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.
Recovery 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 www.TrainingPeaks.com 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.)
Quick 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.”
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.