Training, Exercise, and Recovery VS Stress, and Illness

It’s a strange time to be alive. Everything seems uncertain on multiple levels. It seems there’s no limit to how much stress you could hold right now. Nobody has any real answers about what the future holds. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, I wanted to email with a few thoughts on our current situation and a word of encouragement.

Key points:

  • Continue to exercise regularly. It’s good for your body and mind.
  • Don’t overdo it with extremely hard or long sessions.
  • Wash your hands. Sleep 8-9h. Eat a lot of plants.
  • Try to remain calm. Listen to music or read a book. Don’t scroll headlines.
  • Keep to yourself physically. Don’t isolate yourself.
  • Connect with people remotely, but don’t spend a bunch of time merely browsing social platforms.
  • It’s going to hurt for a while. The more it hurts now, the less it will hurt later.
  • Don’t worry about what you can’t control.
  • Do focus on what you can do to make things safer or better for you and those around you.

Exercise is one of the best things that you can do. Now or ever. It is and always will be one of the best things you can do with whatever time and energy that you devote to it. Seriously, whether you go for a short walk in the morning or between meetings, go for a 10 mile run, or a 30 mile bike ride… It’s one of the best things out there for your body and your mind. It helps you to feel better physically, helps you handle stress better, and helps you to be more creative and thoughtful. If we want to deal with stress or solve problems, our bodies and brains work best with some daily exercise.

Your immune system benefits from regular, strenuous exercise. Extremely long and intense sessions of exercise are stressful and may suppress your immune system. But, when you’re not taking it to extremes, exercise is a very positive influence on your immune system. And, all of the best practices that you should already have that help you recover from hard training is also going to be helpful for your immune system. None of this has changed with the rise of a new virus circulating the globe. In fact, everything about your active lifestyle is exactly what reduces your personal risk of bad outcomes when meeting a pathogen like the novel coronavirus. Still, keep in mind that you can be a great vector capable of carrying viruses to others, so keep to yourself!

All of the things that you do to take care of yourself to be healthy and fit should still be maintained. If you are someone who really loves going hard in training, then you should take it down a notch. You may train hard to set PRs or get into shape for racing or special events you plan to do. At the moment, all of those events are cancelled, so you should take a step back and work on building your foundation for when events resume. If you train for fun, fitness, and PRs, then you can still set PRs in the future. It doesn’t have to be next month. No matter who you are or what your goals are, you don’t need to be in peak shape in April or May of 2020. Give yourself freedom to do consistent, quality training, but train for peak performance later.

We love exercising, getting outside, sweating, and sometimes doing that with friends. Keep it up. You can do it with friends again soon. In the meantime, keep your body strong with regular training, healthy foods, plenty of sleep, and take a moment to laugh and smile every so often.

Coming Back After Extended Time Off

Many of us love training regularly and keeping our normal routines. But sometimes things come up that keep you from your routine.

How to get back into shape (summary):

  • Ease into it. Start easy and build up.
  • Listen to your body.
  • Get sufficient rest.
  • Sleep well.
  • Make your workouts progressively more challenging as your fitness comes back by adding duration and/or intensity.
  • Always listen to your body to know what’s enough stress to get better, but not too much that you’ll get burnt out. (Yes, I said to listen to your body twice. That’s deliberate.)
  • Start adding a little bit of intensity a couple of times a week after your first 2-3 weeks. Ramp up from there.

Keeping regular training habits is the best way to stay fit and keep progressing while enjoying the activities you love. But, sometimes you get sick, or injured, or things in your work or personal life get in the way for a time. At some point when you’re ready to get back into it, you may struggle to find the best way back, mostly because everything feels different because you’ve lost fitness.

After 2 or 3 months away from training or more, you’ll probably feel almost like you’ve lost all fitness. You’ll feel like you’re starting from scratch. Your normal weekend endurance session will seem like more than you can possibly do. That’s fine. Your body was much more fit at some point in the past, and given enough time and training, your body can get at least that fit again. It’s your job to get back into a routine and pay attention to your body so that you can tell what’s an appropriate amount of stress today and what’s an appropriate amount of recovery to go with it.

As you get back into training, you just need to get out there. Try not to do more than you can handle right away, but don’t be afraid to get tired. Just pay attention to how tired you are and give yourself some recovery between harder sessions. If you need to do one or two recovery sessions before the next moderate training session, then simply take a few days off or easy as needed.

Take 2-3 weeks to just slowly increase the number of days per week that you’re training, the time each week that your training, and the average intensity of those sessions. As you get fitter, and the sessions feel easier, start to add little bits of intensity.

