Endurance Skating

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Recovery – The Foundation Of Increasing Fitness


“Any idiot can train himself into the ground; the trick is working in training to get gradually stronger.”
-Keith Brantley, Olympian


With winter training progressing at a fair old whack, training volume and intensity are beginning to ramp up and I have been thinking more and more about the importance of optimal recovery. This weekend I put in my first long run for a few months (my next marathon is 9 weeks out), and, writing this three days later, I can still feel the fatigue it in my legs.  So it’s a good time to be thinking about how I can recovery better from these heavier sessions. If there is one thing I want to improve in my training throughout the year it not so much to train harder as it is to recover better.


Any good athlete already knows the truism that you don’t get stronger from training; you get stronger through Recovery and Supercompensation in response to training.  The equation Stress + Recovery = Adaptation is always at work.


A simplified explanation of the training cycle. In reality, this probably looks more like the world's most convoluted roller-coaster.

A simplified explanation of the training cycle. In reality, this probably looks more like the world’s most convoluted roller-coaster.

So, how well you recover is just as important as your meticulously planned exercise programme in order to reap the benefits of the supercompensation in the training cycle.

Under-recovery is the same as Over-Training; they are synonymous terms and describe the same problem – the recovery is cut short, so the body never has a chance to reach supercompensation, leading to long-term negative adaptation.  The end result of over-training/under-recovery is that performance will suffer, and in extreme cases you risk doing long-term metabolic damage to yourself in the form of Adrenal Fatigue.  


If you are not recovering well, then you are not optimizing the training/recovery formula, and at least some of your training is effectively going to waste.  Bear this in mind the next time you are presented with an overly ambitious training plan. Is your body and your recovery able to handle 25hrs of training a week? For many the answer will be “no”, if we are being completely honest with ourselves.

Quantify Your Recovery… 

There is more to being well-recovered than the simple absence of muscle soreness (DOMS) the next morning.  Although, how beat up you feel a day or two after a hard workout is important and I’m certainly not dismissing the importance of being in  tune with and listening to your body, I also rely on the following biofeedback techniques:

Heart Rate Variability (HRV) – I’ve written and talked about HRV before.  HRV measures the health, balance & vibrancy of your autonomic nervous system.  Once you have established your own typical HRV range, then a daily HRV score is a very good indication of how well rested you are and how well your body is primed to receive and absorb additional exercise-induced stress.

Resting Heart Rate (RHR) – Resting heart rate is generally a good indicator of general fitness, and it can also reflect stress level or an impending illness in the body.  While I generally prefer HRV, your RHR is also a useful metric to track.

RestWise – Restwise is an online programme that attempts to quantify your Recovery based on several simple qualitative inputs, and then uses an algorithm to calculate your “recovery score”. HRV, sleep, and urine colour are amongst the recorded inputs.  It’s all web-based and the idea is that you simply spend a couple of minutes answering the same questions each day, and then let Restwise calculate and track how well recovered you are recovery.

MAF Test – As you must know, I’m a big fan of regularly tracking your aerobic capacity using a repeatable MAF test. While I always stress that the result – good or bad – of a single MAF test is not very meaningful in isolation, the direction of your MAF progression is a good indication of the state of your aerobic base, and variations in your MAF test around your normal expected pace are a good indicated your level of recovery. If you find your aerobic pace plateauing (and eventually regressing) over 2 or 3 tests then that is usually a very good sign that you are under-recovered and/or something else is going one. I’ve seen my MAF pace up to 1min/mile slower on days where I have not been fully recovered – although at by the time I’m done a warm up and am ready to begin the MAF Test, I can already feel that I’m heavy-legged and the test just confirms what I already suspected.

… but BEWARE Confounding Variables

You have to be careful when recording all these tests. More often than not, a seemingly great score on any of these tests is actually a warning of impending regression. Why? Because you have over-stimulating the flight or fight response and released too much cortisol (a stress hormone) – your body is primed to run away from a chasing lion. It is not a desireable or sustainable state of existence, and will normally be at odds to how you actually physically feel.

Because of this state, often termed functional over-reaching, athletes who have completed extreme endurance events can often report abnormally high HRV or abnormally low RHR the next day. I have seen experienced this two or three times myself in the last year – an abnormally low morning RHR, sometimes coupled with an abnormally high HRV (but sometimes also a low HRV too).  I used to think that was a great thing – “wow, I’m like Lance Armstrong”, but now I know that an abnormally supressed heart rate is a sure-fire sign of tiredness. I now know that I’m best served to take it easy on those days, or better just have a rest day.

It’s a fine line between good hard training, and the first stages of functional over-reaching (stage 1 over-training).  More often than not that line is very blurred. As well as tracking all these metrics, it’s also important to listen to your body, and above all trust how you feel.

