There are approximately 7,458,015 triathlon training plans out there, but at the end of the day they all boil down to a simple 3-step process: train, recover, improve. Unfortunately, when picking a plan and setting their mind to it, some triathletes tend to gloss over that crucial 2nd step. They have no problem crushing intervals, grinding out long rides, and fighting through pain and fatigue, but when it comes to time to back off for a day or two, they tend to brush aside the training calendar. Some triathletes will skip these planned recovery workouts altogether, relishing in the sudden abundance of free-time in their schedule, and using the break to enjoy a beer or seven. Other triathletes - a type I like to call “Type A+” - will do the easy sessions as planned, only they won’t take it easy. In either case, these bad habits can lead to burnout or injuries, and eventually the athlete will be taking a break whether they like it or not. To stay healthy and keep progressing towards your goals, there are two simple rules you need to follow when it comes to recovery: 1. Train hard, then recover harder 2. “Easy” means very, very easy
We’ve all been there: it’s a dark, chilly morning and your alarm has just gone off at some ungodly hour. You lay in bed, in your warm, lovely, ensnaring bed, staring at the ceiling, and even without moving you can feel the lingering ache in your withered muscles. Just getting out of bed sounds like a monumental task, and you’re convinced that if you tried to workout right now you’d either drown, crash, or collapse (“Well at least I’d be lying down again”, you rationalize). Then you remember that today is an “easy” day, perhaps a short technique-focused swim or a casual 2-mile jog. Skipping one of these undemanding, tedious sessions won’t derail your training plan, right? Right? And before you can convince yourself otherwise, you’re sound asleep. But recovery workouts are more than just filler between the lung- and quad-burning interval sessions that loom on your calendar. Recovery workouts help you, well, recover. When you train or race hard, you incur millions of micro-tears in your muscle fibers. These tears also leave behind metabolites like lactate, chlorides, potassium, and all sorts of things that bring back memories of Biology 101. After this masochism has ended, your body begins repairing those fibers so that next time, they’ll be ready to withstand the abuse. But in order to stitch the fibers back together your muscles need fuel - amino acids, water, electrolytes - that is transported to the damaged areas through your blood. Slow, relaxed workouts help your body along by getting the blood flowing to your weary, stiff legs and arms. The first 5-20 minutes of these workouts might feel awful - in fact, they should feel awful. But as the metabolites from yesterday’s workout are cleared away thanks to the increased blood flow to your muscles, you’ll begin to feel less sore and grumpy. As a rule of thumb, you should feel better at the end of your recovery workouts than you did at the beginning. By the end of a recovery day (or week), you should feel eager and prepared for the next day’s work.
Recovery workouts are often best done alone. Heading out by yourself allows you to pick your own pace and make adjustments to it based on how you feel. You also won’t have to worry about keeping up with a training partner who might be doing a not-so-easy workout. Even if your buddy is taking an recovery day, everyone’s body is different. Remember, there’s no shame in going ‘too slow’ on easy days. (Personal anecdote: One of my former roommates was a professional cyclist. When I joined him for easy recovery rides (practically the only rides I could join him for), we rarely exceeded 15mph. One particularly lacadasical Friday morning, we were passed by a girl riding her pink, sparkly, handlebar-streamered bicycle to elementary school. A week later, he won his 7th national championship.)
Recovery workouts are a good opportunity to leave your Garmin at home to recharge. Go by feel, not by pace or speed. If you’re a Strava nut and the idea of not logging a workout gives you nightmares, at least try not to pore over your numbers until you’re home and showered. Turn your watch around, cover your GPS with tape, or put your phone in your jersey pocket. Type-A+ triathletes might find this a bit unnerving at first, but trust me, you (and your data) will survive.
At the end of a race, the top finishers almost invariably have the best looking form. It’s just sickening. If they’re going to be fast and victorious, couldn’t they at least look bad doing it? The problem is, they’ve practiced and prepared to keep their technique sharp even when they’re about to collapse. When you’re tired, it can be tempting to zone out and just blindly suffer through the rest of a run, ride or swim. But recovery workouts are the perfect opportunity to improve your technique. On a ride or run, concentrate on keeping your core tight, your hips up, and your cadence high and efficient. In the pool, practice gliding with each stroke, and spend more time on drills. If you can maintain good form when you’re sore in training, you’ll finish faster and look better doing it in a race. Those damned race photographers always hang out near the finishing chute anyways.
Paradoxically, a few short, quick efforts can actually help your body recover. (I won’t go into the physiological details, but here’s a great article explaining this phenomenon). Sprinting also activates fast-twitch muscles, preparing your body for any speed work in the coming days. Once you’re warmed up and no longer feel like you were hit by a bus (perhaps just a mid-sized sedan) try to incorporate a few “bursts”. Do a couple 25m sprints in the pool, some 20-30 second high-cadence sprints on the bike, or a handful of 10-20 second strides. Again, you should feel better as the workout progresses. If your legs just feel heavier and more train-wrecky after two or three bursts, call it a day or keep the rest of the session slow and relaxed.
Recovery days aren’t just for physical rejuvenation; we all need them for the mental rest they provide as well. Use a recovery ride to a stop at that new coffee shop in town, and embrace your inner-European by sipping espresso in your bike shoes (stick to just one caffeinated beverage though, or else you might find yourself racing for home… or for a bathroom). Explore some new running trails, and fret not if your watch starts making a fuss about “weak GPS signals”. At the pool, mix in some backstroke, breastroke, or, if you’re feeling particularly peppy, maybe even some butterfly. And remember: easy means easy. If you need to stop for a second to catch your breath, don’t sweat it.
Will Krakow is a mathematician with a writing problem from Chapel Hill, NC. He qualified for the 2017 70.3 World Championships (but gave up his spot to attend Oktoberfest), owns a 12:09 beer mile PR, and has won the local group ride sprint exactly one time. In his spare time, he enjoys long runs on the beach and candlelit trainer sessions.