Recovery strategies are not often discussed between triathletes. We tend to discuss more fun things like mileage, watts and Garmin data. However speeding up recovery is the key to maximising performance whether you are an amateur or a pro.
As a triathlete, you are generally training 5-6 days a week and constantly trying to juggle the demands of training three sports, work, family and if you are very lucky a social life. Ensuring a fast recovery is one of the most important disciplines you can implement to ensure you can continue your regime and continue to perform well.
Most athletes at the beginning of their career tend to ignore recovery as either they tell themselves they “don’t have time” or they feel it does not really make much difference.
Triathlon Training Causes Damage
Training hard causes muscle breakdown, inflammation and stress on the muscles, tendons and joints plus the nervous system and hormonal system. But it is not a bad thing!
Training also produces the result we are looking for: muscle growth (hypertrophy), increased cardiovascular endurance, better strength, higher work capacity and greater tolerance for lactic acid.
Acute inflammation is necessary to produce improvements in fitness and strength but when this becomes chronic, you start to notice:
- poor race performances
- poor quality training sessions where you can’t quite summon your inner warrior and
- poor sleep, irritability and a reduced immune system.
Chronic inflammation also causes early ageing, low testosterone and higher risk of chronic disease like diabetes, joint damage and heart disease.
All the pros and elite athletes do pay close attention to recovery strategies as in the short term, they know they will be able to perform harder at each training session and get better results overall.
In the long term, they will extend the length of their career as an athlete and have less physical problems later on. It is really sad when you hear of an elite athlete in retirement who is now crippled and can barely walk without agonising pain.
It does not have to be like that. Quite simply, those who recover faster, perform better in sport and in life. The faster you can recover, the better you can train the next day, the less injured you will be and the better performances you will notice.
Best Recovery Strategies
As you step up your triathlon training and become more professional in your approach to training, you will notice it is not just about swim, bike and run. But more attention must be placed on strengthening, stretching, nutrition, hydration and ensuring fast recovery. You cannot progress as a triathlete if you do not give some importance to recovery.
The most important recovery tools include:
- Maximising quality sleep
- Warm up/warm down
- Foam rolling
- Compression garment
- Scheduled rest days
- Ice baths
- Timely re-fuelling
1. Maximising Quality Sleep
Sleep is by far the most important tool in fast recovery. Most people do not get enough. As an athlete, you need more sleep, not less. There is sometimes a “macho fad” in business and sport about not requiring much sleep. This is false and you will perform far better if you can get good quality sleep- and enough of it.
If you can carve out 30 minutes on a weekend to get your head down and take a power nap- this will do wonders for recovery, allow you to train harder and fit more into each day. Make the setting as seductive to good sleep as possible. I found black out blinds helped a lot for quick naps during the day as does having a constant temperature, deep breathing and learning to switch the mind off.
Recovery, repair and rebuilding tissues occur during sleep. Your hormones are extremely busy during this time repairing tissues and trying to reduce inflammation.
Light sleep is not enough to ensure adequate recovery. Deep sleep is where the magic occurs. It may take 1-2 hours to get to this stage. During deep sleep, your body releases large amounts of growth hormone for repair and recovery, and initiates cellular turnover that can speed up removal of “junk” from a taxed musculoskeletal system.
To get to deep sleep quicker:
- Try to keep regular times- go to bed at the same time each night and have a night-time winding down routine that signals to your body you are preparing for sleep The hours before midnight are more important for quality sleep than after
- Avoid intense exercise 4 hours prior to sleep
- Shut down computer and screen use 1-2 hours prior to sleep
- Reduce caffeine and alcohol
- Do deep breathing techniques or meditation
- Fresh air and cooler temperatures improve quality of sleep.
2. Warm Up and Warm Down
This is something most athletes ignore! You know who you are :)
Again there is the old favourite excuse “I don’t have time” and “it does not really make a difference”
It only has to take 5 minutes- so everyone has time and it will make a big difference to you if you tweak something, get injured and need 6 weeks off training.
Do not wait for this to happen.
Warm ups are not complex. Simply move your joints through their full range of motion, encourage blood flow through the muscles and raise your core temperature by doing gentle spinning on the bike or gentle jogging.
