The Recovery Zone

You’re willing to push yourself, even when it hurts. But do you know when to back off — and why? If not, it may be time to give your body a break.


During a cross-country ski race, Steve Waitt took a major tumble, badly injuring his shoulder. He finished the event anyway, skiing the final eight miles in excruciating pain. A few days later he began to suffer stomach problems.

A seasoned athlete, Waitt wasn’t surprised. He knew that extreme exertion and trauma could have an impact on immunity. He’d been training hard for months and figured his fall and final push had put him over.

What Waitt wasn’t prepared for was a double whammy: What seemed like a stomach bug soon developed into a serious digestive disorder that stopped him in his tracks, causing the already-lean athlete to begin losing weight precipitously. Alarmed, he sought help from a series of doctors and was eventually diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.

“I’ve always been very careful about tracking and maintaining my health,” he explains. “But it seemed like my body got pushed past some limit and went sort of haywire.”

As a result of injury and illness, Waitt was forced to seriously scale back his training activities. He took it easy for a few months, forgoing his regular training regimen of running and roller-skiing in favor of walking and long, easy road cycling. He also included some strength and mobility work.

By late fall, with his health improving, Waitt resumed serious training, faced with what he thought could be the long and frustrating task of rebuilding his fitness. Early snow in Minnesota allowed him to hit the trails in November. The first time he stepped into his skis, he didn’t know what to expect.

He was surprised and delighted to discover that he felt better than ever. “I had this new level of endurance,” he recalls. “I didn’t tire as easily, and I was amazed at how strong and full of energy I felt.”

It seemed that his body had just been waiting for time off in order to do some much-needed repair work. Apparently, it made use of the opportunity to do upgrades.

“I’m finding now that I’m able to ski faster with less effort,” says Waitt. “Laying off and resting after so many years of hard training seems to have really paid off.”

Waitt’s story is no anomaly, according to many expert trainers. In order to get stronger, faster, and more powerful, they explain, sometimes rather than bearing down, an athlete needs to lighten up.

Closed for Repairs

Your body requires a certain amount of stressful stimulus to grow stronger. In fact, that damage–recovery cycle is the whole basis of fitness training: You break your body down, and it responds by building itself back up better than before.

But if you’ve been putting your body through its paces without an opportunity for full recovery, or if you’ve been under additional stresses (physical, mental, or emotional), you may not be giving it a chance to restore itself. To do so, you may need to change your routine, pare down your training load, or, in some cases, walk away from training altogether — at least for a little while.

“You can only make fitness gains when your body has time to recover from the training loads you put it under,” asserts Chris Carmichael, founder of Carmichael Training Systems in Colorado Springs, Colo. That means the harder you push, the more carefully you must adhere to the low points of your periodization schedule.

For his elite athletes, Carmichael not only inserts rest days into a training schedule, he also prescribes rest weeks, even months. After every three days of hard training, he instructs them to take a 24- to 48-hour break.

After every three weeks, he recommends one week at half the normal training volume and intensity. Carmichael advises many of his clients to take anywhere from one to three months off from formal training after they peak for a big event. During this time off, they can run or walk, bike or swim, but they are not supposed to time themselves or monitor their heart rates.

This type of regeneration period allows your body to recharge not only your energy stores, but also your mental focus. You start fresh, with a more positive and confident outlook on what you want to accomplish.

The Effort Addiction

If world-class competitors take a step back sometimes, why do so many of us feel so guilty when we opt for a power walk over an intense sprint session?

In many cases, it’s because we put so much emphasis on our effort as a means to an end that we don’t trust anything but effort — and lots of it — to get us there. We forget that training is not an either-or proposition, in which you have to choose between always pushing hard or quickly falling behind.

We’re also creatures of habit. “It’s easy to get sucked up into the routine of training rather than the goal of training,” says Ian Adamson, a renowned endurance cyclist and record-holding endurance kayaker from Boulder, Colo.

It’s important, he says, to always keep in mind why you are training and to remember that strategic periods of rest and recovery are part of every good training plan.

If you have a consistent workout regimen, you don’t need to live in fear of losing all momentum the instant you take your foot off the pedal. It takes much longer than a day or two for the body to detrain. As long as you’ve been training consistently for six months or more, it would probably take at least two weeks of complete bed rest before you’d see your muscles begin to wither.

If you do even a little work on a weekly basis, you can stave off significant losses for months. “Train hard just one day a week and you can maintain your fitness almost indefinitely,” says Melinda Sothern, PhD, an exercise physiologist at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans.

