This article covers RECOVERY. In my daily work with you I discovered that with all the passion and hard work you bring along the hardest thing to learn in the entire process of training is to recover properly. The intense and repetitive nature of triathlon can take a toll on your muscles, joints, and overall wellbeing. Recovery is a if not THE key element of performance. Knowing WHY makes your recovery weeks hopefully more valuable, easier to integrate in your training regimen and first and foremost more enjoyable.
The definition of a recovery week is a period of time where you intentionally reduce the volume and/or intensity of your training. Typically, a recovery week will involve a 20-50% reduction in training volume. The reduction of intensity is questionable and a topic for further discussions and research.
On an anatomical and physiological level this is what happens during a recovery period and mostly during sleep (sleep is without a doubt the most important phase for recovery):
Muscle Repair: during exercise, you create micro-tears in your muscle fibers. These tears are a normal part of the muscle-building process and can lead to soreness and fatigue. During a recovery week (RW), your body repairs these tears and rebuilds fibers. Depending on the training stress that has been put on the muscles (hypertrophy, max strength or strength endurance), the rebuilding process leads to bigger, stronger or more persistent muscle fibers. Creatine kinase (CK) is an enzyme that is released into the bloodstream when muscle cells are damaged. High levels of CK can be a sign of muscle damage and overtraining. Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is another common symptom of overtraining. If an athlete is experiencing significant muscle soreness that is not resolving with rest, it may be a sign that the body needs a break. During recovery inflammatory markers such as CK, cytokines and C-reactive protein (CRP) decrease, indicating a reduction in muscles damage, inflammation and an improvement in muscle repair. In terms of differences between male and female repair mechanisms, there is some research to suggest that women may experience slower muscle recovery than men. This is thought to be due to differences in hormone levels, specifically estrogen and testosterone. However, it is important to note that individual differences can vary greatly between athletes, and recovery should be based on individual symptoms and metrics rather than gender.
Glycogen Replenishment: Glycogen is the primary fuel for your muscles during exercise. When you exercise, your body uses up its glycogen stores in the muscles and liver, which can lead to a decrease in blood glucose levels and further to fatigue and decreased performance. During a RW your body replenishes its glycogen stores, even grows these stores to be able to provide the body with more glycogen in the future.
Hormonal Balance: Intense exercise can disrupt your hormonal balance, leading to increased levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and testosterone. Cortisol is a stress hormone that is released in response to exercise. High levels of cortisol can be detrimental to muscle repair and recovery. Keeping up a high cortisol level without a break can have negative effects on your immune system, mood, and overall health. Testosterone is an anabolic hormone that is important for muscle growth and repair. During a RW your body rebalances all its hormones. Testosterone levels can increase, indicating a greater potential for muscle repair and growth.
Bone Remodeling: Old bone tissue will be broken down and rebuilt stronger. Regular exercise is essential for bone health, but too much high-impact training can put stress on your bones and increase your risk of injury. By taking a break from high-impact training during a RW your bones have a chance to undergo remodeling and become stronger and more resilient.
Tendon and Ligament Repair: Tendons and ligaments are connective tissues that attach muscles to bones or bones to bones and provide stability to joints. Training can lead to micro-tears and inflammation. During a RW the body has a chance to repair these tissues, which can reduce the risk of injury and improve overall joint health.
HRV Adaptation HRV (heart rate variability): is a measure of the variation in time between your heartbeats. High HRV is associated with better cardiovascular health, while low HRV is associated with increased stress and decreased health. If an athlete's performance metrics including HRV data are consistently decreasing, it may be a sign that the body needs a break to recover and repair. A RW increases HRV and can help improve your overall cardiovascular health and reduce your risk of injury and burnout.
Mental Recovery: Finally, a recovery week can be beneficial for your mental health. helping you to recharge and refocus. By giving your mind a chance to rest, you’ll be better prepared to tackle your next training block. Overtraining can also lead to changes in mood and energy levels. If an athlete is feeling consistently fatigued or irritable, it may be a sign that the body needs a break to recover. With all the additional stress that comes along with training, a full time job, friends and family it is highly recommended to clear out some time for the people who support you on your incredible journey. I always tell my athletes to enjoy these weeks, have great dinners, even drink a glas of wine and see family and friends.
In conclusion, monitoring biochemical parameters such as inflammatory markers, hormones, creatine kinase, and blood glucose can provide insight into the body's recovery process and would be ideal to measure. As we all know this won't happen for age-group athletes. Therefore I highly recommend to learn to listen to their bodies and to observe changes. Craving for a specific food might tell you that your body lacks magnesium, salt, calcium, etc. Being extremely tired, more than on other days, consecutively sleeping badly or developing pain in a specific area is definitely a sign to dig deeper. If you're tired and have the possibility SLEEP (instead of increasing the caffeine amount). Individual responses to training and recovery can vary greatly and can hardly be compared to training fellows. With years of experience you know way better what your body needs. A combination of monitoring metrics (performance data, HRV, sleep hours, etc.) and symptoms is the ideal and realistic way for age-group athletes. If your next recovery week comes up, just embrace it and think about all those fantastic processes your body is capable of and support that!