Going the Distance part 4 – Recovery, the Secret Ingredient

“Recovery is even more important for older athletes – for our performance, overall health and enjoyment of the sport in general”


Recovery is a vital but often the most neglected part of training. Indeed, it is usually not even considered ‘part of training’. However, recovery is even more important for older athletes – for our performance, overall health and enjoyment of the sport in general.

To make the best use of recovery as part of the overall training programme, there are four essential principles to be understood and accepted.

Essential Principles

Getting a grasp of these key principles is important because understanding why something works will help you to accept it and incorporate it into your training and lifestyle approaches.

  1. Fitness happens while recovering

The first and most important principle is that fitness develops not when you are training but when your body is resting and adapting to the preceding training load.

However, no matter how often this is said and emphasized, some people are slow to really absorb the principle. So, it is worth repeating and emphasizing again:

Fitness develops not when you are training, but when your body is resting and adapting to the preceding training load.

Therefore, when you have completed that key, killer workout you begin gaining the fitness response from the time you stop. Facilitating this response (‘recovery’) will greatly add to the training benefits of that session.

  1. Recovery slows with age

Recovery gradually slows down as we get older and managing it better therefore becomes more important.

Most riders begin to notice a decline in their recovery capacity in their early 40s and, by the time you get into your 50s and 60s, it is significantly diminished. Therefore, the amount of effective high-quality training that you can endure is gradually diminished. This is one of the limitations with older athletes – we can endure less high-intensity training.

  1. More pain can mean less gain

There is a point beyond which more training of a certain kind is counter-productive. It reduces performance by compromising recovery  and leads to the risk of illness, injury and de-motivation.

Similarly, peak fitness will depend on high-quality training efforts – ‘hitting the numbers’ – and we cannot do these top-quality sessions unless well-recovered.

We need to get over the misleading ‘no-pain-no-gain’ attitude and the point comes when putting the feet up, or taking a nap, will produce better results than going training.

Being able to distinguish between these priorities, at the right time, is an essential part of performance training.

  1. We may need recovery from more than training

The fourth principle is that recovery must take general life stress into account as well as training stress.

Recovery will be compromised by elevated general life stress which is inevitable from time to time because of work, family and other circumstances. We ‘get away’ with less, so we need to be able to recognize when total stress is accumulating and that training and living habits need to be adjusted to account for this.

Understanding and accepting these principles will give you confidence that recovery time is not wasted time, and will also give you some of the knowledge to make wise adjustments to your training as you go along.

Back to the Basic Principles of Training

In discussing approaches to recovery it is useful to briefly summarise the basic principles of training which I discussed in the previous article. I explained the principles of training as a cycle of stress and recovery or, for some who train at very high intensity at particular periods, as a process of destruction and repair or as a cycle of inflammation and re-growth.

Therefore, the periods of recovery, repair and re-growth are the times in your periodization cycle when you gain most in fitness.

If the training load is judged right – stressing the body to the optimum degree at the right time – then the recovery period raises your fitness to a level greater than it was in the previous cycle.

The more focused your training, with key high-intensity workouts included, the more important the recovery component becomes.


The Risks of Neglecting Recovery

Illness and injury are the greatest risks from unstructured training, especially when accompanied by the ‘no-pain-no-gain’ attitude.

Continual heavy training, without recovery periods to aid repair and re-growth, compromises the immune system and weakens the body’s defensive mechanisms. While short term physiological stress builds growth when combined with recovery, chronic stress without recovery will cause damage.

Burnout is another risk – losing motivation and the joie de vivre of cycling. This can be insidious and creeps up over months and years. You focus on the performance goals, but lose sight of the bigger picture – why you cycle in the first place. Proper recovery will help maintain this balance (see my blog on ‘Awareness of the Darker Side of Cycling ‘).

Not achieving your best potential is yet another risk. Your training will simply not be as effective if recovery is not factored in properly as part of training.

In some cases, when riders don’t recognise that poor performance is due to need for more recovery, their reaction is to ramp up training even more, rather than rest. I have written about this spiral on the blog on ‘Avoiding two Key Triggers of Injury and Overtraining’.


‘Smart Recovery’ within the Periodization Plan

One of the key aspects of an effective training plan is the optimum adjustment of the load/recovery cycles. How these are built into the plan will depend on a great range of variables: the age of the rider; the particular events; the goals; the time of the year; the level the athlete is at; individual variation in work and general life circumstances; and such like.

However, the main adjustment necessary with age is the building of more frequent and ‘deep’ recovery periods into the training cycle.

