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A professional triathlete goes “all in” on recovery. What’s he getting out of it?
This article was originally published in the July/August 2011 edition of Inside Triathlon magazine.
In 2008, professional triathlete TJ Tollakson, whose home base is Des Moines, Iowa, spent a couple of months living and training with fellow pro Craig Alexander in Boulder, Colo. Both men were preparing for October’s Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. While they did all of their training together, Alexander went on to have a great race in Kona, winning in 8:17:45, while Tollakson performed terribly, finishing 249th in 9:53:43.
The problem for Tollakson was that the same training that was just right for the older and more experienced Alexander was too much for him.
“I realized I tanked because I had done too much training and I wasn’t allowing myself to recover properly,” Tollakson said. “Craig gave me one of the greatest gifts possible, which was to see what it takes to be a champion in the sport.”
It wasn’t just Alexander’s extra years of training that allowed him to better recover from the same training load, however. The Australian also had “a pretty aggressive recovery program,” as Tollakson describes it. So Tollakson decided to do everything Alexander did for recovery and more. He made a plan to go all the way, doing everything possible to maximize his physiological recovery from training on a daily basis, and see where this “extreme recovery” approach led him.
Here are the top 10 items in Tollakson’s recovery regimen.
Recovery is Tollakson’s first thought every morning. Literally. He starts each day by taking his pulse and stepping onto a Tanita Ironman scale to assess his hydration status.
“I really pay attention to the weight and hydration for recovery,” he said.
Tollakson does not often change workout plans based on a higher-than-normal morning pulse and dehydration, but he does often find that these numbers validate subjective feelings about his recovery status (energy level, muscle soreness, mood, etc.).
Massage; rolfing, a form of deep-tissue massage that was developed in the 1950s; active release technique, a form of body work involving active movements of the limbs under treatment; and chiropractic are all parts of Tollakson’s weekly routine. According to Sage Rountree, author of “The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery,” there is no evidence that bodywork enhances the normal recovery processes such as muscle damage repair. However, it can help reverse some of the negative, cumulative effects of training, such as the formation of adhesions that may lead to overuse injuries.
Rountree notes that there is not much scientific support for most of the things that athletes do for recovery, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth doing.
“I think pretty much anything you do ritualistically will help you,” she said. “It’s not just about the science behind it and what it may be doing for you physiologically. A whole lot of it is that, psychologically, you are now putting a value on your recovery. If you do one of these things, you are probably going to wind up doing more of them. And the more you do, the more they work together to help you recover.”
3. Cold Baths
Tollakson submerges his legs in a 55-degree bath for 10 minutes, either in a backyard pool or in a special tub set up in his garage, after every run and ride. Although cold baths are generally promoted as a way to control post-workout muscle tissue inflammation, “The benefit is less on the anti-inflammatory side and more on the side of deadening of pain,” Rountree said.
She adds that there is little point in taking cold baths after bike rides and after runs lasting less than 90 minutes. It’s only the long runs that cause real muscle damage.
Compex is a brand of electrical muscle stimulator that is popular among endurance athletes. Tollakson owns a unit and uses it not so much for daily recovery, but to treat incipient injuries and prevent them from getting worse.
“If I get back and my hamstring is sore, the first thing I’m going to do is ice it; the second thing I’m going to do is stick the Compex on it to increase the blood flow around that area,” he said.
There is no clear line distinguishing normal tissue trauma incurred during exercise and the beginning of some overuse injuries. Many overuse injuries, most notably patellofemoral pain syndrome, which is an overuse injury of the knee characterized by pain beneath the kneecap during activity, start when muscle or connective tissue fails to fully repair itself between workouts, allowing damage to accumulate. Thus, there is no clear line between this particular aspect of recovery and injury prevention. So, in using his Compex to nip injuries in the bud, Tollakson is also using it for recovery, in a sense.
5. Compression Socks
Last year, Tollakson started wearing compression socks during all of his hard runs, for the sake of his recovery following those workouts.
“I always thought of them as something for post-run recovery,” he said, “but I really started to notice the benefits of using them during the run.”
According to Rountree, “There are three questions with compression socks: Does wearing them during workouts improve performance during workouts? Does wearing them during workouts improve recovery? And does wearing them after workouts improve recovery? The answer on the first question is probably no, and on the other two, probably so.”
In fact, a recent study provided strong evidence that wearing compression socks during a hard run does not improve performance but does reduce the strain of hard running. Researchers at Massey University in Australia recruited 12 runners and had them run four 10K time trials on a track on separate occasions while wearing three varieties of compression socks (one at a time, naturally) and also without compression socks. The researchers found that the compression socks had no effect on their 10K times.
However, the runners did experience a smaller decline in jumping performance after the time trials when they wore the compression socks. This indicates that the time trial took less out of the runners’ legs when they wore compression socks. In essence, the socks improved post-run recovery by reducing the need for recovery.
It’s too often forgotten that, like healing, post-exercise recovery is something that the body does for itself. Recovery-boosting measures such as bodywork and cold baths work around the margins. Infinitely more powerful than such measures is simple rest, which allows the body to do what it does naturally.
Sleep is the most potent form of rest in relation to recovery. During sleep, hormonal, immunological and neurological changes occur that greatly enhance recovery. Sleep needs naturally increase with training loads. Athletes such as Tollakson, who exercises up to 30 hours per week, find that their bodies demand far more than the seven or eight hours that seem to suffice for the rest of us. To successfully handle those training loads, they must satisfy those demands.
“I’ve always been big on napping when I’m in heavy training,” said Tollakson, whose typical routine is eight hours of sleep at night and a two-hour nap in the afternoon. “If I don’t have time for a nap I’ll sleep 10 hours at night.”
