Recovery is priority number one
When it comes to improving as an endurance athlete, consistency is king. Obviously getting out the door and actually doing the work is the first part of that. The second part is being able to do it. If we get hurt, or we haven’t recovered from the last hard effort, we aren’t going to be able to do the “quality” work.
Without recovery there is no progress. We don’t actually get fitter while doing our harder or longer quality workouts. Those workouts break us down, providing the stimulus to get our body to go “Oh crap, I better build that back stronger so that doesn’t happen again!” It’s while we’re recovering that the rebuilding actually takes place. It’s during recovery that we’re actually getting fitter.
If we take a second to think about recovery being when we actually improve, then it no longer makes sense to just push hard every day. This of course assumes that the goal of the workout is to get physically fitter. If the goal is to just burn calories, get in a “good workout” to let off some steam, or something else, then it can make sense to go “hard” even if we aren’t fully recovered. But if you’re reading my stuff I’m assuming you are the type of person who wants to get better, not just be a gym rat.
So if improving as athletes is our priority, and we only actually get fitter when we’re recovering, then it makes sense that recovery should be priority number one. The real goal is work enough to get the body to improve, and then recover fast enough that we can do it again so that we can get better (i.e. recover) again. There are three real important aspects to this approach: 1) each “quality” workout should be hard enough to stimulate athletic development in some way, 2) these quality workouts need to not beat us up so bad that we can’t recover quickly enough to avoid deconditioning (i.e. getting out of shape), and 3) we need to treat recovery as an important part of the training plan. Let’s break these down into each piece.
A quality workout needs to be hard enough to stimulate athletic development
What this means in a nutshell is that our hard workouts need to be hard enough to get our bodies to pay attention. Hard doesn’t necessarily mean that it needs to be gut-busting hard, but rather that it needs to be hard enough to stress the physiological system that the workout is targeting. Long efforts are really about stressing our ability to utilize fat as a fuel, stimulating the body to build more mitochondria. Speed workouts are about getting the central nervous system more efficient and the muscles involved to be able to generate more oomph on each particular stroke or step. VO2-max workouts are really about getting better at turning incoming oxygen into power output. Whatever the system is that we’re targeting (and it can be more than one), if we don’t hit it hard enough it won’t be motivated to get better. As a general rule of thumb, the more fit we are, the harder the hard efforts have to be because it takes more stress to get past that stimulus threshold. So if we’re pretty fit, then we need to work hard to get more fit. But if we’re new or out of shape in terms of the particular stimulus of the workout, then we don’t have to push quite as hard in order to get a response from our body.
A quality workout needs to be light enough to allow rapid recovery
This is a really important concept that a lot of folks fail to take into account. Especially as we age a bit and it starts taking us longer to recover from hard efforts because our metabolism is more efficient and slower. The basic premise is that it takes longer to recover from a harder quality workout than a lighter one. This makes sense as there is more cellular and/or metabolic damage to repair. But if we’re actually recovering appropriately, it’s probably going to be a day or two after a good workout before we’re ready to put our body through the ringer again. During that time we’re not stressing our body enough to maintain that higher fitness level, and it will start to become deconditioned (i.e. out of shape). As the old adage says: if you don’t use it, you lose it. A good “quality” workout is hard enough to stimulate improvement, but light enough that recovering from it doesn’t take so long that we’ve lost any gains we’ve made by the time we can get another quality workout in.
Treating recovery as a part of the training plan
Everything we do affects our ability to recover. What we eat. How well hydrated we are. How much sleep we’re getting. Job stress. Family life. All of it. And if we treat recovery as just what we do when we’re waiting to do another hard work out, then we will most likely not recover as quickly. And the longer it takes to recover, the longer it is going to be before we’re ready for another hard workout. If we instead treat recovery as another part of the training plan, or another workout with a specific goal (i.e. building our fitness), then it becomes a lot easier to ensure we’re doing the things that need to get done in order to have another quality session. And the faster we get fully recovered, the faster we can do another quality session. And the more quality work we get in over a season or year, the fitter we’re going to be.
One of my favorite training quotes is from coaching legend Joe Vigil: There is no such thing as over-training, only under-recovery. And while it can be easy to interpret this to mean we need to push hard all the time and do a lot of volume, what it really means is that you can only train as hard and as much as you allow yourself recovery for. By prioritizing recovery, it minimizes our injury rate, and allows us to train harder more often. Training hard more often means more consistently getting the physiological stimuli that makes us better athletes.