As athletes, most of us spend a lot of time thinking about our workouts and planning our training. This is important, because the training you do determines the fitness you have. Aside from good workouts, any good training plan also schedules in an appropriate amount of time for recovery. Workouts create stress and with recovery, your body adapts and gets better over time. We need the right kinds of stresses in the right amounts to be paired with sufficient recovery in order to get fitter and to perform our best given our constraints.
Workouts can be complicated. How long? How intense? How many intervals? How long are the intervals? How long is the recovery? Should I use power, HR, or perceived effort? We have to decide what day to do each workout… Sprints on Tuesday or Thursday? Threshold climbing on Wednesday or Saturday? Etc. etc.
But at least recovery is easier to plan. If you have enough time, then you recover well, right? If you give yourself a few days between hard workouts, then you should be good, right? Gifted athletes recover faster and more effectively than other “normal” people, right? No, not really.
Yes, there are a lot more variables that determine what our training is like than our recovery, so it’s appropriate that we spend more time thinking about it. But, if we don’t spend at least some time to plan and enhance our recovery, then we won’t be getting the most out of our training. Because recovery is so important and determines our progress as athletes, many people emphasize it in their discussions of training and prioritize it in their schedule. But, by just scheduling off and easy days into a training plan or by having stringent guidelines to determine how easy those easy days should be, I would argue that a lot of people miss the point. Saying that you should take a certain number of days to recover from a hard workout, or that you should ride around at some low power or HR number for a specified amount of time on your rest days isn’t addressing the whole issue. Not by a long shot. It’s almost like saying “you should do a VO2 max workout,” without saying what it should be. 4x4m? 8x4m? 3 sets of 8×30/30?
Is that kind of planning going to help you recover better and make you fitter? Maybe up to a point, but we should be asking: What is the best strategy for effective recovery? And, what’s the best strategy for recovering from specific types of workouts? And for specific athletes? Just taking easy days isn’t enough.
Over the last 20 years as an endurance athlete, I’ve tried a number of different approaches to good recovery. My strategies have evolved, I’ve experimented with different approaches, and I’ve come across a lot of different pieces of information that have helped inform my views on recovery and my strategies for enhancing recovery and improving performance. I tried to see if I could boil it down to a set of principles, so that I could concisely describe the core of what goes into effective recovery….
What I want to put here is a somewhat comprehensive, but very concise guide to good recovery. No doubt there are things that will work better for some people than others, or there may be other things that you could pay attention to than these, but most of what I think about when considering recovery comes down to the following things:
Time: Yes, time is a key aspect of all kinds of recovery, perhaps the most important one. Your body needs time to break down damaged proteins, build up new ones, reset your hormones, rebuild glycogen, rehydrate, establish normal electrolyte levels, and so on. As your body returns to a homeostatic state or establishes a new one, the processes involved take time, so you have to allow that to happen. But, of course, you can make this happen more quickly or slowly and you can help determine how fully this occurs.
Quality: Aside from the time component, you also need to pay attention to the quality of your recovery, which is where we have room to explore and improve. A day of recovery will always take the same amount of time, but what we do with our bodies will determine what happens during that time….
Sleep: You need sleep, and if you’re training hard or under a lot of stress, then you need plenty of it. Most people don’t get enough, and there are studies with athletes showing that getting even 10-plus hours per night can be performance enhancing. So, at the very least, try to get as much as you reasonably can. Make it a priority to get enough sleep.
Enhance your recovery with some of the following…
Get quality sleep.
- Sleep at the same time every day, it helps keep your circadian rhythms functioning well and enhances the hormonal changes that occur throughout the day as a result (primarily melatonin, growth hormone, and cortisol).
- Avoid bright or blue lights in the last 1-2h before bed. Bright or blue lights reduce the melatonin in your body and disrupt sleep. Turn down your lights, avoid bright lights facing you in the bathroom. Install an app like f.lux on your computer to filter out blue light. Install an app like twilight on your phone or tablet to do the same. Blue light in LCD screens disrupts sleep. Using devices that keep our brains very active also does, so consider shutting things down in the last 30-60m before sleeping. You don’t necessarily have to avoid all devices, but just avoid emails or random browsing late at night. Read some fiction or something that isn’t going to stimulate your brain into action or heavy analysis.
- Keep your sleeping area cool. Warm environments aren’t ideal for sleep.
- Keep light and sound pollution to a minimum. Consider getting dark curtains to keep the street lights out and dampen any outside noises. Put up some extra sound dampening materials if noise is an issue (extra curtains, upholstered furniture, acoustic foam, anything).
- Don’t drink too much before bed. Waking up to go to the bathroom isn’t a major problem, but doing it multiple times every night is better to be avoided if possible.
