Monday, May 1, 2017

The Importance of Recovery in Reaching Athletic Goals

It is not hard to see the advantages of working out.  Health and wellness rely on a body that is often in motion, and the emotional and physical well-being that results is a phenomenon that spurs folks on to continuing this life style.  Those who become bitten by the workout bug find ways to inject more workout time into their life, since their exercise makes them feel so darned good.  Folks blessed with a bit of talent often choose to become competitive in their sport.  What fun!  When they begin to compete they seem to be faster every time they go out and workout.  Stopwatch turned on, they are out the door and looking for another personal best. 

What Happens When We Train?

In coaching we have a saying “the more you do, the more you can do.”  The body is a marvelous creation that gets more and more efficient at pounding things out. Just one of many processes in endurance sports is that more mitochondria are packed into muscles as the body adapts, increasing the ability to carry oxygen. The body can seemingly do more with less, and it also becomes more efficient at recovering from athletic poundings.  It can be said that part of the process of training the body to do more than before is tied up into the reality that the body learns how to recover from that “more.”  What a gift!

In the early phases of one’s athletic pursuit adequate recovery comes with the territory, since workouts are generally short and likely not crammed into every single day.  Once the competitive bug hits, though, many athletes jump onto the “more IS more” bandwagon and train harder and longer, since a minor version of this is what made them good in the first place.  What could be bad about that?

When one works out, whether it is endurance sports, skill sports, weight lifting, or combinations of all, the body endures damage to the muscles and deficits to all its systems.  Reaction to this is a miraculous rebuilding by the body which, ideally, brings the systems up to an even stronger status quo.  Getting faster/stronger is a by-product of this rebuilding.  This essentially, is healing, and it takes time, happening most effectively when the body is resting.

Many athletes take this gift for granted, though, and continue with their “more is more” philosophy of training in hopes of improving, as people enjoy their chosen sport.  Some people brag about never even taking a day off, which, in their mind, gives their workouts even more importance.  What has happened, though, is that the athlete has now flipped over to the other side, ignoring this critical equation:  Workouts + recovery = training.  Yes, without recovery workouts are simply workouts. 

What Makes Us Stronger?

There are articles galore about the importance of recovery for the athlete.  Again, the repairs to the body are best done while resting, since more of the energy systems are available for that purpose.  The offshoot of this is that, once recovered, the body feels GOOD, and a body that feels good is going to be able to push the envelope in training to induce the processes that propel the body to the next level.  That is it, in a nutshell.  Train while too tired and those numbers are not going to be reached.  Race while too tired and the results are discouraging, at best.  The motivation that the athlete has to improve must fuel the desire to rest as much as the desire to work out.

What Helps the Body Recover?
Tactics include:
·         A strategically placed day off works wonders.  At times a complete week devoted to recovery is in order.
·         A workout schedule that peppers easier days between the hard days is also smart, since the body has a couple of days to recover from the last hard workout – provided the easier days are actually easy! 
·         Immediate nutrition and rehydration after a hard workout, as a follow-up to adequate nutrition and hydration during the workout. Eating and drinking are under our own control, and avoiding a fall into a big preventable deficit gives the athlete less to actually recover from.
·         Stretching and meditation can help bring the body back to a calmer place.
·         Chilling out – doing nothing – can have a huge impact.  A person I know painted his house whenever he had a day off from cycling.  He was not feeling very rested. Improvements were negligible. 
·         And, paramount to all of these:  SLEEP!  Human Growth Hormone is specifically released by the brain while sleeping.  There are hosts of metabolic processes that, not surprisingly, happen while asleep, yet athletes often cheat themselves out of this valuable tool. Conversely, when athletes sleep even more than usual their athletic abilities improve.  “Magic,” for sure, but it is difficult to for most folks to simply slow down and go to bed.  Temptations abound. This article from ESPN calls sleep “the new magic pill.”

Some last words from a variety of coaches that I have spoken with and read:  You can work out hard and long, but you will never be as good as you could have been if you do not take the time to recover. 

