More. More. More. That’s often what we chase. Sometimes it’s better and sometimes it’s not. People usually think that if they want to improve, they must need to do more. Adding an hour of training a week or increasing the intensity must be the way to make gains, right? Sometimes, but not always.
The truth is, your ability to train and improve is limited by your ability to recover. You read that right. Recovery is the limiting factor, for just about everyone. Some people have just trained to be able to recover from more, faster.
Consider this, if you train really, really hard, break down your muscle and don’t replenish your glycogen and then you train really, really hard the next day, you will continue to break down your muscles and your glycogen stores. Sometimes, we have to do this in order to overreach and come back stronger, but if we do it for too long, it becomes overtraining and we cannot benefit from it. You can learn all about overreaching and overtraining in a different blog post here.
Here’s the thing though, you might not be over-reach or over-training at all. You might just be under-recovering. This helps to answer the question, “Why can some people do 30+ hour weeks on the bike and continue to produce good results and feel recovered from day to day, while others struggle to maintain 4-5 hours per week and feel exhausted?” Part of it is training, and part of it is recovery.
Of course what your body is accustomed to has a large impact on how quickly it can recover. If you’ve never ridden 50 miles then your first 50 mile ride may take several days to recover from, but if you ride 50 miles all the time then you may be able to recover over-night.
The Repeated Bout Effect shows us that the more we do an exercise, the more our body can respond to that exercise, protecting and repairing more quickly. That’s why by the 5th time you rode 50 miles you weren’t even sore afterward!
All of this to say that with more training, our body does learn to take on more load. So sometimes more is better, until it’s not.
If your 50 mile ride puts you into such a hole that you are exhausted and have to take an entire week off, then you may have over-done it because the amount of time off was greater than the stimulus you imposed on your body. At that point, if you do it again, you may find that you have to take time off again. You find yourself chronically tired, but not making fitness gains. It’s difficult to call this over-training if you’re just doing one or two rides a week, but you still feel exhausted. It’s because you are under-recovered and it’s harming your ability to improve. You would have been better off riding 30 miles, feeling tired, but being able to recover in a day or two and then riding again.
As stated before, you can only train as hard as you can recover. Recovery isn’t glamourous. It’s not what people love talking about, but it’s essential to all athletic performance. Recovery involves muscles healing, mentally resting, restoring fluids and glycogen levels, and engaging your parasympathic nervous system.
If you do a hard ride, come home, drink a recovery drink, get in good protein and carbohydrates, take a nap, stretch, and get a good night’s rest, your ability to recover just increased and if your recover increased your ability to challenge yourself in your workout the next day increased and if that increased then overtime you start to see huge fitness increases as well.
The reality is though, most people don’t have this luxury. When I was in college I would wake up very early, ride, shower, maybe grab a snack, and sprint to my next class within 15 minutes of finishing my ride. I was putting in a ton of the work and I was doing my best, but I was severely lacking recovery and that was one of the biggest increases I saw in my training and ability post-graduation.
Most people don’t need to train more, they need to recover more and once they learn to recover more, then, and only then, should they try to take on more training.
Life limits recover. I get it. Most people would love to come back from a ride and kick their feet up. It’s not from a lack of desire, but a lack of time. The need to recover is the reason that some people can and should only train a few hours a week, because outside of their small training window, they simply don’t have the time to recover the way they need to.
So here are a few of my tips of how to optimize recovery on the go:
- Meal Prep: Even one step easier, just recovery meal prep. Have whatever you plan to consume after your workout already ready when you start. That way if you are immediately on-call after your workout you can always carry your smoothie into your meeting.
- Have a Cue: Engage your parasympathetic nervous system as quickly as possible after a workout. During a workout we are usually in a high stress emotion, which is good, the adrenaline can help us preform. After, we need to tone it down as quickly as possible. Have a really quick way to signal to yourself the workout is over and it’s time to rest. It could be as simple as a calming song you always listen to after your workout.
- Incorporate Recovery Into the Workout: If you only have 1 hour to train every day and every other minute is filled all day, try training only 50 minutes and using 10 of them to stretch. Your body will likely not notice the 10 minute workout difference, but increasing mobility can help you stay injury free.
- Breathe! Find yourself with an elevated heart rate throughout the day? Play a ‘breathing game.’ Every time someone says the word ‘____’ you have to take a deep breath all the way in and all the way out. This can help re-engage your parasympathetic nervous system.
- Enhance Your Sleep: Maybe you don’t have time to sleep more, but can you sleep better? Try making your room darker, a little bit cooler, or try to make your sleep and wake times as similar as possible each day.
Be a Person
You are a person, not a robot. Workouts and work can take a big toll on your body, but they can also supply so much joy. Make sure that the joy always out-weighs everything else. At the end of the day, when you get off of the bike you have to be a good friend, spouse, child, parent, etc first. Make sure that you are only taking on the training that you can recover from and have a little bit left over to love those around you.