How to recover after an intense week of training
Recovery seems to be the buzz word in sports these days. We risk hypothermia for a couple of minutes in ice-cold water, buy expensive gadgets that promise to get rid of that “heavy” feeling in our legs, and obviously, spend hundreds of dollars on the new supplement that is derived from a magical plant that can instantly boost your ego after that grueling track interval session. But the truth is, most of these show very inconsistent results, with many having nothing more than a placebo effect, if at all.
Despite the unsubstantiated claims from some products and methods, recovery is an essential part of an athletes’ routine if a high level of performance is the goal. Throughout a training plan, each training session will induce a level of fatigue that will vary according to the duration and intensity of the sessions. Proper manipulation of training loads (more about it in a future post), and effective recovery can ensure that fatigue is short-lived, and that gradual improvements in performance will occur. However, if training stress is too high, cumulative fatigue leads to negative outcomes, such as diminished performance, and higher incidence of illnesses and injuries, to name a few. In addition, keep in mind that psychological stress also plays a significant role. While we only think of the stress we experience during training, life stress (family, work / school, finances, etc) has been associated with increased injury occurrence, diminished performance, and downregulation of the immune system, leaving the body more susceptible to infections and illnesses. So, it looks like both physical and psychological stress can have similar effects on our health and performance. Thus, it is only logical that recovery strategies should address both types of stress, right?
The good news is that to better recover from a period of high stress (physical or psychological) you don’t need to reach deeper for your wallet. The most effective strategies are still free (well, to an extent). Here are 3 simple things that have stood the test of time.
1. Nutrition: training requires enough energy to sustain the duration and intensity of the sessions. Being in an energy deficit (spending more calories than consuming) severely impacts recovery. Consume enough calories to offset what you are expending with training. Choose wisely, and consume carbohydrates after an intense session, particularly if you have a second session that same day. If this is the case and you have less than 8 hours between your sessions, aim to consume protein and carbohydrate immediately following the first session. This is where the traditional recommendation of a 3:1 ratio between carbs and proteins come from, as ideally your meal would combine 0.25g/kg body weight of protein with 0.75g/kg bodyweight of carbohydrates. This can be achieved with sports nutrition products, or regular meals. If you have a longer interval (8 to 24+ hours) between sessions, you won’t need to be as “aggressive” with your recovery strategies, but should still aim for carbohydrate and protein rich meals (and a higher consumption of both immediately after your session also won’t hurt).
2. SLEEP! There’s no better recovery tool out there. Lack of sleep is related to performance loss, weight gain, illness susceptibility, lower pain tolerance, and an increased risk of injury. Current recommendations call for 7 to 9 hours of sleep, in a dark, cool, quiet environment (like sleeping in a cave). Refrain from alcohol at least 3-4 hours prior to sleep onset (wine sounds great, but might disturb your sleep), and caffeine at least 3 to 7 hours prior to going to bed. Also, ensure you are reducing your exposure to bright lights 1-2 hours prior to bed (keep that cellphone away) as these have an alerting effect and reduce the production of melatonin (your natural sleep-regulating hormone).
If you don’t get enough sleep during the night time, naps can also help. Research has shown that following sleep deprivation, a 30-minute nap has positive effects on endurance performance. Just make sure you keep it short (< 30 minutes). While a current recommendation of up to 80 hours of sleep (nighttime and naps combined) exists, this might not be practical for most individuals. However, this supports the idea that sleeping a bit more than the common “average” amount of sleep (improving total sleep duration) has positive impacts on health and performance.
3. Have social interactions. Different approaches to recovery have been proposed by researchers and sport scientists. Currently, a differentiation between passive (a massage is a good example), active (a cooldown jog, for example) and proactive strategies exists. Social activities are a key example of proactive recovery, and these strategies imply a high level of self-determination, as the individual chooses activities that are customized to his or her needs and preferences. The focus here is on enhancing psychological recovery, which as mentioned above, is also directly related to health and performance.
So, if life and training stress have been getting the best of you, make sure you are checking all the boxes in these three areas. Take some time off and catch up on sleep over the weekend, ensure you are eating properly, and get together with your friends and loved ones. Chances are you’ll be feeling better and ready to tackle another week of training. And you didn’t even have to dive into a cold lake or spend hundreds of dollars to do it.
Have a question about your training you would like to ask? Are you a coach facing a challenge with your athletes? Send an email! J.Falk@EdmontonTriathlon.org