Start with some easy training every other day. Then go to 4 or 5 times a week. Start with sessions that are shorter, say, 40-60m. If you have time, lengthen them to 1-1.5h, if you’re riding. If running, these times could be 50-70%. Do a long ride that’s 2-2.5h, and go up by 30-40m every week or two for the first few months until you reach the length of your old long rides. Or, start at an hour and go up by 10-20m every other week if you’re running.

After 3-4 weeks, start adding a few sprints once per week, and some tempo once or twice per week, depending on how you feel. Try to avoid the temptation to go a little bit hard (or a lot hard) on all of your rides. As always, having a little bit of stress on your body all of the time isn’t the best way to take care of it. This applies to physical stress as well as mental/emotional stress. Try to focus most of your harder work on 2 or 3 days each week. Pay attention to how you feel during your sessions and throughout the day. If you’re sleeping well, have a lot of energy most of the time, get tired after your harder sessions, but can recover and be ready for the next one, then you’re probably on the right track. If you are always a little tired, your easy rides usually feel hard and your hard rides never feel good, then see if you can get in a little more recovery (sleep, food after rides, easier recovery days).

Overall, you want your training to have a good balance of stress and recovery. You want your moderate to harder days to be stressful enough that it’s driving your fitness forward. You don’t want to feel like all of your training is totally easy. You also want your overall training volume to be enough to keep increasing your aerobic fitness. But, you don’t want to always feel like you’re straining. You don’t want to keep loading up on stress beyond what your body can handle. It’s fine to feel tired after your harder days, even desirable. You just don’t want to feel tired all of the time.

To provide an extremely simple example from cycling, here’s what your first month could look like if you’re getting back into it from scratch:

1h easy1h easy1.5h steady1h easy
1.5h steady1.5h steady
4-5×15 accelerations
2h steady
option: 20m tempo
1-1.5h easy
1.5h steady
2x10m tempo
1.5h steady
5x30s at 90% effort
2-3h steady
20m tempo
maybe a few sprints
1.5-2h steady
1.5h steady1.5h steady with
4x3m at 90% effort
2-3h steady
20m hi-tempo
2h steady
5x30s hard

How long does it take to recover from a big ride or race? How do I know that I am recovered?

These are great questions. A friend of mine recently asked me this. I’m grateful to him for these questions; they get to the heart of being a successful endurance athlete. Because recovery is so important and I don’t feel that I had a totally adequate answer in the moment, I wanted to write more about it so my friend and anyone else might hopefully benefit.

So, we have some good questions, right?!… Great! Now all we need to know is how long we need to recover from any given stress and we’ll be well on our way to reaching our full potential! Easy! If we know what we need to recover, then we can time it just right every time and totally optimize our cycles of training and recovery. Right?! Ha. Well, unfortunately it’s not quite so easy or binary. Usually a binary, monolithic answer to a complex question is not a good answer. Good answers to questions about complex issues will involve nuance. And I think we all have some understanding that many things in biology are going to be best understood with bell curves and probabilities. Still, even while we acknowledge a degree of individual and contextual variability, there are some core guidelines and principles that we can keep in mind.

  • After an easy workout, allow 1-2 days to recover.
  • Hard workout = 2-3 days
  • Peak workout or race = 3-4 days
  • After an intense, one-day endurance event that felt like it destroyed you, it may take a week or more to fully recover.
  • Always 100-200g of carbs and 20-30g of protein within the first 1-2h after hard training or racing. It will jump start your recovery.
  • 8-9h of sleep each night is great for recovery. Most of us don’t get enough sleep.
  • If you’re stressed, traveling, don’t eat well, or have trouble sleeping, then your recovery will be compromised and your recovery will take longer.
  • Mental and emotional stress can significantly reduce your ability to perform well and recover from physical stress. Even if you’re physically ready, stress, anxiety, or feelings of depression can significantly reduce your ability to perform at anything. But, when these things are affecting us, exercise is one of the things that can most help us mitigate these unpleasant experiences. I’d encourage us all to try to get in some light to moderate exercise and not feel bad that you feel unable or unmotivated to train hard at that moment in time.
  • The fitter you are the less recovery you will need.
  • During your normal training routines, you can learn how long it usually takes you to recover after harder workouts. You may also become better at assessing your sensations and readiness to train.
  • Monitoring your resting heart rate and heart rate variability can give you extra input on your recovery and ability to train well again. They don’t tell the whole story, but there is useful correlation.
  • Similarly, if in training you see normal power numbers but low see low heart-rate numbers, this can be a sign that you are fit enough and recovered enough to do some good training today, but the lack of a responsive heart rate can be a sign that you should plan an extra day or two of recovery after today’s session. For me, I would still do the session if the power comes easily, but I’ll know that I want to take one more easy day after today’s session.
  • Don’t worry. Anyone can get this wrong. Please don’t feel bad. Try to make wise adjustments when you notice that you’re getting off course.
  • Ultimately these are guidelines, and you should know that you are recovered when you are able to train again and perform at your normal level without unusually high levels of fatigue. Listen to your body. If you try training hard, but feel terrible when you start, it’s okay to back off and give it another day or two.