How To Recover Better

It occurred to me during the research and writing of this blog post that the title might just as well be something like “The Optimal Health Protocol”. Following the best general health practices is the best way to facilitate great post-exercise recovery..

For great health AND recovery, here’s what I try to do.

Get Good Sleep

“Sleep is half my training.”
– Jarrod Shoemaker, professional triathlete

sleeping kittens

Kittens innately know how to sleep and recover… how else do the little buggers wrestle and flip cartwheels like they’ve got a rocket up their ass for 6 hours a day?

The importance of good sleep for cannot be emphasized strongly enough. As boring as it sounds, getting a sufficient amount of quality sleep is probably more important than any other single factor when it comes to maximizing your gains from exercise.  All good things happen when we sleep; it is during sleep that your brain signals the necessary hormone releases for many essential functions – everything important from tissue growth/restoration, to fat-loss, to hunger control and mental cognition. Studies have shown that athletes who sleep more also have a lower injury rate.


On a personal level, I think that this is also the area that I am falling short on the most. Setting aside enough time for sleep is a commitment that only as individuals we are able to make; no one can do it for you.  A modern lifestyle has thrown most of us out of whack with a normal circadian rhythm, and I’m as guilty as most of neglecting the importance of getting a good night’s shuteye. Perhaps recognition of my own shortfalls in this department spurred me to write this article.. Hmm… anyway, I digress.

To improve sleep, I’ve begun to make use of:

  • Earplugs & eyemask; simple, but effective
  • Minimize all electrical gadgets, especially blue lights which adversely affect your melatonin production.
  • Pzizz / Relax Melodies sleeping programmes – These are apps which will generate a soundtrack that will help your brain shift more toward theta and delta waves. Of course, I’m aware that this point contradicts the one above.. and is perhaps a bit woo-woo science. Getting too deep into brain-wave science is for another post.. heck, probably for another blog.
  • Earthing (which will be covered separately). There’s a lot of proven science on the topic of earthing. Many regular people who actively earth themselves report improved sleep quality.

I’m sure you can easily find many more tips and articles on how to get good sleep.. just trust me, it’s that important. Whatever you do, don’t neglect it.


Training Periodisation – Incorporate Rest/Recovery Days & Cross Training

If we’ve established that the body only gets stronger through adequate recovery following a stress stimulus, then (with one noticeable exception, highlighted below) the stupidest thing that we can do is to go out and train hard again while still recovering from the last hard training session. That’s the very definition of over-training/under-recovering. Yet this is the trap that many athletes with too much enthusiasm and too little discipline commonly fall into.

Having said that, a properly periodised plan doesn’t mean that you go all minimalist and wait 2, 3 or even 4 days to feel fully recovered between each and every workout.  The point is, you should know what the specific goal is for every single workout before you go into it. If you can’t explain exactly why you are doing it and how you will benefit from it then, my friend, you are churning out junk miles. And it should go without saying you should prioritize the key sessions. Specificity is important. If you’re deep training for a marathon then the long run is king; prioritize that and make the next session a shorter, lighter recovery session, allowing you to keep your volume ticking over while not impeding your recovery (indeed it will assist recovery).

Proper periodisation also doesn’t mean that you should never string together consecutive high volume/intensity day training days.  For many endurance athletes, especially ultra-marathoners, back-to-back long runs are a cornerstone in building the stamina and ability necessary to grind out the miles. However, the aim of the 2nd session is that you will not be recovered and to get used to running on tired legs – that’s the whole point of the back-to-back session. It goes back to knowing exactly what the aim is from each session. For ultra-endurance, getting used to the feeling of running on tired legs and training yourself mentally to do so is a huge part of the game.

It’s also important to think about periodisation not just at the micro (daily) cycle, but also at the meso (weekly) level.  That is why I like to structure my meso-cycles into 4 week blocks, with 3 hard weeks, followed by a 1 easy week.  Carefully timed de-loading weeks should allow you to progress further in the longer term as they allows your body to recover at the end of each meso block, ready and able to super-compensate more effectively during the next block of training. This is more sustainable than going hard every week.  And of course, at the full macro level, we periodise with the normal yearly training cycle from offseason to race-season, rinse and repeat.

Assisting recovery is where having one or more cross-training activity will really come into it’s own.  Cross training is not just something you should do during the off-season in my opinion, it’s something that I have found is most beneficial when integrated year round into my regular training routine. Juggling skating, cycling, running & strength work actually make it easier for me to hit the training volumes that I want to, especially over the winter when my volumes for any individual activity is not that high and a single activity plan can be completedly trashed by a bout of poor weather. By incorporating cycling/turbo trainer, running, strength training and offskate exercises, I can concentrate on building my fitness and aerobic base without have to stress about the weather!


