Now that many of you are knee-deep in the race season, it’s a good time to talk about an important aspect of the training process: recovery.
If asked, most athletes will be able to tell you that recovery is something that is necessary after a hard workout, and they would be correct. But the concept of recovery should be considered in a larger context: it is a physiological process through which your body recognizes and adapts to a stress induced from a workout. Recovery is required to get to the next level in training. What’s more, recovery is required to infuse quality in the next training bout, and quality equals results. One of the more difficult areas of training is to understand the recovery process: when to move on to the next training bout, and how to prescribe intensity for that bout. As athletes and coaches know, we often walk a fine line between when to push, and when to rest. In this brief article, I will attempt to outline a few things to help you understand recovery as a process, and recovery as a tool for your training plan.
Managing Recovery We’ve all been there: a hard group ride has left us exhausted and tired. You’re sitting at your desk thinking, “there’s got to be some way around this.” Inevitably, you are left thinking, “how can I recover faster?” This brings me to the first point of several about recovery:
1. Recovery is a process which has its own time course. How fast a person recovers from a particular training bout is unique to that person, and says nothing about how capable they are as an athlete. Each person responds to different training loads and different training intensities in a unique way. For example, a mountain biker might respond to VO2max intervals pretty well whereas an interval training session at threshold might leave him or her really exhausted. We all tend to train where we are comfortable, so when you get out of your comfort zone, you might be surprisingly fatigued in a short time frame.
2. You can’t speed up recovery through good nutrition; rather, good nutrition supports the recovery process. A hard training bout or race induces adaptation to that particular stress, and the adaptation starts at the cellular level. The cell essentially becomes a manufacturing facility for the things your body determines it needs because of a workout. Each workout is like putting in an order to your body for parts- the parts that help you gain fitness.
Think of it this way: if an assembly line can produce 30 widgets an hour, and an order comes in for 60 more widgets, then the first order of business is to get all of the parts for the widget. This is where your well-balanced diet serves you: it provides the parts. But, just because you have those parts doesn’t mean the assembly line can work faster. If you bring in parts for 90 widgets, then the assembly line STILL only makes 30 widgets an hour.
3. Protein and recovery. This is a hot, and very misunderstood topic, and deserves some attention here. Protein has been studied extensively in sports science. The gist of the matter is this: eating more than about 1.2 g/kg body weight per day won’t do anything for you. For the average person, .7g/kg body weight is sufficient; athletes can eat up to 1.2, but beyond that, there’s no benefit.
Essentially, eating more protein does not help build muscle, nor does it stop the natural muscle turnover process that occurs after an exercise bout. The reason that protein has been included in sports drinks in recent years is because of some research indicating that the inclusion of protein in sports drinks might help your cell take in more glucose from your blood stream.
Recovery drinks that contain protein increase the amount of muscle glycogen (stored carbohydrate) in the first 2 hours after exercise. After about 4 hours, the rate of glycogen re-synthesis is the same whether or not protein is ingested along with carbohydrate. These types of drinks are formulated for athletes that have multiple events in one day with breaks in between, such as track runners, hockey or soccer players, or a stage racer with multiple stages in one day. Can getting glycogen into your muscles quickly after a hard workout or race help you feel better? Absolutely. Can you use something other than a recovery drink to achieve this purpose? Yes—your body needs carbohydrate after a hard training bout, and it’s not going to be terribly picky about how you get it. The more soluble, the easier it is to get to your muscles. Things like chocolate milk have long been utilized as recovery drinks and they work very well.
4. The amount of sleep required is variable. There are a lot of rules of thumb about how many hours of additional sleep an athlete needs in order to recover well. One of the four training principles is individual difference and it is hard to say how many extra hours you will need after a hard training bout. If you feel really tired, go to bed early. If you feel like a nap on the weekends, take one. Anecdotally, many athletes sleep 9-12 hours a day when in training. Of course, in the working world, this is a very difficult thing to achieve. A coach’s job is to help you manage your training load in a way that helps you to strike a balance between your day job and your desire to train and race.
Recovery and your training plan
Recovery is not just about sleeping and eating after a hard workout or race. It tells the coach how to set up training for a particular athlete. It tells the athlete and the coach where the limits are, when to push, and when to back off. Most importantly, recovery should be seen as a part of the training process; not as a necessary evil. Over time, it is the process of overreaching, then recovering from overreaching that causes gains in fitness, not the ability to push hard all of the time.