The Importance of Recovery

For serious competitors, recovery should be as important as quality workouts. Failure to allow the body to recover after a workout can lead to overtraining, injury or illness. This article will look at two subjects related to recovery. The first is the results of failure to allow proper recovery including overtraining, illness, and over-use injuries. The second introduces methods to decrease the amount of time needed for the body to recover.

Overtraining

Overtraining is a decreased capacity for work that develops following a period of imbalance between physical stress and rest.  An overtrained athlete may notice a decrease in performance and an increase in fatigue that does not respond to rest.

Overtraining can be caused by excess duration, intensity or frequency of workouts. The most common cause of overtraining in competitive athletes is excess intensity. Either the rider starts high intensity too early in the season, or spaces intense workouts too close together.

The indicators of overtraining are not the same for every athlete. However, most over trained athletes will experience one or more of the following overtraining markers:

  • Reduced performance
  • Fatigue
  • Weight change
  • Increase thirst
  • Increase in resting heart rate
  • Muscle soreness
  • Injury
  • Irritability
  • Apathy
  • Lethargy
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Cravings for sugar

It’s very important to pay attention to your body’s warning signs. In its earliest stage, overtraining indicators may be few and not very severe. If you suspect overtraining, the best action to take is 48-hours of complete rest. After the rest, a short, relatively easy workout can let you know if you have recovered. If you are still fatigued, take another 48-hours of rest.

Illness

Athletes who train at high levels are at high risk for upper respiratory infections.  The immune system can be depressed for up to 8 hours prior to a high intensity/long duration workout. This is a critical time to take steps to stay healthy. These might include avoiding public places and washing hands often. If you feel a cold coming on, do a “neck check”. If your symptoms are above the neck (runny nose, scratchy throat), proceed with your workout, but decrease the intensity. If symptoms are below the neck (chest congestion, achy muscles, etc.) don’t workout. These below the neck symptoms may be the flu, which can be made worse by exercise.

Illness can cause an extended decrease in performance. How long this decrease lasts depends on the type and severity of the illness. When coming back to training after an illness, it’s a good idea to start with easier, aerobic workouts  – avoiding anaerobic workouts – for 2 days for each day you were ill.

Overuse Injuries

The most common overuse injuries in cyclist involve the knees, including patella tracking problems and iliotibial (IT) band inflammation. Initially, the knee may just feel different than usual, but if pain begins to affect pedal stroke, it can lead to additional injuries and should be taken seriously.

The first course of action is to see a sports medicine doctor. It’s important not to wait until the injury becomes chronic and much harder to treat. The doctor may prescribe an anti-inflammatory drug or recommend a visit to a physical therapist to improve strength and/or flexibility.

Rest is the second course of action for an overuse injury. It can be difficult to take time off, but continuing to ride may prolong the healing process. If your doctor recommends an extended time off the bike, try to stay active in ways that don’t aggravate the injury. Swimming may be a good choice to maintain your fitness while you allow your injury time to heal.

Finally, you will want to determine what caused the injury in the first place.  Cycling overuse injuries may occur because the bike is not set up correctly or bike set-up was changes dramatically. It’s a good idea to have your bike set-up and positioning checked by a knowlegable coach or bike shop.

Recovery

Intense exercise damages muscle cells. Recovery is necessary to become stronger and quick recovery is advantageous to building fitness.  There are many actions you can take to decrease the time it takes your body to recover from an intense workout.

Warm-up: A thorough warm-up is one of the keys to a speedy recovery. A good warm-up should start at an easy intensity and gradually build intensity. Start with an easy spin and slowly increase intensity until you have started to sweat. This initial part of the warm-up should last about 10 minutes. The second part of your warm-up should include some short intervals that build in intensity to at or slightly above race intensity or another 5-10 minutes.

Proper nutrition: Glycogen replenishment is an important part of recovery. If fuel stores become extremely low, they will take longer to come back to starting values. Refueling during workouts speeds recovery. It may take some experimentation to determine what will work for you during workouts. For optimal recovery, you’ll want to start to replenish your fuel stores with a combination of carbohydrate and protein within 30-minutes of finishing a workout.

Sleep: Growth hormone is released from the pituitary gland in pulses starting about 30-minutes into slumber. Growth hormone stimulates the protein synthesis needed for rebuilding muscle. A 30-60-minute nap in addition to 7-9 hours of sleep per night can speed recovery.

There are many other recovery methods that are put to use by athletes. Many of these methods may slightly increase heart rate and blood flow to the muscles. Experiment to see what works for you. Here is a short list:

  • Hot shower or bath (10-15 minutes)
  • Active recovery (easy spin/walk 30-minutes)
  • Massage
  • Sauna
  • Stretching
  • Yoga

Recovery rates and optimal recovery techniques vary between individuals.  Good indicators of effective recovery include positive attitude, feelings of health, high quality sleep, normal resting and exercise heart rates and balanced emotions.

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