by Jordan Rapp
Inflammation Defined: By Matt Hansen EdD (part 1)
Inflammation Insight: By Mark Allen (part 2)
Let me preface this article by saying that this is all what I think I know now. The more I train, race, and learn, the less I am sure that I know. Many of the things that I’d now classify as “mistakes” are things that I used to swear by. But after trying lots of things, the only two things that I am confident in saying are sure to help recovery, not impact the effects of training, and which are also not banned by WADA are sleeping enough and eating well. I used to have a pair of socks that had “SWIM.BIKE.RUN.EAT.SLEEP.TRAIN.” embroidered around the cuff. That pretty much sums up the start of the art for both training and recovery. It’s noteworthy that much of what seemed to be “advances” in the start of the art with recovery actually seems like it may have been detrimental. Looking at who wrote one of the earlier articles in this series, by Mark Allen, rather than wondering how much faster he’d have gone with today’s technology, perhaps we might wonder how much faster we’d go with his technology (or lack thereof), at least in this particular area.
Really, when it comes to practical management of inflammation – or, perhaps more simply, the physiological stress of training (important because there is also psychological load, which is both related and not) – the more experience I gain as an athlete, the less I try to intervene in the process, at least most of the time. Most of the time, I try to, “don’t just do something, sit there!” At certain times, you may want to intervene, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. Doing nothing is pretty antithetical to the A-type personality ethos, and it’s becoming harder and harder to accept the idea of doing nothing in more and more fields, but I’d say that doing nothing is actually doubly true when it comes to endurance performance. By this I mean that it is when you are doing nothing that your body deals best with inflammation and when you recover most effectively; as humans, we typically are only really doing nothing when we are sleeping, but laying on the couch or just generally relaxing are pretty okay too. I don’t do enough of this, but I keep trying to do more. It’s tough when you have three kids aged 3 and under. The other half of doing nothing means doing nothing to intervene in the process of recovery. No ice baths. No antioxidants. No compression gear. Etc. This is the hard part. We all think we can “improve” ourselves here. We can do a better job of “lifehacking” (whatever that means) to supercharge our recovery and bounce back quicker.
The problem with this is that most interventions simply lessen the stress our body has to respond to. But it is this stress which stimulates adaptation. “Outsourcing” your recovery to an ice bath is the same as outsourcing anything else – you don’t gain the experience from doing it yourself. In the case of physiology, that means that your body doesn’t compensate – or, really, supercompensate – to same the degree. So you are essentially taking two steps forward and one step back. Your net progress is only one step. Taken to the other extreme – a lack of recovery – the detriments are obvious. Imagine doing a huge day of training and then sleeping four or five hours so you can get up for an early swim (sound familiar to many of you?). Yes, you get in more training, but do you really expect your body to adapt as much as if you really gave yourself a good night of sleep? Maybe so. But I think many folks also realize that shortchanging recovery limits how much your body can adapt. While there is not an equivalent “too much recovery,” the idea is similar – your body needs both training and recovery in appropriate doses.
This is important because if you feel like you need – really need – ice baths, compression socks, etc after every workout, then you are very possibly training too much, either because you have unrealistic expectations about time or ability or both. Adaptation takes time. There are no shortcuts. That’s really the summary here. Any shortcut doesn’t actually get you to where you want to go. It really is a shortcut – you cover less distance. You’d be better off just training the amount that your body can naturally recover from. You’re better off running 1:45 and recovering naturally than running 2:45 and needing to wear compression socks while sucking down an antioxidant-laden shake while sitting in an ice bath.
Likewise, if you can’t get your head around the fact that it’s not only normal – it’s good – to feel sore and tired the day after (and sometimes the day after the day after) a workout. Sometimes, you should have a bad workout. Because that means you are pushing the limits of what your body is capable of, which is how you stimulate your body to be capable of more.
My basic approach is really simple. I don’t drink alcohol, though I realize that this may be a point of contention for many folks. Just know that there is definitive research that shows that alcohol consumption impairs post-exercise protein synthesis. It’s up to you as to whether or not you want to have a glass of red wine or a beer or whatever. But the bottom line is that you are not helping yourself here. You are adding non-beneficial stress to your life. Does it matter? That’s up to you. I eat real food. I cook most of my meals from scratch ingredients. And when I eat out, I try to eat at places that use good ingredients. I try to eat foods that replenish the things I need – I make sure to get a lot of protein. And I make sure to get a lot of carbs. And I make sure to get a lot of fat. Basically, I eat enough. But given that this is a training-focused article, I want to loop in training nutrition. One of the best ways to set yourself up for effective recovery is to fuel well during your workouts. Yes, there is some benefit to caloric deprivation during workouts AT TIMES. But in general, you should be fueling well, both in terms of quality and quantity. One big change I made last year was to pack extra EFS powder so I could make bottles of the best fuel during long rides rather than refueling at a gas station or convenience store with something not as good. Endurance training requires a lot of calories. Provide them. Likewise, post-training nutrition is a unique and specialized area. There is real evidence that consuming easily digestible protein and carbohydrates immediately after workouts (the window now seems to be as long as an hour, but I shoot for 30min or less) means your body is more likely to quickly make use of those building blocks to repair and refuel you. Whey protein (the protein in Ultragen) is particularly well suited for this task, as are many of the other ingredients. Given that recovery seems to a loaded word these days, perhaps Ultragen should be billed as a “reloading” drink. In keeping with the theme of specificity, I don’t think Ultragen speeds recovery; I think it gives your body the building blocks to recover effectively by giving your body the tools it needs to rebuild, not by undoing the “productive” damage you’ve done in training. Imagine buying a bunch of good quality 2x4s at Home Depot as opposed to buying a pre-fab shed. (Bear with me, I really wanted to use that analogy…)
In my experience, when you eat the right things and train hard, your weight takes care of itself. Training too much on too little calories can be just as bad for people looking to lose weight as eating too much. In simple terms, caloric deprivation is yet another stress, and weight gain (or retention) is a common side effect of stress. And I *try* to sleep enough. This is a lot harder with 1yo twins and a three-and-a-half year old than it was when I had one kid. But I try to go to bed early (and not be on the computer or on my phone for 30-60min before bedtime) and sleep enough. Trading sleep for training hours is the most difficult decision for age group athletes. Just know that long term, the need for sleep trumps the need for training.
