Endurance athletes are a rare breed of individuals. We enjoy pushing ourself to the limits and testing just how far we can take our bodies both physically and mentally. For the especially dedicated athlete, this can often mean high volumes of training on a weekly basis. Two or even three workouts in a single day is common amongst those passionate about their sport. This is even more true of multi-sport athletes who have the added challenge of squeezing in training sessions for multiple sports. Between all of the long runs and rides, the track sessions and indoor trainer sessions, the open water swims and the 100 yd sprints in the pool, the amount of stress that we place on our bodies can add up pretty quickly if not carefully controlled. Add on top of this work stress and family obligations and you have a potential recipe for overtraining and/or mental and physical burnout. This is where the importance or recovery comes into play.
Personally, I have always applauded myself for being able to largely avoid any serious overuse injury or any serious bout of overtraining that has put me out of commission for weeks or months on end. I have always had a pretty methodical and calculated approach to my training, which has helped me avoid many of the common ailments that plage those who tend to get a bit too carried away sometimes with their training volume and/or intensity. Despite my meticulous and somewhat OCD approach to training, I have still experienced the occasional overuse injury and even a minor case of overtraining, which affected my training quality for weeks before I felt normal again. It can be very easy to fall into a trap of training too much, too hard, and too often, neglecting proper recovery. This will eventually catch up with just about anyone, myself included, potentially leading to, at best, a minor illness that leaves you bedridden for a few days, or, at worst, serious overtraining which can take months to fully recovery from. So, let’s take a break for a moment from the latest and greatest bike workout or track session and remember to appreciate recovery just as much as we appreciate hard, quality training. Here is my top bit of advice for endurance athletes regarding recovery. This list is definitely not all-encompassing, but it does cover the top areas, in my opinion, when it comes to recovery.
1. Invest in Quality Sleep – Sleep should be any athlete’s #1 priority, even over training. The goal of training is to provide the body with the stimulus to grow and adapt, and this only happens when you are consistently achieving quality training sessions. It’s best to cut back slightly on training volume, get more sleep, and have better quality training sessions than it is to always be grinding through training sessions in a zombie-like, sleep-deprived state.
Take Home Message: Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Find the right amount of sleep for YOU. The amount of sleep needed varies between individuals and can vary depending on the volume and intensity of your training.
2. Eat a Healthy Diet – You will recovery so much quicker from training sessions if you consume a well-balanced and adequate diet. There is nothing particularly fancy about a healthy diet and there isn’t necessarily an “ideal” diet for everyone. A proper diet varies between individuals, so find out what works best for you.
Take Home Message: In general, a healthy diet will include an adequqte consumption of calories, carbohydrates, protein and fat while also including a prioritization on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats while limiting the consumption of processed foods, unhealthy fats, refined grains and sugars, and alcohol.
3. Take Advantage of Resistance Training and Mobility Work – Incorporating both regular resistance training (strength training) and flexibility/mobility work into your program can have many benefits, from correcting potential muscle imbalances to improving the resiliency of your muscles, tendons, and ligaments. These benefits can all lead to a reduced risk of injury.
Take Home Message: Get on a regular strength training program that incorporates both resistance exercises and flexibility exercises. Benefits can be seen with as little as 1-2 sessions per week. Seek the guidance of a strength and conditioning professional if you need help in planning out a resistance training program that will best suit your needs as an endurance athlete.
4. Incorporate Passive Recovery Methods – Passive recovery refers to a whole range of recovery methods, incouding massage, ice baths, or foam rolling. My go-to favorites are foam rolling and massage. There are a host of potential benefits to the incorporation of regular massage or foam rolling into a program. At the very least, these methods will promote blood circulation and the release of tension that you are holding in your muscles. Both of these benefits can leave you feeling fresher and more flexible, potentially leading to quicker recovery between sessions and a reduced likelihood of injury.
Take-Home Message: There are a variety of passive recovery methods available out there to help you recover. Some of them have very real physiological benefits, while others may simply function through the placebo effect (or the experience of a benefit from the expectation that you will receive a benefit). Find a method that you feel helps you recover from week-to-week and try to stick with it.
5. Take It “Easy” on Easy Days – This is often times much easier said than done. A properly periodized training program will have easy days (aka recovery days) built into your weekly schedule. An easy day is meant to be just that, EASY! Popular methods of monitoring training intensity include using heart rate zones. If you have access to a heart rate monitor, you can calculate your heart rate training zones (typically zones of 1-5), and you can base your easy days off of this philosophy. For example, an easy 30-min jog might be kept to a zone 1/low zone 2 heart rate in order to promote an active recovery from a previous hard training session. This workout isn’t the time to let your heart rate drift up into a zone 3 or zone 4 range as this defeats the purpose of the recovery session. I, personally, like to use the Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale (RPE; 1-10 scale with 1 being minimal/no effort and 10 being maximal effort) in conjunction with my heart rate to monitor training intensity. Heart rate can vary widely on a day-to-day basis from a range of factors, so I like to use RPE in addition to heart rate. For those that follow the typical heart rate training zones of 1-5, the following RPE values can be used in conunction with these zones:
Zone 1 (Easy/Recovery) – RPE 3-4
Zone 2 (Aerobic) – RPE 5-6
Zone 3 (Aerobic/Low Anaerobic Threshold) – RPE 7-8
Zone 4 (High Anaerobic Threshold) – RPE 8-9
Zone 5 (VO2 max) – RPE 9-10
Take Home Message: On your easy recovery days, be sure to actually go easy! This can be done by using your heart rate or RPE as a measure of training intensity. Ideally, both RPE and heart rate would be used together in order to gauge intensity.
6. Know When to Take a Rest Day – Finally, know when to take a day off. If you simply don’t have the energy at the end of the day, or at the beginning of the day for that matter, it may be best to take the day off and get a solid night of sleep before tackling your next workout. There is a big differenc between simply being tired and actually feeling fatigued. It takes time to be able to listen to your body and to be able to know and understand the difference. Being tired is something that every athlete experiences on a weekly basis. I never want to get out of bed at 4:00 am to get in a track workout, and I usually will be sleepy and groggy until I get past my warm-up. On days, though, where I wake up and I am hurting all-over, I am mentally and physically drained, and I am struggling to put one foot in front of the other, then I will call it a day and get some rest before I give it a go again.
Take home Message: Listen to your body and know the difference between feeling tired and being fatigued. There may be days in which it is more beneficial to do a very easy spin on the trainer or absolutely nothing at all.
The importance of adequate recovery between training sessions cannot be overlooked. In order to get the most out of your training, prioritize recovery in the same way that you prioritize your training sessions. Your body, mind, and performance will thank you.