By Susan DuPont
I am a firm believer that the recovery week should be the fourth discipline of the triathlon. Its necessity to triathletes is obvious; after all, what triathlete does not think they need time for recovery? You might be surprised to find that a lot of them don't. You probably even know some of these people. They're the ones who never take a day off from training, go swimming or running the day after an Ironman, and declare they don't have an "off season." You might even be one of these people yourself! Triathletes, like many other athletes, fear that taking time off for recovery will equate to a loss of fitness. We fear our speed will go out the window and our strength will be diminished. This fear is so great that we skip our recovery period and continue training, thereby, increasing our chances for overtraining or becoming injured. However, the real irony is that we may be sacrificing speed and strength by NOT taking a recovery week.
All research supports the need for athletes to take time to recover. Basically, the body needs time to repair and rebuild itself in order to meet the demands of your next training block. If you don't let your body repair itself, you are more prone to overtraining, which can lead to injury, physical sickness, and emotional strain. Look at it like changing the oil in your car. You need to change the oil every so often to keep your car running at its optimal performance level. Failure to change your oil will result in your car breaking down and you being sidelined with some costly repairs. Similarly, triathletes need to take time off after a heavy build phase to allow their bodies to rest and recuperate. This doesn't mean that training is eliminated. Instead, the volume and intensity of your workouts should be dramatically reduced. My recovery week, which comes every fourth week, consists of one complete day off (yay!) and then low intensity training for the remaining six days. I go from 18 hours of training per week to 8 hours. My long ride shrinks to 2 hours and my long run drops to 1 hour; that's a stark comparison to 6 hours of biking and 3 hours of running during my build phases.
So I get the recovery part. What I am NOT quite getting (or maybe what I am not quite appreciating) is how downright terrible I feel during recovery weeks. I can barely make it out of bed in the mornings and I feel lethargic, sleepy, and puny the rest of the time. I ache and hurt to the point that I think I may be injured and I even experience moments where I feel feverish and think I am getting sick. I run three miles and can barely knock out a 9:30 pace all the while feeling like I'm dragging a bag of bricks behind me. I should have tons of energy. I should feel great and invigorated, strong, and super enthusiastic...so why don't I?
The answer is simple. Once again, my poor body is trying to recuperate from the heinous beating it has taken for the past three weeks. I am on the razor's edge of overtraining and my body is in shut down mode, so expecting to feel great and invigorated is like telling someone who is recovering the day after surgery that he should feel great and invigorated. It is always during recovery weeks that I begin to have self doubts. Too much free time and feeling like dog doo is a deadly combination for triathletes; it is when we are at our most dangerous. We begin to question our training and goals and then before we know it, we start tweaking our programs and screw up everything with our training. I find that I constantly have to reassure myself that feeling beat-up during a recovery week means one thing: IT'S WORKING! I usually don't appreciate my recovery week until it is over and I am already halfway through my new build week. That is usually when I suddenly notice just how good I am feeling and realize, "Oh, I get the point now!" So, take full advantage of your recovery week; while your body might not seem to appreciate it at the time, it will thank you come race day!