As stated in the introduction, it is easy to overlook recovery. Yet, as evident from the earlier discussion of the stress-response-adaptation process that underlies fitness gains, recovery is central to that process. After all, your gains are made during recovery between training sessions, not during the training sessions. Without adequate recovery, you can’t make those fitness gains. This chapter provides tips on how to monitor and make the most of your recovery. In addition, it provides general tips that every athlete should know about nutrition both during and outside of training and racing.
Stress is Stress
Remember that training stress is not the only type of stress you encounter as an athlete. In addition to the demands of physical training required to produce overload, there are various levels of stress associated with work, school, and other aspects of one’s life. If you are faced with a looming deadline at work that has placed some pressure on your shoulders, the extra stress in that area of your life can impact the amount of training stress you are able to handle until the work deadline has passed. The key take away message here is to not get frustrated if you find yourself unable to train at the level you’re accustomed to when you are under greater loads of stress in other areas of your life. It is important to recognize this basic point and to adjust your training accordingly. Again, it is not the absolute training load that matters, but the training load that your body can handle that matters.
Easy Means Easy
Another important mantra to keep in mind is to keep the hard days hard and the easy days easy. Remember, training effects are achieved by applying an appropriate stimulus and then backing off so the body can positively adapt. Days on which harder workouts are scheduled are important for applying that stimulus. Key workouts are therefore an essential part of your training, and you want to be able to go into them capable of hitting the targeted training at the prescribed intensity level. And the best way to ensure you are ready to work hard and get the most out of those key workouts is to pay attention to your recovery on the easy days. In other words, you often need to go easy to become fast.
It can sometimes be tempting to push the pace a bit on those recovery days when you are feeling good. “Why not?” you might think to yourself, “If I gain fitness through hard training; then I should train hard all the time.” What usually happens, though, is that those easy workouts that morph into not-quite-easy workouts end up taking you into a dead-end zone where you are neither going fast enough to achieve a proper overload nor slow enough to adequately recover. Such a situation might be described as a wasted workout or junk miles. At best, you might carry a little extra fatigue into your next hard day. At worst, you might be unable to hit the training target on the next hard day due to inadequate recovery going into it. Instead of achieving the desired training effect to ratchet up your fitness level, you then need to wait until you are better recovered before trying again. The take away point is to use your recovery workouts for just that—recovery. They are just as essential to your training as your hard days.
Tuning into Heart Rate
Heart rate can provide an important window into your state of recovery, providing signs on when to continue with planned training or when to readjust the workout.
One sign that you may need further recovery workouts instead of that planned higher intensity one is how your heart rate responds during a training session. Let’s say you are pushing the envelope with hard training and enter into a workout knowing you’re close to the edge of overreaching. After you do your initial warmup you dive into a set of intervals at a higher intensity level. Although a bit sluggish at first, you seem to be close to the target according to your pace. However, you are unable to elevate your heart rate into the target zone, a fact confirmed by your heart rate monitor. In this case, an inability to elevate your heart rate when you’ve clearly upped the intensity indicates your body has not recovered from previous sessions. Heed the sign and turn that interval session into a short recovery workout. Then go home and conscientiously facilitate further recovery over the next few days before returning to higher intensity training.
Ideally, though, you would like a way to determine how recovered you are before even starting a workout. This is where morning heart rate readings can prove instructive. A simple approach is to take your heart rate each morning before getting out of bed. Keep track of the average over time. If your heart rate is 5-10 beats higher than average on a given morning, this is a sign you may need more rest and recovery that day. It could also mean your body is fighting a virus, in which case eliminating stress in the form of hard training can give your body a chance to nip in the bud any sort of oncoming illness.
Another variation of the resting heart rate test is to take your orthostatic heart rate. You can do this in the morning upon waking or after lying down and resting for at least 15 minutes. Start by taking your resting heart rate while lying down. Next, stand up and take your heart rate. Subtract the difference between the lying and standing readings. If the difference is more than 15-20 beats; then additional recovery is called for.
These simple techniques can provide measurable insight into your state of recovery. The more experience you gain in using these techniques, the better you will be able to read the nuanced signs of overtraining.
In outlining the ABCs of training in chapter 1, I mentioned the importance of consistent supplemental work. In addition to form drills and functional strength exercises, supplemental work also includes preventive care to enhance flexibility and mobility. Together, functional strength work along with preventive care effectively provides you with a “prehab” program to keep your body healthy. Doing prehab can help you avoid the dreaded “rehab” program of an injured athlete.