A diligent athlete is a disciplined athlete. The take-away here is to GET A TRAINING PLAN. Paradoxically it’s liberating. Don’t just rely on winging it from session to session!

Minimize Inflammation – Go Ketogenic

Amongst the many (probably billion-odd) benefits of a well-formulated high fat/ketogenic diet is that it promotes better recovery through lower production of reactive oxygen species during ATP production, and therefore produces less cellular inflammation.

High-fat/OFM elite ultra marathoner Zach Bitter writes:

“my carbohydrate intake can be anywhere from 5 percent of my total calories to 50 percent, depending on where I am in my training cycle. When I am in full recovery mode after a race, I drop my carbohydrate intake as low as possible. On the other hand, my carbohydrate intake is around 20-30 percent of my total calories when my training is ramping up in volume and intensity, and in the final 36 hours before a race I allow it to climb to 50 percent at most.”


Make sure you include nutrient dense food (organ meat is perfect), restrict inflammatory omega-6 fats, and include as many anti-inflammatory omega-3 sources as possible.

So, in short, if you want to promote recovery, then completely eliminate processed sugars and carbs, if eat plenty of healthy fats and nutrient-dense sources of fat & protein – liver & salmon, then. Oh, and swapping your usual glass of vino tinto for a Perrier is probably a good idea too.

Cold Thermogenesis

Boy, this is a deep, deep topic, and I can’t even hope to fully do it justice here.  No doubt we’ll return to CT in a much expanded post at some point in the future. But for now, here’s some of what I know..

Since he decided to take an interest in health and, er, quantum mechanics, in addition to his day job (neurosurgery) Dr Jack Kruse has written entire epic essays on the theory and use of CT, as well as the “Leptin reset” diet (basically a seafood enriched ketogenic diet) and the deleterious effects of EMFs.. he’s definitely not your average health blogger. Kruse’s stuff goes far beyond just the use of CT for optimal recovery; he contends that cold is the natural and optimal condition for mammalian biochemistry, and proper adaptation to this environment will allow access to energy pathways that are hithero the domain of Tibetan Monks and Michael Phelps. Probably best that I just say go over to his blog and read his stuff.  Another leading authority is on CT is Ray Cronise, an ex-NASA materials engineer who together with Tim Ferris (4hr Body Man) puts forward a “Metabolic Winter” hypothesis; CT combined with calorie restriction for optimal health from an Ancestral point of view. Again, don’t go there expecting a quick “reader’s digest” type article.

But aside from the woo-woo scientific theories, CT undoubtedly has very practical applications to assist recovery for athletes. Cold, of course, reduces inflammation, as anyone who has ice-packed a gammy knee already knows.


OK, OK, Bobby Drake isn’t Icelandic, but he’s pretty well cold-adapted

OK, I admit haven’t YET dunked myself into an icebath – I’m still working up to that one – but I do regularly take cold showers now and feel a million bucks for it every time.  Kruse and Cronise prescribe exposure to water temperature between 50-55 degree farenheit (10-12 Celsius), so it doesn’t need to be brain-freezing lay cold!! If you can’t stand a full cold shower, work up to it by alternatiing hot/cold blasts.. Dunking your face in icy cold water is a good starting point, too.

You can also augment your use of CT with a cooling vest from companies such as CoolFatBurner or Artic Heat. Ben Greenfield’s a big fan of the CoolFatBurner, and while these devices are often marketed for weight-loss or combating heat during the summer, they also assist recovery and optimal health/recovery in all sort of other ways – reducing inflammation, boosting mitochondrial function, improving your immune function, and releasing adiponectin, which is an important hormone linked with muscle synthesis amongst other processes.

It’s probably no coincidence that statistically the healthiest country in the world is Iceland, a nation who effortlessly combine a highly unprocessed, high fat, seafood-rich diet, together with hot/cold thermogenesis, often in the form of natural thermal pools in the open icy cold air (it’s not called Iceland for nothing).

As with any form of adaptation or acclimation, getting “Cold Adapted” takes a few weeks of regular practictioning. Just take it bit by bit and introduce more elements of cold into your daily routine, and before long you’ll be jumping into cold baths and be able to run naked through the streets in the middle of winter.


More To Come…

Phew, that’s about as much as I can write for now, but there’s much more to come.  Part 2 to follow. I will probably get round to starting it on my next Rest Day…

One comment on “Recovery – The Foundation Of Increasing Fitness

  1. Pingback: Recovery… Part 2 | Endurance Skating

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This entry was posted on January 22, 2015 by in Science, Training and tagged , , , , , , , , , .
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