My motivated athletes have a difficult relationship with rest. They are used to going hard, pushing through, and ignoring discomfort. While long time athletes have usually realized that there is no long term success without rest and recovery, newer athletes can have a hard time with this concept.
Part of coaching individuals is helping them learn and understand why things work the way they do. Some just want "to do" without getting the "why;" but if they don't buy into the why, then they'll suffer with the do.
Many newer triathletes come into the sport looking to get ready for an Ironman or 70.3 event. This sort of training is challenging, and plenty of articles and anecdotes talk about how much/hard athletes trained for this. The most complete stories also regail the reader with the boring details of the recovery week workouts! But it's easy to forget about that in the mind of a competitor who has a relentless pursuit of success.
Any challenging training routine requires that there are rest days and rest weeks built into most reasonable plans. But, before addressing that, let's mention the simple everyday actions that enable ongoing recovery: Adequate sleep; workout & post workout nutrition; and hydration. You can find in-depth scholarly articles on all of these subjects, but to summarize -
1) Most trained athletes need 7-9 hours of high quality sleep per night, as it is during sleep that our body releases human growth hormone (HGH) and conducts repairs, both physical and mental. Generally, the harder you are training, the more sleep you need. Make sure you have a dark, cool room, no disturbances, and avoid caffeine for several hours before going to bed.
2) Staying fueled during long workouts and refueling after within (ideally) 30 minutes to 1 hour ensures that you are replacing burned muscle glycogen and providing protein to initiate repair & growth for muscles. Any type of food during this window is better than nothing, but an ideal meal would be 3:1 or 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio with healthy (not processed) foods.
3) Dehydration very quickly leads to performance loss and an inclination towards injury. Triathletes, many whom train daily, need to be aware of their hydration throughout the day as well as during and after training sessions. As little as 1% of bodyweight loss induces performance loss. If your urine is anything other than clear or light yellow, you need to drink more.
You can read more about these daily habits by following the links at the end of the article.
Now the fun stuff! How to build in your recovery days and weeks.
On a small scale, it is generally a good idea to never put a high effort / interval workout the day before or day after a long workout of the same sport (barring competitive swimmers). This is especially true for running, which has the highest risk of injury among sports in triathlon due to the high impact nature of running.
Athletes should usually put a recovery day the day after their hardest workout day of the week. For most, this day is either Sunday or Monday. This doesn't mean you can't do anything. "Recovery" is about letting your body take it easy. So, an easy swim, an easy yoga session, an easy walk or ride are all acceptable training sessions. Advanced athletes could do easy runs. Beginners should avoid running on recovery days.
Newer athletes should have 2 or 3 recovery days during any training week. Advanced athletes should have 1 or 2. There are not many situations other than intentional high volume training blocks where an athlete would not have at least 1 day during a typical week that they would consider easy.
Recovery weeks are a little trickier. They depend on the experience level of the athlete and the total training stress that athlete is experiencing. An athlete who is not training much over 6 or 8 hours per week may not need a low volume week so much as a 'change the routine' week. An athlete in the middle of a big training block for an Ironman may want to cut the volume by 30-50% for a few days.
Generally speaking, athletes with challenging training plans should plan a recovery week every 3 or 4 weeks. Older athletes should err on the every 3 week side, while younger athletes, who recover faster and can handle higher overall training loads, can look at the every 4th week scenario.
A recovery week's goal is simple: Allow your body and mind enough rest and recuperation to heal physically, and mentally unwind. Triathlon training doesn't exist in a vacuum outside of the rest of your life. During recovery weeks you can continue with easy, shorter training sessions. The typical time reduction is 30-50% for higher volume athletes, and you can scale that number downward the closer your weekly training is to 10 hours per week. Re: An athlete who trains 20 hours per week during harder training might drop to 10-12 hours, while an athlete who trains 10 hours per week might drop to 7-8 hours.
With my experienced/veteran athletes, I have usually found that after 3-4 days of easy training, they are physically and mentally ready to go again. For this reason most of them will usually have at least 1 harder or longer training session on the weekend of the recovery week. This is also a great time to plan a time trial or test run at a local event. My newer athletes typically keep the challenges light until the following week.
It's worth noting that there is no one size fits all recovery plan. Some athletes will simply need more rest time than others. Some will struggle with the daily habits more than the actual training. Your job as an athlete is to listen to your body and recognize when you feel 'worn out.'
A very useful metric that has come around in recent years is heart rate variability (HRV). HRV can be used to monitor training and life stress, and the trends shown can be a predictive indicator of overtraining, which is exactly what we build in recovery days and weeks to avoid! There are a number of gadgets on the market worth checking into.
Nutrition and supplement update for the endurance athlete: Review and recommendations
Sleep and the elite athlete
Sleep and athletic performance
The effect of hydration on athletic performance
Hydration and injury prevention
The role of heart rate variability in sports physiology
Marty Gaal, CSCS, is a USA Triathlon coach who lives in the Triangle area of North Carolina. Marty has been coaching endurance athletes since 2002. You can read more about OSB coaching services at www.osbmultisport.com.
One Step Beyond is the producer of the Powerstroke®: Speed through force and form freestyle technique DVD, intended to help new to intermediate triathlon swimmers become faster and more powerful in the water.