Recovery From Extraordinary Effort

Two highly successful and motivated athletes joined me last week in the cold and snow for a “volume pop” here in Aspen. One of them asked on the EN forum about recovery from such efforts. Here’s my response:

Dave Tallo said:

…Extraordinary work (like you just did) requires extraordinary recovery…

Talk to us about …The role of rest? Food? Sleep? Specific TSS (or other performance model) re-ramp-ups?   Days off vs active recovery?

My response:

Several times, when I have returned from one of my altitude camps, with a day totally off for travel, another day of “active recovery”, I hit the pool, and assume I’m going to see a bump in my speed. Or maybe I try an FTP test, hoping for a higher number. Like you say, WRONG. That tells me the gains are going to take place over weeks, not days. Most of us follow things like sleep, weight loss, muscle soreness, and sense of fatigue. Maybe HR variability, some other newer metrics. I suspect there are other, generally unmeasured things which will need to get back to equilibrium before the gains from a big volume effort can be cemented. Our bodies are complex systems, and many areas will need replenishment: Hormones (like Cortisol, HGH, testosterone), immune system cells (lymphocytes, white cells, T cells), neurotransmitters, etc. And the actual gains will start coming when the stress placed on the body results in newly minted things such as: neuromuscular units, mitochondria, red cells, capillaries, etc.

All this is happening behind the scenes, and really can’t be tested for directly unless you want to spend a week in the hospital and submit to endless blood draws, bone marrow and spinal taps, muscle biopsies (OUCH!) and assorted imaging studies. So we look to indirect ways to give us clues.

The key thing is not when this process is complete. It will take weeks, at a minimum, and years for those who are consistently stretching the bounds of homeostasis via something like a three-year EN training program. The trick is to figure out how to ramp back up the training without (a) falling into the pit by doing too much too soon or (b) losing too much fitness so that the effort was wasted. A fine balance to be struck.

Signs I use to put a big STOP sign in my training plan: muscle soreness/stiffness, deep sense of fatigue, need for extra sleep, weight loss, grumpy or listless attitude. More than one of those, and I need a full day (or at most two) off, no “active recovery”, no nothing. This is often harder than actually working out would be, as it drives me nuts. But I’ve learned it’s for the best.

After 1-2 days, I then return to my “normal” monitoring systems, but refrain from any interval work on the bike for a week, or the run for maybe even more, until I can do strides without feeling any stress.

I use the data from my Tanita scale to help me understand hydration and caloric needs. Before I worry about my actual weight, I look at my BF% and body water %. These two tend to vary in inverse proportion to each other. YMMV, but my numbers in the midst of a 12 week prep phase ( the final 12 before the race) will optimally be 6.x and 58.5. If my BW% is 58 or below, I work on getting more fluids than I am thirsty for, specifically gatorade, as the sugar aids in getting the water into my gut. If my BW% is nominal, but my weight is low (for me, that would be about 147# during training), then I work on calories, of all sorts. Protein, fats, gluten, starch, dairy … I don’t care, I need them all.

Here’s a list of things I will eat to help me regain what I’ve lost: Dairy – chocolate milk, yogurt; fruits – berries (blue- and straw- especially, black- when they appear in my yard), oranges, apples; grains – granola; nuts – almonds, peanuts (I know, not a nut); fats – olive oil, bacon; protein – bison meat, fish, especially salmon, beans; other – Naked Juice Green Machine, Stacy’s Pita Chips with hummus. Along with my daily helping of oatmeal and PBJ sandwich.

I use the PMC from TrainingPeaks (via the WKO program on my computer) as an additional aid. It hurts, but I have to accept the “dip” in CTL which I will see after a volume pop. That’s when the recovery is happening, I tell myself. I may even let my TSB drift close to 0, from whatever godawful negative number I drove it to. And the “Ramp”, which is basically the rate of rise over a defined period of time (anywhere from 7-42 days; I use 21) is another thing I keep an eye on.

One final thing for the veterans who may be reading this. I did not find that age had any effect on need for more recovery time until I got past 61. So if you are feeling “old” in your forties or fifties, buck up, young ‘un. You can do more than you think you can, if you’ve been doing this at the EN level consistently for 3 years or more.

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