My basic advice for age groupers is figure out how much time you actually have for training when you account for all the stuff you NEED – work, family (if you have one), sleep, etc. Then make the most of that time. Don’t think, “I need to do X hours of training” and start compromising on other things – especially sleep – to achieve it. Simon Whitfield and I both had a common answer to the question, “how much do you train?” Our answer was “as much as possible.” Exactly how much “was possible” was the function of a lot of different things. But basically, the point is that make the most of what your schedule and your body will allow. If you need to start shortchanging things – or introducing recovery interventions – that’s a sign that you’re taking on too much.
Now, to be clear, there are some recovery interventions that do not work by attenuating the training load response model. They work by enhancing your bodies ability to adapt. Aside from sleep and eating well, these are all basically illegal according to WADA. Typical examples of this include HGH (human growth hormone) and anabolic steroids. These enhance your bodies ability to recover “naturally.” This is why they are so powerful. And it’s also why they are illegal. If it’s legal, it probably works by attenuating training load. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing.
Sometimes, you do want to prioritize recovery and may want to attenuate inflammation. The period where this is most true is immediately (the two weeks and especially the week before) a race. Maybe you’ve had an extra stressful time at work or at home and the reduction in training load has been met with an increase in outside stress. Or maybe you did that thing we all try not to do – you felt good and so you went too hard on what should have been an easy workout (been there; done that). Once you get close to the race, you can’t really get any fitter. If you did a bit too much training, if your legs are little bit extra smashed, then ice baths or working out in compression gear (preferably not in public) or any of those things that are designed to help speed recovery by externally reducing inflammation are fine, even good. On race day, you want to feel good. On race day, whatever supercompensation you are going to do has been done. Now it’s about being able to execute. And for that, you do want to be fresh. You do not want to be fighting inflammation. And so artificially reducing that inflammation is fine. Now, as you get more experienced, you’ll get a better idea of whether or not you need to bring some of these interventions to bear before a race or whether or not you can recover “normally” without their help.
Experience is helpful in pretty much every regard, but experience is not just psychological – making decisions about when you’ve done too much and when you’re okay – but also physiological. The more miles you have, the more predictable your body will be in how it responds. In technical terms on the macro scale of periodization, this is referred to as CTL (cumulative training load). CTL means that the more consistently you’ve trained over the past six to 12 months, the more predictable your body will be day to day and week to week. ATL – acute training load – is the short term load. This tends to be what most age groupers think of (in my experience) when they think of their training. The “big” session or the epic workout or the FTP test or whatever that one hard workout of the past few weeks was. But being erratic in your training here – big days one day and little to nothing the next – results in your body also being erratic. Being consistent – doing something day after day and week after week and month after month – is way better. Your body responds well to that sort of predictably applied load and rewards you with predictability. In my experience training with many of the best triathletes to ever race, they rarely did epic sessions. They were just remarkably consistent. If you asked people to pick out the Olympic gold medalist in the room, they’d have had a hard time identifying Simon Whitfield from a single workout (with some exceptions – notably track workouts). They’d pick him out, though, as the guy who was most consistently excellent day after day after day. Along these lines, frequency is a huge part of being able to manage inflammation. Working out more often is great. The more often you do something, the more “experienced” your body becomes at recovering from it. Especially for swim and run, which have a relatively high neural component, frequency is huge. It’s much easier to recover from something you do regularly. Intuitively, we all know this. But it’s also worth noting when you get to the offseason and start thinking about taking weeks or months away from any one sport (or all three sports). Likewise, in training, if you can do an epic workout, but then are incapacitated for days after, that’s not a great way to train. Leave the epic overloads for race day. Races are a great way to push your body way over the limit, but you tend to be able to do that when you’ve been consistent in the way you’ve been training. Training is rarely as intensely difficult as racing; in my experience, the best training is as difficult – or more difficult – as racing, but it’s because of the cumulative nature. The track day followed by the hard bike day followed by the hill reps day followed by the long run day, etc.
If this seems more like a training article than a recovery article, that’s by design. Training is really the only thing you can control. Training what you do. Recovery is basically passive. Recovery is what your body does to you when you are resting. If you are actively intervening in your recovery, you’re either undoing your training or you’re in violation of the WADA code. So, how do I manage inflammation? I don’t. Together with my coach I manage my training to keep my inflammation high enough that my body is stimulated to improve but not so high that I fall to pieces (aka overtraining, which I have experienced, unfortunately). There was an old expression – “there’s no such thing as overtraining; there’s only under-recovery.” I disagree. Because training is what you do. Recovery is not active in the same way. I mean, certainly there are things you need to prioritize in order to make sure you recover – sleep and nutrition. You need to give your body the tools to repair itself (nutrition) and time to do those repairs (sleep). But that’s about all you can do. Eat. Sleep. Train. Swim. Bike. Run. Then repeat.