A vital element of prehab involves keeping your connective tissues healthy. Connective tissues are found everywhere, including the tendons that connect muscles to bones, the fasciae that surround muscle groups, and the endomysium that surrounds individual muscle cells. Connective tissues are comprised of a protein called collagen. When collagen fibers run parallel, like straws in a box, everything works the way it should. Muscles can contract without obstructions and tissues are able to withstand the stress loads placed upon them through physical activity. But the simple fact is that training breaks down the body. If it didn’t, there would be no opportunity to grow stronger through positive adaptations during the rebuilding phase.
As long as the tissues heal properly, then mobility is maintained and the body can continue to function at a high level of performance. But complete tissue rebuilding can take up to a few weeks while training takes place on an ongoing basis. That means there are ample opportunities for tissues to rebuild in a less than effective manner. Instead of the collagen fibers lining up in parallel like straws in a box, the fibers begin to look more like a pile of straws arranged in a haphazard fashion. This is when adhesions, scars or trigger points begin to develop.
One of the easiest and most effective means to ensure the healthy rebuilding of the body in between workouts is to use self-massage techniques. All you need is a few minutes each day along with some useful tools that include a foam roller, rolling massage stick, lacrosse ball, and golf ball. A daily once over of the major areas of the body allows you to prevent or to at least notice trigger points when they first begin to develop so you can eliminate them before they get worse.
Recovery is not always a passive endeavor even if one often thinks of it that way. Your recovery begins the minute you have completed the last work interval during your hard training session. High intensity activity leads to the accumulation of lactic acid in the bloodstream, which can lead to that heavy muscle feeling. The easiest way to begin clearing away blood lactate is to swim, bike or run at a moderate aerobic pace (i.e., Zone 2) at the end of your workout. Low level aerobic activity turns that lactate into energy and removes it from the muscles.
Although sometimes a day spent lying on the couch and napping is just what the body needs, on many “rest days” the body will benefit from some type of activity. Walks, yoga or other light activity that gets the body moving stimulates the lymph and circulatory systems, which are important to the recovery process. The key is to keep the activity easy. If you choose to get in the water, on the bike, or go for a run on a “rest day,” then limit that session to a short, easy warm up—just enough to raise the body temperature, produce a bit of sweat and get the blood flowing.
Remember, fitness gains occur during recovery. A proper recovery allows your body a chance to adapt from a hard training session, and will ensure that it is ready to get the most out of the next one.
The recommended amount of sleep for healthy adults is 7 to 9 hours per day. According to a 2012 study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 30 percent of American adults are “sleep deprived,” meaning they sleep less than 6 hours each day—leaving them vulnerable to adverse health and safety effects.
As any athlete in training knows, skipping on sleep is not conducive to optimal athletic performance. Train as much as you want, but without adequate sleep the body is unable to absorb the training. As you know by now, that is because physiological adaptations occur during the recovery periods in between training bouts. Without rest and recovery, the body continues to break down rather than to rebuild.
Athletes in training should aim for the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep each day plus additional hours depending upon their activity level. Here are a few rules of thumb for determining how much extra sleep to include in your weekly schedule.
Rule of Thumb #1. A good general rule of thumb is to take the number of hours you train each week, move the decimal point one place to the left, and add that amount of time to your daily sleep. For example, if you train 10 hours a week; then aim for an extra hour of sleep each day. If you normally find yourself needing 8 hours of sleep; then you would bump that up to 9 hours.
Rule of Thumb #2. This rule of thumb is more specific to running. Here, take the number of miles you run per week and aim for the same number of extra minutes of sleep per night. For example, if you run 30 miles per week in your training; then aim for an extra 30 minutes per day of sleep. If you normally find yourself needing 7.5 hours of sleep per night; then you would bump that up to 8 hours.
To be sure, these are simply rules of thumb, and you will need to pinpoint your own particular needs based on individual circumstances. But they do help to underscore the key take away point that you need more sleep during heavy training periods.
At the minimum, make sure you get the recommended baseline of 7 to 9 hours per day; then add in extra time according to your activity level and individual needs. If you’re training 20 hours a week; then sleeping 10 hours a day is not a luxury—it’s a necessity.