Interestingly, a couple of years ago Tollakson briefly tried sleeping in an altitude tent, for the blood-boosting benefits, but had to give it up because it reduced his sleep quality and thereby compromised his recovery. While the tent significantly increased his hematocrit level, or the percentage of red blood cells in his blood, Tollakson discovered that recovery was more important than having richer blood.
7. NormaTec Boots
NormaTec is a pneumatic compression device, originally developed for medical uses, that has become popular as a recovery aid among elite endurance athletes. It consists of a pair of soft, boot-like enclosures that cover the legs. These boots are attached to a generator pump that fills them with air, causing them to compress the legs. But instead of applying static compression, as wraps and compression socks do, NormaTec applies intermittent, or dynamic, compression, which is said to better mimic normal physiology.
Tollakson uses NormaTec boots for approximately 30 minutes after every run, usually following his cold bath. According to Rountree, that’s time well spent. When she was researching her book on recovery, Bill Sands, the former director of the U.S. Olympic Training Center’s recovery center, told her that NormaTec was the most effective recovery-boosting method he knew of after training smart, eating well and sleeping well.
When triathletes think about nutrition for recovery, they usually think about post-workout nutrition. But Tollakson pays just as much attention to nutrition during workouts. “That’s really when recovery starts,” he said. “I’ve started to focus on staying hydrated and staying fueled. You never want to finish a workout really dehydrated or really low on calories or glycogen.”
Tollakson often runs right after riding his bike, but he always squeezes some kind of snack into his transition between the two sessions. If he’s home, he often eats peanut butter and jelly on toast. Otherwise, he gobbles an energy bar.
As soon as he’s really done training, Tollakson blends a recovery smoothie that he drinks while soaking in a cold bath. Heavy on dairy-based protein, it contains milk, Greek yogurt, whey protein powder and frozen fruit.
Tollakson’s recovery nutrition also includes three supplements: CoQ10, a coenzyme that enhances aerobic metabolism within cells; L-arginine, an amino acid that promotes dilation of blood vessels and circulation; and HMB, a metabolite of the amino acid leucine that is believed to suppress muscle protein breakdown.
Most triathletes feel they should stretch more than they do. They are sold on the benefits of stretching, but not enough to actually do much of it. Tollakson was one such triathlete until a couple of years ago, when injuries motivated him to finally make a serious commitment to stretching. Now, he says, “Every night I go through a 20-minute stretching routine before I go to bed. I’ve found that it helps a lot with my recovery as well as injury prevention.”
According to Rountree, stretching is like bodywork in that it is not strictly relevant to recovery. But, she said, “Stretching will keep adhesions from forming. It’s almost like massage from that angle. It’s going to make it easier for you to get into the next workout by keeping you from getting gummed up between the muscle fibers, and between the muscle fibers and connective tissue.”
It is easy to overlook the fact that training affects recovery more than bodywork, cold baths, compression, electrical muscle stimulation, napping, nutrition, stretching and whatever else you might do to enhance recovery—combined. Don’t believe it? Then stop training completely and see how that affects your recovery.
By far and away, the most important thing you can do to maximize your recovery is to balance training stress and rest appropriately. The name of the game is to apply training stress and in doing so stimulate a need for recovery, and then rest enough to allow that recovery to occur. It is through the physiological recovery processes, after all, that fitness increases. When training stress and rest are balanced appropriately, the body does not merely return to its previous equilibrium between workouts, it bounces back stronger, achieving what exercise scientists call “supercompensation.”
The art of training is all about planning and executing workouts and rest to achieve ongoing supercompensation. It sounds simple enough, but athletes botch it all the time, as Tollakson did in taking on too much training before the 2008 Ironman World Championship.
TrainingPeaks is an online training application that Tollakson now uses to avoid repeating this mistake. By inputting all of his training into his TrainingPeaks account, Tollakson is able to continuously graph his “training stress balance,” which is the difference between his recent training stress and his long-term training stress. This variable provides a reliable indication of his recovery status. Through experience in using TrainingPeaks, Tollakson has learned the training stress balance window he needs to stay within to gain fitness without overtraining.
So what exactly is Tollakson gaining from his extreme recovery program? It’s too early to make a final judgment. Tollakson has only recently returned to serious training after having surgery on his left hip to correct a condition called femoral acetabular impingement, a condition that he was born with but which his triathlon training aggravated. The condition was also part of the reason for his poor performance at Kona in 2010, when he placed 38th. (Editor’s note: after this article was published in the July/August, 2011 edition of Inside Triathlon magazine, Tollakson went on to enjoy arguably the best season of his career, where he won Ironman Lake Placid and Eagleman 70.3 and got on the podium at Ironman St. George. Unfortunately, he DNFed in Kona in 2011, likely due to swallowing too much salt water in the choppy Pacific ocean, according to an article on Triathlete.com.)
But he responded well to his first heavy training block post-surgery at a camp with coach Cliff English and English’s other elite triathletes in Tucson, Ariz.
“The biggest thing I’ve noticed is my ability to do back-to-back hard weeks,” he said. “This whole process allows me to train longer and more intensely week in and week out. It’s obvious to me when I’m training with the group; I can compare myself to the other athletes who are training with Cliff. I feel more recovered and ready to train day in and day out.”
Beyond feeling better and training better, Tollakson has also learned an important lesson from the experience.
“Being a truly professional triathlete is a 24/7 job,” he said. “It’s not 30 hours a week of training. It’s everything you do. It’s how you eat, how you sleep and how you take care of your body between workouts that makes you the best you can be.”