Gradually increase the intensity as the workout commences. A warm up is also important to get mentally “in the zone” and switch your body “on” for exercise.
3. Foam Rolling
Training consists of repetitive movements. Over time these can cause a build up of “knots” or trigger points in the muscle. These can be painful and cause problems. Foam rolling gets to those areas of muscle that are difficult to stretch.
Foam rolling is a necessary evil and produces enormous benefits in aiding recovery (and therefore performance) and preventing injury.
Foam rolling is time well spent. It keeps the muscles and fascia supple, improves circulation, removes knots and will save you a ton of time at the physical therapist.
Foam rolling, (myofascial release is it technical name), is a form of self-massage. Adhesions build up with hard training that create an area of weakness in the muscle. If the adhesions are not addressed, there is a higher risk of injury. Adhesions or tight knots in muscle tissue can also be very painful and can limit your training ability.
Foam rolling also increases blood flow to your muscles and creates better mobility, helping with recovery and improving performance. The common problem areas are the arches in the feet, the calves, the quadriceps, the ITB, the gluteals and the upper back.
Do not go too hard. If you do, the muscle will just spasm up against the pain and you will not get the effect you require. Just use enough force to get a sensation but be careful of blasting through and causing bruising. Yes, foam rolling is often painful but it should not be agony!
Use a lacrosse ball on smaller areas like your arch of your feet, your gluteals and between your shoulder blades. Never roll directly on a bone or a joint. Do not roll your lower back. You can roll a ball between your shoulder blades (not on the spine).
Foam rolling will get easier if you do it regularly. Aim to do it 3 times a week. Do not do it directly after a hard training session as the muscle fibers will need to repair and rebuild before getting rolled.
4. Compression Garments
Compression garments are a common sight in the athlete’s wardrobe as performance enhancers.
Are they for real or do they just have a psychological benefit?
They come in the form of calf, full leg or upper body compression sleeves.
The theory is they reduce DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), improve performance, improve venous blood flow return and encourage faster recovery from training and performance.
The claims that they enhance performance while wearing them are largely unfounded but the research does show they enhance recovery after training. Wearing them for a few hours after training will reduce swelling in the muscles and reduce muscle soreness. They also increase circulation and nutrients to the muscles.
Make sure you get high quality compression sleeves or they will be next to useless. . They should have graduated compression from the ankle upwards to assist venous return. They will help prevent build up of lactic acid, shin splints and muscular soreness post exercise.
5. Rest Days
You already know about the importance of scheduled rest days and active recovery sessions, however being a Type A highly driven triathlete, you may be tempted to ignore the rest days thinking that squeezing in another session will help you improve quicker.
If you recognise yourself here, it may be helpful to change the way you think about rest days- from a “waste of time” and reducing your performance, to actually improving your performance. It is when you rest that you improve.
Rest days are a very important tool in your recovery toolbox. Quite simply, without rest days, your performance will be limited! Rest days allow for proper recovery, allow the body to adapt to a hard training session or training block, prevent mental and physical burn out and refill the glycogen stores.
Rest days also allow micro tears in the muscles, tendons and bones to repair. Without this, you increase the risk of tendonitis, or stress fractures.
How Much Rest and What Does Rest Actually Mean?
The answer depends on your current fitness and experience as an athlete, your stage of training and your skill level.
- A beginner may need a rest day every second day.
- Intermediates athletes may require a rest day once a week.
- Elite athletes may do active recovery sessions instead of pure rest days and only have a rest day once a month.
The right balance for you will depend on your current training regime, current fitness, training cycle and triathlon goals.
You should be monitoring your heart rate every morning anyway, during training and after training. Heart rate will give you some clues as to when you need a rest day. If your resting heart rate is elevated- you need more rest. If you have trouble getting to or maintaining a steady heart rate across several workouts, you need a rest day. Also monitor muscle soreness. If you always have muscle soreness, take a rest day.
Be sure to train smart.
Many athletes have found that the less training they do, the better they perform. Look objectively at your triathlon training schedule and make sure you have enough rest in there.
