What’s your favorite thing to do on recovery days?
When I first read this question, my athlete brain, which inevitably defaults to training, immediately thought: Easy! With winter temps and limited desire to paddle around by myself in the single (safety, friends!), recovery these days is basically a mix of light ergging, running and biking. Second thought: recovery is so much more than light training. I know this arguably better than anyone! If there’s anything age and injury teaches, it’s how to listen to your body and know when to back off or rest.
Recovery and Performance: The Basics
I like to think of recovery as made up of the following: recovery zone training, active recovery, rest and the components that support the recovery process including sleep, nutrition and self-care. We include recovery as part of our overall program because it’s precisely during the down times that our bodies repair, adapt and improve.
I tell athletes that the hard training days only create the potential for fitness. They don’t result in fitness improvements unless there is rest. Joe Friel, elite triathlon and endurance coach
Training stresses the body, and breaks down and damages tissue. As stress and damage accumulate, performance steadily and predictably declines. Periods of recovery let repair and adaptation (i.e., compensation) take place, allowing the body to return to and then exceed its initial capacity for output.
A textbook micro cycle looks like this (minus the degradation, which only occurs if no further training takes place after compensation):
Overtime, successive periods of overload, recovery and compensation build on each other and lead to overall gains:
Recovery, Performance and Stress
It’s rare that performance progresses in such perfect, linear fashion. Life happens and can easily disrupt the best-developed programs and most deliberate, well-thought-out plans. I was reminded of this at the end of December when I tweaked my lower back out of nowhere!
I’d been anxious about getting back into my routine after Christmas (typical!), and drove straight to the boathouse from my parents’ home in New Jersey for light but long session on the erg. With minutes to go, something tightened up in my back. I ended up at the chiropractor’s office later that day with a nice, little reminder of just how quickly things with our health and bodies can change.
Injury is the most obvious kind of disruption to training but myriad other stressors impact our progress and performance as well. We get sick, lose a job or get in a fight with our girlfriend, boyfriend or spouse; someone we love is battling illness, or struggling through something personal and relying on us for support; we’re inundated with work, social and family obligations.
The Bottom Line!
Life circumstances – good or bad, planned or unplanned – will always compete for our energy and time. To optimize performance, it’s therefore important to:
1) Include recovery periods as part of the training plan – the science is indisputable!
2) Prioritize recovery practices to mitigate inevitable life circumstances and stress.
You don’t get stronger, faster, and fitter working out. You get stronger, fitter, and faster recovering from working out. Mark Sisson, former elite endurance athlete, author, mentor, coach
Recovery In Depth: Embracing Four Key Components
1. Recovery Zone Training
If we think of training zones in terms of rate of perceived exertion, the recovery zone, also called Zone 2 or UT3, is roughly 2-3 on a scale of zero to 10. In other words, the work feels light to moderate in terms of perceived exertion – it’s that “conversational pace” that you can theoretically sustain all day.
Unlike active recovery (Zone 1), which has much less of an impact on adaptation and performance, Zone 2 / UT3 training directly affects our physiological gains. Dr. Inigo San Millan, Director of the Exercise Physiology and Human Performance Lab at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, identifies its major benefits as:
1) Mitochondrial growth to improve fat utilization and preserve glycogen, and
2) An increase in lactate clearance capacity.
That’s a lot of science, right?!
If you’re interested in the detail, I encourage you to read Dr. San Millan’s article on Zone 2 Training found here. It’s short, straightforward and clearly details the benefits of Zone 2.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll be content knowing that there is physiological value behind all those easy, steady state minutes prescribed. In other words, your coach isn’t just filling up space on the schedule with long, light work on the erg!
How, then, can we maximize our time spent in the recovery zone?
First, DO ALL THE MINUTES!
Second, STAY IN THE ZONE!
Athletes, particularly those new to elite-level training, have a tendency to want to go hard all the time and I get it – Go Hard or Go Home is a philosophy that’s sometimes still glorified and no doubt ingrained in us all. Remember, though, that it’s an unsustainable philosophy at best and harmful at worst.
If you’re uber-competitive and have a tough time keeping it light next to teammates, try doing some Zone 2 / UT3 training on your own. There is a time and place for Battle Paddle and ample opportunity to push your limits during pieces. Recovery Zone Training is not that time! Trust the easy work and execute accordingly – your body (and mind) will thank you when it’s actually time to turn it on.
2. Active Recovery
Unlike Recovery Zone Training, which directly affects our physiology, active recovery is too low in intensity to impact adaptation and therefore capacity for work. Perceived exertion is less than two on the scale of zero to 10. Workouts are light and volume is low with the goal of getting the body moving without inducing fatigue.