Sothern is not suggesting that an untrained person will make fitness strides with this approach, or that seasoned athletes will want to embrace this sort of training plan long term. Her point is simply that most athletes won’t lose ground nearly as rapidly as they fear.

That’s important to understand, she explains, because failing to take breaks — going too hard for too long, too often — can harm your performance, immunity, and mood, and deplete your energy reserves. This sets you up for other problems, like illness, depression, and burnout.

And, of course, it can take all the fun out of fitness. Many athletes put themselves in a near-constant state of overtraining, notes Sothern, and needlessly sacrifice energy and vitality as a result. (For more on incorporating recovery into your training at “Why Workout Recovery Days Are Essential for Optimal Fitness”.


Disappearing Fitness

What can you expect to lose in case of an extended layup? According to exercise physiologist Melinda Sothern, PhD, here’s what goes on during a complete layoff from training.

If an illness, injury, or frenzied work schedule has kept you out of the gym, don’t despair. Do what you can, and trust your body to ask for what it needs. Your rate of repair depends in part on how depleted your system is to begin with, but unless you’re seriously ill, you’ll probably notice some improvement within just a few days of treating yourself more gently. The good news: Movement of any kind — even walking the dog — will help prolong your fitness.

Amount of time off: 48 hours
What happens: Catecholamine and other fat-burning-enzyme levels drop

What it means: Your body is burning fat at a slightly reduced level. Fit people burn fat at a higher rate, so this slight reduction probably won’t show up on your waistline, assuming you head back to the gym within the next few weeks.

Amount of time off: 72 to 120 hours
What happens: Insulin response drops

What it means: This hormone shuttles sugar into your muscle cells. Insulin works extremely well in fit individuals, so this slight drop is nothing to worry about.

Amount of time off: 1 week
What happens: Flexibility declines

What it means: Of all fitness variables — strength, endurance, and flexibility — flexibility is the hardest to maintain and easiest to lose, which is why it’s a good idea to stretch every day, even during a layoff.

Amount of time off: 2 weeks
What happens: Endurance and strength begin to drop

What it means: Once your endurance and strength begin to drop, they continue to do so rapidly. After three weeks of rest, you’ll have lost 50 percent of your strength and endurance. After four weeks, you’ll have lost 75 percent, and after six, you’ll have lost most everything.


The Art of Recovery Q&A With Matt Dixon

Many of us know how to train hard, but fewer of us are as good at recovering from that training. Matt Dixon, MSc, is known as the “recovery coach” for the importance he places on restoring your body between workouts. The author of The Well-Built Triathlete explains the essence of recovery. (For our full interview with Dixon, see "The Art of Recovery Q&A With Matt Dixon".)


Experience Life | In your book, you discuss the “four pillars of performance.” Can you explain what they are and why they’re important?

Matt Dixon | The four pillars of performance are endurance training, recovery, nutrition, and functional strength. All four are essential to a balanced training and performance strategy. By shifting the training emphasis away from simply training, and placing equal emphasis on all four pillars, we enable athletes to employ a smarter, more effective decision-making process in their daily lives.

ELHow do you define “recovery”?

MD | I segregate recovery into three main areas:

  1. Training Recovery involves building lower-stress training or breaks into the architecture of the training plan. Working from macro to micro scale, this might include seasonal breaks, multiple days of recovery and rejuvenation, or simply individual workouts designed to facilitate recovery from harder foundational sessions.
  2. Lifestyle Recovery includes sleep and downtime, nutrition, fueling, hydration, and rejuvenating life activities, such as meditation or naps. Postexercise fueling — or the lack of it — is one of the major contributors to poor endurance performance, and hence a massive component of recovery.
  3. Recovery Modalities include all of the secondary recovery tools, such as massage, compression gear, and foam rollers, which can be helpful but pale in importance when stacked against training and lifestyle recovery.

Obviously, there is no single recipe or strategy that works for everyone. Individual athletes require different amounts and different types of recovery to get their best results.

In all cases, being proactive helps. I advise the athletes I work with to get in front of fatigue with shorter and more frequent mini-blocks of recovery. I typically have them take two or three lighter days of lower-stress training about every 10 to 14 days. Some athletes bounce back after a single day. Others require two to three days.

One thing that we know doesn’t work as well is to load for three continuous weeks, then spend an entire week recovering from those efforts.

This classic “build-build-build-recover” schedule makes little sense and is certainly not the most effective method for designing a training plan.

is a freelance writer and editor.

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