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Recovery - Without it There Can Be No Improvement

Updated: Feb 16, 2019

Jerry Rice was once asked if he ever takes a day off. His answer was a very resounding NO. He didn’t take days off, because recovery was an integral part of his overall training plan.

There is the image in our heads of the athlete working HARD in the gym, at practice, or wherever they get their workouts in. And it is important to work hard. But it is important to remember what the goal of a workout is. It’s to break down our tissues so that they can be rebuilt in a more perfect alignment to allow us to better accomplish whatever our chosen task is. A workout has to be hard enough to get the body to go “Oh hold on now, let’s make sure that kind of damage doesn’t happen again!” So we do the work and break down the tissues. But that isn’t where we’re actually getting fitter. We get fitter during the rebuilding process. When we are putting those tissues back together. When we recover.

Most folks I have had the pleasure of working with and around haven’t really gotten to the point where they are truly “over-training”. But they often weren’t really recovering from their workouts either. Instead they would go through their workouts every day, working hard and getting their sweat on. And it’s pretty easy to do this without meaning to. We get up early to get our workouts in before we have to get the kids ready for school, go to work ourselves, and get on with all the rest of life. And then we end up going to bed later than we should because we’re cleaning up after dinner, folding the laundry, and finishing up the work we brought home with us. This pattern isn’t necessarily actually going to make us any fitter.

What is recovery? We all have this idea in our heads of what “recovery” looks like, and it varies from person to person. It does include the rebuilding of the tissues we beat up while working out. But it’s also when we allow our cortisol levels to drop. It is when we allow ourselves to unwind a bit and not be super dialed in or stressed out about whatever life is throwing at us. It’s getting the sleep and nutrition that we need. It’s intentionally exercising at an easy effort level. What we need to do to recover depends on the workout we did and the individual. But it starts immediately after the workout.

Julia  after 15 miles
Julia crushing some honeydew after her longest event ever. She was really tired, but still focused on recovery!

So how do we get better at recovering? We have to make it a priority. Recovery should be a planned part of any smart training plan. That means not only scheduling the recovery days instead of just “taking it easy when we’re feeling beat up”, but also thinking of those recovery days as workouts themselves. They don’t have the same physiological stimulus that a “quality” workout does, but they have a purpose. And that purpose is to flush much needed nutrients into beat up tissues so they can heal faster. By thinking of our recovery workouts this way, it makes it a lot easier (mentally) to not overdo it. Most of us also need to do a better job at starting that post-workout recovery as soon as we get done with a workout. Get that recovery fuel into you so that your body has the nutrients it needs to build itself back up. Don’t wait until you drive home to stretch. Do it as soon as you stop.

It is imperative to take our easy days easy so that we can go hard on the hard days. Many endurance athletes are guilty of going too hard on their easy days to actually get the benefits of a true “easy” run, but not hard enough to actually put real stress on their bodies. This just puts us in the hole when we go to start the next hard workout. If we don’t recover hard enough, we won’t be physically capable of hitting the next quality workout as hard as we should. And the more frequently we can put that stress on our bodies, and recover from it, the faster we’ll actually get fitter. Without recovery, we’d never actually get fitter. Proper recovery allows us to hit the next workout harder, helping us get more out of it.

Recovery isn’t just for our bodies either. The recovery process is also important for us mentally. It is possible to put our nose to the grindstone and keep working day after day after day. But that inevitably leads to burnout and/or injury and frustration. By allowing ourselves to unwind a bit, it allows us to mentally recharge before we dive back into hard training.

Lucy foam rolling at age 3
It's never to early to learn good recovery techniques

How do you know if you’re recovered? The best way to tell if you’re recovered is to check your resting heart rate. Your resting heart rate will be elevated if your body is still working hard to repair the damage from the last workout, or illness, or whatever it was that stressed it. Does that mean that you can’t exercise if your heart rate isn’t super low? No. But it probably means you’re not ready for another hard workout that is going to really tax your body. Get an easy or recovery workout in today and check back tomorrow morning.

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