- Consider a small snack of fat and protein an hour before bed. The protein can help drive protein synthesis as your body rests and while growth hormone levels are at their highest throughout the day (i.e. in the few hours after you fall asleep). The fat can help some people normalize blood sugar levels. For example, a scoop of almond butter, a couple of eggs, or a small protein shake.
- Avoid taking in much carbohydrate in the last 1-2h before bed, especially quickly digested carbs. Carbohydrates drive insulin production, which blunts growth hormone production. Ideally, 2-3h before bed is your last normal meal. A small snack of protein and fat can be okay, but even with protein, large amounts drive up insulin production, so keep it modest. For example, some options could be some nuts, a couple of eggs, or a small scoop of protein powder, frozen berries, and some almond milk.
- Keep a routine so that you do mostly the same thing every night. This can condition your body to be trained to sleep when you do the same activities daily.
- After you wake up, reinforce your daily circadian rhythms by exposing yourself to a lot of bright light. Get outside or make sure that you’re in a very well-lit environment. Even get a light therapy device. This can help reinforce your sleeping and waking schedule, but also help with depression and SAD (seasonal-affective disorder). I find it very useful in the winter when the days are shorter and the weather is often overcast and it doesn’t get very light until the late morning or mid-day.
- Wake up at the same time every day, including the weekends. This is another core feature of good sleep hygiene, and one that’s often overlooked. Some people wake up early some days to get to work or get in their training, but then other days they sleep in, maybe on the weekends. In principle, this isn’t a bad thing, but ideally your sleep quality and recovery will be better if you can plan to get enough sleep and always at about the same time every day. The more you do this, the less you’ll need an alarm to help you wake up.
- If you need an alarm, then consider getting a light alarm. I’ve found that they work well, and again, they help reinforce your daily hormonal rhythms. Or, there are good activity trackers that can wake you up within a desired window of time when you are not in deep sleep. Generally, waking up from deep sleep leaves you feeling groggy at first. Of course, trackers like this can also track your HR throughout the day and while you sleep, among other things. Personally, I’ve never consistently tracked my resting HR, but having a device like this has made it easy for me to both track my true resting and average HR while I sleep as well as help me wake up consistently and feel less groggy… And, just like having a GPS computer to track your activities, having a sleep tracker can tell you more accurately how much sleep you’re actually getting. Many people overestimate how much sleep and how much training time they’re actually getting, so accurate tracking is always helpful.
- Of course, everyone is different, but I’ve found all of the above strategies to be very helpful for improving my sleep quality and recovery as a result.
- Stress is defined in physiology as something that causes the release of cortisol. This can be anything from strenuous exercise to loss of sleep to mental/emotional stress. They all have the same impact on your cortisol levels (they go up). Constantly elevated cortisol levels will have a detrimental impact on recovery, whether you’re stressed from training or from mental/emotional stress. Cortisol generally has a unduly bad reputation because it is synonymous with stress, but it keeps us alive and is as crucial to our performance as it can be detrimental if we do too much to drive it up. When we train it helps us to perform, but when we recover, we don’t want it to keep going up or stay elevated, so being stressed out about work, school, or family life isn’t great. I think we all know this from a mental health standpoint, so without any consideration for athletic performance, we should try to limit our stresses, but keep in mind that it has a big impact on our recovery and long term athletic progress, too.
- Limit your physical activity away from training. Generally, it’s good to move around, and you can keep doing that throughout the day, every day. But, do try to avoid extended periods of additional activity if you’re tired from training and trying to recover. For example, a 20m walk with your dog will be great, but a 2 hour hike isn’t going to help you recover.
- Limit long periods of no movement. Except for when you’re sleeping, try not to stay seated or standing for hours on end if you can help it. If you work at a desk, then get up and move around every so often. If you’re on your feet a lot, then try to take a break here and there to sit down and give your legs a break. I’ve had years of experience working in a retail environment where I would be standing for 30-40 hours per week after most of my training rides. You can still perform at a high level like that, but it’s just another challenge that you have to deal with and work around. The same thing goes for people sitting at a computer for hours every day.
- Try to limit or manage mental and emotional stress. Constant stress is a killer and should be avoided. Try to limit the things that cause you stress. Try to learn methods of dealing with it. Try to get support from family or friends. Get counseling or emotional coaching with a professional. Everything from people who want to cope with panic attacks to people who have stressful jobs running multi-billion dollar companies benefit from emotional coaching or counseling in a variety of forms. Look into options that may suit you.
- Meditate or practice some form of mindfulness activity. Anything that can help you clear your mind, establish intense focus, increase your mental well-being, increase your tolerance to stress, and encourage focus in a day when it is always being disrupted is a good thing. Guided meditation can be great and there are a lot of free resources to help with this. Yoga can be great for the mental and physical benefits it provides. Even something like a nature walk to clear the mind or a session of creative practices like drawing or painting can be good. Any activity that clears the mind, encourages focus, and helps establish a state of flow can benefit you even when you’re not doing it… If you don’t already have a practice like this, I’d suggest guided meditation. Over the years it’s been proven to improve mental and physical health, and should help with recovery. It’s even been shown to increase pain tolerance, which is no doubt a major perk for endurance athletes.
