There is a myriad of products marketed to athletes promising to promote recovery. It’s tough to know which interventions make the best use of limited time and resources. As a professional triathlete and long course specialist, how I recover is just as important as how I train. I’ve observed that many athletes fixate on recovery interventions with marginal benefits while overlooking fundamentals like sleep, fueling, rest, nutrition and stress management. Athletes miss the forest for the trees when they obsess over which compression socks to buy or what ice bath temperature to set while neglecting these fundamental practices. Here are my top five tips to recover from demanding training sessions.
1. MAKE SLEEP A HIGH PRIORITY
In general, I consider sleep—not training— to be the absolute best use of my time. Much of the positive adaptation from training occurs while we sleep. Getting a sound night’s sleep (and ideally sneaking in a nap) is the most effective way for me to recover and make the most of my hard workouts.
Getting serious about shuteye meant improving my sleep hygiene. For me, this includes a consistent bedtime routine (like unwinding with a book), avoiding screens before bed, dimmable lighting, blackout curtains, a sleep mask, earplugs and a white noise machine. I also rely on melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone that helps you sleep well. I use Vega Sport® Nighttime Rest & Repair after my most demanding days. It contains 3 mg of melatonin per serving plus protein and nutrients essential to the recovery process. Individual responses to melatonin vary, so it’s worth experimenting to find out what dose works well for you.
2. MAINTAIN APPROPRIATE ENERGY BALANCE
Energy balance is the difference between energy intake and output. Running too great a calorie deficit by eating too little or a surplus by eating too much relative to your activity level and metabolic needs is a surefire way to sabotage hard-earned gains from training. A chronic energy deficit can be particularly problematic for athletes pushing their limits in training.
My energy balance targets vary depending on the phase of the season and are based on my personal experience and work with a sports nutritionist. Everything from my workout quality, to my sleep, to my mood suffer when I’m not keeping up with the energetic demands of my training.
3. EMBRACE REST
How the hours outside of training and sleep are spent is also a key factor in recovery. Depending on training load and goals, some amount of lifestyle activity outside of formal workouts may be desirable. For athletes training near their capacity, minimizing unnecessary physical and psychological demands can promote recovery.
During my heaviest training blocks, I’m remarkably sedentary outside of my workouts. I do my best to get off my feet as much as possible. I’ll even avoid tasks that are mentally draining. Even without the luxury of a nap, I find that closing my eyes and clearing my mind for a few minutes is reinvigorating. I have to resist the temptation to buzz around all day being pseudo-productive. I remind myself that it’s okay to set aside time to sit still and be unproductive.
4. CHASE WORKOUTS WITH CARBOHYDRATES AND PROTEIN
Timing matters almost as much as quantity and composition when it comes to fueling before, during and after workouts. Refuelling is usually the first thing I do after a hard workout... sometimes even before hitting the shower. I aim to take in a combination of carbohydrates and protein within a half-hour of completing a hard session. I’ll often premix a bottle of Vega Sport Recovery to have on hand as soon as I finish training. The 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein works well for me.
5. KEEP STRESS LEVELS IN CHECK
Our bodies and minds don’t do a very good job distinguishing between various forms of stress. Training stress and psychological stress can compound one another with overlapping and synergistic effects.
It’s no surprise that my workout performance and recovery are impaired when I’m preoccupied and stressed out. Equally, training hard diminishes my capacity to handle other forms of stress in my life. Managing stress levels is critical to get the most out of my workouts. For me, keeping my schedule and commitments in check, as well as carving out personal and social time, is just as important as planning out my training. When all else fails, I accept the need to adapt my training plan to inevitable tensions and demands as they come up.
No matter your goals or your level, doubling down on these fundamentals sets you up not only to have your best workouts, but to be your best self. Focus on these basic practices before turning your attention to other relatively minor recovery interventions.
About the Author
Cody Beals is a Canadian professional triathlete and 10-time IRONMAN™, IRONMAN™ 70.3 and Challenge Champion. Cody is known for his analytical approach to self-coaching drawing on his background in physics and computer modelling.