How to recover during the off season: the science to make sure you do it right
It’s the end of another tri season. Cue fidgeting and vast spaces on the endurance calendar. So how should you recover from your racing exertions to become fresher, faster and more focussed in 2020? Tim Heming explores the science
Many triathletes look forward to it with relish, others with fidgety dread. It’s part of the sport that divides opinion and its importance is often neglected. It is, of course, the off-season.
While some will enjoy the prospect of extended downtime with feet-up time in compression socks, others will go stir crazy at the thought of no swim, bike or run racing and be hopping on long-haul flights to find their fix.
But what should we be doing in the off-season to give us the best chance of recovery and return fresh and strong for the following year? We’ve set out to address the issue by talking to the sport’s leading physiologists, psychologists, dieticians and athletes to find out.
Before we look at the best ways to recover, we need to cement the ‘why’ and the best way is to understand the physical, mental and emotional toll our bodies rack up over a season.
“Racing creates various levels of physiological fatigue – both central and peripheral,” says the strength and conditioning specialist and former elite triathlete, Nick Beer. “Over the course of a season, these levels accumulate and with insufficient rest, can have negative repercussions. Central fatigue affects the central nervous system. The brain is unable to send enough signals to maintain optimal muscle activation and it results in reduced muscle force. After a long season, feelings of sluggishness and loss of motivation are common signs that there are imbalances in our brain bio-chemistry. It needs to rebalance to maintain mental health, well-being and muscular function.”
In contrast, peripheral fatigue results from changes in the motor units of muscles during exercise. When we run low on carbohydrates and blood glucose levels drop, we look for other forms of energy and this can lead to the breakdown of proteins, assisted by cortisol secreted from the adrenal glands.
There’s also mechanical stress put on the body during exercise through eccentric contractions, where the muscle contracts yet lengthens, causing tiny microtears. Plus, oxidative stress, where up to 5% of oxygen molecules become unstable during energy release and need to seize an electron from a living cell to regain stability,
and with oxygen consumption during exercise increasing up to seven-fold there’s a corresponding rise in the production of these ‘free radicals’ that damage cell membranes.
With all this going on in brain and body, it takes longer to recover than we often credit. One study found biomarkers of muscle damage and inflammation remained elevated in triathletes nearly three weeks after they’d finished an Ironman. And that’s just one race.
“There’s simply not a big enough window during the season to really recuperate,” says sports dietitian Renee McGregor. “At the peak of the season, we’ll often have quite a depressed immune system and we know from studies that the fortnight after your A-race is when you’re most susceptible to illness and infection. It’s a combination of fatigue and not fuelling sufficiently to keep on top of everything.”
The physical wear and tear from competition isn’t the only impact. “There are a number of different stressors triathletes pick up, from the logistics of organising and getting to races, through to the specific training and performance,” states James Lambdon, a sports psychologist at Team Bath. “Those pushing themselves towards national age-group racing, for example, are going to experience more of the competitive stressors around aspirations, concerns over training, facing discomfort and dealing with unexpected circumstances. All have a psychological accumulation over a season.”
Once the final finish line has been crossed, it’s time to start redressing the balance, starting with recognising and accepting that your body needs a break. “A lot of athletes find they’re in their best shape
and are reluctant to let go of that,” believes McGregor. “But there isn’t any harm to be more relaxed with your rules around food for a short period to give the body a chance to reboot, especially from a hormonal point of view.”
The endocrine system is responsible for the production of hormones and exercise can deliver a spike in cortisol in response to stress, useful in short bursts when running from sabre-toothed tigers, but not as handy if levels remain permanently elevated.
“High levels over a sustained period can lead to muscle weakness, mood swings and other damaging health issues,” Beer warns. “A way to measure it’s settling is to take your resting heart rate on a regular basis and note the changes.” Early morning, before embarking on the rigours of the day, is often the best time to take readings.
THE IMPORTANCE OF AQUA
Prioritising hydration will also ward off the threat of infection. Water makes up around 60% of our body weight and plays a critical role in the formation of skin, tears, mucus, cilia, stomach acid, urine flow, ‘friendly’ bacteria and white blood cells – the physical and chemical barriers that stop pathogens.
“It’s the first line of defence,” McGregor adds. “Yet while we might be diligent when training, we often don’t think about hydration the same way in the off-season.”
Sticking with diet, McGregor underlines the importance of not skimping on quality carbohydrates and proteins, and vouches for lots of fruit and vegetables to retain a high uptake of vitamins and minerals.
“The more colours you include, the more nutrients you’ll receive, and the more your immune system will be boosted,” she adds. “It’s not so different to your in-training nutrition, but there can be a tendency to restrict too much.”
Judging whether you’re eating correctly for optimal recovery can be measured by energy levels, appetite, quality of sleep and mood, but it can be worth going one step further. “I recommend athletes have a blood test at the end of the season and check inflammatory markers,” McGregor continues. “If you have high creatine kinase (CK) levels, for example, it suggests you need more of a prolonged break. Also check iron, vitamin B12, folate and cortisol levels. Working with a sports physician or dietician can be better than a GP. Doctors often don’t ask the right questions because they’re grateful the individual is just doing some exercise! Normal parameters do not always apply for athletes, either.”
