With another camp behind us and Steven struck down with the usual post-camp cold, it seems like an appropriate time to write a little about the importance of RECOVERY in the training cycle. Whilst one cannot refute that hard work = results, that comes with certain caveats – the most significant being the requirement for adequate RECOVERY. The process of resting the body after after a workout, replenishing energy , enabling the repair and rebuilding processes within the body enables you to get up and go at it again with full vigour the next day. This can be applied on a longer scale too – after a heavy training week, or block, the body, nervous system and mind need time to regenerate, “absorb” the training and return to a less stressed state. With a good balance of training stress and recovery, the body adapts to the training demands placed on it and you grow fitter and stronger. Simples! However, far more time is spent by the average athlete planning and focusing on the training side of the equation. When we look at the habits of professional athletes, triathletes in particular, we see that –sure they do train a lot, train hard, train smart …but far the more noticeable distinction is their attention to recovery. Almost obsessive. To get world class results one needs to be on top of the game for each and every workout…and that means paying attention to a plethora of details during the 18 hours of the day that are not spent working out.
Whilst some of the practices of full time athletes are just not practical for those with full time jobs, families and possibly even other interests…there are some simple steps that we can all take to ensure that we are getting the best value out of our training sessions, and maintaining good health and energy through the rest of our lives.
I will list some of my top tips, and also cover a few other ideas that are believed to help aid, or speed, recovery.
The first stage of recovery is your Cool down/Stretch – Whilst we may not often include a “cool down” into our training sessions (other than perhaps after a particularly hard set of intervals) it’s worth baring in mind that some light activity which keeps the body moving post-workout, or gentle stretching, helps to alleviate the muscle stiffness that can set in after an intense session. If you plan on driving home from a race, this one is particularly worth noting – take yourself for a walk or so in on the bike before loading up the car! Personally I find that a short light jog after a hard bike session, or in the evening after a morning run workout makes me feel much better for the following morning’s training – I have also found that a few hours working in the garden achieves the same!
The next – and possible most important step – is to Rehydrate and Refuel. You need to replace fluids and electrolytes lost if you have sweated heavily, the energy used during the workout and also provide your body with the nutrients required to rebuild and repair muscle damage. For this we seek a mix of protein for muscle repair and rebuilding and carbs to replenish glycogen stores (the carbohydrate-based “energy” stored in your muscles). The sooner after the workout the better – this is where a proprietary sports nutrition product such as the Powerbar Recovery that we were using on camp comes in handy. The ready-mixed protein drinks or single serve powder sachets are perfect way to start this process in the car on your journey home, or at your desk if it’s right on to the day job after the workout. For real food fans, a small meal such as an omelet or yogurt with banana and peanut butter are my personal favourites – and usually a big strong coffee too!
Sleeping – after refuelling, this is the best thing that you can do for your body to aid recovery . During sleep our bodies undertake repairs – both physical and mental. Hormones are released into the blood to heal muscular and cell damage whilst the brain is busy consolidating neural pathways during sleep. Whilst sleeping we are in a state of complete rest, with minimal stress on our energy systems and all hands turn to repairing, rebuilding and recharging. Furthermore, any information or motor-skills learned prior to a nap have a far better chance of becoming engrained in our subconscious if we sleep after the practice, according to studies by neuroscientists. For most of us with day jobs, post-workout naps are difficult, so ensuring enough sleep each night is our best route to faster recovery. With early alarm calls, this usually means getting to bed earlier – however on days following a race or big session, plan sleeping in rather than that early morning training session.
Massage – is not something that should be associated only with injury or niggles – regular sports massage will ensure the health of your hard worked muscles and help to prevent those niggles ever occurring. A good sports massage will break down tight spots or trigger points in muscles as well as flushing toxins out of the system and encouraging fresh oxygenated blood in. Additional benefits of improving alignment and treatment of reflexology points look after the body as a whole structure, and help the entire system to recharge. An hour on the massage table is a fantastic way to distress and relax, and just listen to your body (as well as the advice given by your massage therapist!). Self massage and the use of foam rollers, tennis balls and other aids is something that we can do for ourselves on a daily basis – the more that muscles are treated to massage, the better they respond to it.
Compression/Ice/Elevation – are all elements that I have used from time to time – usually only when training load and general muscle aches are at a peak. I view them as short-term relief from the discomfort associated with the natural parts of the recovery process and/or methods of speeding it up artificially. They all work on the principles of speeding blood flow around the body, thus washing out toxins and driving more oxygenated blood to damaged muscle, and reducing inflammation. Cold baths are a favourite method of mine, especially when training in hot climates, as I find that as well as reducing the ache in my legs, being cooler helps me to sleep better too.
Supplements – can help athletes by protecting their general health, especially their immune system which can be hit hard by the constant load inflicted by hard physical activity and erratic eating habits of athletes. Use of vitamic C, the most common anti-oxidant is recommended for this, and there are a plethora of other anti-oxidising supplements available too. A diet that contains a high proportion of processes sugary energy foods is part and parcel of those long training sessions and hastily consumed recovery meals….but are not optimum for our general health and so foods or supplement which can counter the acidifying nature of these will help to maintain a healthier balance. The use of supplements containing nitrates and phosphates are also considered to help neutralize – or “buffer “– the build up of hydrogen ions in our muscles during high intensity work, and there are several products on the market which supplement these elements and reduce muscle soreness during and after training.
Low Stress – emotional or mental stress is just as harmful to your body as the stresses exerted by physical exercise, so the more that you can reduce this in your life, the better the quality recovery you can achieve. Whilst what life throws at you in unavoidable and we all gotta work to fund our passion for triathlon – there are simple measures that you can take to limit the stress in your life. You’ll find that you sleep, eat and relax better when you don’t sweat the small stuff…and that can be achieved mainly through good organization. Simple things like planning ahead, creating routines and applying curfews don’t need to detract from your commitment to your job, family or other commitments …they may just make you a little more effective and save you time, energy and reasons to worry.