By Matt Dixon, coach and founder of Purple Patch Fitness
Recovery has become a hot topic in the world of endurance sports, as well as performance globally. It hasn’t always been like this, and recovery remains the toughest part to consistently implement into your program and performance journey.
To understand recovery, one must realize that true performance evolution arrives out of incredible consistency of specific training executed over week, months and even years.
This simple fact is central to the role of recovery. It is impossible to facilitate blocks of hard training without getting the recovery part right. Interestingly, many “bulls” in the room will dismiss it, claiming intentional recovery is a sign of weakness, or some sales pitch by coaches promoting shortcut to success.
These are the foolish, and over the year we have showed consistency in results that have been born out of considering recovery as a part of any athletes training program.
As a part of the global Purple Patch methodology we always view performance through the lens that when:
An athlete consistently executes specific endurance training
With integrated strength and conditioning
Supported with adequate recovery (including sleep)
And a platform of proper nutrition (including fueling and hydration).
They accelerate. Every time.
So, to discuss recovery it is important to keep this global lens in mind, and not fall into the trap of a singular mindset.
There is a reason that a phrase out of the “Dixonary” is “strong like bull, smart like tractor”. We are jokingly referring to the athlete or coach who dismisses recovery and just relies on toughness as the battering ram to performance. The brute force approach, similar to what you might think of the strategy of a doorman at a dodgy nightclub, is never a great long-term strategy.
Integrating recovery as a part of your program, is more ninja-like in approach, and makes your training more effective, purposeful and allows you to develop the performance platform while arriving to events fresh.
Athlete Case Study: Jenny
Jenny is a committed triathlete and busy executive, as well as an actively engaged Mom of two wonderful children. Her job demands travel two or three times monthly, but Jenny is highly committed to the global cause, priding herself on efficiency and keeping all the components working. She is, as will come as no surprise, very driven by results and performance.
She has been consistent with aiming to squeeze in 14 to 16 hours of training weekly -- the amount of training that she felt was needed to accomplish her goals in the sport. This meant a heavily programmed schedule with little wiggle room or downtime.
Jenny maximized every hour, and there was no real opportunity to decompress and have fluidity if any unforeseen circumstances popped up in the typical unpredictability of life. When I reviewed the actual training plan I felt like her prescribed sessions were good quality, with high variance of types of work. The fabric of the training plan in isolation was good.
Unfortunately, as you now know, this isn’t the ultimate predictor of performance. Digging deeper into Jenny’s approach it was clear that her fueling habits were poor, often eating on the fly and she consistently was compromised in sleep -- both quantity and quality. In addition to this, despite a highly structured focus on healthy eating, including trying various diets to try to improve performance and composition, she retained body fat and I could tell that she was unconsciously undereating relative to training and life demands.
Interestingly, Jenny was an athlete who inspired many with her busy life and the ability to train so much, but the truth was that she displayed underperformance relative to the hard work she put in.
Symptoms of Under-Performance
She was in a performance plateau and had little to no improvement over the last seasons, both in racing and training. She certainly was not getting a performance return on investment on those programmed 14 to 16 hours.
As mentioned, despite the training and focus on eating, there was a retention of body fat, and it was typical for her to experience nights of reduced quality sleep and even night sweats. It probably won’t surprise you to know that in addition to all these ailments were frequent niggles and injuries stunting her progress.
My Take: while little wrong with the training element of the approach -- there is certainly much wrong with the overall recipe. Motivation, positive training plan but global performance nowhere near aligned with effort going in. Too many athletes cycle through multiple episodes of this type of pattern for two long.
Jenny wanted to evolve. This was her crossroads. She could either:
1. Double down on effort and work even harder.
2. Take a step back, review and pursue a radical shift in mindset and approach.
In suggesting an opportunity to evolve the approach to recovery, Jenny was initially defensive. She spoke of her avid use of recovery boots, stretching (dynamic), weekly body work and daily foam roller. She was, according to her definition, committed to great recovery.
It was clear that Jenny didn’t really understand what properly integrated recovery was. Here is how I outlined my thoughts on recovery to Jenny.
Effectively integrated recovery will facilitate:
- Readiness for the all-important tough key sessions in each block of training.
- Optimal execution of those key sessions.
- Full maximal physiological adaptations (growth) following hard training.
- A full gateway for health and avoiding injury.
- A chance to retain passion for the performance journey -- fatigue will dismantle it.
With the concept sold, I needed to outline the components of appropriate recovery for all athletes - no matter the performance level. We can outline recovery into three key subcategories that all required an integrated mindset and approach.
This recovery type is related to the planning and execution of training:
Seasonal: Ensuring seasonal breaks in blocks of lower physical strain to facilitate great recuperation from the consistent training load.
