Sunday, August 5, 2007

It's All About Recovery

If you could wish for one athletic-enhancing gene it should be the one that improves your capacity to recover quickly from workouts. Athletes with this gene seem to naturally become the best athletes in their respective racing categories. There isn’t any scientific data to back this up, but there seems to be a strong correlation between one’s ability to recover and the rate of one’s fitness progression. Recovering quickly also means getting in good shape quickly.

Why is this so? There is an easy explanation: It’s during recovery following hard training that the body realizes the changes that we call “form,” which is simply to say one’s potential for performance in a race or in subsequent training. These changes may result in fat-burning enzyme increases, more resilient muscles and tendons, decreases in body fat, greater heart stroke volume, more glycogen stored in the body, and on and on. Besides overloading your body with the stresses of hard exercise, focusing on recovery is the most powerful thing you can do in training to perform at a higher level. But this is the part of the training process that most self-coached athletes get wrong. They don’t allow for enough recovery and overwhelm their bodies with stress.

Recovery may be thought of in many different ways. In terms of periodization, when you insert it in the training plan is important to your eventual success as a triathlete.

Yearly recovery. “Transition” periods are needed after “Race” periods. The purpose of these low-volume, low-intensity Transitions is to allow your body and mind to rejuvenate before starting back into another period of hard training. So that if you have two A-priority races in a season you should also generally have two Transition periods. The first Transition may only be three to five days, but the one that comes at the end of the season may well last four weeks or even longer depending on how challenging the previous season, and especially the final part, was.

Monthly recovery. Build recovery into your monthly training plan every third or fourth week. This regular period of reduced workload may be three to seven days depending on what you did in the previous hard training weeks, how fit you are becoming and other individual factors.

The accompanying figure illustrates what happens when you do this. As your fatigue increases over the course of two to three weeks of increasing workloads, your form diminishes. Form is your potential for performance. In other words, how well you may train or race at any given point in time. Notice that fatigue and form follow nearly opposite paths, but that form lags behind the changes in fatigue. It takes a few days of reducing fatigue to produce increases in form. A key principle of training is to unload fatigue frequently which has the effect of improving your readiness to train well again. Without unloading fatigue you become a zombie doing workouts with low quality and no enthusiasm.

Weekly recovery. Within each week there should be hard and easy days. No one, not even elite athletes, can train hard every day with no recovery breaks. Easy days are as necessary for fitness and form as sleeping at night is for health and well-being. Some athletes need a day completely off from exercise every week. Other athletes, especially those with the quick-recovery gene who also have a high capacity for work, can exercise seven days a week. These elite athletes will still need easy days, however. “Easy” days are relative to the individual. There is no standard that every athlete must abide by. That said, it is important even for high-capacity athletes to occasionally have days completely off from exercise.

Daily recovery. Multiple daily workouts are especially challenging. When doing two-a-day workouts there will be times when both are challenging sessions, but there will also be days when both are light workouts or one is hard and one is easy. This is what makes any sport, but especially triathlon, so complex and why having a coach is often necessary to achieve high levels of success.

How often you insert recovery in your training program; how long this period of recovery lasts; and what exactly recovery means to you in terms of workout duration, intensity and frequency is an individual matter. The only sure way for you to determine each of these is through trial and error. Some athletes will find they can recover quite nicely on short periods of infrequent recovery. Others will discover they need frequent long periods to recover adequately.

Be aware that the need for recovery is a moving target and is always changing as the total stress in your life and how fit you are changes. Be conservative when trying different recovery programs. “Conservative” in this case means erring on the side of too much recovery.


At August 5, 2007 9:23 AM , Blogger tirebiter_g said...

I know some people gauge recovery by heart rate, but my indicator is muscle soreness. If, during my first few steps out of bed in the morning, my legs are sore from my last workout yet, I know the fatigue is high and the form is low.

At August 6, 2007 7:27 PM , Blogger Andy Froncioni said...

Muscles and cardiovascular systems let you know eventually that they are tired. Unfortunately, this is not true or tendons and ligaments. Tendons will act as if they're fine until, one morning, they start acting very finicky. And they don't forgive for a very long time.

To make matters worse, when muscles get strong and in shape, ligaments and tendons take a beating.

I wish I could figure out how to recover connective tissue properly.

Are weights the answer? Or stretching? Or prophylactic icing? How do I allow connective tissue to recover at the same rate as the rest of the stuff I train?

At September 4, 2007 7:27 PM , Blogger Eric Johnson said...

Deep tissue massage works for me.

It is not pleasant like a regular massage. They really beat you up, and you are sore for a couple of days.

But then you really feel better. Works wonders for tendinitis.

I get one at least once a month. It is pricey, but well worth it to continue riding and running.

At August 27, 2008 11:00 AM , Blogger Kada said...

Thanks, Noelle! Now I know why I burned out as a competitive athlete, the coaches weren't allowing us proper recovery time.

I'm betting if I go back and look at my training schedules over the past few years, my body forces me into recovery periods when I over train.

At August 27, 2008 11:02 AM , Blogger Kada said...

Errr... I mean thanks, Joe. {facepalm} Followed a link and forgot to check who actually wrote the post.


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