By Dougal Allan.
The goal of any training program is to improve or maximise performance in some way over a period of time. Each time we train (e.g. swim, bike or run) we are introducing a physiological stress to our body. The most obvious display of this is the tissue damage caused by a hard training session that leads to sore muscles a day or two later. Whether this is healthy stress or unhealthy stress generally depends on how we manage the recovery before and afterwards.
When done right, the stress caused by training causes a momentary ‘drop’ in our physiological status (which is why you’ll find the harder the session, generally the more tired and/or sore you will feel afterwards). This is the ‘stress’ response. When we nail the recovery (quality and quantity) our physiological status bounces back to the same or a slightly higher level than before as our body adapts to the stresses/loads we introduced in training. This is the ‘adaptation’ response where the body ‘supercompensates’ for the stresses caused by training. If our training is structured right, we generally see a pattern of stress and adaptation responses that lead to an upwards trend on physiological status over time (known as progressive overload).
If we fail to recover enough and continue to stress our body without allowing for the adaptation response, we are likely to end up sick or injured (over-training). If we allow too much recovery post-training stress, we are less likely to maximise the supercompensation response (under-training). A good coach/athlete is able to identify an appropriate level of stress and subsequent recovery needed, to allow the longitudinal adaptation response to move performance in an upward trending direction over time.
So how does this actually look? Well it depends on what scale we are thinking. At a daily level it means recovering between and after training session with good nutrition and physical rest. It might also involve more pro-active forms of recovery such as massage, ice baths or yoga. Active recovery for a triathlete may also involve the clever placement of swim sessions that follow particularly stressful/key bike and/or run sessions or vice versa. On a weekly scale (or within one ‘microcycle’) it can mean factoring in a full rest day or two. These will often follow a particularly hard or long training day. Across multiple weeks (within one ‘mesocycle’) it will mean factoring in lower volume/intensity or ‘recovery’ training weeks, usually after 2-3 build or overload weeks. On the scale of multiple months (or across a macrocycle) it can mean inclusion of prolonged recovery periods or off-seasons to allow more holistic levels of restoration/recovery.
In my opinion, to sustain physical and mental health and longevity in the sport, we need to plan periods of passive rest and recovery too. While our legs ‘rest’ while we swim or our arms ‘rest’ while we run, our heart continues to work at an elevated rate and our sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive. True physical rest involving relaxation and downtime is critical not just to our aspirations of remaining physically active for life but also to our long-term health and prosperity.
The fact is, we cannot expect to constantly ‘climb upwards’ with training and performance. Stress and adaptation (rest) are of equal important and we cannot have too much of one without the other if we expect to improve. A clever coach can periodise an athlete’s training in such a way that the levels of both stress and recovery allow for adaptation to occur consistently over time, i.e. progressive overload. The next trick is to try and structure the stress-adaptation response to have the athlete experience a ‘peak’ in health and fitness status at the same time as their goal race or event. Generally speaking this involves a ‘taper’ period where the adaptation to a chronic training load becomes the main focus and recovery is strategically prioritised. In Training Peaks terms for example, this may involve trying to achieve a Training Stress Balance (TSB)of +20-30 come race day.
So remember that recovery (adaptation) is of equal importance to training (stress). One without the other will be detrimental over time. Placing equal value on both is how we manage overall training loads and see long term performance improvements and optimal health and fitness levels.