In very simple terms, for example, the overload-recovery cycle might change with age as follows over the course of one week:

  • 30 year-old: hard – hard – easy – hard – hard – hard – easy
  • 45 year-old: hard – easy – hard – easy – hard – easy – hard
  • 60 year-old: hard – easy – easy – hard – easy – easy – hard

The classic weekly cycle is three weeks of accumulating hard workouts followed by one week of rest. However, with age, this might be adjusted just to two weeks of load followed before a recovery block is needed.

The recovery strategy will also depend on which part of the annual periodization cycle you are at. For example, if you are working mainly on endurance in the winter months, with less intensity, you may need less recovery between sessions. However, when you are building your fitness nearer to your goals you will be doing harder workouts, which call for more recovery.

As I said at the outset, there are very many variables and this is why the good planning of a training programme is important, with flexibility build in.


Denial and Self-Regulation

Many athletes are highly motivated and goal-orientated and, even though they understand the general principles and approaches I’m outlining here, they don’t really take them on board. Logic and reason can go out the window in the pursuit of goals and the ‘no-pain-no-gain’ mentality.

In such cases we can be ‘our own worst enemy’ and good judgement and self-regulation becomes lost. There will be few athletes who have not experienced this at some time.

There are a number of approaches which can help with this type of denial and need for better self-regulation:

  • Have a plan: a well-constructed training plan will help, but this needs to be flexible. More importantly, you need awareness to be able to make these adjustments when necessary and, as I have pointed out, objectivity sometimes becomes lost.
  • Analytics software: this has a certain role provided you know how to interpret the data it produces. However, it has the significant disadvantages of not factoring in additional life-stress and your own unique physiological characteristics. As I pointed out above, the role of these are key to understanding recovery.
  • Listen to a ‘significant other’: this is especially useful when you are tired, not recovering properly and displaying some of the signs of over-training – see more on this below.
  • Have a coach: this is one of the key roles of a good coach – an objective and informed observer who will find that ideal balance between training stress and recovery, and will make the necessary adjustments from time to time. If considering a coach, look for somebody with experience of working with older athletes and understands the difference in physiological adaptation in older cyclists.


Signs of the Need for More Recovery

These are some of the normal signs of the need for more recovery:

  • Elevated resting heart rate in the mornings
  • Heart rate not rising to match the training intensity, or rising more slowly than normal
  • Loss of motivation and enjoyment
  • Irritability and general poor mood
  • Regular or persistent low-level illness, such as colds or upper respiratory tract infections such as sore throats
  • Loss of appetite
  • Poor performance in events.


Further Recovery Strategies

Along with rest, there is a very long list of other aids to recovery, each of which would take an article of its own to fully explore. So, I am just going to summarise them here. Some of these are based on good science and are reliable. Others don’t have good scientific evidence even though experienced athletes sometimes ‘swear by them’ – you have to make your own choices on these.

Diet and hydration: there is no argument here – this really matters. Increased protein, for example, is necessary as we get older (see article on Additional Protein Needs for Older Athletes).

Sleep: this is another ‘no-brainer’ – sleep is the magic ingredient for recovery. How do you know if you are not getting enough of it? If the alarm wakes you, rather than waking naturally, you could probably benefit from more. Not everyone has this luxury, but getting to bed earlier is the simplest strategy.

Active recovery: this is gentle activities such a walking, swimming or cycling. Done easily, it helps prevent muscle soreness. However, many can’t discipline themselves to cycle at the very easily pace this requires.

Stretching, foam rolling and massage: there is no good science which says that these recovery techniques makes you go faster, but science can’t explain everything. These techniques certainly help and stretching is one of the key strategies to slow the reducing mobility as we get older.

Hot and/or cold baths: there is contradictory science on both – the case for their  effectiveness is clear.

Compression garments: as with hot and/or cold baths, there are arguments either way.

Micronutrient supplements: there is a long list of supplements which are suggested such as Vitamins C, D and B12; calcium; zinc; magnesium; Omega 3 Fatty Acids. Most will be catered adequately for with a nutrient-rich diet. However, I would suggest that you get at least an annual blood test and discuss the question of supplements suitable for you with your GP.

In addition to micronutrient supplements, there are many non-banned ‘performance enhancers’ which do have some cross-over with micronutrient supplements as they are essentially ‘natural’. These include creatine; caffeine; Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10); B Alanine and such like. As with much of the above, the science on these is mixed.


Going the Distance – Wrap Up

I said in the introduction to this series:

“With appropriate training, the physiological impact of ageing can be hugely reduced and older cyclists can achieve levels of performance beyond their imaginations”.

Our two biggest limiting factors are knowledge and attitude. I hope this series has been a starting point in helping you gain some knowledge and given you motivation to ‘Go the Distance’.

Thanks for reading.


Back to ‘Introduction’ with menu of articles ….

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