Extended recovery can be the key to peak performance later in the season. I want to recap an insightful article written by a retired professional triathlete who had reached the pinnacle of his professional career and is providing validation to many scientific studies about the value of rest and recovery. There is no better way to learn something than from someone who has been there before.
How Can Setbacks Elevate Your Performance Potential?
As articulated by Torbjorn Sindballe, "the rules of training to achieve your peak will tell you that a top performance after an injury isn't possible. Those rules say peak performance requires relentless commitment over many months and endless hours of training. How then is it possible to come back stronger than ever in a season that has offered more than a fair share of health issues, setbacks and injuries eroding the base of consistent hours you typically rely on? Is it the body responding to a welcome break? Is it a reinvigorated hunger to win? Or is it a sense of urgency to perform?"
When you see a professional athlete come back from a major setback and then perform at an all new level, it sheds light on amateur training and racing that forced rest can help you achieve your own peak performance.
Health is the Key to Fitness and Performance
"With all we know about training, examples of incredible comebacks should be surprising. We know that 2-3 weeks of tapering leads to improved performance, but two to three months with a drastically reduced training load should be detrimental to performance and require much more than a month or two to build back. As quoted by Craig Alexander, 2 time winner of the Hawaii Ironman (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and 26.2 mile run), "Being healthy is as important as being fit. Because I was forced to rest because of an injury, my body responded well to training and I became more mentally confident in my ability".
"An injury typically exposes a weak link somewhere in your musculoskeletal chain. For example, low back dysfunctions typically stem from weak and poorly controlled abdominal muscles. The body spends a lot of energy compensating for such instabilities. Taking time off to recover and restore function with treatment, strength and stability training will allow you to tap into your body's full potential.
Being rested is an important part of being healthy. A body that has gone through half a season of training and racing will not respond as quickly and effectively to training as a fully rested and balanced body.
What Causes Declining Performance
Timothy Noakes, a South African sports physician and physiologist, has studied the human body for many decades with a particular interest in how the brain regulates fatigue and hence affects human performance. According to Noakes, there isn’t any controlled studies on how forced rest upon an athlete effects mental perspective and performance output.
Take a top endurance athlete like Robert de Castellas who set the marathon world record in 1981 but was barely able to break into the top ten at various marathons over the next five years. This is a clear indication of complete physical and mental fatigue. His body wasn’t capable of performing at its optimum level because it was offset with overall fatigue. Castella then took a full year away from structured training and racing. Over a six month time period he built a base of strength and endurance along with systematically adding speed and threshold work. The end result was winning the Rotterdam marathon in 1991.
Noakes did a study on chronically fatigued athletes with adrenal or hypothalamic (mental) burnout. In such a state, “an athlete is unable to secrete stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which are responsible for raising blood glucose levels or mobilizing fat for energy”. Keep in mind that these hormones are part of a natural functioning body and are needed when exercising, training hard or racing.
Noakes’ research team injected insulin into the test subjects to get their blood glucose levels down and observed the results. In a chronically fatigued state, their bodies were unable to get blood sugar levels back up which is a critical stress response in sports.
The take home message? When chronically fatigued, your body’s ability to produce hormones required to function normally is suppressed and you will more or less be forced onto the couch.
During heavy training (volume or intensity) the body is under a tremendous amount of physical stress. This is a combination of mechanical breakdown of muscle and tendons or use of energy storages along with oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is a byproduct of metabolizing sugar commonly referred to as free radicals. Their effects on the body are similar to a peeled apple; the antioxidants in the apple are all in the skin. When the apple is peeled, the flesh is exposed to the reactive oxygen in the air and a breakdown begins which is illustrated with the flesh of the apple turning brown.
During hard training sessions and racing, the body has a difficult time consuming enough antioxidants from foods such as raw fruits, vegetables, dark chocolate, wine and certain teas imperative to maintaining optimum health and performance.
Noakes points out that oxidative damage is higher when eating a high-carbohydrate diet. Keep in mind that a high-fat diet may be important to reduce overall oxidative stress on the body as well.
In addition to the oxidative stress it is important to look at the brain itself. Noakes’ research points to the critical role of
the brain in regulating fatigue; hence anything that affects our brain function will also impact our physical performance.
Heavy workloads or high stresses in life often compromise sleep quality which is paramount to brain recovery. You can recover physically during the day, but the brain only recovers at night during deep sleep. Lack of quality sleep will then, over time, affect your body’s most basic levels of function.
Keys to Recovery
As outlined by ex-professional triathlete, Torbjorn Sindballe, the idea is that forced rest improves performance in athletes who have a form of chronic fatigue. We can distinguish between short term fatigue linked to the body’s day to day carbohydrate stores and long term fatigue linked to fatigue in the brain, changes in the hormonal system as well as micro-tears in the tendons, ligaments and muscles. Long term fatigue can result in injuries, illness or can even cause severe chronic fatigue with adrenal or hypothalamic burnout.
Noakes’ personal experience is that it takes six weeks with complete rest to recover from chronic fatigue and much more when the case is severe. As a result, for athletes with excessive training volumes and intensity, it may be beneficial in their longevity and performance results to take longer periods of the year where rest, good sleep and light alternative activity replace sport specific/structured training.
Recovery Tips for Peak Performance
Take an extended break from training and racing. Most racers take too little time off at the end of a season or after a peak performance. Strive to take 8-10 weeks away from structured training and racing, depending on your training background, volume and training intensity. The focus must be on the restoration and recovery of the body and the mind, this is imperative to your longevity as an athlete.
Improved sleep. Quality of sleep is the key to brain recovery. Many athletes cut into the volume of sleep so they can train. This strategy will have a negative impact on your health and ultimately your performance.
Eat more antioxidants and fewer carbohydrates. Eating a diet rich in antioxidants and experimenting with how many carbs you need to maintain training intensity and volume with will help you offset some of the negative side effects of high training loads and reduce the oxidative stress on your body. Keep in mind that carbs are imperative to fueling performance efforts; be cautious of cutting back your carb intake too aggressively.
What can you learn from elite athletes and clinical researchers? Ask yourself the question why you are afraid to rest? The logic of rest and recovery are simple. No amount of training will do someone good if they cannot absorb the adaptations associated with training. I have known many athletes who get injured and suffer from burn out as their season progresses. The overtraining culture of athletics is enormous and very few have the confidence to go against it. It is not surprising that those who adhere to the benefits of rest are the most successful within their respective sport.
Until next time, Train Smart-Not Hard!
Coach Robb has been working with riders and racers since 1987 and is the founder of the Complete Racing Solutions Performance System, the Mental Blueprint of Success, the MotoE Amateur Development Program, the MotoE Educational Series and Nutritionally Green Supplements based out of Orlando Florida.
CompleteRacingSolutions.com is a premium resource center for motocross, supercross and GNCC riders of all abilities and ages. Visit CompleteRacingSolutions.com & subscribe to his bi-monthly newsletter that outlines the training solutions used by Factory KTM/Red Bull’s Ryan Dungey, Star Yamaha ’s Jerry Martin and Alex Martin, RCH’s Brock Tickle, Factory Kawasaki /Pro-Circuit’s Adam Cianciarulo, multi-time Loretta Lynn’s & Mini O Champion ’s Jordan Bailey (Factory Monster Energy/Kawasaki) GNCC bike racers Charlie Mullins and Chris Bach, and GNCC Quad racer Roman Brown along with thousands of riders all around the world!
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