There are two equally important aspects of training: overload and recovery. As athletes, we all seem to be really good at the overload; we love the work, sweat, and sense of accomplishment from hard workout sessions. Most athletes, however, struggle and fall short (myself included) with recovery. But it’s during recovery that our bodies absorb and adapt to the hard work of training—that’s where we get faster and stronger. I have to constantly remind myself that I never get stronger during the workout. Fortunately, I’ve learned from my mistakes, so I’d like to share some tips and perspectives on this surprisingly broad and complex topic.
THINK IN CYCLES
One of the biggest fallacies in training is that you have to think about your workout schedule based on a seven-day calendar week. Most training programs subscribe to this thinking, as do almost all of us due to work and family schedules. After all, it’s the simplest and most convenient way to manage your training. But there is one major problem with this approach: it’s easy to simply squeeze too much into one week. Too many quality sessions (track, hills, tempo and endurance sessions) get slotted into those seven days, and that short planning block leaves very little time for rest and recovery sessions.
Instead, think of your schedule in terms of a training cycle, which can be 8, 9, 10, or 14 days in length. It may be hard to find the flexibility in your schedule to accommodate this, but changing your routine can be a good thing; your body may respond better if you lengthen out your training “week.” This will enable you to thoughtfully schedule in more easy workouts and active recovery days between your overload sessions. You can even incorporate recovery blocks into your training cycle. Recovery blocks can be anywhere from 3-7 days that are focused on rest and recovery. During these segments in your training, work on drills and technique and shorten your sessions. The intensity of these sessions should be much lower than your training workouts; so much lower, in fact, that you feel refreshed at the end of the activity. You may come back even more refreshed and faster after having made these adaptions to training.
PLAN YOUR RECOVERY
When you’re incorporating recovery into your schedule, think about the type of rest used. Passive recovery is what may come to your mind first: lying down, staying off your feet, napping, elevating your legs, or stealing an extra hour of sleep. A coach once told me that, outside of my training sessions, I should be the laziest person I know. What he meant was that I couldn’t stress this resting component of my recovery enough. Active recovery is exactly as it sounds; you’re remaining physically active while resting as the easier efforts promote your body’s ability to heal. In a proper recovery workout, you should feel better when you finish than when you started because the goal is to loosen your muscles, increase circulation, and flush out your system without putting any additional stress on your body.
When you plan your training, think through the logistics of your recovery sessions. For example, it’s important to get some post-workout nutrition, so ask yourself a few questions to develop your plan: Will I be able to eat right away? How quickly will I get those calories into my system? Where will I get my recovery food? Are there adequate fluids available for me to rehydrate? Also, work through the logistics of your recovery activities: Will I have time for an ice bath, nap, or time off my feet? Are social obligations going to occur after workouts? Thinking through these details will help you successfully execute your recovery plans.
BUILD IN FLEXIBILITY
Though you’ve made a training plan, there will inevitably be a time where your body doesn’t recover the way you or your coach expected. This is where the old training cliché, “Listen to your body,” comes into play, though it can be difficult to differentiate between lack of motivation, fatigue, and sheer laziness. While symptoms may be similar, appropriate responses vary: fatigue requires rest, lack of motivation can be remedied with different mental approaches, and laziness is best countered by a kick in the pants. While modifying your plan may seem challenging or stressful, it’s easy to dig yourself into a hole by failing to respond to fatigue. You always need to monitor your body, communicate with your coach, and be prepared to adjust your plan accordingly because, if you can work in that needed recovery, you’ll come back fresher for the remaining key sessions.
MONITOR YOUR MIND
Most of what you read on recovery will almost always lean towards the physical aspect. The mental side of recovery, however, is just as important to your overall performance. If you take care with monitoring your mental state and adjust your training accordingly, you’ll stay more motivated throughout the year. Take little mental breaks. The objective is to turn your brain off from thinking about or focusing on your key race or event. Step away from reading forums, blogs, Twitter, and media associated with your sport for a bit. Larger scale mental breaks, such as vacations or impromptu days off from training to do something fun or different, can be very liberating. I’ve personally found that taking blocks of free time throughout the year at appropriate points keeps my mind fresh, and so I set aside time as needed for unstructured training—no plan, no schedule; I go out and do what I feel like doing that day. If I want to run easy, I run easy; if I want to stop on my bike for a coffee and pastry, I do. Introduce fun back into the schedule rather than focusing on a plan. Pull the plug on any measuring instrument (watch, heart-rate monitor, GPS, watt meter, you name it). If you keep your mind in its best state, you’ll stay fresher and be able to push harder and focus better when it’s time to get serious.
TAKE TIME OFF
It’s important to occasionally have some time completely off. You need to let your body and mind fully recover from the stress; a couple of weeks off at the end of your racing season can physically and mentally recharge you for the coming year. You may start to feel a little antsy and want to get back to your training group, but coming back too soon can cause you up to fizzle out later. Vacations, again, are the perfect time to plan your time off; don’t feel guilty if you come back feeling out of shape or like you’ve put on weight. Those things are quickly reversed once you start training again. And you’ll find yourself a better athlete for properly managing your recovery throughout the year.