September 6, 2010 by Joe Friel

I’ve found
that it’s not usually difficult at all to get serious athletes to train hard.
In fact, most could probably train a bit easier and be more race-fit and faster
as a result. At the extreme end, I’ve talked with a few overtrained athletes
over the years, from age groupers to pros (age-group athletes, by the way, are
more likely to overtrain, I believe). The overtrained athletes I’ve talked with
seemed to have several common characteristics: a great deal of talent, a long
history of successful training, a high tolerance for training stress/workload,
a strong work ethic, a great desire to succeed (or not fail), they were
self-coached and had little else in their life but their sport.


Of course,
depending on how you define it, all successful athletes overtrain. Sometimes
it’s referred to as overreaching, but this is still just an early stage of
overtraining. The difference between overreaching and overtraining is how long
it takes to recover. With overreaching you are ready to go after, at most,
about two days of rest and/or active recovery. When overtrained after a few
days—or even a few weeks—you are still tired. There are a host of other
possible symptoms you can read about in my Training Bible books. The bottom
line is that when you are overtrained (it’s sometimes referred to as the
“overtraining syndrome” to differentiate it from the early, overreaching
stages) your race season or at least a huge chunk of it is over.


All good
athletes are overreached from time to time. Quite frequently, in fact. But few
people can achieve an overtraining syndrome. It takes the characteristics
mentioned above along with the capacity to ignore the body when it is crying
out for rest.


Training as
if you are eventually going to become overtrained is necessary for success. The
process of becoming fit requires that you stress the body to a level for which
it is not currently adapted. You can’t do this only once. High fitness requires
that you do it repeatedly for some period of time. When you eventually stop
adding stress and recover is the key to avoiding overtraining.


should be built into every day, every week, every month and every year. For
some this is the hard part. This is where they fail on the path to high
fitness. Let’s look at the starting point for recovery: What you do after a
stressful workout.


First, what
is a stressful workout? In my books I refer to these as “breakthrough” (BT)
workouts. If you use the workout menu at
you’ll find many workouts with “BT:” preceding the workout description.
Essentially, this is a hard workout, one that will require more than 24 hours
to recover from. During that 24+ hours you’ll be doing easy, active-recovery
workouts or completely resting. Most athletes can generally manage two to four
BT sessions in seven days with active recovery or rest days between them. It’s
also possible to string two or more BT workouts back to back on consecutive
days, but by so doing you increase the risk of eventually becoming overtrained
if some serious rest is not included. (I might also add that this increases the
rate at which you become fit. This is the risk-reward concept of training which
I’ve written about before.)


recovery after a BT workout is one of the keys to success in endurance sport.
The sooner you are recovered the sooner you can do another BT workout. The more
BT workouts you can do in a given period of time the more fit you become. The
more fit you are the faster you race. So the key is quick recovery.


What can
you do to recover fast after a BT session? The following is what I tell the
athletes I coach to do and in the order they should do them. Not everyone can
do each of the following after every hard workout because things like a career
and other responsibilities get in the way. Just do the best job you can
realizing that some days it will be easier to plug more of these in than on
other days.


  1. Take in
    carbs within 30 minutes of finishing a BT workout. Most prefer this in a liquid
    form. It could be anything that is rich in sugar. This is not a time to be
    overly concerned with what is or isn’t “healthy.” Possibilities are commercial
    recovery drinks, a blender homebrew you make, or even a soft drink. Take in
    whatever appeals to you that is carbohydrate-rich and high glycemic. Depending
    on body size, your experience and how hard the workout was you’ll probably need
    between 200 and 500 calories. It could even be more. You’ll know when you’ve
    had enough. I always like to see the athletes I coach include fruit or fruit
    juice at this time since hard workouts increase body acidity which delays
    recovery (not necessarily lactic acid which is a topic for another post). Fruits
    and veggies are the only foods that reduce acidity in the body. It may also be
    a good idea to eat some protein. About 10 grams (40 kcal) is probably adequate.
    There’s quite a bit of research which seems to support this. Commercial
    recovery drinks usually include protein. But it could be a powder you add to
    your homebrew. Or perhaps you just eat a couple of boiled eggs or leftovers in
    the fridge. Protein and carbs at this time don’t have to be expensive, exotic
    or designed by a “scientist.”


  1. As soon
    as possible after the workout elevate your legs. For example, lay on the floor
    with your feet and legs on a chair or against the wall. This will take the load
    off of your heart and encourage the redistribution of fluids that have pooled
    in your legs. A few minutes of this is usually enough.


  1. Take a nap.
    This is one that most people can’t fit in. Most pro athletes seem to nap
    regularly. But then they don’t usually have to rush off to work or a child’s
    soccer game. Thirty to sixty minutes is probably enough to help speed recovery.


  1. Drink
    fluids to completely satisfy thirst the remainder of the day (there is no
    ‘schedule’ or precise amount you must drink). Water is the No. 1 choice. Sports
    drinks are okay immediately post-workout but as the day wears on these
    increasingly become poor choices for fluids. Your cells don’t need to bathed in
    sugar and sodium for hour after hour.


