These last few years I’ve been thinking about proper recovery in between workouts a lot, and how it affects my ability to increase my performance. A lot has been written about recovery and how improper recovery can really detract from a race result and lead to injury. As I have explored recovery, not much has been written about some of the other aids to recovery that can speed it up.
Recovery really became important for me as I discovered that, at 40+ years of age, I would require up to 3 days of recovery after my long bike and long run days. Conventional training wisdom states that 1 full day of rest would be enough, and that by the day after I’d be able to hit workouts at normal paces and wattages with no problem. This wasn’t the case for me!
The other piece of wisdom that people fear is that you need at least 3 workout days for each sport to improve in triathlon. I’ve also found this to be false as I increase my long run and bike days, I still improve with only 2 days per week per discipline (not counting recovery workouts in those disciplines). But this is under specific conditions as I would love to move to 3 strong days during my build and peaking phases and not just during the base phase. Those conditions are the fact that I’m 40+ years of age and I don’t recover fast enough, that I never was an athlete in my youth so I can’t draw upon early years of athletic conditioning and ability, and also because I started so late to build my body and we just don’t build strength as fast as we do when we’re younger.
So if you don’t match those conditions, you should still go for 3 good workouts per discipline per week to try to improve and not just move to 2 simply because you’re lazy.
One of my aims became finding ways of recovering faster from my long bike and run days. I’ve also discovered recovery happens in the aerobic system, the muscles in both healing tissue damage and relieving tightness, and there is mental recovery as well. There have been many instances when recovery has happened separately in these areas and not all at once. For example, I may feel good in my lungs and body, which is a sign that my aerobic system has recovered, but my legs still feel tired and tight, which is a sign that my leg muscles have not.
Mental recovery is when you brain needs time to recover from mentally focusing on a long ride or intense training session. Doing hard workouts over and over can fatigue your ability to want to sustain a long and/or intense workout and sometimes you just need a brain break so you can hit the next workout with proper determination and not weakened willpower.
With respect to muscle tightness, many researchers are now working on the neurological basis for recovery, which is to figure out how to get the nerves to stop firing and to let go, which reduces or eliminates muscle tightness. This is tightness that you can’t stretch away; it stays around despite stretching. This tightness is also very dangerous in that if you don’t remove it, over time this will transfer shock and stress to the ligaments and joints which don’t absorb that very well and cause further damage to your body, leading to injury. Muscle tightness also prevents the transport of blood flow to your muscles, so exercise by-products stay around longer (hence soreness), and hinder the flow of nutrients back into your muscles for healing and energy replenishment.
In the last few years, the techniques and devices for recovering have become more sophisticated. While this survey is by no means exhaustive, I will talk about some of the ones I’ve encountered and have used here now:
Time and Rest
The easiest and cheapest way to recover. You just don’t do anything until your body comes back, besides sleeping, resting, taking lots of vitamins, and eating properly. My issue, of course, that just sitting around isn’t good training practice for the 3 days I need, even if it does work.
This is one of my favorites. Immediately after my long bike or run, I jump into the bathtub and fill it with water and ice cubes and sit in it for about 10 minutes. The ice stops the muscles from creating more exercise by-products and also numbs any pain from training. Then when I get out, I hop into the shower and the hot water restarts blood flow and helps flush any remaining exercise by-products from your muscles.
The one downside is getting enough ice to do this. I need probably around 15 lbs in the summer time when the cold water coming out of the faucet is warmer, but only 9 lbs in the winter time. So either you gotta run to the supermarket after training to buy some bags of ice, or you have to fill up plastic bags with ice cubes during the week.
I love wearing compression socks and tights. I do find that these are very effective at helping fluid move through my legs and increase circulation, while reducing that swollen feeling when fluid pools in my legs.
I did do this once or twice but I don’t do it very often. Massage on tired muscles does help blood flow through those areas, creating recovery. It also feels good having someone loosen them up in the process. But it is expensive and I don’t find many massage practictioners do the right thing on the muscles as there are many forms of massage and not all work well on specific muscle recovery.
This is a great way to increase blood flow and loosen up tight muscles. You just do very light workouts in any discipline. While just going out for a light swim, bike, or jog is good, I also think you can train while practicing active recovery so you’re actually getting some benefits beyond recovering. I am a big proponent of neuromuscular training, so active recovery sessions are a great way to train the neuromuscular system while not stressing your overall physical system. This is doing track drills while out jogging, or doing one legged spinning drills and practicing perfect form during fast spinning on the bike, or doing swimming drills. I also find that stimulating the muscles to fire fast again after getting all stiff and tired from a hard training session is crucial to making sure you don’t slow down, so I like to do fast turnover running/swimming and fast pedaling to get my muscles back to firing fast again.
Physical Therapy, ART, Graston
Anyone who knows me knows that I am a big proponent of weekly physical therapy sessions with ART and Graston to help remove tightness and smooth out muscle adhesions to get the muscles functional and loose again. I have found nothing better to get my muscles prepped for another week of hard training than ART and Graston.
Foam Rolling, TP Massage Rollers and Balls, Lacrosse Balls, Softballs
Another form of massage is using these tools to help get into muscles and knead out tightness and soreness, as well as promote blood flow to those areas. Foam rollers are great for overall massaging and can be used for warmup as well. TP Massage Rollers from Trigger Point Performance are excellent for deeper massaging of muscles, as foam rollers can be too broad in surface area and too soft to really get deeper into muscles. TP Massage Balls and lacrosse balls are even better to get into specific points in muscles. Sometimes I also use a softball to massage my quads and to get into my psoas. The idea is to press hard into those tools and move the tool or the muscle underneath to help smooth out adhesions and make the muscle functional again.
Port-a-Vibe and Vibration in Recovery
Newest in my collection of toys, I bought a Port-a-Vibe which is a consumer version of some of those larger much more expensive vibration units you find in big gyms. Researchers have found that vibration stimulates the nervous system, increases metabolic rates, and promotes circulation. I stand on this unit for 10 minutes and it’s great for increasing circulation to my muscles and help with recovery. I have also used it to warmup. Many other benefits are cited, like working out while standing on the unit has shown to increase muscle stimulation and performance enhancements occur.
Deep Muscle Stimulator (DMS)
This gizmo has been around for a long time. The Deep Muscle Stimulator (DMS) is a heavy duty unit weighing about 5 lbs and vibrates at a certain frequency found to be optimal in affecting muscles neurologically. Specifically, when you direct the gun-like unit to your muscles, it pummels the muscle until the muscle’s nerves can’t keep up their firing, hence tightness, and the nerves just tire and relax. Not only does it do that, but it also has normal massage benefits like stimulating circulation to the applied area. I am lusting after one of these, but it costs $2500!!! My PT guy uses one on me and I love it.
Check these out – Normatech Sports originally created these out of a need for patients with medical conditions involving poor circulation, or healing after surgery. After giving some units to sports teams, they started using these for recovery and have found some fantastic results. The booties work by using air to create a pumping action against your legs (there are booties for your arms too) that increase circulation. This accelerates the movement of exercise by-products out of your legs and brings in new blood faster. Athletes use these for 20-30 minutes and have apparently achieved amazing results. The Garmin cycling team have used these and they love them. I am also lusting after a pair of these – they require a doctor’s prescription and they cost $5000 a pair! Sometime next year, they intend to create a more consumer version which will cost somewhere between $1000-2000 a pair. Not sure I can wait that long…also the consumer version has less control over the frequency of the pumping against the legs.
Technology is advancing by leaps and bounds. It’s all we can do to keep up with these advances, but us crazy athletes who want to get faster can only continue to lust after these fantastic techniques and devices.