Contrary to common belief, the triathlon is a 5-stage event. The classic swim-bike-run meats are neatly sandwiched between the leafy embraces of PREPARATION (which mostendurance athletes put so much time into) and RECOVERY (which is seldom seen as a hard practice, although it should be). The simple truth is that if more time was spent on recovery and doing it properly, the quality of training preparation and race performance would be boosted. Let Dr Low Wye Mun answer the most important questions on this oft neglected subject.
What is RECOVERY ?
- Exercise at all levels of intensity acts to do one thing to the body: it depletes it. The depletion includes your energy stores (muscle glycogen, blood glucose and fat products in your blood), hormones, and muscle structures. In other words, you use up the body’s valuable exercise resources.
- In order to return to training and to continue conditioning your body to meet your exercise goals, it is important to create time and take active steps to bring about a re-building of the depleted body resources. This is what recovery is all about. This is especially important if you are intending to exercise intensively or for long durations soon after an exhausting bout. This could be a multi-stage bike race, or triathlon competitions that are only 2-4 weeks apart (eg. the Port Dickson tri less than 3 weeks after the OSIM event).
Why bother with it ?
- In the very simplest terms, to keep you physically exercising at the level that you want to. Even more importantly, to allow the body’s systems to re-charge sufficiently that your mental edge remains honed to that fine sharpness you desire. A blunted edge comes about from insufficient recovery and can come back to haunt you in these ways: staleness, loss of interest, reduced physical ability, decreased exercise tolerance. Yes indeed, the first steps towards over-training (a topic for a future article).
- A good approach to recovery will ensure that the quality of your training and competition is high. This will contribute to you feeling satisfied with your efforts and achievements, and bring about continued confidence in your chosen endurance sport. Good recovery also enables you to exert a greater overall sense of control of your exercise destiny !!
When should I think about this ?
- You should consider recovery at both macro- and micro-levels. An example of a macro level would be a period of training preparation time (eg. a week or month), or the period between competitions on your race calendar. A micro-level consideration would be after a single very hard or exhaustive work-out.
- At the macro level, the depletion of resources has arisen as a systematic and progressive wearing away that parallels your rigourously planned training program. It is not the single mind-blowing training session that is involved here but rather the accumulated effect of all the sessions combined, and possibly inclusive of the race.
- The micro recovery level answers the body’s aching need (pun intended) following that supremely challenging training session, back-to-back training sessions in some training camp, or the actual huge effort put into the competitive event.
What are the steps I should take to recover properly ?
- First of all, ensure that you take account of your macro and micro needs. Maintain an awareness of these using a training/race calendar that allows you to visually assess the cycles you are going through. Akin to the periodisation approach to training, this will help you to plan for recovery periods and make these a part of your training plan.
- Now consider the elements of the recovery: nutrition, structure regeneration, inflammation reduction, hormonal, and mental.
- Nutrition involves replacing the resources that you have used up in your prodigious attempts to go faster and stronger. This includes particular emphasis on replacing the following nutritional depletions: carbohydrates to re-build muscle glycogen, and minerals and electrolytes (from sweat loss). The best time to re-build glycogen stores is within the first 3 hours after exercise as this is when the rate of glycogen storage is highest. Such storage remains elevated in the next 21 hours but not at the same rate as what has been called the “critical re-energising window.”
- For some of athletes, there are barriers to be overcome to meet this immediate post-exercise nutrition need. This includes not feeling hungry or not having the correct nutrition available. Positive steps must be taken to overcome these. Have nutrition available. If you can’t stomach eating (another intended pun), then drink your nutrition (energy drinks, carbohydrate mixes).
- If you are quite lean (meaning your body fat content is low), you should also ensure that your energy replacement includes a balanced diet that has FAT and protein in it. Your overall energy needs are higher than someone who has not discovered triathlons yet (poor people). So meet your higher energy needs and balance the sources of your energy: about 50-60 % from carbohydrates, 15 % from protein, and up to 30% from fat.
- Reducing your physical exercise is a good idea for 4-5 days after that punishing race. This does not mean just lying around doing nothing, although that may be the order of the first day or so after competing. You will want to spend time actively stretching those tired and tight muscles, and by the 4th or 5th day, a light spin on the bike or some easy laps will help to keep your mind happy while you rest the muscles, tendons, joints and bones of your body. This is what is called “relative rest” with components of “active recovery.”
- The recovery period is a useful time to catch up with equipment maintenance matters. And in the long run, these really do matter. Clean the salt water out of your running shoes, wash your bike and take it to the shop for tune-up if needed. Wash those hard-worn heart rate monitor straps. You get the idea.
- And finally, there is massage. Do I detect some glee out there? The aim of massage to tired aching muscles is to relieve the tension that has built up in the muscles, as well as to assist in the removal of chemical substances that build up during exercise or as a result of cell activity during exercise. So just as top cycling teams bring their own masseuses to races (especially cycling tour competitions), you can help your body along with some judiciously administered massage.
Recovery is something you should invest your effort into as much as you do your training preparations. It is an integral part of restoring your body to a condition which allows you to enjoy regular and continuous challenging training and competition.