I’ve been giving rest & recovery some thought over the past few days and it is an essential and key component of my training programme. I would argue is critical in terms of making performance progress. The main questions relating to recovery are:
- Why is it important
- How can it be recognised
- How often should it be scheduled and how long should it it last
- How can the bodies response to R&R be monitored and measured
The importance of R&R
During training the body is over-stressed and if this continues without giving the body sufficient R&R then the body’s natural response is to invoke an illness or injury that will stop training in order to prevent any further damage. It is the body’s last resort mechanism to mitigate the damage caused by additional training workload. On the other hand, if appropriate R&R is scheduled, then the body will make adaptations to better manage these stresses the next time it encounters them. My own experience backs up the theory. When I have given sufficient time to R&R I have restarted my training feeling stronger and fresher.
Recognising the signs of overtraining
How do we know when we need to take a rest? – this should be pretty simple so why do we overtrain? I think the answer relates to a mistaken belief that the harder we train the stronger and fitter we get. This belief in turn overrides our own capacity to listen to our bodies for signs of overtraining. The signs are often evident but we simply miss them or ignore them. To make steady performance gains it is absolutely critical that we recognise the value of appropriately timed R&R. This belief must replace any pretensions that continual training overload will lead to performance improvements. Once we hold to this belief, then the becomes incorporating R&R as an essential component of our training programmes. Getting the balance right between overloading the body through training and giving the body time to adapt to training is a key skill. How do employ this skill and identify and recognise the signs of overtraining? As previously referenced we need to elevate our natural ability to read signs from our body as to when we start to encroach from overtraining into overreaching our bodies. The main signs of overtraining are
- Fatigued – pretty obvious but one we often overlook
- Irritability and bad mood
- Skin changes – itchiness or lack of palor
- Increasing mental fatigue
- Low morale and motivation
- Disruptive sleep patterns
- Headaches and feeling sniffly
- Elevated resting heart rate and depressed heart rate variability
- Irregular hunger or thirst patterns
- Irregular toilet patterns
In addition, to the above signs we can also monitor the body’s response to training by taking resting heart rate and heart rate variability measurements. Changes in the trends of either of these can provide invaluable insights into our bodies response to overtraining. The critical element of these measurements is to have recorded them over a sufficient time period to provide a trend or pattern. One-off measurements can not be relied upon.
How often should R&R be scheduled and how long should it last
Most training programmes provisioned by coaches or training web sites include rest and recovery weeks. Typically, a R&R week follows two or three weeks of training. In addition, rest and recovery days are included within the training weeks especially after demanding or ‘breakthrough’ training sessions. Unfortunately, this is not a precise mechanism and the body doesn’t always follow prescribed timescales. My own experience supports the need to schedule R&R but not to strictly adhere to it. Some flexibility is needed and programmes needed to be adjusted to reflect the body’s need for rest or continued training. Therefore, it is advisable to schedule R&R into a training programme and then to make adjustments were required.
I have been scheduling one week recovery weeks following two or three-week training sessions. During recovery weeks I would maintain frequency of activities but at reduced volume and intensity. Essentially, these activities have allowed the body to ‘tick over’ from a training perspective whilst the lower intensity has allowed the body to recover and adapt to the training stresses applied in the previous weeks. Over recent months, I have become more aware and responsive to signs of physical and mental fatigue. This is a skill that can be developed.
I have been using recovery rides between active training sessions and also during R&R as a means of balancing rest without training adaptations. My own theory is that recovery rides provide slow-twitch muscles with a low-level workout whilst fast-twitch muscle fibres get a complete rest, provided of course it is performed correctly, that is, at power or HR less than 50% of FTP or FTHR. Therefore, recovery rides are great for maintaining training of slow-twitch muscles whilst giving fast-twitch muscles a break. During the last R&R period I also used recovery rides to gauge my body’s recovery. On successive recovery rides I would slightly increase intensity or volume or both and measure my response to the increases. If the response was positive then I would increase it again, if negative then I would maintain the same level. HRV was very useful during this period as it allowed a ‘window’ into my body’s parasympathetic system to gauge how it was responding to rest and recovery. This methodical and objective approach minimises the risk inherent in using subjective cues to determine when to get back to full training.
Performance losses occur at three times the rate of performance gains so it is critical that we don’t spend more time resting and recovering than is required. Therefore, it is equally important that we recognise the signs of when we are ready to start training again in order that we can optimise the gains generated from previous training blocks.