Most endurance athletes leave their foot on the accelerator and rarely take it off in the search of training harder, faster, and longer. What we don’t realize is that the key to unlocking our full potential lies in our ability to recover from our hard efforts. Most of us have heard this before, but not all of us have actually taken this concept and placed it into practice.
How does your body build fitness? This concept of building fitness is broken down into the amount of stress you place upon your body and then recovering from this stress. You enter into a three-week training cycle and each day you place a new amount of stress on your body. Sometimes the days’ efforts are above your current capabilities, sometimes they are right at your current fitness, and other days they are well below, ahem…your recovery days. Throughout your training block, you are building not only fitness but fatigue. Perhaps you do not notice the effects of fatigue in the first week, but you begin to feel the monkey on your back come very slowly, then all at once. By the end of the block your muscles are crying for reprieve and when your recovery comes: this is where the magic occurs. Throughout this block, you were stressing your system, recovering, and then stressing your system again. This process was repeated day in and day out. Every time you asked more from your body, it adapted and was able to build stronger tissue, muscle, and neuromuscular connections in order for you to hit your targets. Though it may seem tempting to say, “why not keep going,” you will hit a wall. Having proper recovery is what enables our body to adapt to the stress and then increase our body’s resiliency and fitness. If you do not allow for this period of adaptation, your muscles will continuously be in a catabolic state, meaning they continually break down rather than rebuild.
Recovery can be broken down into multiple subsets: we can view it as simply taking time off from training, recovery between daily intense sessions, recovery within a session, and even active recovery.
There are generally two types of active recovery:
- Time spent moving between intervals/efforts in a training session
- Easy activities that are performed on days between hard training sessions
We will take a closer look at the first active recovery modality below.
Let’s review Blood Flow distribution during exercise:
- Blood vessels will vasodilate allowing for increased blood flow to muscles
- After the blood supplies oxygen to the muscles and enters the veins, most of the pressure from the heart is gone. Therefore: the body cannot rely on the heart to send the blood back out of the legs
- When performing hard efforts, the contraction of the working muscles squeezes the veins and blood along each section until it makes its way back to the heart
Take for example the following: 10 x 1 minute VO2 Max interval session with 1-minute recoveries. Let’s say for the minute recovery portion we just stopped pedaling.
- Muscular contraction ceases and heart rate decreases
- No muscular contraction = veins send less blood back to the heart
- Result= blood pools in your legs, where there are large amounts of metabolic byproducts
- When you cease pedaling (movement) this byproduct remains in your legs and your cardiac out drop drops primarily due to a decrease in heart rate, which can result in feeling lightheaded since the blood that was heading for your brain is now in your legs!
What should you do? Continue pedaling easily to keep muscular contractions going! The more you can keep the blood moving, the faster your body can clear out byproducts, deliver fuel and oxygen to the muscles, and be ready for the next interval. In some cases with relatively long time periods between efforts, we might even suggest including a short 2-4 minute low Tempo effort to accelerate the recovery process as lactate clearance is a bit of a feed-forward mechanism…in that producing a little more lactate will stimulate the clearance rate more quickly than simply riding easy the entire time.
The Other Active Recovery
We can view active recovery as the days after hard workouts when you can implement “easy spinning.” This easy spinning is not to “flush the lactic acid” since we know that our bodies can use lactate as fuel and all lactate will be “flushed out” within an hour or so of rest after activity! If this is not the reason, then what is?
- Keep blood flowing
- Low-intensity exercise will stimulate the blood vessels in working muscles to dilate = increased blood flow
- Feed your muscles
- Increased blood flow allows more nutrients into tired and sore muscles
- Hard workouts can damage your muscles. Light exercise will increase the blood flow to those muscles while decreasing inflammation.
- Light exercise opens up channels in the muscle cells that allow nutrients to enter the cells. The faster we can get these nutrients back to the muscles, the faster they can repair themselves = sooner you can stress the body again.
Keep in mind: easy means very easy. It is all too common to see athletes performing their active recovery days at intensities well above what you should. As Neal Henderson, Head of Wahoo Sports Science, says “you should feel embarrassed to be seen riding so easy.”
Recovery does not only need to be viewed as days off, or month-long breaks at the end of the racing season. Recovery can begin as early as the warm-up of a training session and continue into the night with good sleep.
When athletes begin the warm-up of a session we can begin to see recovery at work. Warming up nice and easy allows:
- Capillaries to dilate and increase O2 to the working muscles
- Raising the temperature of our muscles
- Conserving carbohydrates and releasing fats for fuel
As the session progresses we can get a head start on our recovery by replenishing fluid losses and depleted glycogen stores. Consuming liquids and fuel during the workout will decrease stress levels for our working muscles and therefore decrease the post-workout damage levels.
After the session is completed, it is crucial to replenish depleted glycogen stores. It is standard practice to abide by the 30-minute window for fuel following a workout. This fuel, whether post-workout drink or meal, should include a combination of carbohydrates and protein in about a 3-5 to 1 ratio.
Sleep volume and sleep quality are two of the most important aspects of daily recovery. If an athlete is not sleeping enough or sleeping well, then they will be less able to adapt to the training that they perform. There are individual variations in the amount of sleep that different individuals require to perform at their best, but intense training tends to increase the amount of sleep required for adaptation to training. While some individuals can function well on 6-8 hours of sleep, most folks who train hard need 8-10 hours of sleep to get the most out of their training.
In addition to night-time sleep, it is possible to think of night-time sleep plus any nap-time in a daily sleep total. While it is definitely better to have a longer block of sleep at night, adding additional sleep in the form of a nap can be helpful. And again as a reminder, sleep quality is nearly as important as sleep volume – and can be even more important in some cases.
Naps – Not Just for Children!
It has been researched and shown that naps are beneficial for athletes (but we think everyone deserves a nap)! During sleep, including naps, a variety of hormones are released which help the body to recover:
- HGH – human growth hormone helps to repair damaged muscle/tissue
- Prolactin – involved with immune system regulation
- Maintaining stable levels of cortisol – increased levels of cortisol occur after bouts of high-intensity exercise
Getting anywhere from 20-90 minutes of napping during the day can increase mental acuity as well as stimulate recovery. It is important to understand the timing of a nap and how it can affect the body. For example, 20-minute naps can be taken up to an hour prior to a workout without hindering the workout itself. Naps ranging in the 60-90 minute category should be used for post-workout recovery, as sleeping for this length of time prior to a workout can cause drowsiness and negatively affect the workout.
It is important to remember that training alone is not the only stress-inducing stimulus we will face. Keep your entire lifestyle in mind where factors such as family, work, school, climate, and diet can all play a role in attributing to increased stress.
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Mac Cassin is the Chief Cycling Physiologist at Wahoo Sports Science. He holds a degree in Integrative Physiology from the University of Colorado-Boulder and has won multiple National Championships. The experience of juggling athletic goals with collegiate and career responsibilities has taught Mac that peak performance is achievable even for those who cannot focus exclusively on training. While concentrating on exercise physiology in an academic setting, Mac competed at the World Championships, Pan American Championships, and World Cups on both the road and track.