Monday, April 6, 2009

Recovery – the neglected performance enhancer

To varying degrees following triathlon training, your body is dehydrated, depleted of glycogen (carbs), overexposed to free radicals (oxidation) and cytokines (inflammation), and suffering from tissue damage (arms, legs and lungs). This “depletion” physiology is what causes us to experience heavy legs, sore muscles, stiff tendons, creaky joints, low energy levels, and cranky moods for a day or two following our hardest efforts. If you recover poorly after your workout, then your body remains in this depleted state, tissue damage continues, immune system activity becomes suppressed, and injury sets in. After a triathlon, as many at 70% of participants will experience an URTI (upper respiratory tract infection) such as a cold, the flu, or a sore throat due to a temporary exercise-induced suppression of immune system function.

The first, and most direct way to optimize recovery is by simply replacing what you’ve lost during exercise. Secondly, by preventing the downward spiral of continuing tissue damage and immune suppression, you can coax your physiology out of a “catabolic” state (marked by tissue breakdown) and toward an “anabolic” state (characterized by tissue repair and rebuilding). Finally, and maybe obviously, triathletes who are fully recovered from one intense workout to the next can train at a higher level without risking illness, injury or overtraining. The instructions for high-level triathlon performance are not rocket science: Train hard – Recover fully – Repeat.

Most triathletes who fail to recover adequately do so because they simply don’t know any better. Grabbing a banana and a glass of water after your workout is certainly a step in the right direction – but while it might be OK for the occasional fitness jogger, it’s simply not enough for triathletes who push themselves on a regular basis.

There are 3 major aspects to optimal post-exercise recovery: rehydration, glycogen replacement, and “biochemical balance” which encompasses controlling inflammation/oxidation, repairing tissue damage, and restoring immune function. Attention to any one of these areas will aid post-exercise recovery, but attention to all 3 will optimize recovery and set you up for better training and performance down the road.

Hydration - What to drink?

The research is quite clear on a couple of important points with regard to hydration during and after exercise. First, electrolyte beverages with a low sugar concentration are clearly superior to water in absorption and retention in the body. Next, there is little to no difference between the various electrolyte beverages in terms of rehydration effectiveness (they’re all better than water, but about equal to each other) – so choose a drink with a taste/flavor that you enjoy.

Glycogen Replacement - What to eat?

Despite all the marketing hoopla that you might hear about the “superior” recovery benefits of various carb/protein blends (4:1, 3:1, etc), the bottom line is that you want to select something that tastes good and is well-tolerated. A wide variety of commercial products and do-it-yourself options can accomplish these goals. Most triathletes will want shoot for about 300-500 carbohydrate calories consumed as soon as possible following exercise.

Biochemical Balance

Many triathletes are already well versed in the rehydration and glycogen replacement aspects (aka “replace what ya lost”) – but they may not be as familiar with some newer thinking in promoting recovery (that of “repair what ya done”). This aspect of recovery, focuses on restoring the normal biochemistry that you destroyed with your workout – and getting it back toward baseline or anabolic levels as quickly as possible.

Each training session causes inflammation, oxidation, tissue damage, and temporary immune suppression. If not adequately addressed, these biochemical derangements can increase your risk of illness (URTIs), injury (tendonitis, fasciitis, and stress fractures), and overtraining (lethargy, depression, general miserableness). Even more important, perhaps, is the simple fact that being incompletely recovered means that you’ll be less likely to mow the lawn, wrestle with the kids, walk the dog, or accomplish myriad other domestic duties that you’ll hear about when they go undone.

Getting inflammation and oxidation under control is as easy as getting some more antioxidants into your diet. Brightly colored berries (blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries), most fruits juices (orange, grape, and apple), and even dietary supplements that contain antioxidant flavonoids and proteolytic (anti-inflammatory) enzymes are an easy approach to quenching these biochemical compounds that can delay tissue repair.

Enhancing the process of tissue repair is also fairly simple. The protein that you may already be consuming with your post-exercise carb-based snack will provide the amino acid building blocks that the body will use to rebuild damaged muscle tissue.

Finally, one of the most overlooked aspects of post-exercise recovery is restoring immune system function back to normal baseline levels. Although regular moderate exercise is associated with an increase in immune system vigilance, the intense bouts of training and competition that most of us endure on a daily basis actually suppress immune function. Make sure to cover your bases by taking a great supplement like Recovox, and I would also add a vital omega to the mix.


Most of us have no need to become “Tour de France adept” at post-exercise recovery (riding 100 miles a day for 3 weeks). However, the majority of us maintain our triathlon “habit” as but one part of our complicated lives that are filled with other “stuff” that might get in the way of our ability to recover. Enhancing our ability to fully recover might actually help us to enjoy that other “stuff” in our lives – while we also enjoy a higher-level of performance at the same time.

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