- It can be very good to get some massage work done. This can be something that someone else does for you, but you can also massage your legs while you lie in bed after your post-workout shower. Or, even better, if you have a foam roller or a stick, then you can really get a lot out of 10 minutes of rolling out your legs after a hard workout. Increasing bloodflow and reducing muscle adhesions can improve your recovery substantially. I would definitely recommend this over static stretching any time.
- Compression socks can be good if you’re doing a lot of just sitting, just standing, or a lot of walking around after a hard workout. Personally, I wear compression socks any time that I’m traveling by plan or car more than an hour or two. I have always worn compression socks while working on my feet at the bike shop. The benefit of compression is going to vary from person to person, but in general it’s a good thing.
- Get enough good nutrition overall… That is, make sure that you get enough vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients from plants that will provide you the necessary resources for your body to be healthy. To do this, eat a lot of unprocessed, plant based foods. Except for vitamin B12 there isn’t anything that you can’t get from plants. Vegetables are the best. Nuts are great. Fruits and grains are good. Eggs, dairy, meat, poultry, and fish can be good for you to varying degrees. Mostly just try to choose real foods over processed foods. Focus on plants.
- Get enough protein. Get some at every meal. You don’t need to go crazy and you don’t need to eat a ton of animal protein. That’s a ridiculous idea that many people hold onto for no evident reason. If you’re trying to build muscle, have a strong immune system, or you’re stressing your body heavily with a lot of endurance training, then try to get at least around 15g of protein at every meal, or about 1g per 10 lbs/4 kg of body weight. Try to get at least 20-30g of protein after any really hard workout, whether it was intense or very long. Each meal should have some protein, including your post-workout recovery meal. Often smoothies with some added protein can be a convenient way to make sure that this happens.
- Get enough carbs at the right times, but not too much all of the time. Yes, carbs are fuel for intense exercise. They take less oxygen to burn than most fatty acids for the amount of ATP you get out of them. In the short term, taking in more carbs is almost always associated with increases in performance, just because it’s a very efficient fuel. It’s good to get enough during your harder, longer workouts. It’s good to get some in the first few hours after your harder workouts. Carbs will replenish lost glycogen and allow you to work out hard sooner. Carbs can blunt the negative impact of heavy endurance training on your immune system. Insulin spikes associated with carb intake after a hard workout will help drive protein synthesis. 3-4h after your hard workouts or later, a lot of carbs without a mix of fat and protein will drive fat storage and can eventually lead to insulin resistance, even for active individuals. So, take in an appropriate amount of carbohydrate that’s commensurate with your high intensity exercise.
- Get enough fluids. Staying hydrated is always helpful for all of the functions in your body. Overhydrating and dilluting your body’s electrolyte concentrations is not helpful, so don’t overdo it. ‘But in general, make sure that you drink plenty, especially rehydrating after any solid training session. Dehydration slows everything down.
- Be sure to get enough salt, too. When you sweat you lose salt. Salt is essential for your nervous system, and is helpful at retaining water. Healthy hydration should take water and electrolyte intake into account. Don’t worry about taking in too much salt. Most people are unduly concerned about this, and taking in too little salt quickly becomes more harmful than taking in more than you need. In general, salt to taste, drink plenty, and don’t worry about it.
- Reduce carbohydrate intake before training. A small snack a few hours before training can be fine. Include a mix of macronutrients (carbs, protein, and fat), but generally, don’t have a huge influx of carbohydrate 1-2h before training. A large flow of glucose into your blood will drive up insulin production and shut down fat burning. You will not be able to burn fuel as efficiently at the start of your ride and will delay fat-burning. This isn’t necessarily good or bad, per se, but the higher blood glucose and subsequent rise in blood insulin can cause mild hypoglycemia going into a training session, which isn’t great. And, regardless of blood sugar levels, after consuming carbs, growth hormone and testosterone production during training will be reduced. Both of those hormones are very conducive to positive changes in fitness and metabolism. (The same thing goes for carbs before bedtime; they reduce growth hormone production as you sleep.)
There’s a lot that goes into your workouts, there’s a lot less that goes into your recovery, but really, please do yourself a favor and consider whether or not you may do well to make a few tweaks to your recovery routine. Sometimes just adding a little protein after a workout, not taking a ton of anti-oxidants right after a workout, or rolling out your legs can make a small difference that becomes very substantial after compounding over time. Just don’t ever assume that time is the only thing that makes for good recovery.