  1. In the
    next meal after the BT workout include dietary starch. The best options here
    are potato, sweet potato and yam. But it’s also okay to eat some grains (bread,
    bagels, cereal, corn, rice, etc). I prefer vegetables to grains at this time as
    vegs are richer in micronutrients than grains. After that meal return to eating
    primarily veggies, fruits and lean protein while reducing your starch intake.
    This, again, is because starches are less rich in vitamins and minerals. My
    concern at this time is long-range recovery. Micronutrients are needed for
    that. If you’ve done a good job of taking in sugar immediately post-workout and
    adequate starch in the first post-workout meal then you shouldn’t need a lot
    more starch or sugar now.


  1. The most
    important form of recovery comes in sleep the night after your BT session. This
    is when adaptation takes place and you become more fit. It’s best to sleep
    until you awake naturally—not to an alarm clock. That often means going to bed
    early. Again, a lot of people simply can’t fit an early bedtime into their
    lifestyles due to so many other commitments. But realize that this is the one
    which will give you the greatest return on investment.


While this
is what I advise those I coach to do in order to recover quickly from a BT
workout, we usually wind up modifying things to better fit their unique
situations. This often has to do with the time of day they do certain types of
workouts. For example, when doing two sessions in a day (see my blog on this
topic here) they may need to be arranged so that the one which will be the
easier to recover after, in terms of lifestyle conflicts, is the harder one.

A hard workout only creates the potential for fitness. It’s realized when you recover afterwards. When you take it easy after a hard workout the body’s adaptive process kicks in and you become more fit. During recovery the body restores itself by rebuilding damaged cells, creating new neural pathways, expanding capillary beds, rebalancing its chemistry, developing muscles, and much more. During this physiological renovation it makes all of the body’s systems affected by the workout slightly better able handle the stress that produced the need for rest in the first place. This is called overcompensation. The overcompensation process is at the heart of adaptation and therefore race performance. The ultimate result is that the three determiners of your endurance fitness—aerobic capacity, anaerobic/lactate threshold, and economy—improve slightly. The amount of improvement is determined by the type of workout stress applied and how long the recovery lasted.

Recovery and adaptation are essentially the same thing. This adaptive process takes some time and can’t hurried. How much time you need to reduce fatigue and gain fitness depends on how great the preceding workout stress was. If it was only slightly more difficult than what your body was already adapted to then you will probably be ready for another stressful workout again in around 48 hours. A workout that was a great deal harder than your current level of adaptation was capable of handling requires a longer period of recovery.

Following a hard workout you experience fatigue. That is how nature tries to keep you from doing back-to-back hammer sessions that would tear the body down so much it could no longer adapt. An exceptionally high level of fatigue, indicating a very stressful workout, is risky. Combine this with too little recovery time and you’re on the way to overtraining. But the other side of the training coin isn’t much better. Only doing easy workouts day after day or taking several days off results in a loss of fitness. This is the opposite of overcompensation. The key to effective training is to strike a balance between these two determiners of high-performance—stress and recovery—so that fatigue is created and then reduced.

So there is no improvement in fitness without at least some fatigue. How much fatigue is necessary for this? Unfortunately, that’s hard to nail down because fatigue isn’t as easily measured as fitness, at least not yet. Precise tests, such as those used in measuring VO2max or anaerobic threshold, don’t exist for fatigue. That makes recovery an art more than a science. While there are some ways of determining it, fatigue requires a lot of guesswork in order to come up with the proper recovery dose for the given stress load that produced it. This means recovery from fatigue is mostly based on self-perception and sensations. But we’re slowly getting better at measuring it. Sport science generally comes up with something every few years for gauging what the body is experiencing following a hard workout or period of training. One such tool is heart rate variability. Such breakthroughs allow us to make better-educated guesses at how much recovery may be needed following a given workout. Even with such measurement, however, it’s still imprecise.

What further confounds all of this is that recovery is highly individualized. Not all recovery methods work equally well for all athletes following the same types of training sessions with similar levels of fatigue. The challenge is to figure out what works for you. The two most common and most effective are sleep and nutrition. But there are other options such as compression garments, pneumatic compression devices, massage, alternating hot-cold water emersion, and many more. There could be several things to try before finding the best for you. Even then their effectiveness may vary from one workout to the next. The solutions may be found by simply trying things. This isn’t easy because there are quite a few and some involve using special and somewhat expensive gear. They are also quite individualized. But you probably already have a great deal of experience with some of the methods. Most advanced athletes soon figure out these things as their racing careers progress.

Here’s one example of the individuality of recovery. Most advanced athletes find that an easy session—called “active recovery”—stimulates recovery and therefore contributes to adaptation whereas most novice athletes and many intermediates (second and third years in their sports) find that a day off from training—“passive recovery”—is usually the better option.

Connecting the dots for all of this leads to the conclusion that fatigue is good because it implies the potential for fitness, and that decreasing fatigue is an indicator of adaptation and therefore realized fitness. That’s a big deal. So the overarching lesson here is that recovery is just as critical to your success in sport as are hard workouts. If you are good at doing one but not the other you will fall well short of your potential. It takes both the stress of training and the adaptive process of recovery to be race ready.

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4 Key IRONMAN Swim Workouts

The IRONMAN 2.4 mile swim can be intimidating if you haven’t done the right prep with swim training. These are the four few key swim workouts I personally like for prep—I also give these workouts to my athletes to test their readiness and build swim confidence, so they feel prepared to nail their swim on race day. Here are a few of my favorite IRONMAN swim workouts: