Triathlon generally attracts highly motivated people, most of whom embrace hard work. But that ethic can often present a double-edged sword when an athlete struggles to balance heavy training with easy days and adequate recovery. Coach Matt Dixon of Purplepatch Fitness is known for taking injured, over-trained athletes (Linsey Corbin and Rasmus Henning are two cases) and radically changing the way they approach training by making recovery a foundational priority. Dixon explains how you can hurdle some of the biggest challenges to proper recovery—and in turn reap some serious performance benefits.
Among the Purplepatch squad of professionals, we have several mantras that we use in the training process. “It takes confidence to recover” is one that we hold dear to our hearts. Confidence in yourself, in the training plan, in the coach and in the journey of progression you are on. Our hard training will only yield positive results if we are healthy and our bodies are responding positively to the training load. You understand the need for hard work; you should also understand the need for balanced recovery in support of that hard work.
The trend of recovery modalities, including ice baths, compression, stretching and massage, is hugely popular in endurance sports nowadays. While some have their time and place in an athlete’s plan, their importance pales in comparison to other areas such as lighter training sessions or blocks of training, sleep and rest, as well as fueling and nutrition.
The trigger for adaptation (improvements) is stress, and in the case of endurance sports the stress is training stress—the root of why hard training is necessary in the first place. This adaptation can occur in a positive or negative sense, but to improve performance the athlete has to respond positively to the training stress. If you respond positively (what is called functional adaptation), you will get fitter, stronger and faster. If your response to the stress is negative (nonfunctional adaptation), you are on a path to major fatigue, injury and performance decline. Every great coach understands he or she needs to keep the athlete in a positive state of adaptation. This doesn’t mean athletes shouldn’t get tired, or train tired—pushing limits is necessary. The key is ensuring that the hard training is offset with lighter training, allowing adaptations to occur, as well as emotional, structural and metabolic rejuvenation. Carefully planned recovery helps you train harder.
Psychological barriers of recovery
A lot of athletes have a really hard time striking the recovery-training balance. Some reasons why:
The competition is working hard. Any competitive athlete has one eye on his or her competition, and this can wreak havoc on the emotional makeup of the training approach. Recovery provides no validation of improvement, as compared to a hard session with a performance breakthrough. When you are going light or easy, it is sometimes tough to not think about your competition out there on an epic training session.
The culture of the sport makes you feel weak. Hard training is great to talk about, and dramatic sessions are what dominate the stories of the most successful athletes. We are told so often that performance arrives to the last man hanging on the rope. The truth is that performance arrives on race day, to the man who has trained himself to hang on to the rope longest on that day. This is a big difference.
Coaches lack self-confidence. It is often not just the athlete who struggles with recovery. I see coaches layering in too much intensity, perhaps as a way to be seen to provide value or hard work. A great coach knows when to push, but the courageously great coach knows when to hold the athlete back. Confidence, wisdom and experience facilitate this trait so often missing.
All of these barriers lead athletes and coaches to make poor decisions when structuring training, like overloading multiple days in a row with really hard work, and never providing the opportunity to recuperate and balance the training load. Hard sessions become mediocre; recovery sessions remain mediocre. Training becomes ho-hum and a flattening of the intensity spread occurs. Repeat this pattern and athletes begin to lose the ability to raise the intensity of pace or power. They become fit—but slow.
Making recovery positive
How can you avoid some of these fears and reactions, and view recovery as a positive part of the journey to performance? It’s actually pretty simple:
Reset your lens. View lighter sessions and days as a part of the training plan. By framing it as an essential part of the plan, it becomes easier to accept and embrace. Many of my athletes have a “pit bull” mentality when it comes to training hard, so the recovery becomes the essential tool that enables them to train as hard as they love, and thrive from it.
Get in front of the fatigue. Each athlete is different when it comes to resilience, but the goal is to schedule in a lighter day or block of training before you are in desperate need for it. It doesn’t mean pulling back at the first sign of fatigue, but resting before it becomes a bigger issue. Getting a day, or session, in front of the fatigue allows quicker recuperation, and the chance to more consistently apply the hard work.
Monitor fatigue. There is major emphasis on monitoring training performance, but less on how the athlete recovers from that performance. This is a backward way of looking at things. The optimal tactic is daily self-evaluation, as simple as a five-minute check-in, or using a monitoring tool such as Restwise. Information creates awareness, and awareness allows the athlete and coach to make smart decisions.
Be realistic about your resilience. Remembering that recovery is a tool to facilitate work, your goal should be to get back to effective training as quickly as possible. This is always individual and needs ongoing evaluation. I have some athletes who can absorb high workloads and only need a day or two of recovery to bounce back from fatigue. Others are less resilient, requiring longer recovery blocks. Both sets are highly successful in racing (where it really counts), but only because we have worked hard to find the right recipe for them.
Learn your response to workload. This final component is critical for coaches. Some athletes respond quickly to an injection of higher intensity training, but break down or become flat if it is always present in the plan. Others require higher intensity in every week of training and become fatigued and regress with a higher-volume approach. Learning this response leads to a clearer plan and understanding the type of training—and recovery from that training—that are needed.
I talk a lot about the value of the recovery process (it is a major focus of setting up the training plan), but I am seldom thought of as an “easy” coach. I cannot think of anyone on my professional squad who begs for more work. But we don’t simply aim to accumulate as much training as possible, nor do we base success on how much we get done. I frankly don’t care how much training any athlete does each week. I don’t spend too much time counting hours or miles, and certainly don’t judge success in terms of volume achieved.
I base success on being able to maximize the specific and effective training we can consistently apply. If we find that individual recipe, we have a good chance for success. By making recovery as a part of that goal, it places a premium on it from the start, and inspires confidence in the plan, the coach and, most importantly, in the athletes themselves. And this is how top performances are born.