Recover Better

Recover Better

Recover Better

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  • September 13, 2017

I am not writing this article not to tell you to stretch more, drink adequate water or get enough sleep. We all know that.

Unlike training, recovery takes a different type of mental fortitude and effort than what most athletes expect. It takes balance. Finding balance in training and recovery is not something that comes naturally to most endurance athletes. When given a set of intervals to perform, the task is easy; you push yourself during each of the intervals, and then rest during the recovery periods. However, when it comes to recovery, there isn’t always such a clear set of instructions or rules, or at least, we have those rules, but rarely want to use them!

Don’t skip recovery!
Athletes work hard, and are innately competitive people. They will train in every way necessary to give them an edge, but these same athletes often rush through or even skip recovery protocols. When it comes time to relax they are often busy catching up on work, entertainment, or social media. They can often spend more time in their heads or on their phone without really becoming truly in tune with their bodies. Many athletes can find it difficult to balance and life together effectively at times, with many of them overtraining with the hope of improving performance further. This is the wrong approach. Recovery often has the biggest impact on whether an athlete will reap the benefits of all their hard work.

How to recover effectively.

The trick is to really be just as present, purposeful and mindful about recovery as you are about training. Recovering better involves a different way of thinking: 

1. Minimize distractions during active recovery and pay attention. If while stretching you are on your phone and not focusing on your breath, your nervous system isn't going to let go of that muscle tension. Your mind needs to focus on breathing and extending the stretch. Find things that help you focus and maximize your mobility routines (like the right kind of music or location) rather than things that distract you from your recovery task like your phone being within reach.

2. Go to sleep! When sleeping are you actually relaxed when you go to bed, or are you up all night stressing about life, watching one too many episodes of your favorite show or checking on social media? Quantity of sleep doesn't matter as much as quality, but we do all have an optimum number of hours we should prioritize for sleep. As an athlete, sleep is the most important time of your day to recover and improve. Cutting back on sleep will cut back on performance.

3. Rest enough! It’s not just about sleep. There is a clear difference between those who have correctly scheduled rest, and those who do not. Those who do not rest enough behave and perform differently. They have trouble with concentration and focus. They may be less able to be sociable and spend more time in their head. You see the exhaustion in their faces. They are burnt out, they don’t sleep well and they have underlying injuries that just don't have time to heal. If rest isn't a priority, it can affect even the most powerful athletes. Fatigue causes even Spartan Pro Team and other OCR elites to become sloppy, or unfocused. They can start missing basic obstacles in a race like a spear toss or falling off rigs.

4. The power of the shutdown. Shutting down the distracted parts of the brain can be an acquired skill. It took me a long time to understand the benefits of Yoga. I went to weekly and hated every second of it, but then one day out of nowhere I had a breakthrough. I shut down my monkey brain, relaxed into it, and finally cleared my head. It was a great yoga session. Sleep was incredible that night, and my muscles released more tension than I realized they had. We have a cascade of chemicals naturally in our body that we can release given the opportunity. No pharmaceuticals necessary. After that Yoga class I can now tap into that same feeling through short meditation sessions when I feel stressed. Even activities like bouldering, surfing, and technical trail running can help us to focus on the task at hand and reach that state of presence, which preceeds relaxation. This creates a calm mind, releasing thoughts of past and future and all the anxieties it brings with it..

5. Limit stimulants - Only consume caffeine, added sugars and other stimulants around intense activity or in very small doses. If you are looking for the performance benefits of caffiene, don't make consumption a habit. It will only work if you keep a low caffiene tolerance, consuming it at most 2-3 times per week.

6. Race recovery takes longer than you think - Don't race anymore than 2 weekends in a row. Even that can be pushing it if the your time on feet at that effort is more than an hour.

7. Food -Ensure you are eating adequate food, especially carbohydrates. If not this degrades hormone levels even further. If you are working at lower intensities (Less than 60% V02max, higher fat diet may have some benefits.)

8. Hydrate - Water is the base of the pyramid and is needed by every cell in the body - keep yourself topped up.

Finding balance in the system
The nervous system is divided into two main systems; the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic (PNS). Although you race and train in the SNS, you recover, build and get ready for newer harder efforts with the PNS. We constantly operate both; sometimes the SNS is more important, while at other times the PNS takes over.

When living too long in the SNS (which is more common today - through overtraining and lack of rest) basic functions such as the digestive ability is reduced. This means you are not digesting and absorbing nutrients in the same way. This causes low energy and results in a lack of nutrients that would help your body recover for a race or the next effort. Heart rate is more consistently elevated meaning you burn more energy than necessary when not training. Without rest, stress hormones like adrenaline are being used up on a much larger scale. This is also why overtrained athletes can have very little patience, or can feel like they are in a low mood because their body lacks the materials to deal properly with stress. Living this way can result in irritability as the body fights for resources.