Keep in mind, extra sleep need not occur only at night. Naps during the day, particularly after intense workouts, are another good way to ensure you get the rest you need. At the very least, dedicate that extra time to rest and relaxation even if it’s not a full sleep. Your body will thank you and you will put yourself in a position to feel better both on and off the race course.
Nutrition and Hydration during Training
Just like when driving a car, the amount of fuel you burn during exercise depends upon how fast you are going—that is, your intensity level. At lower intensity levels, your body burns more fat as an energy source. As the intensity rises, more carbohydrates are burned. Note that the body always draws on both sources of fuel; it is just the relative amounts that shift with intensity.
As the saying goes, fat burns in carbohydrate’s flame. This means your body requires a certain amount of carbohydrates to maintain aerobic oxidation. The body can draw upon the carbohydrates stored in your muscles and liver, which is called “glycogen.” The body can also draw upon carbohydrates you eat while exercising. In both cases, carbohydrates are converted to glucose in the bloodstream, which is the form your exercising muscles utilize to provide you with energy.
How much glycogen does your body store? Although it will vary depending upon recent workouts, eating patterns and your personal fitness level, a body typically stores enough glycogen to provide energy for up to a few hours of moderate activity. Obviously, the more “metabolically efficient” you are—meaning your body utilizes more fat while sparing glycogen—the longer you can go without needing to ingest any additional carbohydrates to keep the flame burning. This is the logic behind the recent emphasis among endurance athletes—especially ultra-runners and long course triathletes—on becoming more metabolically efficient.
One step to improve your metabolic efficiency is to forgo nutritional supplements on most of your long workout sessions during early base training. Since we are accustomed to having a steady supply of sugary foods in our modern diet, this can be a shock for some. Abstain from eating for at least the first 90 minutes of your workout. Try to extend that past 90 minutes and eventually up to 2 hours or more. Experiment for yourself and notice what your typical end point is before you feel you must eat.
As you move closer to racing season or begin to up the intensity of some of those longer workout sessions, then experiment with the type of nutritional products you plan to use while racing. Sport drinks and gels tend to work better for higher intensity, shorter races because they absorb faster. For longer events, energy bars or solid food can be an option depending upon your personal preference. Be sure to practice during your training with the type of products that will be available on the race course so there are no surprises.
Nutrition and Hydration while Racing
How much should you ingest while racing? Typically, most bodies are able to digest about 200-300 calories per hour during racing. That’s the equivalent of two to three gels or a single energy bar—less if you are washing it down with a sport drink. Experiment during training to pinpoint your own needs and tolerance levels.
Keep in mind that for races that you can finish within 75 minutes, you shouldn’t need to worry about energy replacement. Simply drink water as needed and focus on racing. Save the eating for the post-race refreshments. Many can even race at a decent intensity level for up to 2 hours without needing to worry about energy replacement.
But for longer races, aim to start titrating your fuel intake about a half hour to an hour into the race. It is best to titrate this evenly throughout the race to maintain a consistent blood sugar level. This means setting up a feeding schedule—for example, every 15 minutes or every 20 minutes or every 30 minutes—to follow throughout your race. Keep in mind that eating more than your body can handle is just as deleterious to performance as not eating enough. Know your needs and refuel accordingly.
You might find it helpful to set an alarm on your watch to beep every 20 minutes to remind you to eat/drink on cue. This is particularly helpful for long course events where you spend the better part of a day out on the course. The key to success in those types of events—such as an Ironman triathlon—is to stave off the energy depletion that necessarily occurs over the course of the day as your body simply burns more calories than you are able to replace. This is okay up to a point, remember, because much of that energy will come from your stored fat and glycogen reserves; but you will need to replace some carbohydrates along the way to keep the flame burning to utilize your ample stores of fat (even lean athletes have ample fat storage to get through a long day of activity).
For long events and races in warmer weather, hydration and electrolyte replacement becomes necessary. Simply drinking water alone is insufficient because it lacks the sodium (and other minerals) lost in sweat. Drinking too much water without taking in sodium can result in the deadly condition of hyponatremia (literally, “low sodium”). Sport drinks that provide a balanced amount of electrolytes are a good choice for replacing both fluids and electrolytes. Salt or electrolyte tablets in conjunction with drinking water are another option.
