Improving Recovery

I was nervous before the start of this morning’s track session. Whenever I run there’s fear that this time injury might return. Rebuilding confidence is as much part of the process as rebuilding fitness. My track work with James doesn’t involve hard intervals, the focus is development of technique, but I still worry. Especially when my legs feel jaded from the previous day.

Yesterday I rode with Karl Alexander for the first time in a year. He’d just qualified for Kona at Ironman UK, but nine days later his legs weren’t showing much wear. I was looking forward to a testing ride and Karl didn’t disappoint, combining some nasty Chiltern climbs and maintaining the pace throughout. We parted at the top of Pishill, both feeling the work in our legs; at least it was downhill from there.

Hard cycling has become an increasingly common feature of my training. I know it’s been a good session when I struggle down the stairs! Discomfort may give a sense of satisfaction, but I want to be repeating the work on subsequent days. I’m chasing consistency; it is counterproductive to train so hard that the next day is compromised. I could control my efforts, hold back more and spread the load, or perhaps address another weakness.

Recovery was a dirty word. As an athlete my strength has been the ability to log numbers, in particular training hours. Once a workout was over I did little to specifically address recovery, my body knows what it’s doing. Triathlon literature is filled with articles stressing how important it is, typically they explain the requirements of an elite athlete leaving the assumption we should all do the same. Often it seemed excessive.

Regardless, I wasn’t getting it right. Large shifts in body weight around races, periods pushing through training followed by cycles of exhaustion – little true consistency. Sometimes it takes a while for a concept to sink in, an injury creates the perfect environment for this. The first idea filtered through as I built up to Kona; focussing on cycling I saw patterns in how I recovered, when I could push more and when fatigue was too much. I could train every day, but training well every day was a challenge.

I developed a new routine of harder and easier workouts, becoming confident I could push myself a certain number of times per week when correctly scheduled. Outside of that I needed to hold back and minimise the strain; beyond those key sessions I didn’t want to increase fatigue and delay recovery. My hard became harder and easier, easier. Results were good, but I struggled on consistency whenever a hard workout took too much.

Rebuilding fitness following winter demonstrated how much I believed in more. For two years more was my training mantra, specifically more hours; content mattered less than numbers in the log. But fitness returned quickly, delivered through a wider variety of intensities and lower volume. More was better to a point, beyond that energy was being wasted. Once performance was suffering I would cut back.

Sometimes I didn’t recover. Perhaps my expectations exceeded my ability, but I wanted to hit my targets. Back to recovery. Listening to Matt Dixon discussing the problems of excessive training and inadequate recovery on the Marathon Talk podcast brought the concept home. I was delivering results with better structure and focus, but until I improved recovery a limitation remained.

It has taken a while to start implementing a controlled recovery plan. This last week I’ve strung together a series of harder bikes; with Epic Camp days away I wanted to be confident I can hold up to miles in the Alps. I can. Solid days in the saddle were survived and backed up, it just required effort once I was off the bike.

Into the house, then start replacing lost fluids and eat to prepare for the next session. Light stretching to loosen the legs, clean up and on with some Compressport quad compression. Simple stuff. Whether this routine made real differences is hard to confirm, but I felt better and I backed up my rides. Closer to consistency and more confident that I can survive eight hard days.

My training evolves; tweaks and optimisations improve results. This is another step along that line, something that addresses real shortcomings in my habits. There is always more to learn and more to adapt – sleep patterns are the next target. I train harder than I used to, but to be successful I have to recover harder too.

A week of Epic training in the Alps will be a real test.

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