By Martina YoungD3 Multisport.com Coach
First, lets agree that triathlon is not just a sum of its parts but one sport with three disciplines and two transitions. Researchers agree that main prerequisites for successful performance in a triathlon consist of high maximal oxygen uptake (V02 max), lactate threshold and maximum sustainable percentage of VO2max. When these variables are measured separately in triathletes the numbers are not as high as in the respective single sports with athletes with comparable level of fitness. Bear with me as this information is important when it comes to the question on how to recover properly.
There is an increase in oxygen consumption in triathlon running versus a stand-alone run of the same distance with energy expenditure as high as 11.6% that of a standalone run. Furthermore, researchers have observed a decrease of stride length as a result of local muscle fatigue and possibly due to modifications in lumbar and abdominal muscle contractions due to changed sensory input as the body position changes from cycling to running. Include strength training for muscles such as tensor fascia latae (TFL), tibialis anterior, vastus lateralis to name a few that are showing signs of decreased motor unit recruitment in running after a cycle period.
Recovery is considered to be an interval between training sessions and scheduling a proper amount of recovery to enhance performance but avoid detraining is a skillful task to carry out. Three main types of recoveries that need to be considered are recovery between sessions, between blocks of training and before a race. The most important piece of advice I can give is to not change the order of the workouts from what was recommended and to not do make up sessions unless approved by a coach. The rule of thumb is that two hard sessions should not be scheduled for the same sport back to back. A hard session in one sport followed by a lower intensity and longer duration session of another sport would be a good way to take advantage of triathlon complexity. Whether fatigue is centrally (brain stopping the body from moving to decrease a chance of injury) or peripherally (body is incapable to continue with exercise due to biomechanical changes secondary to metabolically induced tissue damage) induced homeostasis needs to be restored in order to gain from the precedent effort. Research cannot agree on a specific quantity of time such as 24 hours, 48 hours or a week for proper recovery as that not only depends of the type of workout but also on the individual (age, skill level, gender) himself. Generally speaking, one of the best indicators for overtraining, which can result in a performance plateau and injury, is the inability to reach the prescribed levels of effort (swim intervals, power, pace).
The jury is still out on active versus passive recovery and I would recommend for each individual to try what works for them. There are athletes who need a complete time off training to achieve absolute mental and physical recovery and others who benefit from cross training or a low intensity activity. A 24-hour window of rest seems very reasonable and favorable particularly in age group athletes who still “suffer” from inefficiency in training and racing and thus incur more central and peripheral induced fatigue. A 48-hour period between sessions working on muscle strength is recommended to allow muscles proper restoration.
Between four week blocks of training the recovery week is typically reserved for testing, starting with the swim and the run being the last in the week. During the recovery week brick sessions are a simple way to combine workouts and thus decrease the overall volume but keep the intensity high to prevent detraining. The bike-to-run workouts can include a longer set with a single transition just below race effort or a couple of shorter sets with two-three transitions (bike-run-bike-run) at just above the race effort. Before the race a two-week taper is recommended with 20% reduction in volume during the first week and up to 50% reduction in the second week. Proper nutrition is crucial to fuel healing muscles and to restore energy reserves. Having said that listen to your body and remember that proper recovery is the fourth (or fifth if you count strength training) sport in triathlon.
Martina Young is a triathlon coach at D3 Multisport.com, doctor of physical therapy in her own private practice specializing in sports and orthopedics. She is a proud mom of two girls and en route to IM Boulder.
1) Millet P; Vleck V. Physiological and Biomechanical adaptations to the cycle to run transition in Olympic triathlon: review and practical recommendation for training. Br J Sports Med 2000 34:384-390