Updated: Dec 13, 2019
Whether you're a marathoner or triathlete or cross fitter, our bodies need time to recover. For many of us, we put our bodies through strenuous workouts, which inevitably mean stress on the body. Recovery is key and aides an athlete's capacity for adapting and advancing their fitness. When a hard workout is followed by rest and recovery, our body is given the opportunity to adapt to the stress and grow stronger. The amount of recovery time depends on the level of the preceding workout stress. Workouts that are significantly harder than your level of adaptation require a longer period of rest and recovery.
When it comes to recovery, some times we miss or even ignore the signals that our body needs time to repair and rest. To be transparent here, this is something that I'm working on becoming more adept at. I like to move my body. A lot. I enjoy sweating and being a bit uncomfortable because I know I'm challenging myself and changing my body for the better. That being said, there is a line that is easy to cross and train too hard and/or too much. I don't worry about overtraining, as it takes a lot to get to that marker, but occasionally I wonder if I am missing some of the signals my body is sending me. Fatigue, sleep quality, and muscle soreness are some of the indicators I'm learning to tune into more intently. There are other signs like diminished appetite, lack of motivation, and mood fluctuations. To focus the lens a bit, let's talk about triathlon in particular. It's a demanding sport that requires hours and hours of training and dedication — and so it's easy to focus all of our efforts solely on the training and let the recovery become secondary. It's critical to consciously plan your recovery so it doesn't become an 'oh yeah, I should have made that a shorter run.' By listening to your body and being cognizant of what recovery is needed and when, you can speed up the recovery process that in turn can lead to more challenging workouts, greater fitness, and better performance on race day.
The elements of effective recovery.
Sleep: Get as much as you can. Nap if you can or need to. Sleep is one of the most effective recovery tools because during sleep the body releases hormones that repair damaged muscles, restore the immune system, restructure bone, heal ongoing injuries, replenish energy stores, and more.
Food: Eat whole foods and avoid eating low-nutrient foods (junk food) as those foods make it harder for your body to repair damaged muscles, restore the immune system, restructure bone and heal injuries. Include the macronutrients of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, as well as the micronutrients vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. The richness of the foods you consume determines how quickly and how fully you recover from a hard workout. Eating nutritionally dense, whole foods following workouts is essential to get the recovery started. In particular, carbohydrates and proteins within 30 minutes of completing a workout will jump start your recovery. It has also been suggested that consuming protein before bed also improves the body's capability for recovery and the repair of damaged muscles following a hard training day.
Fluids: In addition to the fluids you consume during a workout, make sure to also drink fluids post-workout, as you want to replace the water lost during your training session. The best option is to drink water. However, if you're like me, and crave coffee post-ride, an iced mocha is ok too — and contrary to beliefs, it won't dehydrate you.
Active recovery: This might be a light workout that doesn't stress the body's systems — this means a truly easy workout. The session would be shorter than your regular workout and if using heart rate zone training, in Zone 1. What would this look like? A swim devoted to technique using a pull buoy if your legs are fatigued. A spin on the trainer or a relatively flat bike course. It's a little more complex with running, as running involves impact and so if possible a lighter, shorter run on a more forgiving surface like grass or a track is better. Another option is aqua-jogging, purely cardio and zero impact.
Other recovery tools: In addition to sleep, food, fluids, and active recovery there are also tools to assist with recovery. Using tools like this is highly individualized and the research offers conflicting findings on their benefits. I find that my body responds well to foam rolling and other tools like NormaTec Recovery, which is a pneumatic compression device. Equipment like NormaTec provide compression and a small degree of massage to the legs and hips. I also have several different types of compression garments from socks to sleeves to tights. Compression garments should be worn immediately following a workout to assist with recovery, unless you're wearing something like compression socks while running. I have also used cryotherapy, epsom salt baths, massage, Active Release Technique (ART), and Graston for recovery. For me, I've found the epsom salt baths, ART and Graston to be the most effective with recovery, and injury management/prevention. I am by nature a person who deals with a fair amount of muscle tightness and so if I don't stay on top of things then working out can become quite uncomfortable.
There are so many reasons to listen to our bodies when it comes to training and recovery. For me, I need to be mindful that recovery (and rest) drive fitness gains — and so if I want to have productive training days and a great performance on race day, then managing recovery is just as important as all the time, energy, and thought I give to training.
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