The Art of Recovery: Part I

May 24, 2011

As part of our training, we are provided with simple explanations of why we do what we do and what purpose it serves. From my understanding, training serves as a stimulus for the body in the form of stress. This stress encourages the body to adapt and the subsequent adaption is fitness. This adaption can only occur whilst the body is recovering. Like a broken bone that grows back together and calcifies, a body responding to training stimulus will come back stronger, but only if it is allowed to repair first. Because an athlete can train more intensely and often will have more physical capacity, we place a premium on recovery. If we can enhance and accelerate our recovery, our coaches can add a lot more volume and intensity of work. We use numerous strategies to enhance the recovery process. These strategies function primarily in the 1–2 hour period immediately after training or racing or in the 24-hour period following training or racing.

Active Recovery

After racing or intense training, the first strategy employed is active recovery. The purpose of active recovery is to flush accumulated lactic acid away from, and fresh blood into, the muscles. This process is crucial in the recovery process and is the end goal of many of our recovery strategies. This is particularly true after intense sessions or racing and less so after steady state. Active recovery could be used, for example, on a day with a race in the morning and then again in the afternoon. After a 100% race effort the obvious tendency is sit or lie inertly, doing as little activity as possible because presumably the athlete isn’t feeling too fantastic. The important thing to do is to push past that feeling and keep moving. At first, it might just be walking around, but as you feel better, get back on the Concept2 Indoor Rower. You might not be able to “pull the skin off a custard” at this point, but it’s important to grab the handle and start taking some strokes. Keep moving. It can be really light (I’m usually 40+ seconds per 500m slower than 2k race pace to begin with) and as you feel better, gradually increase your intensity to somewhere closer to 20–30 seconds slower than your racing 500m split. This may take 10+ minutes and that’s fine. You should aim to complete 10–20 minutes of active recovery at this intensity. Towards the end you’ll start feeling much better than when you began and this is part of the strategy. Whether you’re racing in an hour, five hours or 24 hours later, this method will only enhance your subsequent performances. There are only two times a year I don’t use this strategy—after the last race of our selections and after the World Championships.

Training and racing deplete the body of fluid, minerals, glycogen and cause muscular damage. A very important component of recovery is replacing your body’s lost nutrients and repairing the damage. Olympic gold medalist Scott Brennan (Men’s Heavyweight Double 2008) told me once during a long bike ride that to recover you should “drink till you pee clear” (Scott is also a doctor). He and the other athletes in our squad make sure to not only ingest as much liquid as was lost during workouts, but to make sure that protein, carbohydrates and electrolytes are consumed, too. Protein repairs muscle damage (aim for between 15–30 grams), carbohydrates replace depleted glycogen stores and electrolytes serve to restore the mineral balance after extensive sweating. After sessions, I usually aim to have a quickly digested protein such as a good whey protein in 600ml of water, then 600ml of sports drinks (sports drinks usually contain glucose which is rapidly converted to muscle glycogen and electrolytes) and then water until I am fully rehydrated. You may want to weigh yourself before and after different sessions to have a better appreciation of how much fluid you lose under different circumstances. Eventually you’ll get a feel for how much fluid you lose through sweating and how much you really need to restore your hydration levels. Temperature will play a large part in this and I’ve had to drink 12 litres a day during training just to maintain. The restoration of fluids, nutrients and minerals is crucial for your body to repair, as you cannot recover properly if you are dehydrated, and the adaptive properties will be minimized if glycogen isn’t restored and muscles are not ideally nourished. If you’re caught in a pinch without protein shakes you can drink chocolate milk. It has protein, sugar (carbohydrates) and minerals. This isn’t an excuse to hammer endless chocolate milk, but if you’ve had a really long, hard session it’s far better than nothing. Gatorade and other companies also have versions of their drinks that contain protein exclusively for recovery and are a good option. It’s also important to acknowledge if you’ve done enough exercise to warrant the calories you’ll be consuming afterwards. For a moderate 500m row and 15 minutes on the elliptical machine, you probably can focus on just having water and getting nutrients in your later meals. If you’re doing sessions of real duration (60+ minutes) or at hard intensity (over 90% for 20+ minutes) then you may want to think about these methods. They may boost your overall training and performance.   

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