top of page
Faded Shapes

Recovery: What is recovery and why is it important?

As a professional athlete, I work towards those small gains in performance. Many coaches and performance/physiology experts will say that working hard in training isn’t the barrier to success - it’s how the athlete recovers. If you recover faster, THEN you can train harder. People forget this important caveat to training hard and instead focus on hammering workouts and piling on volume and efforts. But the focus should ultimately be on recovery. I personally build what seems like my entire life around recovery and attribute this as a large part of my success. But to be transparent, I wasn’t always like this and I’ve learned a lot of painful lessons about this along the way. 

Let me start by explaining how I used to be. I used to work 2 jobs and be on a plethora of committees in my prior life as a runner - mostly because I just couldn’t say no. I enjoyed being busy, but I also failed to listen to my body particularly outside of when I was working out. I also fell victim to thinking a leaner athlete was a faster athlete, which I now know isn’t always the case. I had a slew of injuries - recurrent stress fractures, tendonitis, torn hamstring - you name it, I had it. A large part of my recurrent injuries was poor biomechanics, but another piece that largely contributed was a mismatch of training and recovery which ultimately led to years of RED-S. RED-S is Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport and you can learn more about it here. I ‘performed’ well as a runner, but never really came near my potential because there was always an injury that popped up, most of which were overuse injuries. Overuse injuries are often a result of poor recovery. The easy answer athletes are often given (even medical professionals who are not trained well in this area) - is to reduce training volume. But the answer is usually that they need improved recovery - and for most athletes this means their nutrition, sleep and stress management. Overuse injuries like I had as a runner are easier to spot in weight bearing sports - but in cycling they can disguise themselves in other areas. The following are some examples of poor recovery - or rather a mismatch of training and fueling:  

  • recurrent head colds across a season 

  • frequent “niggles” as I call them or pain spots that keep coming back 

  • Loss of menses in females (HUGE red flag) or loss of libido in men

  • Chronic fatigue, Irritability 

  • Psychological changes - particularly ongoing/worsening depression and anxiety 

  • Gastrointestinal issues 

  • Decreased performance, lack of training response

If you are familiar with RED-S, you will also quickly notice that this list is basically the same symptoms of RED-S as well. Now, that is an entirely different blog post but it’s worth mentioning as likely the number one reason to prioritize your recovery. But if recovery is the answer to avoid all of this - then what the heck is recovery? It’s a term that we use all the time, but HOW to recover is the question you should be asking yourself because it’s different for everyone. So what is recovery? In the simplest terms, I believe recovery boils down to the following: 

  1. How are you fueling? 

  2. How are you sleeping?  

  3. How are your stress levels? 

So, how do you know you are recovering well? I don’t have an answer that fits everyone for this. But, I can tell you what I personally do. I have a checklist for when I am training a lot. I will share these and then also give my opinion about tracking recovery with devices, as that is another option too. 

When I am in a big training block, these are the questions I ask myself or red flags I look for that can indicate a lack of proper recovery (fuel, sleep, stress management): 

  1. Am I eager to train and motivated to work hard?

  2. Am I tired? 

  3. Do I wake up rested? 

  4. Am I having a regular menses/period? 

  5. Am I excited to ride my bike? 

  6. Am I excited to race? 

  7. Am I excited about the small details? 

  8. Am I getting sick? 

  9. Any nagging sore spots or overuse injury spots? 

If I am not excited to get on my bike, we might have a problem. Don’t get me wrong, there are days I do not want to get up and ride but I am talking about multiple days of not wanting to train or dreading it. That’s an issue. Being tired is another tricky one. When I ride as much as I do, I am tired A LOT. That’s good and I want that, but if I take a rest day and I still feel tired or my baseline fatigue is worsening despite rest - then we have a problem. For me, when I am tired I just eat more food and generally I feel better and then can train more. It seems like such a simple solution, but many people fail to recognize this. 

So what about those fancy recovery scores people toss around? Sure, there are TONS of biometric tracking devices nowadays. Do I use any of them? Nope. Mostly because I am too cheap to pay for a subscription and I can just monitor my morning pulse and get what I need. If you can afford them, go for it, but only if you don’t get obsessed with what the number is and let it tell you how you feel. I do think for many people having an objective metric can actually keep you accountable but too many athletes take it to the opposite extreme. 

Now, I will say I think 2 metrics are worth tracking and paying attention to if you are a numbers person and need help with something objective to manage your recovery. These include morning resting heart rate and hRV - both can be tracked fairly easily too. They should be inversely related to one another, meaning when you are fresh your resting HR should be low and your hRV high. These 2 numbers together can really tell you a lot - signs of starting to get sick, over training, stress levels, etc. When I worked as a PA while racing in 2022 I did track these daily and what I learned was my numbers were always worse when I had high stress off the bike. I could do really hard workouts, but I could sleep and eat well and subsequently recover fast. But when I had chronic stress in life or acute stress from work, relationships, etc - that’s when my recovery was bad and the numbers taught me that. Too often the only number we look at is the training peaks numbers such as CTL, but in reality, none of that captures off the bike stressors - which are largely responsible for how we feel and how we recover. I would wager that if an athlete commits to their recovery (sleep, eating and stress) equally if not more than their training on the bike, they will get performance gains. The problem? We are addicted to exercise and often compromise sleep, meal prep or life responsibilities so that we can ride more. Who knows, maybe you’ll be faster if you ride less and sleep more and meal prep better? Just a thought…. 

So in summary, this is how I view recovery. In the simplest form - eating enough food paired with sleeping well and reducing stress are the biggest indicators of success. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that. Yes, I foam roll and I stretch and I do some other recovery modalities but the research on recovery largely points back to those 3 basics I keep talking about. Sleep actually has the most literature as a performance gain/recovery area of focus. We live in a world where there is technology or a supplement for nearly everything these days. Sure, some of those may have small gains but the large gains are in diet, sleep and stress management - don’t forget that. These are things you have to decide to optimize for yourself and make compromises in your everyday life and it often impacts your family or the people you live with - so you need their support in this too. If you have poor recovery in these areas, you can’t buy your way out of it with the next best supplement that’s on the market. 

I can say all of this because I’ve been there. I’ve counseled and mentored many athletes going through eating disorders and RED-S, and I’ve been one of those athletes myself in the past. I just wish a medical provider would have told me sooner that the answer was to eat and sleep more with my training load - aka I needed to recover more. We live in a society where people think more is better - but I argue that is not always the case for athletes. If you do more training, you risk that mismatch of training and recovery. This mismatch leads to injury, lack of performance gains and ultimately wastes the hard work you’ve put into training.  

I can say all of these things not because I am an expert in this area but because I have experience here. Yes, I am a PA and I have a medical background. Yes, I have coaching experience so I have seen this first hand in many athletes as well. But more importantly, I’ve been an athlete who didn’t get this right in the past. I went 4 years without a period and I’ve dealt with the female athlete triad or now RED-S for many years when I was back in college and post college. I consider myself a recovering RED-S athlete and I work very hard to avoid going back to those habits. I think it’s important to share experiences and talk openly about these things so that maybe someone struggling can get help or start to accept there’s actually a problem. Some of these symptoms or red flags get normalized in the sport of endurance athletics and we as athletes can justify them but they always come back to haunt you as an athlete whether you recognize it or not. So work hard to recover well - that’s where the performance gains live and where longevity as an athlete is achieved. 

**Nothing in this post is medical advice, please talk to your sports medicine doctor or PCP for medical advice

151 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

1 opmerking

You have long legs and that looks nice and healthy

bottom of page