We only have a limited store of energy in our body. With age which affects your ability to regenerate cells quickly, and the abuse of time, this supply of energy can melt away like a candle unless you aim to preserve it through a more balanced lifestyle.

One point people often miss is stimulants like caffiene doesn't give you energy directly. The energy comes from within. The stimulant releases it. The more you borrow energy from your body the more tired you are going to feel over time. Your goal is to perserve this energy and use it in races or when you need it the most.

When you can stimulate PNS to the full potential, your body recovers much quicker on a cellular level with time. The trick is to be able to rest when you need to rest and perform when you need to perform. It can take 2-3 weeks to recover from a hard effort on the scale of a marathon. If your life is stressful or you plan on doing that distance again within that 2 weeks you will delay recovery even longer.

Important to note as well, If you do nothing that's just as bad. You got to keep the blood flowing through lighter activities like cycling or swimming. Your attention needs to shift a little more in the PNS direction, just not all the way there.

Mental stress
Your body cannot distinguish between physical and mental stress and mental stress can contribute to a lack of recovery. Performing well in all aspects of life is important for reducing stress. Again, finding balance between professional responsibilities and athletic responsibilities can be a powerful way to improve on overall wellbeing.

In practice: A study of our athletes
In the sport of OCR one name stands out. I don't even have to mention it but for those who are new to the sport, let’s look at Ryan Atkins.

Despite being able to perform at 1 mile all the way to a 100 miles plus, this guy is one of the most laid back people I ever met when he's not out on course. His stress level seems low. His training and race volume is high and I would argue his performance would be even better if he didn’t race and train quite so frequently. Right now, it’s not necessary due to the gap between most of his competition and individual genetics might protect him from overtraining at his age. If this was the sport of triathlon, or multi day cycling where individuals compete less frequently, he would probably have to race less to stay on the podium as consistently. It wasn't until Hobie Call made his come-back this year that their was a larder divide in the competition.

Like Ryan, Hobie is a relaxed dude who unlike Ryan raced less frequently and had the energy for the big races where he needed it the most. There's not a doubt in my mind Ryan would of had less trouble against Hobie if he didn't do the long distance treks and the longer Tough Mudder races. Although his pace was slower for those races and efforts and they may of not been A races, its still very demanding efforts in a different way.

On the other hand, Ryan is taking a big rest before World Championships. It will be exciting to watch how a well rested Ryan will perform against a well rest Hobie.

The same thing happened with the elite female division in OCR this year. The girls who were rested properly before the big races displayed their best performances consistently.

This of course is just my opinion there are probably other factors at play here as well. The real key comes down to being competitive but playing the game smart.

As for myself
I'm by no means an expert here. But I have a growth mindset, I'm very coachable and I continue to work with my genetics to achieve my best possible performance. I've always believed in balance. When in balance I feel good when I race, everything comes together and I have a better performance. The best races often feel effortless. This summer I encountered some stress. Sometimes when life takes hold the only solution is time. Sometimes it is unavoidable to find that a few bad races will follow a stressful time in life. I will say from practice and adjustment I can now handle stress much more easily than I did a few years ago when I first started this sport and my recovery has been much better as a result.

Racing happy is much nicer than racing angry. Happy racers are more relaxed racers, they make less mistakes and save their energy for when they need it the most to gain ground.

Something practical
Try this activity.

Sit in a chair, with a pillow behind you lower back and focus on keeping a good posture. Take 10 deep breaths counting to 5 on the inhale and 5 on the exhale. Hold in for a second and hold when you blow all the air out. On the 10th breathe close your eyes and let your breathing return to normal. Starting at you baby toes focus on releasing tension in every joint and area of your body finishing at the crown of your head. If you get distracted pull yourself back in and resume where you finished off. If done correctly you won't rush it. Once you reach the crown your breathing should be slow, and you should feel very relaxed, especially in your shoulder and neck area. That's a good sign. If you felt uncomfortable the whole time, you probably are not getting as restful of a sleep as you think you are. Your digestion could probably be better and you may find you have more energy overall once you figure this out. You should be able to enter this state on command and with practice you'll do it more often without thinking about it.

If difficult, you may be currently in an over training state and need to focus on learning how to chill that doesn't involve netflix or a glass of wine. :( A yin yoga class or an accupunture session may be a good alternative.

This is what makes the difference. At that point whatever your recovery protocol or nutrition is, it doesn't matter as much as getting your head right. With time you will also know how much recovery or hard training you need to include into your specific program.

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Josh Stryde B.Kin (Hons), CSNN Holistic Nutrition Consultantâ„¢, Precision Nutrition Level 1, PTS

Josh has been working and educating in the fitness Industry for over 10 years. He has seen his greatest success by arming his clients with knowledge and allowing them to active role when working towards their goals. Without knowing why you are eating the way you are eating, or why you are following a particular workout routine it becomes difficult to stay consistent.

Spartan Team Canada 2017
Team PVL 2017/2018
20+ OCR podium finishes


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