There is no one “optimal” programme. It depends on you as an athlete, what other stresses may be occurring in your life, your work, the quality of your diet and your adherence to recovery techniques. You need to pay attention to your own body signals and keep your triathlon training journal and review regularly.
6. Ice baths
There is a lot of evidence that ice baths are useful in promoting faster recovery. Ice baths can be slightly unpleasant and take some getting used to. But they do make a massive difference.
The cold helps combat micro-trauma on muscle fibers and the resultant soreness caused by intense exercise.
An ice bath constricts the blood vessels, helps flush out waste products and reduce swelling and tissue breakdown.
As the tissue warms up afterwards and the blood flow increases again, the healing process is stimulated. The ice bath hits all areas that are submerged giving greater coverage than an ice pack placed on just one muscle group.
If you wish to try it, start conservative with the temperature. A cold bath is enough to start with. As you get used to it, you can throw in some ice cubes.
Don’t try to be a hero- if you feel very uncomfortable, get out. Start with one-minute duration and work up to 3-6 minutes. Do not exceed 10 minutes.
As an athlete, training produces inflammation in the body. Make sure your diet does not increase this inflammation.
Foods which increase inflammation include processed foods, nuts and seeds, pastries, cereals, tomatoes and eggplants.
Instead favor foods like dark-skinned fruits and vegetables -pomegranates, cherries, blueberries, plums, artichokes, spinach and broccoli, high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids (cold-water fish, cod liver oil, fish oil) and natural herbal anti-inflammatories like turmeric, curcumin, garlic and ginger. Research suggests that products like cherry juice and ginger have been found to decrease exercise–induced inflammation and delayed onset muscle soreness.
Also remember the important post workout 45-minute window to refuel. This means being prepared in advance of your workout. If you do a workout then go straight to work, do not wait several hours until your next meal. If you wait too long, the body will take much longer to refuel, you will not recover quickly and it may take 1-2 days to get back to your peak performance.
This does not mean having a full 3-course meal. It means having an easily digestible source of carbohydrate like a snack bar or a fruit smoothie. Without enough carbohydrate, glycogen stores drop significantly after both aerobic and anaerobic exercise, which could affect subsequent performance if it isn’t replaced quickly.
The best way you can quickly replenish muscle glycogen is to consume 1.5g of high-glycemic carbohydrates per 1kg of body weight immediately after exercise. If you delay carbohydrate consumption by two hours or more, glycogen synthesis will be reduced by 50%.
Also plan to eat some protein within the hour. Athletes who get the required amounts of protein and carbohydrate immediately after exercise turn that crucial time period from a catabolic state to an anabolic state. Muscle tissue breakdown ceases as proper nutrient intake up-regulates processes underlying muscle growth and repair while replenishing muscle glycogen.
Fluid and electrolyte losses after vigorous workouts vary among athletes, so it’s important to monitor the quantity and color of your urine to assess hydration status. Urine color should be clear, and there should be a plentiful amount. You can keep track of fluid losses by weighing yourself before and after training. Fluid losses shouldn’t exceed 2% of body weight. If they do, this means you are not maintaining a safe hydration level. For every pound of fluid lost, athletes should consume 20 to 24oz of fluid. Any workout over 30 minutes you should take on fluids. When running, use a running hydration belt. The bike is easy to have water bottles filled with your drink of choice. When swim training, have a water bottle at one end of the pool you can sip between sets. If you do not do this, you will notice you fatigue more quickly.
Recovery Strategies Summary
Do not ignore recovery. Quick recovery is one of the major factors that separate consistent champions from athletes who never reach their potential because they skipped the fundamentals, the little things that actually matter. Type A triathletes can tend to lack focus on recovery as subconsciously they think, “rest is for wimps” or “more is better”.
More and more scientific research is proving that “more is not better” but is actually harmful and that is it better to do less volume and higher intensity for better, quicker results and allow more time for recovery.
Make quick recovery a massive tool in your success. There are a lot of tools at your disposal. You do not have to use all of them but test them out and use the recovery strategies that feel most effective for you.
Do you have any other great recovery strategies that work for you?
Share them below…
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