In January 2007 I went for a trial week with a certain Mr Sutton. Simple question ‘Do I have what it takes to be a professional triathlete?’ His slightly macabre answer being: ‘Physically yes, but I need to cut your head off’. Wishing to avoid decapitation I asked him to elaborate. ‘You don’t know how to relax, you are like a bull at a china shop, living at 100miles an hour. You don’t know how to rest your body and mind. Unless you can learn to do this you will never be a successful athlete’. Headless? He was right. I was that proverbial chicken. Given that ‘rest’ only entered my vocabulary as the beginning of a word ending in ‘aurant’ I nearly reached for the carving knife and performed the decapitation there and then. Yes, I was able to beast myself with the best of them. I could swim/bike/run until I was falling over with exhaustion. But this wasn’t enough. No amount of ticks in the logbook, no amount of ‘eyes popping from head’ sessions, would create a Champion. The puzzle would always be incomplete unless I could develop the all important, as yet missing, piece of the jigsaw: rest and recovery.
I am sure those words are as alien and scary to many of you as they were to me. We are creatures of habit, we love routine, some of us are obsessive compulsive perfectionists, who come out in hives at the thought of an easy session, a nap or, heaven forbid, a rest day. But I cannot say this clearly enough. It is not the swim/bike/run sessions that will make you fitter – it is the recovery – the adaptation and regeneration – from the stress caused by those activities. As Lance Armstrong said “Whoever recovers fastest does best.” And it is not just about physical recovery, its mental recovery/relaxation too. That’s why I say that I train 24/7: recovery IS training my body to be the best that it can be.
But what form should this rest/recovery take? Space is too tight to do justice to all of the different techniques, so I have picked some of the most important.
Easy training/active recovery. The emphasis is on the word easy. If you are not being overtaken by a grandma (apologies to all the OAP triathletes) with a shopper bike then you are not going easy enough. If it goes from being a 90min spin on the bike, to a 2hr ride with a few hills then you have totally changed the nature of the ride – and its purpose. Hard sessions/days should be followed by an easy session. Also important is a cool down after a hard workout. It doesn’t have to be long, but I would suggest that you spend around 10% of your total training time ‘cooling off’ – this can also include targeted, light stretching afterwards.
Rest days. I have about two total rest days a month. This may not sound like a lot, but pros have the luxury that age groupers often don’t. We can rest between sessions, while you are juggling all your balls (not literally). There is no hard and fast rule, but I would suggest incorporating a rest day once every 7-10 days. The key is to listen to your body and its signals, irrespective of your planned training schedule. Spending the afternoon trawling Top Shop for a non lycra bargain, pulling up every weed in your overgrown garden or trying in vain to assemble an Ikea wardrobe do not count as rest. Buttock on sofa is the position to assume. Of course, linked to this is the need for an off season. I have waxed lyrical about this in previous columns. The advice is simple – have one.
To reiterate, it is NOT wasted time. Push aside any (unnecessary and self destructive) feelings of guilt or laziness, and trust that resting makes you better, faster, stronger and more resilient (and also gives you the chance to watch Top Gun for the 100th time).
Sleep: knocking out the zzz’s is something I always hated. ‘I can sleep when I’m dead’ was an oft-uttered mantra of mine. No longer. I love to sleep. We don’t all have this luxury, but I try to get 8-9hours of shut eye a night, and having a routine is key – I go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. Sounds like an oxymoron, but if my sleep is broken it is one of the first signals that I need more, not less, rest. A good bed, quality sheets and a non snoring partner/ear plugs is also recommended.
Nutrition. I covered my daily nutrition in a previous blog, so I will simply reiterate the need for triathletes to eat a healthy, well balanced diet with sufficient calories to sustain your training and lifestyle; to consume high GI carbs before a workout and during workouts of over an hour and then to ensure you refuel with carbs and protein within 30-45minutes of finishing a hard session. This can be a liquid smoothie if necessary, but try to eat a balanced meal as soon as you can.
Compression: until recently people wouldn’t be seen dead wearing tight lycra garments that resembled an Edwardian corset or a dress code at a kinky fetish club. Times have changed. Now myself and athletes the world over are squeezing our muscles into a wide variety of skintight attire without getting arrested. According to claims, these garments increase the velocity of blood flow in and to the muscles, enhance the removal of waste products and also reduce muscle damage. I wear them. They work. Just make sure that you choose a brand, like Compressport, that actually compresses (especially after a few wears and washes), rather than ending up like baggy MC hammer pants. (You could also try leg elevation to enhance the effects. But leave any headstands to those working at said fetish clubs). Also note that, despite being de riguer in the triathlon world, you may wish to hide your compression attire underneath other clothes whilst at work/weddings/job interviews. The general public can still get put off by the sight of middle aged men wearing Robin Hood tights.
Massage. No not the sort you might get at the clubs above (although the ending could be happy), but good quality sports massage. Obviously determined by what you can afford and your access to a good therapist, but I have a regular weekly deep tissue massage, and then a light massage two days before a race. Great not only for loosening muscles, increasing flexibility but also giving you a mental boost and allowing you to switch off for an hour (in between screams of pain as the therapist shoves his/her hands into your knotted hamstrings). A foam roller is a good second best.
Lastly, and most importantly. You have to relax mind as well as body – turning the switch so that you forget all things triathlon. Watch tv, play scrabble, cook a delicious meal, meditate, read a book, pet your pet, go to the movies – anything which gives your mind a break from training, from work and from the stresses of everyday ‘headless chicken’ life.
So, before you head out on your next hard session ask yourself some simple questions. Have my last few workouts been pretty sub optimal? has my sleep been broken? am I moody and irritable? do I feel overly lethargic and tired? has my appetite disappeared? do my legs feel like they have been run over by a truck? If so maybe its time to ‘chop your head off’, rent Top Gun for the 101st time and have a well deserved duvet day. And don’t forget your fetish tights.
(i originally wrote this article for 220triathlon Magazine)