RECOVERY – why it is critical to your long-term success (and health)

Adding strategic periods of rest and recovery are necessary to improve fitness. In fact, the only time we improve our fitness is when we allow our bodies to recover! So, how do you know when it’s time to recover? How long should you recover?

Recovery!  What does it mean?  Well, if you look up the definition of “recovery” in the dictionary, it says, “a return to a normal state of healthy, mind, or strength.”   If we look at “recovery” in terms of health, it is defined as, “the act or process of becoming healthy after an illness or injury.”  So, what does it mean for an endurance athlete to recover?

There are a couple of ways of looking at recovery: short-term recovery and long-term recovery.

SHORT-TERM RECOVERY:  You do a hard run. You are hot, thirsty, hungry, and tired! You need to re-energize yourself.  This happens with good post-exercise nutrition (see last week’s tips) as well as cooling off, drinking fluids, and resting.  The goal is to be ready for tomorrow’s training.

LONG-TERM RECOVERY:  You are training every day for weeks and months.  You are in a constant state of fatigue.  You need to rest a bit to get back to feeling somewhat “normal.”   The goal is to stay healthy so you avoid unplanned, extended interruptions in your training.

The reminder of this article will focus on long-term recovery.

Endurance athletes are constantly placing themselves in a state of stress.  Training is hard on your body, and your body responds with “normal” stress responses.  These normal stress responses are great for stimulating recovery, but without adequate time to let the body recover, these stress responses can add up to big problems….

For training to be effective, you need to balance the stress with recovery.  This allows your body to adapt to the workload, repair damaged tissue, and ultimately return stronger and more capable of handling the stress when you are faced with it again.  This is called COMPENSATION.  The goal in any training program is to keep compensating so you adapt to harder and harder workloads.  This is how you get faster, stronger, and ultimately better at endurance sports!

Here are some things that happen when an endurance athlete constantly places themselves under stress:

  • Soft-tissue damage (this includes muscle, ligaments, tendons, cartilage, etc.).  If these issues aren’t addressed, you set yourself up for inflammation, aches, and compromised form.
  • Increased risk of injury Likely the result of chronic soft-tissue damage
  • Depressed immune system This increases susceptibility to illness.
  • Reduced liver and muscle glycogen reserves Low glycogen levels make it very hard to train at a high level.
  • Inflammation This can be either local, like at the site of a sore muscle or systemic, like circulating inflammatory markers.
  • Problems sleeping Decreased sleep leads to decreased performance!
  • Mental fatigue  This includes a decreased motivation to work hard and losing sight of your goals.

So, by backing off every so often, you allow your body to address these issues and stay healthy.

Now, balancing stress with recovery is unique to every athlete.  So far this season, we have used a 3-week “build” then 1-week “recovery” strategy.  Most athletes can handle 3 weeks of cumulative stress without breaking down so much that 1 week of recovery can’t overcome.  BUT, if you feel that you are abnormally tired or have low motivation any time during a 3-week block, back off.  Better to back off for a few days NOW than put yourself in such a hole that you have to take multiple weeks or months off!!