Fitness does not increase during workouts. Fitness increases between workouts. So, the goal of your training program should not be to train as much as possible, but to recover as much as possible. Now, of course, in order to recover you must first train, so maximizing recovery is not about minimizing training. Rather it’s about doing things like this:
1. Perform hard workouts only when you’re ready for them
Too many endurance athletes perform – or at least try to perform – nearly every workout they’ve scheduled, regardless of their physical state at the time of the workout. In other words, many endurance athletes treat their training schedule as gospel. But you’re in a much better position to determine which type of workout (if any) is appropriate on any given day on the actual day in question than you are when planning your training days or weeks beforehand.
Performing hard workouts when your body has not recovered sufficiently from recent training is a bad idea for two reasons. First, you’ll inevitably go slower than you otherwise could and will therefore receive less benefit from the session. Second, doing a hard workout when you’re tired already will throw you even deeper into the pit of fatigue and make it harder to climb out.
2. Assess your recovery status each morning
There are three things you can do first thing in the morning to assess your recovery status: take your pulse, weigh yourself, and do a muscle strength test. Lower than normal body weight is an indication that you may not be fully recovered from recent training. Specifically, it shows that you have not replaced burned energy, are not fully hydrated, or both. A higher than normal pulse rate is also an indication of less than full recovery.
After having gotten up and moved around a bit in the morning, perform a quick set of 10 or 15 deep squats (or push-ups if you’re a rower and swimmer) and concentrate on how your muscles feel. Feelings of weakness and soreness are indications of incomplete recovery.
You’ll need to perform these tests consistently for some time before they become a reliable means of telling you whether you’re ready for hard training. Note the results of these tests and of your subsequent workouts in your training log and look for patterns to emerge. Once this happens, you can use the tests to appropriately modify your planned training for each day.
3. Practice nutritional recovery
Always remember that nutrition is the base of post-exercise recovery. You can recover much more quickly when you take in the right nutrients at the right time after trainings and of course in the right amounts. You can see better results than if you don’t practice proper nutritional recovery.
Timing is also very vital with regard to post-exercise nutrition as our body is primed to sponge up needed nutrients at this time. For instance, synthesis of muscle glycogen proceeds two to three times more quickly in the couple of hours immediately following workout than it does at any other time. It has to be mentioned that there are 4 main nutrients your body is required for recovery: carbohydrate to replenish depleted glycogen stores, electrolyte minerals and water to replace sweat losses, and protein with vitamins to rebuild damaged and burned muscle proteins. The most convenient way to get all this nutrition is in the form of a performance recovery drinks or protein shakes formulated specifically for this purpose.
4. Don’t be ruled by numbers.
Numbers are among the main causes of inadequate recovery among endurance athletes. When planning their training, endurance athletes generally set a goal to perform a certain quantified amount of training (miles, meters, hours) in a week, and then they treat this total as an absolute must. But there’s nothing magical about round numbers. In any given week, 47 miles of running may be just the right amount, so all you’ll accomplish by squeezing out 50 miles is to essentially undo part of what you achieved with the first 47. Treat you training plan as a rough guideline.
The seven-day week is another number that causes problems. Many endurance athletes get stuck in the belief that they need to repeat each type of quality workout once a week, but this may be slightly too often in some cases. Perhaps you’ll get better results if you perform workout X once every eight or nine days instead of every seven. Again, let your body guide you rather than convention.
5. Perform active recovery workouts.
Rest is essential for recovery, but when done properly, combining active recovery workouts with outright rest results in better recovery than you can achieve through rest alone. Active recovery workouts are simply short workouts performed at a low intensity level. The reason they accelerate recovery is that (given adequate post-workout nutrition) the recovery process proceeds most quickly during the hours immediately following a workout. Therefore, as long as you can handle the workout frequency, getting (for example) 14 hours of rest plus 30 minutes of light exercise between two hard workouts will generally leave you more fully recovered for the second hard workout than getting 14 hours and 30 minutes of complete rest.
There are two ways to incorporate active recovery workouts into your training program. The first is to substitute shorter, easy workouts for one or two of your weekly steady-pace aerobic workouts. The second is to add recovery workouts to your existing schedule. In most cases, option one is preferable – that is, leave your hard workouts hard and make your easier workout easier. Try the second option only during the early-base building portion of a training cycle when you’re feeling good and very much on top of your training
6. Know when to say when.
When workouts last too long, they increase your subsequent need for recovery without providing any more benefit than if you’d quit while you were ahead. By consistently making your workouts – and in particular your high-intensity interval workouts and your long endurance workouts – just the right length, you’ll get the maximum possible benefit from each without unduly prolonging the time you need to recovery from them.
Your long workouts should end just at the point where your body begins to break down significant amounts of muscle protein for fuel due to lack of available carbohydrate. You’ll feel a rapidly increasing soreness in your working muscles as this transition occurs. Wrap up the workout before significant soreness accumulates. In interval workouts, always perform the maximum, or the maximum minus one, number of intervals you can do without falling off your goal pace. In other words, make each interval as fast as or faster than the previous and quit when you’re pretty sure the next one would be slower.
7. No half-ass tapers.
For two years I struggled to better my half-marathon PR without success. The week before my most recent half-marathon, I was traveling on business and had very little time to work out. On Sunday, I destroyed my PR by four and a half minutes. Prior to each of my previous half-marathons, I had taken just two easy days. Lesson learned.
Many endurance athletes are (as I was, but will never be again!) afraid to do a pronounced taper before a race for fear of losing fitness. But in countless studies and innumerable real-world cases, it’s been demonstrated over and over again that drastically reducing your training for at least several days before a race yields better a performance than reducing training by small or even moderate amounts or by any amount for just a day or two. A good, pronounced taper will leave your body completely recovered from previous training without any detraining effect. I promise!