Put your feet up or keep the ticker ticking? Garth Fox shows you the right road to recovery.
Training does not make us fitter. We get fitter through recovering from training. I believe most triathletes train too hard, too often and would do better if they built more rest into their training week. The reason for this is simple.
Training is a huge stress on your body, which unbalances all your physiological systems. To reinstate that balance you need to give the body time to regenerate. In return for your patience, the body will repay you. Over time and with careful management you’ll find yourself enriched with a new level of fitness. It sounds simple, but even something as straightforward as resting comes in two flavours: active and passive.
Active recovery in the minutes following exercise – in other words a cool-down – has been shown to help clear the metabolic waste products of exercise more efficiently than if you do nothing at all. It works by maintaining a higher level of blood flow to muscles that are damaged and in need of nutrients. It leaves those muscles in the best possible state from which to begin the real recovery process.
Active recovery sessions on the day following a hard workout can be equally effective, depending on how you go about them. It can’t be stressed enough that active recovery sessions must be kept embarrassingly easy. If you go for a spin and DO NOT get overtaken by old ladies with baskets laden with groceries on the front of their bicycles, then you are going too hard for a proper recovery session.
There are scientific reasons for this. Hard training is a form of stress, which causes the body to releases a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol acts as a natural anti-inflammatory, but it can become a real hindrance if left in the blood too long, as it interferes with muscle regeneration. Train too hard, and you’ll start releasing cortisol, which could hinder your recovery. So by all means, use active recovery sessions in the days following hard exercise to loosen your legs and work on skills, but be as disciplined about them as you are with the hard stuff.
Passive recovery on the other hand is about putting your feet up, having a massage or watching a movie. It shouldn’t involve walking around the shops for hours on end or cleaning the house from top to bottom, which can stress your body in the same ways training can. Learning to rest well is a skill the best athletes excel in, as it helps them squeeze every drop of benefit from their high-intensity training sessions. As always with training, individuality plays a key role. Find out what works for you. If a very easy spin on the bike helps you relax and sleep better, there’s no harm in it, just don’t be held hostage by your work ethic.
If you prefer to just take the day off, science tells us we’re not putting ourselves at any real disadvantage. The key is to get good at listening to your body and learn to hear the signals, irrespective of your planned training schedule. Think of recovery days, whether active or passive, as the days that you get fitter and stronger.