An Appreciation for Recovery

I am exhausted. A week of high volume will do that. Over seven days it became mentally and physically harder to sustain the workload. Training builds fatigue, at some point a break is required. The plan was always an epic week followed by serious recovery. So far I’ve slept in and spent ninety minutes on my mountain bike exploring local trails. Active, but a significant reduction in training stress.

Recovery is hard work. Suggesting resting a little more, tapering a little harder or holding back makes my athletes concerned. They need to keep pushing. They can’t afford to slow down and give up fitness; the race is only three months away! There is a strong fear of resting amongst driven triathletes. I should know I’ve plenty of experience myself.

Not that we should be afraid of being fatigued either. Training is destructive. We damage our body and that damage leads to the adaptations that improve fitness. The body repairs itself, better able to cope with the stresses we’re placing on it. Keep training hard and the process lags behind; fatigue and muscle damage impair performance. Our ability to train harder or target specific intensities is reduced.

Consistent training is about a consistent stimulus to adapt. We also want a sufficiently strong and appropriately targeted stimulus. A question of how we train as well as how much. I finished my training camp with three 100 mile rides in a row. By the third fatigue was clearly affecting my performance. The quality fell, whilst it was challenging I was unable to work as hard. Outside of a training camp this is rarely desirable.

If I continued with daily century rides I’d expect the downward trend in power to reach a plateau. The training stress for each ride would be lower and there’d be scant amounts of specific work. Recovery breaks consistency in a small way, but makes subsequent training more effective. Three century rides spread over a week are more likely to be ridden harder and with specific work incorporated.

I was driven to train more through my first two years of Ironman. Desperate to improve I would keep pushing myself until performance plateaued. Training continued whilst I was unable to raise my heart rate or power above a steady state. Finally I would cracked or start a taper. Recovery was passive rather than proactive: it happened when I had no choice.

I’m smarter now. I place more value in how I train as well as how much. I train a lot, but with experience I’m careful in the timing of workouts. I’ve developed an appreciation of how each session fatigues me and how I recover. When I want to train hard I want to ensure I’m prepared to do it. At times I will combine hard sessions into small blocks to push myself, but mostly I spread them to ensure I perform at my best.

The Two Day Rule is the simple way I remember how recovery impacts my cycling. Formulated during last year’s Kona preparations when unable to run I put everything into the bike. Long hard rides filled with intensity left me shattered. Fatigue clearly carried over into the following day and any attempt at riding would be limited in value. I found if I waited one day I would ride better, but if I waited two I could push again.

Two days recovery between my hardest bike sessions works for me. I could ride in between if I was willing to keep intensity low and allow recovery. My training cycles developed around this two day structure with each key workout two days apart. My focus was on holding back a little longer so I could work harder on the bike. Ride volume was down, but intensity up; more time was spent at race relevant power. Sometimes I want to train hard, sometimes I want to train long. Managing recovery accordingly enables me to do this.

As a coach I try to space my athlete’s key workouts to ensure they recover between them. Inevitably some sessions are compromised, life has a tendency to get in the way of neat plans. Feedback is vital in producing an optimal schedule. Patterns in performance, fatigue and recovery have to be followed. Consistent difficulty hitting targets is a good indication that something needs changing. The trick for any athlete is finding the routine that enables them to train effectively with just enough recovery to support the work they’re doing.

It’s hard to view not training as a part of becoming fitter. You need to train and you need to recover. Without both performance is compromised. After a week working hard I’m keeping active, but kicking back and letting myself recover.

Ironman Training Library

From nutrition to pacing - a collection of CoachCox blog posts focused specifically on Ironman training and racing.


  • David

    Hi Russ. Just wondered if you’ve ever experienced muscle twitching (particularly in the calves) as a result of your training. I’ve been back from a Lanza training camp for 10 days now and since starting back training on the weekend my calves are refusing to settle and the muscles are constantly involuntary firing. I wondered if this could be down to a diet deficiency or more likely too much too soon after an epic camp? Any advice would be appreciated.

  • Hi David,

    I’ve had muscle twitching in the legs, I think more quad based in my case, though I’ve also had a couple of instances of waking to nasty calf cramps. Always relates to conditions which could introduce cramps for me. So can be very much a product of fatigue from racing or extreme training or a consequence of electrolyte problems. Living in Oz I had to take magnesium (it’s lacking in their soil) to combat cramp issues. The fatigue issue is less common now it takes some pretty extreme training to induce twitches from that. Generally mine settled within a night or two.

    I’d suggest taking in some extra electrolytes, Nuun tablets or similar are good for this. Otherwise potentially rest a bit more and take it easier. If your camp was a big step up then it could be a result of fatigue. Hard to say without knowing how hard you trained in Lanza (if you’re like me then very hard) and how hard you’re training since returning.


  • David

    Thanks for the reply Russ and the advice. It was a pretty intense week, nearly 30hrs in 7 days and looking back I probably fell into the trap of continuing to train at the same intensity when I got home as I was feeling strong from the week away.
    More recovery needed i think and I’ll give the magnesium a try. Thanks again.

  • Easy to get carried away and keep pushing, but if you are stepping outside your usual training load at some point you’re going to need a break. Electrolytes are an easy part to address, but definitely consider backing off a little. A good training camp should require some recovery and time before you see the results.

    The silly volume of Epic Camp seemed to take a month before it showed signs in my training performance. My first camp I carried the training through and ran myself down. As it happened this coincided with Ironman Switzerland and I had a less than stellar performance. If I’d been willing to hold back and taper sooner I think I’d have had a much better race for it.


  • David

    Patience is a virtue as they say! Thanks again for the advice, I have to remind myself that recovery is all part of the process. This was my first camp so its good to hear it off someone who’s experienced it all before.

  • Interesting read, like you I only used to wait one day between training (apart from the weekends) will have to give this a go.

    Train – Eat – Rest – Repeat!


  • Sam,

    It could be worth a try. The two day rule is my own. I sort of saw it in practice on Wednesday, 2 days after my big training week. My morning ride was much better than the previous days efforts, legs were coming back. Of course when you do a significantly higher volume of training it takes longer to recover.

    I will take 2 days between key bike sessions, but there’s still other training I can do, swim and run of course. The balance is ensuring they don’t interfere with those bikes.