Monday, February 16, 2009


“The hardest thing for an athlete to do is not train. You can’t sit still. You feel like you should be out there working”
- Graeme Obree (former 1hr cycling world record holder-pictured left)

“The bottom line is that the body does not get fitter through exercise. It gets fitter through recovery”
- Peter Keen (coach of Chris Boardman)

“Recovery. That’s the name of the game in cycling. Whoever recovers the fastest wins”
- Lance Armstrong

“I have had many outstanding races after a forced rest. This illustrates the crucial role rest and recovery play in getting the most from training”
- Emil Zatopek (18x World Record Holder)

“There is a time to train and a time to rest. It is the true test of the runner to get them both right.”
- Noel Carrol (Irish Olympian and running coach)

“I take a nap almost every day. I couldn’t do without my nap”
- Scott Molina

Among the core training principles, perhaps the least understood is the principle of recovery. I know that, personally, it has only been relatively recently that I have come to fully understand the importance of getting work:recovery cycles right.

I think back to a comment on one of my older blogs from a reader making the observation that my posts tend to focus on that 4 letter word – work. Make no mistake, I still see total workload as a central, almost determinant factor in endurance sports. However, I am now much more tuned into the intelligent distribution of work (and my athletes are seeing faster progress because of it!)

One of the hardest things for an athlete to grasp is that, like the ever-shifting economy, your training ‘buck’ differs in value throughout each training cycle. Let me elaborate….

We are all familiar with Hans Selye’s stress curve, or, in other terms, the curve of diminishing returns (see below)

Work applied at the beginning of a cycle (whether the first key session of a microcycle, the first week of a mesocycle or the first month of a macrocycle) initially has a net negative effect as the body experiences an ‘alarm reaction’ to the load.

Following the alarm reaction, the body summons it’s adaptation reserves and (providing the workload isn’t excessive) overcomes the resistance of the stressor (for our purposes, the stressor = Coach AC :-). This key period, the second half of the ‘A Block’ on the chart represents the point in the training cycle that the body is most able to deal with load.

Following this, the body progressively habituates to the stressor and, gains less and less performance benefit from a given stressor. Until, eventually, the chronic training load surpasses the body’s adaptation reserve and performance begins to plateau, then drop, and if the training stress is continued, chronic fatigue eventuates.

At the extreme, planned recovery obviously helps to avoid reaching this chronic fatigue state. However, the benefits of planned recovery within each cycle extend far beyond that.

The Macrocycle (Season)

As mentioned above, if the Macrocycle (or season) is excessively long, eventually the athlete will experience a plateau, a performance decline and eventually chronic fatigue. Obviously, the time span before this happens is related to individual peculiarities with regard to absolute load, constitution, level of the athlete, even the sport in which the athlete participates. However, generally speaking a relative plateau can be expected after 3-5 months and a relative decline in performance can be expected with 5-7 months if no recovery cycle is planned (Morton, 1991).

Even if the athlete is smart enough to include recovery within the season before chronic fatigue is reached, this still does not necessarily equate with optimal training. In accordance with the principle of diminished returns, a given session offers less performance benefit as the season continues. For a given training load (e.g. 100TSS/d), the relative fitness benefit to a typical athlete at different points in the season is shown below.

Or, put another way, by 3 months of a given load (or when a plateau is observed) the athlete has usually habituated to the load and is receiving little fitness benefit. At this point, it is time to either:

a) Peak up the central systems and compete
b) Insert recovery and begin a new cycle at a higher level.

We all know what my preference is for a developing athlete ;-)

You may have noticed that to some extent some of the core training principles are contradictory. For example, recovery can be considered somewhat antipolar to consistency. Variety can be considered somewhat opposite to specificity. In all things, balance is key. So, this bring us to some practicalities: What is the optimal balance between consistent training and recovery blocks?

The optimal length, volume and intensity of this cycle is a function of the level of the athlete and the training load. In practical terms, long term monitoring of fitness and training load offer the coach/athlete the opportunity to optimize this cycle for each athlete.

For example, below, I have a summary chart of my own training volume over the past 2 and a bit years with a line chart showing how my run fitness has changed over this time (for my key aerobic sessions in m/heart beat)

My recovery blocks are clear. Month 7, 12, 18 and 23-24 represented significant reductions in training volume. As you can see, in my case, a reduction in monthly volume of ~40-50% seems to keep my fitness at or above the starting level of the previous cycle (a key long term training objective). Whereas, my last recovery block after Ironman Arizona (3 week taper + 5 week recovery) seemed to be too little volume (~20%) for a little too long. These #’s fit in nicely with those of Troup (1989) who found that performance can be maintained for 5 weeks on 60% of normal training volume in elite swimmers.


The same principle applies to structuring work and recovery within the week.
I have used the following chart from Olbrecht in past blogs about applying the adaptation curve to structuring weekly sessions.

I often have athletes asking the question “is it OK to move my sessions around this week due to some work conflicts?” The short answer is, in most cases, no. It’s not OK. The timing of your weekly sessions to allow appropriate recovery between them is one of the key elements of training smart.

There is an individual window after each key session in which the following key session must be completed if improvement is to be expected.

For example, for a typical athlete, a basic ‘medium’ aerobic session (total CHO cost of ~700kcal) should optimally be planned for every 8-12hrs. If more than 24hrs passes without basic aerobic work then the athlete returns to homeostasis and the previous day of training is essentially wasted. Hence, the importance of consistency (no zeroes!!)

Obviously, on the flipside, if the athlete tries to fit in the second session of the day while still in the recovery window from the first (0-6hrs), the athlete is merely digging a deeper hole rather than hitting the training at the right time to ensure a ‘bounce’ to a higher level.

Of course, if a harder session is undertaken in the am, then the pm session becomes a recovery/maintenance (~400kcal CHO) session rather than a developmental session.

The timing of training and recovery for each individual athlete is one of the most important training principles to get a handle on. As Noel Carroll observed, “There is a time to train and a time to rest. It is the true test of the runner to get them both right”.

Train smart.



ll said...

hey AC! do you support Milan :D

great writing once again! once you write a book it will sure be a success!

definitely good to have r&r periods! somehow though those tend to usually be forced by weather, injuries or sicness. or sometimes all together :(

fortunately got once step closer again figuring out why i get injured so often...

keep up the kick a's work dude!

Alan Couzens said...

Thanks Man.

Gordo said to me a while ago that by the time you 'need' recovery it's too late. I didn't really get it at the time but now I see it more as if you wait until you 'need' recovery you've probably let the plateau go on for too long.

Thanks for your continued support.