- For Jenny: She rarely took a break - it was ON ON ON (work and training - even on vacations!).
Phase / Block Recovery: Two to five days of lower stress training integrated into main training to help restore balance and facilitate adaptations in training.
- For Jenny: Mondays were her light days - as work was too busy to even fit in proper training. Once one realizes that all forms of stress are accumulative, you quickly realize this approach is limited.
Easier Training Days / Sessions: Lighter load training days that either help recovery from prior tough training or prepare for upcoming key sessions.
- For Jenny: Her commitment and drive frequently led her to chase effort / speed / power in these days, compromising the adaptations and rejuvenation.
Rest days: Complete rest (often over-prioritized by coached, many benefit from some movement).
For Jenny: This only ever occurred for her with sickness, travel or work commitments, hence little recovery was truly happening.
- For Jenny: This only ever occurred for her with sickness, travel or work commitments, hence little recovery was truly happening.
A successful approach to recovery doesn’t begin and end with training setup. There are key habits that are critical to enabling recovery in sport.
Sleep: Massively important for athletes - and where most physiological adaptations occur. Sleep is important in terms of both duration and quality.
- For Jenny: She was under-slept and nightly quality was consistently corrupted -- disabling optimal physiological adaptations.
Nutrition: A platform of health, physiological adaptations and performance. You cannot put coal in a race car!
- For Jenny: She ate ‘well’, but relative to her training load she under-consumed, something very common among athletes. This led to fat retention and under adaptations/recovery. By now it was clear to me that Jenny needed to learn that performance was built on a platform of proper nutrition and recovery.
Fueling: A critical habit is post workout fueling, consuming calories within 30 minutes, to limit stress, repair muscles and facilitate proper nutrition habits for the remainder of the day.
- For Jenny: She consistently skipped, a habit that became even more pronounced with the emotional creep of seeing body composition edge toward less favorable profile.
Meditation: Emerging science notes its benefits for all performance-minded individuals - and assists in recovery.
Naps: I would argue these are aligned with meditation - short daily 10- to 30-minute naps increase natural HGH, along with hormonal and restorative benefits.
- For Jenny: She laughed at me when I mentioned this, citing that is was impossible within her life and work. Ironically, she naps 10-15 minutes daily now.
Qualitative Recovery Modalities
This recovery type includes everything you can think of that can be sold! These are the most talked about components of recovery, and include many of the pieces Jenny saw as her recovery approach:
- Massage and bodywork
- Foam Rollers / Self-Massage
- Heat (sauna / hot tub)
- Ice and cryotherapy
All of these modalities have a potential role to play -- but when value-stacked against the components of sport-specific recovery planning and lifestyle habits, their importance diminishes greatly.
For Jenny, and for you, two categories were fundamental: Proper planning and executed training that is truly integrated into life demands, then supported with good sleep and nutrition / fueling habits. This is by far the most basic, but biggest yield of performance gains and consistency. It was critical to nail the training and lifestyle components of recovery. She can add modalities as time and money allows, but these alone will do nothing without nailing training and lifestyle.
So, I am sure you want to know how Jenny evolved?
In short, she is thriving. Healthy, leaner and stronger. Most important, she is in control. It was a multi-month journey to transition her mindset, habits and approach. It wasn’t easy for her, but revisiting her relationship with recovery was the gateway to more energy, consistency and health.
In essence, her passion was reignited, and the joy of the journey emerged. This was not a light-switch of radical performance evolution, but a journey to reshape thinking, habits and approach. On the back of this evolution came the race results, despite training less hours weekly. The plateau and potential decline was reversed, and she emerged to her best race results.
To be clear, this had little to do with the general focus or specifics of the training program. Instead, it was providing the opportunity for that training to create the results that were intended. Permission to avoid obsession on the specific intervals and broaden the horizon allowed the performance to bubble up -- all within a much happier and controlled balance of her big life.
Matt Dixon is a world-class triathlon coach, former professional triathlete, elite swimmer and exercise physiologist. His Purple Patch coaching community is based in San Francisco, but his athletes span the globe.
His professional triathlon squad has amassed more than 300 Professional wins and podiums in IRONMAN and IRONMAN 70.3 races, including the 2016 World Champion. He has qualified more than 250 athletes to the Hawaii IRONMAN World Championships, with multiple Age Group World Champions, but he is equally known for his groundbreaking work successfully creating performance in sport and life for time-starved individuals. He guides many leading CEOs of major companies, including well known tech industry leaders.
Matt is the author of the Well Built Triathlete, as well as the new Fast Track Triathlete, an IRONMAN U Master coach, global hydration advisor for Camelbak and a much sought performance expert and speaker.