Why Is Recovery from Workouts and Racing So Important for Athletes?

The Athlete's Guide to Recovery training mesocycles AGR

Why Recovery Matters

In the summer of 2009, I spent a week in residence at the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado Springs, enjoying a coaching internship with USA Triathlon. It was exciting to see the resources we give our most elite athletes. The training center offers a fully equipped training facility, with all the amenities you might expect: full rooms of weight training equipment, ample gyms (I taught yoga in a roomy tae kwon do space, outfitted with lovely cushioned mats), indoor and outdoor pools, and a cafeteria serving healthy food and drinks. Miles of local trails and roads, including some that head right up into the Rockies, make this a fantastic place to train. Better still, the OTC boasts a Recovery Center. This luxe facility, available to all resident athletes, includes a steam room, a sauna, a hot tub, a cold plunge pool, a snack bar, and rooms for yoga and massage. The USA Triathlon national team members are allotted 90 minutes of massage time a week, which they can use at one session or divide into multiple, shorter sessions. In a convenient central location on the training center campus, the Recovery Center gives athletes the best recovery modalities known to sports scientists.

At the Olympic team level, athletes know the importance both of managing every element important to training and of prioritizing recovery. Remember, Olympians are not operating on five hours of sleep, squeezing in  their workouts in the early-morning dark before sitting around conference room tables or chasing children all day. Nor are they wrapping up evening workouts after a long day at the office in time to mow the lawn before daylight fades. Between workouts, they rest.

Although it’s probably unrealistic for you to prioritize your recovery to such an extent, if you can give a fraction of this value to your own recovery, your performance will improve. Perhaps not to Olympic levels, but certainly in ways that will convince you of the importance and benefit of rest. Recovery is where the gains of your training actually occur, and valuing your recovery is the key to both short-term and long-term success, no matter what your sport.

Any attention that you can give to your recovery is likely to be helpful. A 2006 study of British rugby players measuring the effectiveness of active recovery, compression garments, and contrast baths found they were all more useful than doing nothing (Gill, Beaven, and Cook 2006).

In my book The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery, we consider various ways to describe, measure, and enhance recovery between bouts of training and racing. Recovery is a complicated and emerging field, and much of the research on these recovery techniques is preliminary and even contradictory. Some techniques will work wonders for you; others won’t. Ultimately, you’ll need to be an experiment of one person, learning what works best for you.

Recovery Over Time

Recovery takes place in both the short term and the long term. Short-term recovery follows from paying attention to your rest and recuperation day to day. Long-term recovery comes from good short-term recovery and from giving your body adequate time to recover between your peak efforts. Here’s how recovery should cycle through your day, week, month, and year [Ed: For space reasons, we’ve included a week and a month.].

Recovery Over a Week

Over the course of your week, or microcycle, recovery comes in the cyclical pattern of harder and easier workout days. On the hard days, workouts targeting strength and power and taxing the aerobic and anaerobic systems push the boundaries of what an athlete can do. The easier days are the key here: They must be quite easy, to give your body time to recover and adapt to the stressors you’ve placed on it. All too often, athletes gravitate toward the mushy middle, between working easy enough for recovery and hard enough to target lactate threshold, VO2max, neuromuscular efficiency, or power. This leaves them too tired to perform at their best in their harder workouts, robbing them of the chance to eke out a slightly faster pace or slightly higher wattage and to improve speed and power.

The big question, then, is how best to alternate hard and easy days. The big answer is: It depends. A range of factors will affect the answer: your age, the impact level of the sport, your history in the sport and any past or present injuries, environmental factors during workouts, the length of your race, and, ultimately, how well you recover.

The Athlete's Guide to Recovery training mesocycles AGRRecovery Over a Month

Your training mesocycle lasts approximately a month. These mesocycles usually follow a 3 to 1 work/rest ratio, with 2 to 1 a standard approach for masters athletes. In these ratios, each microcycle emphasizes either work (3 or 2 microcycles) or rest (1 microcycle). Each mesocycle should contain a contiguous block of easier days to allow you to absorb and adapt to the work of the preceding weeks. For most athletes, this takes the form of an easy week, though some experienced and elite athletes will step back for a shorter block of around five days (which leaves the weekends for heavier training, often with a group). During your easy, “rest,” or stepback week, your workouts should scale back in terms of both duration and intensity—and possibly also frequency. Thus your workouts would be shorter and carry less, if any, intensity, and you might drop one or two workouts in the stepback week.

This week is often used for fitness testing, especially in Joe Friel’s approach to training, outlined in the Training Bible books (Friel 2009). Testing provides a valuable opportunity to measure your progress and check the state of your recovery. As we’ll see in Chapter 2, declines in performance are an early sign of overtraining. Make sure, however, that you aren’t testing to  the detriment of your resting. Even when you have some field tests in your stepback week, you should leave the week feeling fresher than you went in.

This freshness is key. During each month, your cumulative fatigue will mount, even as you include recovery for supercompensation. The rest week in your cycle lets the fatigue lift and long-term adaptation occur, so that you can be fresher as you start the next mesocycle. Figures 1.3 demonstrates a typical mesocycle build as well as the amount of fatigue and freshness an athlete carries through the cycle.

This article is an excerpt from The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery, which is the first comprehensive, practical exploration of the art and science of athletic rest. With her book, certified triathlon and running coach and yoga instructor Sage Rountree guides you to full recovery and improved performance, revealing how much rest you need, how to measure your fatigue, and how to make the best use of recovery tools.