Recovery – “A return to normal state of health, mind or strength”
We all think of training as the thing that makes us stronger, faster, fitter and better. In reality, however, training depletes energy stores and breaks down muscle fibres. If we just kept training, we’d end up at best injured or ill, or at worst in the deep pit that is “over-trained” where our body is so depleted that it can take months to recover. Ultimately, it’s Training’s much under-rated partner Recovery that actually makes us stronger. If we’ve been working at the correct load and intensity (fundamentally important but beyond the scope of this article) and recover properly, our muscles will heal, adapt and come back stronger. We will also ensure our hormone, endocrine and immune systems are able to recharge and reset.
Recovery is a word we are all very familiar with; most of us will have “recovery days” and “recovery weeks” built into our training plan if we’ve got a coach. We all in theory know that we should be doing it, but chances are it’s the part of our training schedule that we neglect the most. Does any of this sound familiar?
• We feel like time spent not running/ swimming/ cycling etc is wasted
• We worry we will lose fitness
• Peer pressure makes us do us extra sessions when we’re scheduled to be resting
• We train when we’ve a slight niggle or feel a bit under the weather because we don’t want to be “soft” or worry that we’ll miss potential gains from a key session
• Time not training is time to be spent working/ doing admin/ spending time dashing around with the family or friends, catching up on all the things we need to do personally and professionally
• We don’t like sitting still; taking time out to sit and read or take a nap is time wasted
I’ve been musing on the word “recovery” over the last week whilst on a training camp with Polka Dot Cycling in Tenerife. It’s a word that has never sat very easily with me. As an athlete, I’m also guilty of not being very good at it and I’ve been trying to understand how I can mentally reframe it to increase my chances of doing it properly. I think the word “recovery” almost conjures up thoughts of a rather negative and reactive coping strategy rather than something positive, proactive and recharging. If you consider the dictionary definition at the top of this article, as athletes, we don’t want to return to “normal”, we want to go above and beyond so that in our next block of training or in our next event we are able to perform better both mentally and physically, seeing progress month-on-month.
There’s a common misconception that professional athletes are able to perform to the levels they do simply because they can train harder and for longer (genetics aside). In actual fact, the key thing for them is that they have more time to recover and they do it far better. Professional sports teams like Team Sky or Team GB take recovery so seriously that they bring in experts like Elite Sport Sleep Coach Nick Littlehales to work with them. There are armies of therapists getting bodies back into shape, enforced times back in the rooms and a lot of emphasis on “sleep hygiene”, i.e. ensuring that sleep quality is optimised. Team Sky take special bedding everywhere and some professional sports teams now have beds at their training facilities so naps can be facilitated. At a professional level, the importance of recovery has been recognised and is now treated as importantly as training, kit and nutrition and rightly so.
That’s all very well, but how does this apply to the average amateur athlete with a job and family commitments. For me, the key thing we need to adopt is the professional’s mindset towards recovery. They prioritise it because it’s important and they make time for it. We don’t even have to make big changes; Chris Hoy talks about the saying in British Cycling “don’t stand when you can sit, don’t sit when you can lie down”. Reframe Recovery as a catalyst to better performance rather than simply getting over the last training block or session. This approach applies to all “recovery time”; recovery weeks, days or even the time between sessions.
Appropriate training + active recovery = improved physical performance + mental resilience
I believe there are five important parts to an active recovery phase; the balance and duration depends on where you are in your training schedule and the answer to some of the questions…..
This stage is about analysing progress against key goals and your own performance during sessions. It is important to take time to do this as it allows you to build in any changes to your next training block but it also “gets it out of your head”. This is particularly crucial if things aren’t going well. Understand what didn’t go well and what you need to do differently and then put it to one side; don’t stress about it. The top professional sports men and women are very good at this; they do their analysis and then move on, not taking unnecessary stress with them. This is very important for ensuring that you recover mentally as well; there’s little point in doing all the other steps if you are still carrying increased cortisol levels as you’re stressed about your progress. Questions you might want to ask at this point include:
• Are you making progress towards your goal at the rate you have planned?
• How are you feeling mentally and physically? (be honest!)
• What have you learnt from your last session or training block that you can carry forwards?
