The triathlon world has gone recovery crazy. Over the past 10 years, recovery has gone from something you only thought about when you were tired to an essential and integral aspect of every training session, every day, all year round.
First it was massage. Every triathlete started scheduling a regular massage as part of his or her recovery program. Then came the countless variations of hydrotherapy: spas, saunas, ice baths, contrast showers, high-flow shower massage, wading pools, hydro pools – you name it. Next, recovery nutrition came along: creatine, sports drinks, gels, bars, slushies…
Now, the focus is on sleep: sleep research, enhancing the quality of sleep, determining the optimal quantity of sleep, timing of sleep, the effect of power naps, managing sleep, monitoring sleep and, believe it or not, scientists are even researching the genetics of sleep. Many coaches and triathletes are now making recovery just as high a priority as hard physical training.
So, it’s time to recover from recovery: let’s consider recovery in perspective and look at how triathletes can use recovery as the secret weapon in their training and racing programs.
What is recovery?
A good practical definition of recovery is ‘the deliberate use of interventions aimed at enhancing an athlete’s capacity to adapt to the physical and mental demands of preparation and performance’.
In other words, recovery is doing something that is likely to help an athlete recover more effectively from their training or competition loads.
How can you enhance recovery?
There are many, many ways to enhance recovery.
A good way to remember the different recovery techniques is with the acronym WASHUP.
Water: Water is a great recovery tool and is relatively easy and affordable to access. Use water in various forms, including cryotherapy (ice), hydrotherapy (contrast showers, hot-cold baths, spas, saunas, swimming pools) and more.
Active rest: Do something physically active other than your primary training or competition activity; for example, walking, swimming or cycling instead of running.
Sleep: Ensure adequate quality and quantity of sleep.
Hydration and refuelling: Drink the right fluids and eat the right foods at the right time, in the right quantity to enhance recovery.
Unwind mentally: Mental and emotional recovery is just as important as physical recovery.
Physical therapies: Include massage, physiotherapy, stretching and yoga.
Is recovery important for triathletes?
Absolutely. There’s no doubt recovery is critical for triathletes. To train hard and dedicate effort, energy and enthusiasm to a recovery program is fundamental for success at all levels of the sport.
The one thing we know for certain about achieving success in endurance sport is the need to train hard on a consistent basis. It is the one certainty, the one thing that is proven to enhance triathlon success.
Using WASHUP recovery techniques allows athletes to recover faster and more effectively, and thereby train harder and more often.
So, how did the recovery revolution come about?
In the ‘old days’, the pathway to sporting success was primarily focused on hard, physical preparation. The culture of most sports – particularly Olympic sports, where physiology is such a critical aspect of performance: running, swimming, rowing, gymnastics, diving, triathlon and cycling – was to work and work and work until you couldn’t work anymore.
With the growth of the sports science industry and the deeper understanding of applied sports physiology, people began to recognise that an important limiting factor in the physical aspect of sports performance was the athlete’s ability to recover.
This led some athletes, coaches and even countries to try to find ways to enhance an athlete’s recovery ability – by any means necessary, in some cases – and the unfortunate rise of substances such as anabolic steroids and other illegal, artificial, recovery-enhancing drugs and techniques.In more recent years, the race has been on to find better, smarter – and more importantly safer, legal and more ethical – ways of accelerating an athlete’s capacity to recover.
What’s the bottom line?
The reason athletes and coaches introduce smart recovery programs is to allow the athlete to work harder. And this is where the concept of recovery has got out of control.
Too many athletes and coaches have misinterpreted the recovery principle and decreased their training loads while increasing their emphasis on recovery.
Again, at the risk of labouring the point, the reason an athlete or coach would introduce a smart, WASHUP-based recovery program is to accelerate the athlete’s rate of recovery and therefore provide the opportunity to work harder, more often.
So, how do you know when it’s time to increase your recovery program?
It’s important to incorporate WASHUP recovery practices into your daily training program. However, it’s also important to monitor your mind and body for signs of fatigue and overtraining to help determine if you need to increase the focus on your recovery program. The five ‘fatigue factors’ below are key aspects of your physiology and psychology that will give you an insight into how well you are – or aren’t – recovering from training. See Table 1.
Fatigue factors explained
Quality of sleep: A score of five means you had a sound, restful sleep. A score of one means you had a terrible night’s sleep and woke up feeling worse than when you went to bed.
Muscle recovery: A score of five means your muscles are recovered and feel great. A score of one means your muscles are sore, tight and fatigued.
Energy level: A score of five means you are feeling great, with high levels of energy. A score of one means you feel flat, slow, low and lethargic.
ood/attitude: A score of five means you feel upbeat and positive, and a score of one means you feel down and negative.
Training readiness: A score of five means you are looking forward to training with enthusiasm and can’t wait to get started. A score of one means you are looking for excuses not to train and see training as a chore and as something you have to do rather than want to do.
As a general rule, if you score two or lower on any fatigue factor, take a full day off training.
If you score two or lower on two fatigue factors, take three full days off training.
If you score two or lower on three or more fatigue factors, take a full week off training and, just to be cautious, maybe go and have a chat to your doctor about how you feel.
The recovery/hard training balancing act
When it comes to managing training and recovery, you have four options:
1. Don’t train hard and don’t introduce a WASHUP-based recovery program
Outcome: It doesn’t make sense if success is your goal
2. Train hard but don’t introduce a WASHUP-based recovery program
Outcome: This works for a while but eventually illness, injury and fatigue will limit your potential for success
3. Don’t train hard but introduce a WASHUP-based recovery program
Outcome: Unlikely to produce anything but a well-rested, but under-prepared, athlete
4. Train hard and introduce a WASHUP-based recovery program
Outcome: If you work hard, recover well and do it consistently, success is almost inevitable
Recovery is one of the buzz words around triathlon at the moment, but like all fads and fashions, it needs to be considered in balance with all other aspects of your training and competition program.
Keep it in perspective – the key to recovery is remembering its purpose is to accelerate your capacity to adapt to the physical and mental demands of your training and competition schedule. Faster recovery means you can work harder, more often.
Systematically introducing a smart recovery program incorporating the WASHUP techniques can enhance your capacity to rest, restore and regenerate, and be more ready for your next training session or competition.