The hidden elements of your training: Rest and Recovery!
The number top performance drugs in sports: Rest & Recovery!
When we plan our weekly training, we tend to do so with particular focus on the key sessions! By that we mean, the really tough ones; where we’ll smash ourselves! We consider the logistics, what work looks like on a given day, do we have the time to fit it in, which day is best. We consider nutrition for that day and that session. Come on, hands up, and answer honestly…how many of us apply that same considered approach to our recovery? More often than not, this is the aspect of our plan that is compromised or even skipped altogether and ironically it’s because we don’t have the time! But here’s the thing: improving, getting better, becoming faster and stronger is about being able to consistently put our bodies under strain and stress (i.e. training). To maintain that consistency, we have to be able to recover. All the training adaptations and the subsequent gains happen during recovery, not during the training itself. To maintain consistency in our training we have to recover. Compromised recovery means compromised training. And that in turn means compromised performance. It’s that simple!
Before we look into the optimal ways that we can recover, here are a few reasons why we should. What is the purpose of recovery?
As already mentioned, it allows for all the training adaptations to take place. Everything you are trying to achieve by training hard, actually happens during recovery, when your body has a chance to restore itself.
As already highlighted, recovery is fundamental to maintaining consistency!
When we train, we are damaging our muscles, so recovery allows our body the time to repair our muscles so they can continue to work hard
When we train, and train hard, our immune system becomes suppressed. Which is why sometimes athletes appear to be more prone to illnesses. A recovery period allows our immune system to rejuvenate.
During recovery we also have a chance to fully replenish our system nutritionally and balance out any short-term caloric deficits or electrolyte imbalances.
And last but by no means least, recovery also allows athletes to mentally and emotionally recharge themselves.
When we talk about recovery, this does not mean a chance to slack off! It’s not about complete rest. Recovery is in itself a critical part of any training plan and taking an equally focused approach to your recovery as is done with training, will only enhance your training adaptations and your performance gains. Because ultimately, (and I know I’m repeating myself here) maximising and optimising your recovery extends your ability to train harder and longer! So, it’s not a chance to slack off! (I can hear the collective sigh of relief from all you goal oriented triathletes!) So, what is it then? Well, just like training, its multifaceted. It’s not just one thing but a combination of things put together carefully. Some aspects are related to lifestyle whilst others are more sport specific.
Let’s start with Lifestyle.
· First and foremost: SLEEP! No, it’s not the fancy compression boots! Sleep is the number one way your body recovers and there is no substitute for it. Adequate and quality sleep. Sadly, for the amateur triathlete who’s juggling work, family and sport, sleep can be the first thing to be compromised. There are just not enough hours in the day sometimes to fit 9hrs sleep in! Sustained poor quality and insufficient sleep however will always compromise your training and subsequently your performance. Research has shown that ideally, we need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep every night. From a purely sport specific consideration (let alone functioning for normal day to day life), repeatedly achieving 6 hours or less can affect your time to exhaustion for example by 30%! You will tire quicker! You are also increasing your risk of injury significantly, as stability muscles are the first to fail under poor sleep patterns! Can you really afford not to sleep?
· Nutrition. This is a whole field in and of itself. So many times, we see athletes fret about the best nutrition strategy for race day, and rightly so, it’s a critical part of it. However, there is an unequivocal need for a solid approach to nutrition on a daily basis. Proper fuelling both in terms of quality and quantity (are you eating enough?) as well as ensuring adequate hydration is fundamental to your training performance, your recovery and your race performance.
Sport Specific Recovery: this refers to your training plan and how its designed. An individualised plan that is tailor-made to your needs if the first step. We are all different, we all respond differently to training stimuli therefore our individual needs must be taken into account.
Weekly Recovery Sessions: Some athletes and coaches tend to prescribe rest days. Whilst this is often a great way for emotional recovery and for also enabling some enhanced work/life/family/sport balance, complete rest from activity isn’t optimal. Maintaining low intensity short sessions can in fact aid recovery thereby supporting the challenging sessions that are scheduled in the week.
Recovery blocks: An alternative approach is scheduling recovery blocks within the overall plan. For example, after 3-4 weeks of sustained structured work (which still includes easy sessions too!!) it can help an athlete to have a few days of lighter load. When to do this can depend on the athlete and how they generally respond to the harder blocks of work. The aim of this however is the same. To keep the athlete healthy, thereby maintaining consistency. During this time, it can also be worth considering a running break to allow muscles and joints to recover from the extra load running represents. Both anecdotally and empirically, it’s been shown that running injuries are the most common so having a controlled break from it every now and again is far more beneficial (and pro-active) than a potential enforced and extended break (on doctors’ orders!) which could be at a critical point in the season.
End of season break: In addition to the above at the end of the season and usually following an athlete’s A-Race an extended break is a good idea. This can be 2 weeks, it can be 4 weeks, it can be longer. They key thing here is a complete break from all structured training. The aim is just as much to promote physical recovery as it is to encourage emotional rejuvenation too. Use this as a chance to do what you enjoy but may not always have time. Take it day by day. A complete day off here isn’t an issue!
Additional Recovery tools:
Ice / Heat: The use of these two has been well documented for years and across all sports. We won’t delve into this one too much but consider that ice for example whilst it reduces inflammation, it also reduces blood circulation, which promotes healing. So, finding the right balance and what works for you if as always the deciding factor.
Stretching / Foam Rolling / Massage: Again, this is a field in its own right and physiotherapists are far more equipped to discuss its merits. A few key points to consider: muscles need to be warmed up to work properly, this also applies to joints. So, they need to be appropriately mobilised before being put through the full strain and load of a hard set for example. Pushing your muscles to stretch before they are warmed up or after they have effectively been damaged (during training) can lead to injuries. Proceed with caution. Listen to your body. Be quite mindful of this: learn to interpret the cues and signals your body is sending you. Foam rolling and sports massage are also great additional tools that help release tightness and facilitate recovery.
Compression: We’ve all looked rather longingly at those fancy compression boots at the race expo! But do they work? Research supports their use for recovery and for post-travel too. However, whether compression clothing is of any benefit during exercise is very inconclusive.
Heart-rate Variability (HRV) monitoring: Heart-rate variability (HRV) refers to the time gap between your heart beats, which varies within each breath cycle. Research has consistently evidenced that high HRV is linked to good health and good levels of fitness, whereas conversely, low HRV has been linked to stress, fatigue, overtraining and indeed poor health. Monitoring HRV on a daily basis is a good indicator of your body’s current state of recovery and training readiness. So, a significant drop in HRV could call for an adjustment to the plan to allow for better recovery. Keep in mind that a small drop is expected as training is a stressor so that’s ok. However, sustained low HRV is of concern as it can indicate poor recovery, early signs of overtraining and requires closer evaluation of the current loads and the athlete’s response to it.
Yes, I know. It’s hard enough trying to fit training in, and now there’s an additional element to consider that also requires time! And this is precisely why focusing on lifestyle aspects such as sleep, and nutrition are critical. Don’t compromise on either. Focus on both, the same way you focus on training. Carefully considered recovery, alongside a well structure training program, will bring about consistency. Always! Keep it simple!