• What new strengths have you identified?
• What do you need to do differently in your next training block or session?
There must be time for proper rest and relaxation; make time to take a nap or sit and read a book. Yes, everyday admin needs doing but prioritise and schedule rest in the same way that you would training. Give yourself permission to have some time off; remember that this is the part that makes the rest of training count. If you don’t get this bit right then realistically some of your training time is wasted and worst case, it will catch up with you in other ways. Sleep is really important in allowing the body to heal and the mind to process; ensure that you dedicate enough time to sleep and check your sleep hygiene and sleep routines to get the best out of your time in bed.
The first key to repair refers back to the point above; ensure that you are getting enough sleep. Then think back to the review at the top and take care of any points addressed in the answer to “how am I feeling mentally and physically?”
• Have you scheduled some time on the foam roller or a sports massage?
• Do you need a physiotherapist or more specific treatment?
• Are you well or are you feeling run down or coming down with something; do you realistically need a bit longer off?
• Is there anything you need to see a doctor about or any supplements that might be of benefit?
• For women, what is happening hormonally?
There are two aspects to recharging; mental and physical. For both aspects, it’s good to have time away from whatever sport it is that you do; give the brain and the body a rest and a chance to do something different. This could be going for an easy cycle to the pub with friends, a walk in the hills or an easy swim. There are possibly some cautionary tales in not doing anything too high impact or adventurous right up close to an event and even football in the park has been responsible for many non-training-related injuries! Be sensible.
Mentally recharging means not thinking about training and performing; that’s why we rationalised it at the start. Think about training/ racing when you are doing it and make those thoughts count – don’t think about it constantly.
Physically recharging during a normal recovery block (as opposed to a complete off-season break) also means ensuring that the physical engine keeps ticking over and this is what we commonly refer to as “active recovery” sessions. These are typically shorter in duration and slightly lower in intensity. They keep the neuromuscular engines firing without inducing fatigue, ensuring that you can come back to training smoothly without that heaviness that you can get after a lay-off without any training at all.
Nutrition is vitally important both for training and recovery. You may need to tweak your nutrition during your recovery period, depending on its duration and the level of training you will be doing. Ensure that you are eating well; whatever nutrition plan you follow ensure you’re eating good quality, whole foods and getting all your macro- and micro-nutrients. If you aren’t training or performing well then this is the time to review your nutrition strategy and see if there are any changes that need to be made.
Refocusing is about setting yourself up for the next session or training block following the outcome of your review and actions. Focus on the key sessions ahead – what are they? What are the targets for those sessions?
Take some time to mentally put yourself in the best frame of mind for them; if you aren’t looking at the sessions positively, what can you do to change that? One generally doesn’t look forward to a VO2max or Anaerobic Session with glee but it is possible to reframe it into a more positive experience with some coaching.
The Refocusing phase is the acid test; if recovery is done properly, you should be raring to go, like a racehorse bursting out of the starting gate, ready to push yourself hard and give each session your all. If you’re not at this stage then it’s important to ask why; maybe you need a little more time off or maybe there is something deeper that needs exploring such as over-training or potentially feeling overwhelmed by your goal.
The role of coaches
Coaches play a key role in the recovery process. Good coaches will programme recovery in and work with you to find what works for you as an individual and most importantly works with the rest of your life. It may be 3 weeks on, 1 week off, or maybe 2 on 1 off. Some people need a day off every week, others one every fortnight. There are three important points here:
• It’s all very individual; how much training and recovery we need will vary vastly depending on genetics, training load, physiology, our day jobs and what other stresses we have in life
• Don’t be ashamed if you need more recovery – think of it as time getting stronger.
• Actively engage in the review process with your coach; you are the only one who knows how you feel
If you don’t have a coach, take time to be objective about the recovery process. Writing it down can really help as it takes the emotion out of it.
The take-home message is that recovery is an integral part of performance; you cannot separate it from training. Embrace it with the same rigour as you would any other aspect of your training plan, be it a recovery day, week or the off-season. Above all, enjoy it and reconnect with why you’re training in the first place.
If you’d like to know more about increasing your mental and physical resilience, or how to make better use of your mind during training and performing then please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.