In terms of supplementation, additional vitamin D is advocated as early as the end of summer, with levels dropping quickly heading into the winter months. “We can become deficient and lethargic with low mood by November,” McGregor warns. “Our bodies struggle to absorb vitamin D in the winter, so a supplement is the best option. If your levels aren’t too bad, I’d recommend 1,000 international units a day. If they’re very low, then 5,000 international units a day.”
There are other ways to get vitamin D. The Seasonal Affective Disorder Organisation (SAD) promote white and blue light lamps to mimic the effects of the sun’s rays. Alternatively you have a perfect excuse to switch to holiday mode and head off to warmer climes. “The off-season is also a good opportunity to encourage triathletes to work on other areas in life,” Lambdon adds. “Perfectionist attitudes that are outcome focused can be derailed by injury and destructive to self-worth. So it’s a chance to develop a self-identity that is underpinned by more than just triathlon.”
Lambdon argues that just as with physical training, mental skills such as visualisation, goal-setting, self-talk, relaxation strategies and performance evaluation should be developed through practice. It aligns with the work of leading sports physiologist, Inigo Mujika, whose researchers extended the concept of periodisation – previously rarely used outside of an exercise context – to other areas such as recovery, nutrition and psychology. Mujika’s team suggest planning each area in each phase from general and specific preparation through to tapering, competition and the off-season. Self-care, self-identification and goal-setting are all prioritised in the latter.
“It’s a chance to make sure the processes by which you evaluate your performances are realistic and consistent, and to create new goals or tweak existing ones,” Lambdon explains. “An opportunity to understand what it is about the sport you value, so when training becomes harder or performances fluctuate, you’re more resilient.”
TENETS OF TRUE RECOVERY
Perhaps the best strategy of all for the off-season, though, is the simplest – rest. “Every concept of wellness is being eroded by our costly state of sleep neglect,” Matthew Walker writes in his international bestseller Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams. “There doesn’t seem to be one major organ of the body, or process within the brain, that isn’t optimally enhanced by sleep.” Among a myriad of warnings that society underestimates its restorative properties – and he saves particular wrath
for sleeping pills – Walker argues we should all ringfence at least eight hours of sleep every night, and lying-in a bit more at weekends to catch-up doesn’t cut it. “It’s a proven and simple way to recover naturally and recalibrate,” Beer agrees. “A chance to restore the homeostatic equilibrium.”
If these are the tenets of true recovery, just how long should we stand down for? “There’s no set-in-stone protocol that determines if you’ve had sufficient rest,” Beer says. “Have at least one week of total rest immediately after the last race and tailor it from there. Some athletes prefer to focus on different sports or exercises in order to facilitate active recovery, believing it gives them a mental break without losing too much of their physical condition. I’d keep very light 30min runs during my off-season as I hated having to restart running again and to go through the ‘heavy feeling’ stage.”
Beer cautions against diving back into exercise too quickly. “It can be detrimental and could increase your chances of injury,” he says. “The body may have become deconditioned and the muscles functionally ‘switching off.’ Gradually increase the volume over six weeks before resuming full training hours. Keep everything aerobic with an eye on your heart rate to stay in ‘fat oxidation’ zones and prevent too much acidic build-up. Also place greater attention on gym work and getting strong.”
The typical off-season isn’t for everyone, though. British pro long-course triathlete Laura Siddall won’t be alone in “chasing summer” and moving from southern to northern hemisphere to race all year round. It means she places less importance on one big block of rest, but values the shorter breaks. “I definitely think there’s merit in both and that a combination of the two works,” she says. “I don’t have a typical ‘off-season’ at the same time every year for a set number of weeks.”
Siddall believes the signal to start training again is when your body and mind feel ready. “If it needs more time, just give it time, so when you’re ready to re-start, you’re energised, healthy, and rested,” she says. “If you have balance throughout the year, you won’t be so blinkered that the off-season becomes a blow-out, and instead you’ll be bouncing to get back when the time come
Top 5 recovery tips
Hydrate adequately. Water provides a first line of defence to fight infection.
Eat healthily. Keep it varied with plenty of colour and view weight gain as a positive.
Sleep. A free health prescription every 24hrs. Don’t underestimate its training value.
Prioritise vitamin D. Whether supplements or sunshine, most of us could do with a boost.
Consider a blood test. Make it part of a health MOT, but have it analysed by an expert
Measure resting HR. A good gauge for your body settling post-season.
Prepare your mind. Now is the time to evaluate and plan and develop better habits.
Get strong. Consider S&C as you start to build back up for the new season.
Try a change. Unstructured, unfamiliar activity can be a break for body and mind.
Start back slowly. Allow your body to readjust when you do resume training.