If you’re like a lot of athletes who think that working out harder, faster and longer is the key to winning races, think again.
Training hard is only part of the equation when you’re looking to improve your performance. As a coach, I try to impress on my athletes the importance of recovery in the training process.
Building fitness is a sequence of over-loading your body through progressively harder exertion, then allowing it to recover from the training stress. You push your body with tough workouts, then allow it to rebuild itself stronger than it was before.
On occasion I’ve had to talk athletes off the ledge when they believe that they’re not working hard enough. When they experience fatigue, they misinterpret signals such as lethargy, burning legs and muscle soreness to mean that they are out of shape and somehow short-changing themselves on training.
On the contrary, they’re often working too hard and not easy enough when appropriate.
I’ll give as an example, a typical training block of three weeks of progressively harder and longer efforts, followed by one week of relatively easy training with reduced workout duration and intensity. Type A overachievers tend to squirm during this brief period of active recovery. These athletes feel that they are getting out of shape when in fact their bodies are rebuilding themselves to a stronger, fitter state than they were before.
Think of it as a set of stairs where you climb three steps up, then take one step back down. The next set is three steps up and one step down. Over time, this pattern leads to peaking. But you won’t peak if you climb the stairs without periodically taking a step down.
As a general rule, I can tell when I’m not recovered by how my legs feel when I walk up a flight of stairs. If my legs burn and my perceived effort is high when I climb, I pretty much know that I need more recovery time and that I should take it easy until the flight of stairs seems easy.
Athletes who short-change themselves on recovery will find themselves over-reaching – feeling flat, performing with mediocre results, or perhaps losing fitness. Over-reaching is different from over-training, which is a persistent physiologic and psychological state of fatigue that is reversible only through weeks, if not months, of total rest. True over-training is difficult to achieve but can have severe and sometimes chronic adverse health effects. Most often, when athletes think they are over-training, they are actually over-reaching, which is reversible in a short period of time.
If you find yourself feeling chronically tired and you’re not getting the results you think you deserve, you’re more than likely not giving yourself enough time to recover.
Active recovery is better than total rest, which is to say, don’t get carried away with the recovery concept and take the week completely off. Reduce your weekly training time by half and back way off on the intensity. A few very short bouts of intensity on one or two days of the week will help maintain your snap, but don’t do anything that would otherwise feel like a training load. If in doubt, go easy.
Once you feel that your perceived effort is low again, you can proceed to another build cycle. Training smart means working hard when you have to, and recovering when you need to.
Here are a few strategies that will assist you with the recovery process.
Eat something high in simple carbohydrates within 30 minutes of finishing your workout. Replenish your glycogen stores quickly when your metabolism is still high. Examples include a recovery drink, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or a cup of chocolate milk.
Get a good night’s sleep. Hormones critical to recovery are released primarily when you’re asleep. Take an afternoon nap if your schedule allows it.
Monitor your resting heart rate before you get out of bed. An unusually elevated or suppressed heart rate can mean that your body is still stressed, even if you’re not feeling tired.
Tend to your body’s need for protein to rebuild muscle tissue. This doesn’t give you permission to chow down on a 16-ounce prime rib. Select high-quality lean protein such as organic chicken or wild salmon. Four to six ounces in one sitting is plenty.
Take a warm (but not hot) bath. Increase circulation and promote healing by improving blood flow.
Cross-train at low intensity. Give your muscles a break by using different muscle groups. If you’re a runner, go for a bike ride. If you’re a cyclist, go for an easy hike.
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