If you use a sport drink, be mindful of how much (and what type of) sugar it contains. Not all sport drinks are created equal. This is where you need to experiment with products before race day to determine what works best for you. Sometimes the sport drink provided at aid stations is mixed at either higher or lower concentration levels than what you buy off the shelf in the store. If it’s overly concentrated, you may need to drink extra water to dilute it. Race day can throw many surprises your way, but if you know your needs given the type of conditions you encounter then you will be able to adapt accordingly.
As a general rule of thumb, drink to thirst. For any race, you will lose some body weight from sweating; and this need not be completely replaced during the race itself. Certainly, sweat loss is less a problem during shorter events; and severe dehydration must be avoided. During longer events, setting up a drinking schedule—such as every 15 minutes or 20 minutes—will allow you to titrate your fluid and electrolyte replacement for maximum effectiveness. Different weather conditions obviously dictate the amount of fluids and electrolytes you need to replace, so adjust accordingly.
Nutrition and Hydration after Exercise
In exercise bouts that last over an hour, muscle glycogen (the body’s carbohydrate stores) become depleted and needs to be replaced. It is best to start this process within a half hour (or at least within an hour) after exercise by consuming around a half gram of carbohydrate per pound of body weight. For example, a 160 pound triathlete would target about 80 grams of carbohydrate, which translates into a snack of 320 calories (for example, a banana with almond butter). Your choice of snack will depend upon your personal preferences, but keep the snack healthy and you will start your recovery on the right track. Even better, schedule one of your main meals after a big workout.
One of the body’s reactions to intense exercise is inflammation. Reducing inflammation is therefore an important part of the recovery process. Essential fatty acids help to decrease the body’s inflammation response, and should be an important part of your daily diet. In particular, the omega-3 fatty acid is often underrepresented in typical diets. Cold water fish (e.g. tuna, salmon) and flax seeds/oil are excellent sources of omega-3. Yet another food item that has anti-inflammatory properties is pineapple—specifically, the enzyme bromelain that is found in pineapple. Instead of reaching for a soda, try a glass of cold pineapple juice instead. It also provides a nice dose of carbohydrates to help replenish depleted glycogen stores in the muscles.
Nutrition to Support Fitness and Health
Just as sleep is a vital component of supporting fitness and health, so is a healthy diet. When it comes to eating well, you can navigate today’s world of highly processed food loaded with added sugar by keeping in mind that the best sources of nutrition are whole foods with minimal processing (rather than pre-packaged meals and snack items). Eating a wide variety of whole foods ensures you are getting the nutrients you need to stay fueled and healthy. In addition, drink enough water throughout the day so that your urine is the color of straw.
At meals, aim for a mix of lean protein and healthy fat with your carbohydrates. Whole foods are always better than processed foods. Instead of white bread or white rice, opt for whole grain bread or long grain wild rice. Avoid foods with added sugars; nature provides plenty of simple carbs in the form of whole fruits and vegetables (fresh or frozen). Aim for a colorful plate with leafy greens and other veggies. And keep in mind that there’s nothing wrong with healthy fat. In fact, healthy sources of fat are a vital part of your nutritional needs—think avocados, olive oil, salmon, flax seeds, almonds, walnuts. Good fat—along with fiber—helps to sate your hunger so you can actually stop eating sooner (and even consume fewer calories) than if you’re looking only to carbohydrates (especially simple ones) to achieve satiety. Finally, remember to slow down and chew your food thoroughly. Enjoy the process of both preparing and consuming the food that drives your health and performance.
TRAINING GUIDE CONTENTS
– Train with a Purpose
– The ABCs of Systematic Training
– The R&R of Training
– Begin with the End in Mind
2. Exercise Science Concepts
– Overreaching and Overtraining
– Energy Systems
– Aerobic Capacity
– Lactate Threshold
– Aerobic Threshold
– Muscle Fiber Types
3. Monitor Your Training Intensity
– What is Training Intensity?
– Key Indicators of Intensity
– Using Training Zones
– Training by Feel, or Perceived Exertion
– Training with Pace
– Training with Heart Rate
– Running with Power
4. Create Your Training Plan
– Prioritizing Your Events
– Overview of the Training Phases
– Choosing Your Periodization Schedule
– Filling in the Details of the Overall Plan
5. Create Your Weekly Workouts
– Creating Weekly Schedules
– Establishing and Developing Your Base
– Building Upon Your Base
– Peaking for Your Target Event
– Race Week and Race Day Warmup
6. Functional Strength
7. Recovery and Nutrition
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