Improving Your Recover-Ability

Some time ago, I wrote one of my most read posts to date on the critical subject of recovery: Serious Recovery for Serious Athletes. The idea for the article came from a chat that I had with Greg Bennett and the huge sense of importance that an athlete of his caliber placed on a non-training related element of his success as a triathlete — recovery.

In the world of AC, not too much has changed since that time. I still spend the bulk of my days working with top age group and elite athletes — prescribing training loads and observing their response to said load. Although nowadays I would like to think that I do it with a little more precision. In fact, one of my main interests over the last year has been teasing out the impact of both fitness and fatigue on performance. What I’ve found is that while athletes fall within a pretty narrow range in terms of how fit they get from a given load, there is a vast difference between athletes in how long it takes them to recover from the load.

Let’s think about this for a minute. We have two athletes that go into a training block together. One is a “quick recoverer,” while the other is a “slow recoverer.” They both get the tough three weeks of training done. They are both equally fatigued and ready for recovery. At this point, both have the same potential for fitness gain from the block but, Mr. QR (quick recoverer) does all the right things during his recovery week and is ready to go when the next training block starts, while Mr. SR drags his heels and doesn’t do much to help himself, so he needs an extra week of recovery to get back to baseline freshness before kicking off the next training block. This is shown graphically below [click for larger view].

Now, this scenario isn’t just a yarn spun by yours truly to prove a point. The data above is based on actual TSB numbers from two athletes that I currently work with. In fact, in my stable right now, I have a number of athletes who recover very quickly from training and I have a number of others that recover quite slowly. I have some that take two weeks to freshen (back to a neutral TSB) after a tough training cycle and others that are ready to go with one week of recovery. These differences apply to these athletes on all scales — not just from block to block, but also from day to day and from season to season. They are also cumulative and ultimately they play a large part in determining the athletic potential of the athlete. Think about it, if athlete A is training three weeks out of four while athlete B is only training three out of five, then by the end of the year athlete B will be seven weeks of training down on athlete A. Makes it very tough to compete when giving up seven weeks of training every year!

So what are the common traits among athletes that I would characterize as “quick recoverers”?

  • Body size/Ectomorphy: Smaller athletes and athletes with less muscle mass exhibit quicker recovery profiles than larger athletes.
  • Metabolic Fitness: Athletes who have more ‘base’ will recover more quickly than athletes who do not.
  • Fiber Type: Sprinters (or athletes with a large proportion of fast glycolytic muscle fibers) will recover more slowly than slow twitch athletes.
  • Stress Level: Athletes with a more simple structured life tend to exhibit better recovery profiles than those who may be under more stress and who may have an abundance of catabolic stress hormones coupled with less regular sleep, nutrition and recovery routines.
  • Active versus Passive Recovery: Athletes who religiously employ active recovery strategies seem to recover more quickly than those who don’t.

In fact, of the three athletes that I work with who have the best recovery profile of my entire squad, two of the three are smallish at about 70kg (I only work with guys), at least two of the three have exceptional metabolic fitness/fat oxidation rates of greater than 5kcal/min (the third hasn’t been tested) and all three have pretty ordinary top end power numbers, that is, they’re dedicated slow-twitchers.

On the life side of the equation, all are incredibly consistent with fitting workouts in (near 100% compliance from all three) which tells me they’re recovering well between workouts and they’re extremely well organized. For these guys it is rare for “stuff” to come up to mess with a workout because most of the “stuff” is scheduled ahead of time and appointments with themselves are prioritized with the same importance as appointments with others.

So, in terms of constructing a proactive strategy to improve your own recover-ability, we are left with a few very important objectives:

  • Get smaller/decrease muscle mass: Actually, we’d better scrap this one since while an athlete with no muscle will recover pretty quickly they won’t be able to move their skeleton around. In all seriousness, while recovery rate goes up with decreased muscle, aerobic trainability goes down so a balance is important here.
  • Get fit: Or more specifically, get base fit. Don’t succumb to the temptation of racing or preparing for races too early in the season. Make it a priority to lay down a firm and solid aerobic base each year to enhance your metabolic fitness and recover-ability from your race specific workouts
  • Simplify and organize your life: HUGE! Organize your schedule so that you can make both training and recovery practices routine (train adequately and appropriately, eat adequately and appropriately, sleep adequately and appropriately). Minimize those things that can crop up to disturb these crucial appointments.
  • Engage in ACTIVE recovery, especially after depleting sessions.

Some of these — such as more base training — are long term, multi-year objectives, while others like organizing your life and moving from passive to active recovery you can change today.

I wrote about active recovery in my previous post but, inspired by my encounter with Greg, I might have gotten a bit carried away. While the protocol that I laid out it pretty close to ideal. You may have a hard time convincing your boss to give you a four-hour lunch so you can carb up, hit the contrast bath and squeeze in a nap! So, taking a cue from some of my real world athletes who are among the quick recoverers that I mentioned above and who also happen to be masters of time management and real world recovery, I want to present a couple of tools/strategies that can greatly improve your practical “recover-ability” as a working athlete.

Here is the amended 30 minute “real world” recovery routine that I suggest you implement after any mid-week session over 150TSS.

  1. Finish all sessions with at least 15 minute cool down at very low intensity (less than AeT) to promote venous return and metabolism/clearance of lactate and metabolites.
  2. 15 minute contrast shower with two minutes hot and 30 seconds cold (three times), plus light stretch/massage to continue to promote venous return.
  3. Put on compression garments. This is especially important if you’re going from the workout to the office. The last 30 minutes of active recovery have been dedicated to getting blood out of the muscle and back into your vascular system where it can carry “the good stuff” into the muscle and aid recovery. Sitting inactive for long periods will negate this. My favorite compression garment for this task is the 110% Play Harder collection, shown to the right.In my last article on recovery techniques I commented that, “compression therapy makes good intuitive sense as a recovery aid (especially when coupled with elevation), however less so than those modes that utilize thermodynamic means to hasten the process.”Well, the ingenious folks at came up with a way to combine both by inserting ice packs into compression apparel. I’ve been using their products for a while now and have to say that in terms of convenience and real world active recovery they are hard to beat!
  4. Drink a recovery shake/smoothie of 75-90g CHO/10-20g PRO after the workout/on your way to the office.
  5. Have another snack within three hours of 75-90g CHO/10-20g PRO worth of lower glycemic real food — fruit, nuts, etc.
  6. Continue to rehydrate (water bottle at your desk) until bodyweight is normal.

If the session was a particularly solid one, I’d suggest repeating the bath/shower plus ice gear routine in the evening. Keep a massage stick by the tub so you’re reminded to do some massage whenever you’re in there.

I’m confident if you apply the above that you’ll move yourself a little closer to the magic blue line of quick recovery and be able to up the training ante in 2011.

Recover smart.

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Alan Couzens

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