRA. Her own athletic resume includes professional competition in three different sports: equestrian show jumping, cycling, and triathlon. Chychota became a professional triathlete in 2003, racing to podium positions at Ironman events around the world, including a win at Ironman Malaysia in 2004.