The muscle damage and depleted energy stores that accompany fatigue are also the two most powerful training stimuli, and are most endurance athlete’s constant companions. These stimuli signal a cascade of subcellular events that result in what is called the training effect. Essentially, being fatigued is teaching your body to handle increased training loads. As endurance athletes, we labor under a nearly constant burden of fatigue, because training for endurance requires that you exceed your current work capacity in your workouts. You must drive yourself into a state of fatigue in order to improve.
That said, fatigue without recovery is absolutely anathema to your training goals. Adaptation, which happens NOT during training but during recovery, is the body’s way of preparing for the next workout. If you don’t recover properly, you diminish the work capacity you can take on in your next workout, hence diminishing the returns you can get from the training effect of that workout. So the flip side is also true: You must drive yourself into a state of recovery in order to improve as well.
Key Components of Recovery from Training
If you haven’t mastered your recovery process yet, it’s time to get cracking. No more putting this on the back burner! Below is a list of tools that will speed adaptation (recovery) and get you back on your feet and feeling strong quicker.
The most important tool for recovery is sleep, especially REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. During REM sleep, the release of several anabolic (growth) hormones is highly elevated. One of these hormones, GH1, is the body’s primary signaling agent for adapting to higher training loads. If you aren’t getting enough REM sleep, GH1 levels will be reduced and your recovery will be impaired. Naps are a staple of elite athletes to insure they get enough REM sleep. Even a 30-minute nap can do wonders.
Food and Water
Refueling is critical to recovery, especially within 20–30 minutes of your workout. Missing this window after training can extend recovery time by days (a significant amount). Depending on the workout, it is advisable to take in 100–200 calories immediately. Using a recovery drink or eating a bar works as an easy way to get the macronutrients. Adequate hydration is important especially if you are training in heat or for extended periods of time.
For more information on good nutrition, refer to Training for the New Alpinism (pp. 283–321).
Foam rolling and self-massage are cheap and easy things you can do every day to speed up recovery. When your muscles are tight or sore, you are experiencing acute inflammation. Inflammation is actually an important part of the adaptation process. However, too much inflammation will result in stiff and tired muscles, and will impact your ability to train. Several self-massage tools are available, from foam rollers to sticks and balls, all of which serve the purpose of working out knots and increasing blood flow to tired muscles.
Self-massage allows you to control the depth and pressure of the massage. In general, if the rolling is very painful, you NEED to do more of it. Stretching and yoga will have similar effects on your muscles, but probably will not have the immediate impact of a good self-massage session.
Working out to aid recovery may seem like a contradiction in terms, but proper recovery workouts have real benefits. A fundamental part of training for almost every professional endurance athlete, recovery workouts are not meant to increase fitness. Instead, they serve the vital purpose of getting you back to training as quickly as possible.
The key to recovery workouts is to keep the intensity very low. It can also be a good idea to mix modalities of training. For foot-borne athletes, swimming is a favorite (see below) when your legs are feeling really beat up from running. Something as simple as a 20-minute evening walk can also be helpful, and is especially effective after a long, hard day in the mountains or after a hard effort or race. Even on days off, the light aerobic stimulation of a recovery swim or bike ride will speed recovery.
While the jury is still out on “why” these work, there is ample evidence that they do in fact work. So if you are pushing the envelope of what your body can absorb, these should be built into every training week.
Over the years we have discovered with many of our athletes that swimming (even for nonswimmers) is the most effective recovery workout for loosening up and getting rid of that dead leg feeling. An easy few hundred meters of freestyle in a pool, lake, or ocean coupled with some flutter kicking works wonders on heavy legs. If you are not a swimmer, then try vigorously treading water or running in place in water too deep to stand in. There is something magically therapeutic about water.
Other Recovery Methods
Here are some other more exotic and expensive methods to speed recovery.
The old Finnish trick of rolling in the snow right after the sauna can be duplicated even if you have neither snow nor a sauna. Taking an ice bath followed immediately with a hot bath can have the same flushing effect of increasing blood flow in your limbs. And wading into a cold stream at the end of long run can give much of the same effects. These all seem to reduce local inflammation, which is a necessary side effect of training but can be too much if you can’t walk down the stairs the day after a big run.
Electrostim machines have gained popularity with pro cyclists who need to recover quickly in multiday races. Special sports versions such as those sold by Compex are effective but expensive. We recommend only using these on the recovery setting. They work very much like a massage by increasing blood flow to depleted areas.
Massages are one of the best ways to speed recovery. A professional massage therapist accustomed to working on athletes can do a better job than self-massage and any machine, which is why pro athletes use them so much.
Remember that you get weaker during training and it is during recovery that you become fitter. Equal attention must be paid to each, or your training results will be severely diminished. Using these tools will help you train more effectively and recover faster. For more information on any of these topics, refer to pages 72–80 in Training For the New Alpinism.
Cover Photo Credit: Marko Prezelj.