There are several things that distinguish elite athletes from those just trying to do the bare minimum to stay healthy or look decent in a swimsuit. One is the relentless pursuit of excellence, and an unquenchable desire to be better, stronger, faster, regardless of what it takes. This is a mentality I’ve seen in almost all elite athletes, and in all that separates the breeds of athlete, this is one that brings us all together.This is why it is surprising to see an overwhelming number of chronically over-trained, under-recovered athletes. I can speak personally to the world of elite endurance athletics, but I’m sure this common tendency is not isolated to runners, cyclists, or nordic skiers. The same athlete that meticulously counts macronutrients, perfectly times pre and post workout meals, sips water while others are chugging beer, and logs 15+ hours of focused training each week, may be simultaneously neglecting one of the most important components of performance. Even when doing everything in their power to chase success, they may actually be sabotaging the very thing they have sacrificed so much for.Other than the genetic freaks, which I’ll leave out of this discussion for the time being, one thing I’ve noticed that separates the top athlete from the mid-pack finisher is the prioritization of recovery. On a purely rational level, it makes sense. If you work hard, you should rest a bit. If you break down your muscles, until you somehow let them rebuild, that LT interval will be meaningless. However, what makes sense logically and what we actually do as athletes are often two different things. The same drive and passion and ability to withstand ungodly measures of pain that makes an athlete great also, by a sardonic twist of irony, has the power to destroy her.Recovery is absolutely critical if you want to progress in your sport. Training is vital, of course, and nutrition cannot be ignored. But even if the latter two have been dialed in, without proper recovery, you are on a crash course to burnout. The conviction I have is not because this is easy or intuitive, but actually just the opposite. It’s only been through the experience of burnout, forced recovery, wrestling with myself, and seeing tangible results after what I previously deemed to be “laziness,” that I’ve become an ardent convert. A few years back, after a particularly grueling season of racing, my coach prescribed a month completely off the bike. My then boyfriend, now husband, was instructed to hang up my trusty steed in the garage where I wouldn’t see it, and under no circumstance would I be allowed to ride before the month was up. I was annoyed. I understood her motive, but it just seemed so extreme!People often ask me why I have a coach. I have double degrees in psychology and physiology, an internationally recognized strength and conditioning certification, and coach athletes of my own. On paper, I could be my own coach. I know how to train, what to eat, etc. But when all is said and done, athletes don’t just need a coach to tell them how to push their body, but how to rest their body.
Now, several years later, I hold that end-of-season, off-the-bike month as almost sacred. I saw how taking some time away recharged my mind, replenished my muscles, and reinvigorated my desire to train and race. Obviously an entire month off the bike isn’t a sustainable form of recovery, as we only have 12 of them in the year! Recovery isn’t something we should do at the end of a long season when we are at our breaking point, but rather something we should purposefully invest in and integrate into our daily, weekly, and monthly training routines. Over the next few weeks I will unpack what that means a bit more, with specific ideas and tools you can use to support your training. Whether you are a weekend warrior enjoying the fun of competition or an elite athlete trying to attain a .5% improvement that means the difference between 1st and 50th, focusing on recovery with the same intensity that you focus on your intervals may be one of the best things you do for your performance and long-term health. You will be more motivated, get injured less, train harder, progress faster, and race happier.