It’s already time for Coach Tip Tuesday again!
Recovery is where the gains are made.
Let me say that again: recovery is where the gains are made.
I know, I know. You’re thinking, “But Coach Coach Laura Henry! I don’t feel like I’m working when I’m doing this “recovery” thing you speak of!! I need my muscles to BUUUUURRNNNNNN in order to get stronger and make physical gains!”
Well, my friends. Let’s take on a very short biology/anatomy lesson:
When we work out, our muscles sustain microscopic tears. These tears cause the delayed onset muscle soreness that so many of you are familiar with. You literally ripped your muscle fibers, and your nervous system is letting you know that by sending signals of discomfort to your brain.
The body doesn't like being ripped or damaged. It wants to do EVERYTHING it can to prevent it from becoming ripped again. So how does it help do that?? It rebuilds those muscle fibers to be STRONGER, essentially by layering on additional cells to bridge those microscopic tears, so that the muscle fiber itself is actually LARGER once it’s healed up. Bigger muscle = more strength = more gains over time.
Where does recovery come into play in all of this? Well, in order to rebuild muscle, our bodies need some basic things: fluids and nutrients. How do we get those to our muscles?? Via our internal highway system: our circulatory system. Yes, indeed, my friends. Our blood truly is our life force.
In order to rebuild muscle faster (and therefore feel less sore sooner), we need to increase the speed limit of our circulatory system. How do we do that? By mindfully increasing our heart rate. When our heart rate elevates, it increases the amount of blood that is pumping into our arteries. It also increases the rate of venous return, which is a fancy name for the deoxygenated blood returning to the heart to be resupplied with oxygen and nutrients. More venous return = expedited recovery.
All of this is meant to explain why recovery workouts and intervals are so important. I know how easy it is to see a recovery workout on your training schedule and think, “Oh, that’s not important. I can skip that.” or “Whoops I completed that at a higher RPE (Rating of Perceived Exertion) or higher watts or a higher heart rate than was planned, but I felt good, so it’s okay.”
Recovery workouts are meant to be EASY and the entire goal is to facilitate that recovery process via the circulatory system that we outlined above. While it may seem counterintuitive, completing these workouts and intervals at their prescribed RPEs is the fastest way to repair the muscular damage sustained in longer/harder workouts. This is actually one of the toughest things for athletes to do. (Remember, toughness is not only a measure of exertion.) This means that you need to check your pace ego at the door (yes, I'm talking to YOU) and complete recovery workouts at a very low RPE. Spoiler: If your pace is around your "normal" pace or your "faster" pace, you didn't go easy enough.
For these reasons (as well as a few others), I personally NEVER advise cutting these workouts from a training plan. If an athlete is starting to feel overwhelmed by training, we make modifications elsewhere in the schedule. Recovery is where the gains are made, and I wouldn’t want to short-change an athlete of any gains. :)
There are products out on the market that are touted as expediting this process; foam rollers, massage, and pneumatic compression systems are just a few of them. While I LOVE all of these tools and find them to be quite effective, they are just that: tools. They do not replace your body’s own recovery processes. While they will help you feel better, nothing will work as effectively as getting that 11-ounce organ sitting in the left side of your chest pumping some more blood. These tools actually use the heart and circulatory system to help expedite recovery, but they simply cannot replicate an elevated heart rate that gets more blood going to where it needs to go. Only workouts that (mindfully) elevate your heart rate can do that.
If you remember nothing else from this long-winded talk, remember this: recovery is where the gains are made. Do not cheat yourself of this important process. You can thank me later. :)