A couple questions always come up following an athlete’s last big race: “How much time should I take off?” and “How much time can I take off?” Let’s breakdown the answer into both physical and mental components.
Physically, you need more time than you think you do. Micro-tears in the muscle are rarely detectible in day to day activities or even during low intensity cardio work. This is why I typically prescribe a “leg check” exercise to check how recovery is progressing. This would be a short duration run or ride with several short sprints or hill climbs. During these work intervals is should be apparent whether or not you are ready to resume regular training.
The biggest danger to returning to training when you are feeling 85 – 90% or your normal self is that you will hang out there indefinitely and never return to 100%. During peak training workouts occur with a certain level of perpetual fatigue. It’s just part of being an endurance athlete. At season end when it is likely you have months until your next A Race, error on the side of caution and don’t start back up too soon.
From a mental perspective, your return to training is a very personal thing. If the thought of getting back in the saddle does not excite you it is likely to soon. Sometimes the happy middle ground is a period of time with unstructured training. This does not mean sitting on the couch living an inactive life. If just means waking up each day and doing 45 to 90 minutes of whatever you feel like that day. Yes, this means that there are times when perhaps you should take a month from working with your coach.
Again, it is a very personal thing. Type A people who like directions may want structured recovery from day 1 after the race. Others may want general principles but nothing prescriptive. Regardless, you need to want to return to exercise before you get back on a program full-time.