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Recovery

Recovery, in my opinion, is one of the most important aspects of proper training and one of the most neglected opportunities for fitness gain. You beat yourself down with a hard workout and think that just because you put in the hard workout, that your work is done and you gained maximum benefit. Wrong. The workout initiates the improvement, but the actual gains are made when your body is repairing itself and adapting (at a molecular level) so that next time you decide to beat it to crap it’ll be better prepared. YOU MUST CONSIDER RECOVERY AS PART OF THE WORKOUT ITSELF. If you have the disciple and toughness to do a hard workout, so then must you have the willingness to recover hard. If you go day in, day out balls to the wall, your body will not have time to recover in between sessions and start to break down. If you’ve ever felt burnt out from overtraining, you know what this feels like. Some workouts require minimum recovery, if any at all, i.e. base training (although certain protocols are still recommended for maximum benefit, more on that later). Most others will fall into one of two categories. A) you spend a certain amount of time above lactate threshold. This is the point at which your body cannot clear out the amount of lactic acid (a byproduct of muscular contraction) at the rate at which it is producing it. The longer you remain above this level, the more it accumulates and the more time it takes to clear it out. B) what I will call soft tissue micro-injury. Let’s say you are competing in an endurance event 5 hours or longer. You are likely not going go above threshold that much, simply because the body is limited to how long it can stay above threshold. But you’re still cranking out a pretty decent effort. You’re stressing your joints and soft tissue (tendons, ligaments, cartilage) for so long that it begins to tear at a microscopic level. This happens at all levels of exercise, but there seems to be a magic number when things really start to break down and require extra recovery. For me, it’s somewhere in the 4-5 hour range. There is actually a third type of recovery not necessarily related to exercise at all, and that is time needed to recover from illness/trauma. With as many mutated viruses as there are floating around today, even those with the strongest immune systems fall prey to a chest cold once in a while. Or you might have a pretty knarly crash on the trail or sustain some crazy injury from an act of God. Whichever the case, one can execute certain steps in order to heal and get back on the bike as soon as possible.

So, how does one go about the recovery process for each type of stress? Let’s start at the bottom from the least stressful events to the most, because most of the time what is true for the lower level stress is also true for the higher levels of stress, and then some. The steps build upon themselves depending on how bad you are “hurt”. Let’s setup a hierarchy of 4 levels, Level I being the least stressful.
Level I
This is likely to be a just for fun ride, maybe some base training miles. Following your ride, get some food and fluids in ya. I know we’ve been taught as athletes to refuel with carbohydrates and to do it within the first 1 hour window, but with all the research I’ve been doing on the Paleo diet, I think it’s time to rethink that thinking. As long as it is quality food without a ton of fiber, just eat it. The one hour window still holds true though, Do 20 minutes if you can. Next, if you are feeling any muscle tightness, stretch it out while you are still warm. Never stretch on cold muscles! If you get cold, then try taking a warm shower or doing some jump and jacks or something and stretching then. Try to get an extra ½ hour sleep that night, or at least 8 hours.
Level II
This is the recovery that will likely follow a cross country or one day road race. To your regiment you will want to add some foam rolling to your stretching, and possibly some recovery yoga the next two days. I would recommend a recovery drink immediately after your ride to get some protein to those torn muscles. Of all the recovery drinks I’ve tried, Puresport is the tastiest and has a proven track record. Some people advocate active recovery and going for a light spin the day after the race. The goal is to keep the bike in a low gear, pick a route that is flat, and just take it easy. Depending on the race and your level of competition, a sports massage and therapy appointment might be in order. Make sure to get at least an extra hour of sleep the next few days if not 1-2 hours that night.
Level III

This is the type of recovery mode I’d likely induce following a 5+ hr hard effort, such as a MTB marathon race, a 6 hour race solo, or maybe a 12 hour race solo (although 12 hour solo borders on Level IV recovery.) Running a full 26.2 marathon or doing an Olympic or half iron distance triathlon would also fall into this category. To your level II regiment, you will want to add an ice bath! Yes, they hurt, and require much mental toughness, but the benefits are undeniable. You’re lucky I’ve done enough of these to learn how to make them as comfortable as possible. Click here for tips on taking an ice bath. I almost always schedule a massage or therapy appointment following one of these races. I’ve been racing long enough to know I’m gonna be hurting after a race like this, so I schedule an appointment early to get a good time slot. You want to aim for 2 hours of extra sleep that night and 1.5 hours a few days afterwards.

Level IV
This level is reserved for the granddaddy of athletic endeavours. 24 hour mountain bike races solo. 50/100 mile trail runs. A multi day stage race such as British Colombia or La Ruta. In addition to all the stuff you need to do above, just do more of it. More foam rolling, more stretching, more quality food, more sleep. Here’s the real kicker though: more time off the bike, or whatever event you train/compete in. Seriously, the body needs time to heal. Getting back to your workouts too soon will only hurt you. Savor your accomplishment and enjoy other aspects of you life that might usually take a back seat to your training. Go out with friends, catch up on your reading, house chores, whatever. Two weeks is what is recommended for time off after running a marathon. That seemed to be about the minimum time off I needed following my first 24 hour race. Every body is different though. Just make sure you listen to your body and not the little competitive voices in your head that tell you to get back out there and bust your butt. When you do return to training, ease back into it. If you have chosen to do such a race in the first place, it is likely an A race, so any race within 2 months afterwards must not have the same priority. You might be able to do them, but just because you could doesn’t mean you should. Sacrificing the short term pleasure of certain activities for the long term pleasure of completing such a grueling event is a necessary commitment for the focused athlete to make.

Other general notes about recovery:
Sleep and rest are the most underappreciated channels for which recovery occurs. Athletes need more sleep than sedentary people. GET AS MUCH SLEEP AS YOU POSSIBLY CAN. There, I said it. Everyone is busy, and always has more stuff to do than they have time for. Need to find more time for sleep? It’s easy if you think about. Sell your TV. Don’t play on the internet as much with worthless activities that do nothing to stimulate your intelligence or increase athletic performance. Facebook is an addiction that waste tons of time. Set a time limit and stick to it.
If you are seriously sick, get well before attempting any athletic exercise. I know there are cases when you train long and hard for a certain event and the week of the race you get really sick. Against your better judgement, you decide to do the race anyways. It’s tough to back out with all the effort you’ve put into it, but be realistic. You are going to feel like absolute crap and not do very well. Wasn’t the point to do well? That effort was not in vain though. It’s the journey that matters, not the destination. Your journey has hopefully made you a stronger, better athlete and not doing the race will not change that fact. There will always be another race.

If you are injured, know your limits. I’ve had to skip or pull out of a race due to injury before. It’s a similar situation with being sick, but you must make the smart decision and give your body time to heal. I’ve not heeded my own advice before and I have paid dearly for it. Once again, there will always be another race. Live to race another day.

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