For us to get fitter and grow as athletes we must continually create training stresses and repeatedly recover from them. It’s in these cycles of balanced stress and recovery that we get better. I think we all understand this and that’s where we sometimes become driven to train harder and more frequently. But if we jump back into hard training too quickly, then we may not get the full benefit of the training we’ve done. On the other hand, if we regularly give ourselves more time to recover than we need, then we may be missing out on an opportunity to train and keep moving forward. In an ideal world, it would be great to know exactly how long we need to recover from any specific ride or race. As much as our brains enjoy simple, clear-cut, easy answers, our bodies are usually not so simple. So, we must be attentive to our sensations and mindful of our training and recovery practices.

Training stress and the recovery needed to adapt to it are multi-variable. Fortunately our brains have evolved to be pretty good at letting us know how we feel (most of the time), and can help us know how we are doing at a given point in our training. If you feel recovered and can go out and perform, then you are usually pretty well recovered. If you try to train but feel tired and incapable of your normal level of performance, take another easy day or two before hitting it hard again.

If you really are tired, then your desire to train and feel good can’t override your brain and body’s experience of fatigue and make you perform. As motivated endurance athletes we can convince ourselves to keep pushing, but it’s good to be self aware and notice when our desire to train has led us to push when we should take it easy.

Above I suggested that 1-2 days is good recovery from a moderate workout, 2-3 days for a hard workout, and maybe 3-4 days for a peak workout or race. That’s generally a good guideline, and you can try to follow this in your normal training routines. If you feel that you are recovering more quickly than this, then it may be that you could increase the difficulty of your workouts if you are trying to train for a peak in your season. Or, if you are early in the season and building up for a long term goal, then you may choose to increase the frequency of your workouts. But, no matter what the situation, if you feel like you’re getting more and more tired from week to week, then you should add more recovery to the mix. This may mean one more easy day each week, one more day off, or an easy week before returning to your normal routine.

As you get fitter, what qualifies as a hard workout will change. Likewise, how long it takes to recover can change, even for what seems to be a similar demand on your body. For example, doing the Leadville 100 in 9 hours may feel like it nearly killed you one year and take more than 3 weeks to recover from it. But the next year with better training, you may feel fine just 1-2 weeks later after just a few easy 1-2h rides. You may have been pushing very hard both years, but the higher level of fitness carried you to a faster time and much faster recovery.

Or, on the other hand, if 2-3 years ago you were training 12-15 hours a week and racing every other weekend, then you may find that you need more time to recover now from the same workouts because your personal situation has changed and you’re currently only training 6-8 hours a week. Try not to get too attached to an idea that you have about how fit you have been in the past or what training you used to do. Try to pay attention to how your body feels now and what the current situation is really like for your body.

As much as I wish there were easy, clear-cut answers to questions like these, our bodies are complex and there are so many variables that affect them. Don’t worry! Even world class pros with full time coaching staff can make major mistakes in their training! Or they can realize they need sufficient carbs for good training and racing and reach new heights! Again, sometimes the best athletes in the world make mistakes even when their whole job is focused on paying attention to their body and treating it well so that they can perform their best on race day. So please go easy on yourself if you find that you’re not recovering well, or that you kept pushing your training for an extra few days or weeks after you started to know in the back of your head that you needed more recovery.

Listen to your body. Practice self awareness and good recovery habits in training. Day to day and week to week, the more you develop skill at recovering well and listening to your body, the better you will be able to tell how much recovery you need at any given time.

And, finally, if you’re having trouble knowing how well recovered you are, one classic piece of advice I still remember from my early learning about endurance sports training comes from Better Training for Distance Runners. David Martin and Peter Coe trained many of the world’s top middle and long distance runners for decades. They suggest taking some days easy and then going out to perform one of your favorite benchmark workouts. In my own formulation, this could be your favorite threshold workout on a familiar climb with a pretty standardized warm-up routine. Or, it could be a time trial on a favorite climb… Whatever it is for you, it should be a workout that usually excites you and has some pretty objective measures of success (e.g. pace on a run or power/time on a climb). Go out, warm-up thoroughly, and give it a go. If your feelings of lackluster performance melt away and you enjoy doing a very solid session, then you are probably doing fine. If you go out and can’t get into your workout, suffer through the first few minutes, and hate the way you feel, then call it off, take it easy, and give yourself more time to recover.