One thing I think many hobbyist athletes get wrong is recovery. We think that if it doesn’t hurt, it isn’t working. If we aren’t putting in an all out effort, we aren’t making progress. There are a number of reasons that is not true, and in fact why it is often counter productive to skip quality recovery days.
After my recent 2 week training block that culminated in a half-Iron effort, the need for solid rest was very apparent. I took on the typical symptoms my body displays when over-burdened and over-stressed. My immune system decreases, my energy declines, and unless I pump the brakes, I tend to hover in this physical wasteland for a few weeks. This is not a new cycle for me, and something I am still experimenting with to better understand how to prevent it, but usually after a few sustained longer full out efforts in a row (camp), R&R is needed. If I don’t spend the time to recover, everything suffers for much longer, and training is not back to where it would be for weeks.
With all of my new fitness in the bag, how do I go about keeping the momentum up without losing the gains? For starters, I work with a coach who can help me to know when it is time for quality and intensity, and when it is about more active recovery. Most of my workouts this week have been very easy and for time (spins on rollers, jogs), with the exception of a shorter but more intense swim session. I have also eased back into some strength training but using slightly lower weights during the drills.
What is considered easy will vary from person to person. I can use my heart rate as a good indicator on the run and bike, and normally shoot for Zone 1 or 2. For me running that would be about 120-130 BPM and cycling 105-115 BPM. These will vary for each person, but one thing I do if I forget my heart rate monitor is to say the alphabet or sing a song. If I can manage that without running short of breath, then I have hit ‘conversation pace’ which is a nice easy effort.
I also like to work in non-SwimBikeRun workouts and movement. Hiking is a nice alternative for me and gives me a chance to hang out in the woods with the family. Paddleboarding and kayaking are also great change-ups. While many don’t consider it ‘training’ doing a solid day of yard work is another good alternative recovery for me. No, riding a mower does not count, but splitting wood, moving materials around, raking, etc all keep you in motion without too much tax on the body.
How do you know when to get back to it? There are a bunch of formula’s and guidelines out there for when it is safe to dial the intensity back up. I won’t speak to them since I tend to go by feel, but right now, with no real race targets for anyone, there is probably no rush. In general though, for me a week is a good measure for someone in shape, uninjured, and motivated to get back to it. This doesn’t mean that 7 days from an Ironman you should turn the spigot back on full blast, but still ease in and ramp up slowly. In my experience, if I put in an all out effort at a 70.3, I need about 4-5 days before I feel up for a hard effort, for a 140.6, maybe a week and change. For most of the races below that I may be a bit sore the next day, but after a couple of easier sessions I feel good to go. Mind you, that’s what I tell myself, but my coach will normally hold me back a bit more, keeping it conservative to avoid injury.
For the weeks when I’m not racing, I don’t like more than two back to back hard efforts. Especially true when they are the same discipline. And when I am giving the chance to go by feel or take it easy I do. I’ll happily tack on 2 minutes to my marathon pace if possible. It feels guilty easy, but sometimes that is the whole point. Rest up, and be ready for the next round of gains. You can’t PR every day at every workout nor do you need to. We all want to push ourselves everyday, and you can, but do it in different ways. Listen to the body, give it time to heal, and take advantage of rest days to prepare for the next big effort!