Too Much of a Good Thing
By Morgan Johnson
As a coach, one of the most common things I hear from my athletes is “Why am I not doing more?” The opening statement varies, of course — “Today is a pretty easy day, do you think I should sneak in a longer bike?” or “My goal race is coming up quick, and this week sure seems easy…” or (my personal favorite, falling into the “asking for forgiveness rather than permission” category), “I felt really great this morning so I decided to go for a 10-mile run! I just wanted to let you know!”
In general, athletes I’ve coached for a longer period of time don’t ask these questions, because they know my coaching well enough to trust it. But athletes newer to our system almost always struggle with the “easy” days and weeks, because the fact is that triathlon in America has evolved into a culture of meters and miles — who rode the most miles, who swam the farthest, who did the most. These are the athletes we respect and expect to be successful in the sport. After all, we read about the training schedules of elite athletes in our favorite magazines, and they are putting in 6, 7, 8 hours a day just training. And obviously they are experiencing success, so if it works for them why wouldn’t it work for us? The truth is, it can work for us — but it comes with a cost, and the cost is recovery.
“Recovery” may be the most common catch-phrase in the endurance sports industry today. We have recovery compression apparel, cold plunge pools and cryo-therapy for recovery, recovery nutrition, recovery massage, recovery… well, you name it. Not to mention, of course, the most effective recovery method – sleep. I myself own 5 different pairs of recovery compression tights, have twice-a-month sports massage appointments and sleep a minimum of eight hours a night. But what does recovery actually mean? What is all of this stuff actually doing for us, and is the stuff alone enough?
To understand recovery, we have to go back in sports science history a little ways. Believe it or not the idea that recovery is essential to fitness was around long before compression tights and protein shakes appeared on the stage. While triathlon was still just a twinkle in the eye of swimmers, cyclists and runners everywhere, the most basic principle of effective endurance training already existed and was intentionally being put into practice by forward-thinking sports scientists, athletes and coaches. This principle is formally termed the “supercompensation cycle,” and it teaches us that increased fitness occurs after stress is applied to the body (exercise), and the body properly recovers from the incurred fatigue, allowing for adaptation during which the body supercompensates for the stress applied; essentially, that “fitness occurs during recovery.” Without recovery, the cycle never happens — actually, we are marginally less fit immediately after exercising. After all, who runs their best possible marathon after a seven-hour bike ride?
So what does this mean for us as triathletes? It is this principle that gives us the cardinal rule for planning effective endurance training: Never plan for more training than you can recover from. If we can’t recover from it, we don’t get the benefit from it. The training you do is only as good as the recovery you counter it with, and this is where we are different from the pros. While they have all day to recover from their training, we go straight from our five-hour bike ride to 10 hours at the office followed by family dinner. If you think those 10 hours at the desk count as recovery, just think about how you feel after a long day at work and you might want to reconsider.
Fortunately, our body wants us to know when to slow down (or recover), and the signs are hard to ignore. The most common signs that it is time (or, more likely, past time) to recover include the inability to get your heart rate up, decreased power or speed as it relates to heart rate, excessive sleeping (more than 10 hours a night), abnormally increased or decreased appetite, a depressed immune system (for example, that little cold you sometimes get after hard races), and excessively sore or “tight” muscles. When one or more of these symptoms pops up, it’s time to cut back the workload and give the body time to recover and gain the fitness it’s been working for. Unfortunately, the response of many triathletes to these symptoms is to “suck it up,” push through it, rub some dirt on it. While there is a time and a place for these reactions, it is under the supervision of an experienced coach, not an athlete viewing the situation through subjective glasses. In too many cases, this reaction leads to injury, mental burnout, and oftentimes sickness.
So, how do you know when to recover before the body starts showing physical symptoms of under-recovery?
First, keep track of all the workouts you do. When you do them, what you are doing, what exceptional occurrences surround them. Then, the next time you hit the under-recovery mark (see above), go back and look at what you did leading up to that point. Take the volume and intensity of the last week and cut it back by 40 percent for at least a week to begin the recovery process (if you are still showing symptoms at the end of the week, it’s time for another week of recovery). Once the symptoms of under-recovery have cleared, you can start building again. Build yourself up to that same place again, and see how you feel. Chances are, if you started your recovery as soon as your body told you it was needed, you’re going to feel pretty good. At that point, cut it back to 40 percent again for a week, and this time, build back up to 10 percent more than the original cut-back point (See Figure 1.1 below).
Be aware — this is a conservative route, but if you have limited experience as a coach, chances are it will be more productive both long-term and short-term in terms of performance.
Of course, if creating a good training schedule was the only thing needed to reach our goals, there wouldn’t be so many triathlon coaches out there. If we were all robots and we all did the exact same things every day, scheduling recovery into training would be very simple, because there would be no external factors. However a few beers, an all-nighter or dehydration on a hot ride among countless other situations can completely derail a great plan, turning a perfect training week into a disaster, if planned recovery is not adjusted accordingly. Working with an experienced, certified coach will allow you to make the adjustments necessary in your training plan to account for the life situations that can and will arise. A good coach will keep track of your eating, sleeping, and training habits so that he or she can make constant adjustments to your plan to allow for proper recovery. A great coach will keep track of your work schedule, your favorite post-race snack, how many hours you sleep on Sunday night versus Friday night, your race goals for next year, your weekly happy hours, and what size compression you wear – all to plan for proper recovery.
To put it simply, recovery starts with appropriate training load, but it encompasses so much more than that. The quest for perfect recovery is endless, which is where we see coaches and an infinite range of recovery products enter the picture.
So next time you start to feel a little run down, you’re riding five hours a day and your power is decreasing, or you’re suddenly consuming five plates at the buffet instead of one, take a step back in your training plan and give your body a chance to catch up to the work it’s done. It will thank you with increased fitness and a greatly reduced risk of injury. If you’re adjusting your training plan and still experiencing problems, or if the fitness increase doesn’t seem to be occurring, it’s probably time to consult a coach to get to the bottom of the problem. But don’t get discouraged — there is a solution to every problem, if you’re willing to look for it (and in triathlon, the solution is almost always recovery).
Morgan Johnson is the Lead Youth and Juniors Coach at the Playtri Performance Center in Dallas, Texas (a USA Triathlon Certified Performance Center). She is also a member of the USAT South Midwest Regional Council. You can reach Morgan with questions at firstname.lastname@example.org, or view her full bio at www.playtri.com/morgan.