I am so excited to announce that I am a part of a four women team that will race across the United States in June – with a goal of less than 7 days.  I am doing team RAAM!  Our New England based team is sponsored by Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and the four of us and our entire crew is, collectively, Team Brigham Health.  Back in 2012 I wrote a blog post about taking on a challenge which, because of its motivation, spurred me to work harder than I ever thought I could, and greatly exceeding my expectations.   This race will take the most work of all.  You can likely find me either on the bike (outside or indoors) or in the recliner J  Please check out our team and amazing crew on 

That post I just mentioned has been reworked to be submitted for publication with Brigham Health.  This is the new and improved version:
   “Truth is stranger than fiction” is a phrase that I often quote.  Mostly, the truths that I refer to are my own.  Pushing myself in some kind of methodical manner has led me to loftyish places where I never imagined being, enabling me to take advantages of opportunities when they emerge. I’d never have imagined that I’d be on a team for the Race Across America, which is going to be the biggest challenge yet, but here I am. Going back to the spring of 2012 I am refreshing my memory about another challenge that I took on, with a surprising – and pleasing – outcome.

In December of 2011 I broke my hip while competing in a Cyclocross race, tipping over in a narrow part of the course while passing another woman who I had lapped.  I cracked the femur at the head and won myself a complete hip replacement.  I also had a crack in my femur below the hip prosthesis, so after the surgery I was restricted to using a walker for 6 weeks and could only put 50% of my weight on that leg.  When I was pronounced “healed,” and my walker taken away, I had to learn how to walk again.  Fun! 

I’d been doing physical therapy since the day after the surgery and was able to gingerly get back on my bike 2.5 weeks after the accident. Thanks to my desire and my coach, Mark Fasczewski, I rode indoors on my computerized trainer, and when I could walk well enough to get myself somewhere without a cane I started riding out on the road. 

Less than three months after the replacement, and only 5 weeks after I ditched the walker, I signed up for a climbing challenge on Strava, a cycling and running web site that was relatively new at the time.   A Classic Challenge from Specialized  goaded cyclists to climb 105,312 vertical feet between March 15 and April 30.  The significance of this number?  It is three times the total feet of climbing in the Spring Classic races in Europe.  I love climbing!  Besides, there was a cool water bottle as a reward for reaching that total.

It soon became evident that my normal bike routes were not going to amass climbing feet very quickly.  Compared to some of the women signed up, I was fairly minor league.  So by early April I decided to up my game and change my routes.  I tried not to ride anything for more than a mile that registered zero percent grade – what a waste! – and opened my eyes to the local hills. Glaciers had cut valleys, and roads ascended the ridges.  Beautiful climbing, absolutely fun, and it gave each ride an immediate purpose.  I would upload my ride onto Strava post- ride and then I’d check my progress against my virtual, but real, competitors.  Coach Mark enabled this pursuit, and soon I was in the top 20 of over 500 women.

When I significantly increased the amount of climbing feet per week I started leapfrogging over people.  While in the teens I was hoping to get closer to women’s tenth place, and with two weeks remaining in the challenge I had clawed my way into ninth place.  What?  Now my riding took on an obsessive edge (OK, it usually does anyway, but humor me here) and I dropped to 7th, then 6th.  With just a few days to go I found myself in 5th place.  Wow!

 On the last day of the challenge I set out to climb the steepest hills discovered during the last 6 weeks, bagging another 7800 feet in 78 miles, this on a Monday after a road race. Take that, hip replacement! My total for the challenge was 137,772 feet, and in the end I held on to 5th place for women and 107th of the 10,923 people who entered the contest. 

This is, of course, something that I had not dreamed about when I entered the challenge.  Once I’d entered, though, I pushed myself to do things that I would not have done otherwise.  Motivation enabled me to ride in abysmal weather, I did nothing but climb, I descended some steep and scary stuff, and I enjoyed almost every demented minute of it.  The offshoot of this was that my hip became super-strong and my walking became better than when I was spending a log of time, well, walking.

I learned, again, that there are always more possibilities for myself than I can imagine and that one thing leads to another.  The first step into a new venture can open up doors formerly thought “closed for the season.”  The focus on climbing helped me strengthen more quickly, and the fitness I accumulated definitely widened the array of events I was capable of that first season back.   “Never say never” is another one of my favorite slogans, but I can also be guilty of holding myself back with restrictive thinking.  It is easy for me to see this in the athletes I coach, but difficult to recognize this in my own thinking.

This challenge taught me to go with the process, work hard, and see what happens -- to try not to predict the end of the story.  The challenge itself motivated me to do much more than I than I had imagined possible for me.  I’ll work at applying that same lesson regarding Race Across America. The training for this race is tough and the race is unimaginable.  But by involving myself in this challenge I am motivated to go well beyond anything I’ve done in until now and to get past my self-imposed limitations to see what is really possible.