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Are You Confident in Your Recovery?

Written by Jem Cooper

It is not revolutionary when I tell you that recovery is an essential part of the training process. So why then do many of us in the endurance community tend to neglect it?

I’ve been there. I have been falling half asleep on the turbo at 5 am, feeling the frustration of training plateaus, experienced burnout and had injuries and illness caused by a pursuit of ‘more=more’. 

After mistakes made in years of high-level training (as a ballerina and now as a long course triathlete) and a degree in psychology, I have come to realise that there are two major things standing between most athletes using recovery to their advantage: 

  1. Number one - a misunderstanding of what recovery actually means and how to go about it
  2. Number two - confidence.

When I say ‘recovery’ I am not talking about a protein shake, a cool down jog and touching your toes after a workout. I am not talking about skipping your run and hitting Netflix on the sofa either. And crucially I am not necessarily talking about doing less. 

What I am talking about is a methodical process of planning and protocols, and a series of smart decisions about when to push, when to hold back, and when to focus on the ‘added extras’ (sleep, strength and conditioning, recovery tools, nutrition and mental relaxation).

Endurance sports involve intense workouts, high mileage and immense stress and strain on the body. However, if we want to see the benefits of the hard effort of training, we need to provide time for our bodies to adapt and rebuild stronger. This takes a well planned and well-periodised training and recovery program.

Periodisation training means planning periods of focused volume or intensity build, followed by periods of rest, recovery and adaptation. When implemented carefully - athletes should see consistent performance gains through the ‘build’ phase, a solid recovery, and then a comeback stronger than before for their new block.

This is a useful approach to consider on a big picture scale - for instance, a triathlete might focus on a focused build phase (high intensity and high load) into their A-race like Ironman Kona in October, followed up by a period of rest and recuperation over the autumn/winter (complete rest days, lower intensity and lower volume).

Periodising can also be considered on a more micro scale, as part of an integrated approach to recovery. 

Rather than using a build-build-build-recover structure where you dedicate whole weeks/months to recovery, integrated recovery plans include regular rest throughout the training week, every week. This approach can help you stay one step ahead of fatigue and allows you to train more consistently over time without the need for complete-time off. This is where active recovery workouts come in. 

Alongside the key high-intensity sessions each week, including a number of active recoveries - be it an easy run, short ride or aerobic swim - can help athletes to strike a balance between giving the body time to recover, whilst preventing the ‘go slow’ sluggish feeling from too much time out. Using these ‘mini recoveries’ helps ensure you can keep one step ahead of the tiredness before it sets you back.

From time to time it is valuable to include complete days off. Something I like to call “Life Days”. 

Whether you are a full-time athlete or an amateur with the additional load of family and a full-time job, mental or ‘lifestyle’ recovery is not to be neglected. As athletes, we all make sacrifices for our sport and we all have stress in our lives. Both can take their toll more on performance - and often more than most of us will want to admit. 

This is where “Life days” come in. A day to catch up on sleep, household chores and ‘life admin’, to do activities you love but rarely have time for, or relaxing with good company. This is a day to wear ‘real’ clothes (ie not lycra) and enjoy doing anything other than training!

Life days on a weekly, monthly or when you feel you need one basis, can be a vital recovery tool to keep the wheels turning all year around. 

Of course, there is no one single strategy for recovery since each individual athlete will require different amounts and different approaches to it. What matters is not so much what you do for recovery, it is the DOING in the first place!

Here is the catch:

Many athletes, myself included, fight an emotional battle with recovery. We know how to train hard, but few of us embrace recovery with the same motivation. Why? Confidence - having the confidence to not train and to let your body work on recovering itself.

Most athletes are held back in thinking that recovery equates to less training and less training equates to performance decline. Now, let us be frank here. If you have a particularly intensive block of training, a stressful life event or have just aced a big competition, you may take a period of complete recovery and several days off to help your body. In this case, yes,  your training volumes will reduce. And yes if you take more than 10-14 days off you may lose some of your peak fitness.

Yet, to think of recovery as simply ‘doing less’ or ‘losing fitness’ is a view from a very short-sighted lens. From a wider, longer-term perspective - including regular and high-quality recovery within your weekly, seasonal or annual training plan can help maintain an overall higher level of consistency and higher output over time.

It takes courage to step back from intense training to give the body time it needs to adapt, rebuild and recuperate. It takes confidence to know that recovery is not about what is lost, rather it is about what can be gained. Come to a session more physically and mentally fresh and ready and the training will be more effective, higher quality and more repeatable. Add up more effective training over time - and those sports goals just got closer!

So don’t be afraid of recovery, show your courage as an athlete and embrace it as a training tool poised for your advantage. #DontEverStop

About the Author 

Riixo ambassador, Jemima Cooper is a former classical ballerina turned middle distance triathlete. Jemima has had a lifelong passion for sport and an academic interest in sport and performance psychology. 

More blogs in this series by Jemima Cooper:

Why recovery needs to be part of your P.L.A.N.S.

Train well or race well, what do you want most?

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