As I understand it, there’s debate about whether active recovery actually accelerates the recovery process when compared to plain, old rest. Proponents argue that it stimulates metabolic pathways, pumping blood and nutrients to muscles in need of repair, and I have a tendency to agree. Personally, I almost always feel better – more prepared and ready to work – on a Monday at practice if I get myself moving the day prior.
The key to mastering active recovery is keeping it short and light. If you’re out on the water, there’s no better time to focus on drills. Otherwise, think walk by the river or leisurely ride on the bike. Foam roll, stretch, explore a new trail or wander around the mall. Bottom line: Get out, get creative and do something fun!
In my experience, rest days – days when there is literally no prescribed work on the training calendar – are few and far between. My best advice is to take full advantage when you can! The important thing here is to remember that rest days are meant to be restorative and not an occasion to jam-pack with work, errands or commitments that add to stress or fatigue. That’s not to suggest you do nothing! Just be mindful, plan wisely and carve out some time to give your brain and body real rest.
I know the temptation to see a day off and instinctively think that it’s the perfect time to travel, go out or catch up on your list of to-dos. I also know the need to feed your own sense of accomplishment, which can easily work against allowing for meaningful downtime during the day. If you can relate, start to think of your rest days as a chance to get ready to crush the block of training ahead. Understand that both rest and habits that mitigate stress are tools that can give you an edge.
People with higher levels of chronic mental stress take longer to recover their strength after workouts… even the microscopic cellular processes that repair damage within your bod are mediated by your state of mind – that that means that stress-reduction approaches … could be as important to your physical fitness as crunches. The Yale Stress Center
4. Lifestyle Management
Last but not least! Similar to active recovery and rest, lifestyle management won’t directly affect performance without proper training but it can certainly give you an edge. It’s the component that includes sleep, nutrition and self-care, which are not only essential to recovery but also longevity in sport.
I heard the term “lifestyle management” on a podcast I’ll share with you here. Guest, Keith Power, national high-performance sporting director for Malaysia, used it with broader performance aspects in mind such as life balance, mindfulness and spirituality. For now, consider the following:
Essential for psychological and physiological recovery. Hormone activity during sleep includes the release of melatonin, which acts as an antioxidant, and human growth hormone, which contributes to muscle building and repair. Likewise, sleep deprivation is shown to adversely affect physical and cognitive performance, as well as emotional wellbeing.
The best way to use sleep to enhance performance is to make it a priority! Establish a nighttime ritual that includes going to bed at the same time each night and practice habits that promote restful sleep. This could include avoiding caffeine late in the day, and the use of the computer or smartphone at night. Lastly, nap as much and as often as you can! Even ten or twenty minutes of shuteye midday can increase your mood and readiness before an afternoon session of training.
Personally, I’m incredibly attentive to nutrition and believe that everything we put in our bodies impacts recovery, performance and wellbeing. I shared some thoughts on general nutrition in a post on boat speed and lightweight rowing. For now, let’s focus on fueling for recovery during the post-workout timeframe. In other words, the nutrition you need as soon as you’re done with your workout.
We talked earlier about how training puts stress on the body. Cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone, rises in response to hard training. Likewise, at the end of a session, cortisol drops and our bodies enter repair. The right post-workout nutrition choices can aid the whole process, helping our bodies return to their happy, homeostatic states. Without getting into the science, a mix of carbs and protein are generally recommended post-workout to: 1) counter the release of cortisol, 2) replace depleted glycogen, and 3) facilitate muscle repair.
I’ve seen varying recommendations on the “optimal” carb to protein post-workout ratio and honestly, I think it’s important to try different options and find what works well for you. Nutrition is incredibly personal – that’s one point I can’t stress enough. Personally, I like having a “shake” after practice because it’s absorbed faster and more easily than food.
I usually get in about 30g of carbs and 10g of protein post-workout, which is relatively little compared to most recommendations. But then I head home for a pretty big breakfast of oatmeal and eggs! See how it all works together? Not only does everyone respond differently to varying food and fuel sources, but our schedules and habits impact nutrition as well.
This is just as much about injury prevention and general body maintenance as it is about recovery. Self-care includes everything from tissue work like massage and Rolfing to stress relief practices like mediation and yoga. Basically, it’s whatever you need to do to keep your body healthy, and ready and willing to perform. Similar to nutrition and sleep, self-care practices are both individual and something we chose to prioritize. Know your body and build a team of professionals you can trust and rely on for help.
Take ownership! Recovery, in general, is affected by many factors including age, genetics and overall fitness. Learn to listen to your body and provide it with what it needs. We ask a lot of ourselves during training and have high expectations when it’s time to perform. Our recovery practices need to be aligned with our goals. Think about whether you could improve on any of the aspects discussed in this post. Ask yourself if you need to make time for more rest or back off a few notches during recovery zone training. Check in with yourself on sleep and nutrition. Overall, establish a system that will aid in your progress and assist with achieving your goals!