Ready, Set, Slow
The secret to going faster is learning when not to
FOR YEARS, I LOOKED at running and biking as escapes. Sometimes I went easy; sometimes I went hard. Mostly I tried to have fun and forget about my new mortgage payments. Warming up and cooling down? Not likely. With a job and a toddler, I was just lucky to find time for my 30-minute workouts. Post-training snacks consisted of cookies, frozen burritos, or whatever was in the fridge.
The Recovery Cheat SheetFour key post-workout strategies:
1. Cool down with five to ten minutes of easy activitywalking, jogging, spinningafter every workout. This helps you transition to a resting heart rate.
2. If you can’t get a full eight hours of sleep per night, find time to nap for at least 30 minutes during the day. You start producing growth hormone, which rebuilds taxed muscles, while asleep.
3. After a particularly hard workout, jump from an ice bath to a hot tub. This will quickly get your blood circulating, which benefits damaged muscle tissue.
4. Get a massage. Experts debate whether the practice actually helps clear toxins from your blood, but in the real world, there’s no question it’s beneficial,…
I was active, yes, but at age 34, I had a host of nagging painssore knees, creaky hips, a tight lower backeven though I’d never suffered a major injury. So last fall, when I decided to run the Denver half-marathon, I paid a visit to Neal Henderson, physiologist and exercise guru at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine (BCSM). His diagnosis: Like most amateur athletes, I wasn’t allowing my body to recover properly.
“Exercise is a stressor,” Henderson told me. “The right amount of stress creates a positive adaptation”that is, you become stronger and faster”but if there’s too much stress, you go the other way.” Dealing with that stressrecoveringis a widely misunderstood but utterly essential aspect of fitness. Henderson spoke of pro-athlete clients who’d overtrained and ended up injured and depressed. Average Joes like me, on the other hand, get only a few hours per week to work out. We go hard, don’t allow time for recovery, and end up underperforming or supporting armies of physical therapists and chiropractors. “It’s not the workout that makes you better,” Henderson says. “It’s the recovery.”
In theory, recovery is simple: Eat and rest properly after your workouts and you’ll stay injury-free and be able to go faster and longer on race day. But this is a lot harder in practice, requiring monk-like self-discipline. When I showed up at BCSM, Henderson subjected me to a series of treadmill tests that measured my heart-rate zones and lactate thresholdthe point at which maximum effort can be sustained for about an hour. Based on the results, Henderson said I should do the bulk of my training at a low intensity. This was easy on the bodywhen I stuck to Henderson’s recommended workout intensities I could do long runs without feeling very tired afterwardsbut tough on the ego. I was consistently passed by people twice my age, people pushing strollers, people wearing cotton.
Other workouts consisted of easy runs punctuated by three-minute high-intensity intervals. Henderson hounded me about the importance of recovery between those intervalsslowing down so that my body would be prepared for the next effort. As for pre- and post-workout routines, it turns out that a proper warm-up and cooldown are far more important than the half-assed stretching I’d grown accustomed to. Before and after every run, I allowed five to ten minutes for slow jogging and walking, which helped my body transition between resting and exercising heart rates.
My diet needed a makeover, too. Kathleen Farrell, BCSM’s sports dietitian, insisted that right after my morning runs I eat carbohydrate-rich meals, like oatmeal with skim milk and fruit, to replenish lost glycogen stores. This was less fun than replenishing bacon stores, but I never felt sluggish after training runs. And the most dramatic change I made: I ran only three or four days a week. This allowed me time for warming up and cooling down, and also for hanging out with my son.
Over the next six weeks, I had exactly zero injuries, and I never felt lethargic. And this was without following Henderson’s training program to the letter: I missed workouts and freelanced, doing a couple more hard intervals or resting longer between intense efforts now and then. But I always paid attention to cooling down and refueling immediately after a workout. And on race day this past October, I set a personal record, improving on my previous half-marathon time by seven minutes. After the run, I headed directly for the beer tent and ordered a pale ale. I don’t think that was on Farrell’s list of optimal recovery drinks, but it sure tasted good at 9 a.m. And at least it was full of carbs.
Come Back Stronger
The Meal AfterThe sooner you eat after training, the better. Your body is most ready to process new fuel when your metabolism is still hot, in the 15 to 30 minutes after you work out. The ideal recovery meal contains about one gram of carbs per kilogram of body weight, in a ratio of three or four parts carb to one part protein. The carbs replenish lost glycogen stores, and the protein aids muscle repair. But keeping track of all that can make your head spin. Here are ten great recovery meals you can rely on, no matter what.
1. Peanut-butter-and-honey sandwich on whole-grain bread with Gatorade or lots of water.
2. Low-fat chocolate soy milk. The perfect mix of carbs, protein, and fat.
3. Quaker Oatmeal Squares cereal with nonfat …
You need to allow for recovery in the middle of a workoutbut only when doing high-intensity cardio intervals or strength training.
CARDIO: Scientists don’t know exactly what mechanism causes endurance athletes to feel fatigued. (Lactate, a metabolite produced when your body breaks down carbs without oxygen, was long thought to be the culprit, but that theory has been disproven.) This much is clear, though: Too much intense exercise at once is a no-no. “Overworking your body leads to a higher risk of injury,” says Henderson.
STRENGTH: When you perform an intense muscle contraction, you burn through the essential energy systems used in strength training in approximately ten seconds. Which is to say, after a set, you’re spent.
WHAT YOUR BODY NEEDS
CARDIO: Once you’ve completed an interval, you need to let your heart rate fall so your system can replenish spent energy supplies.
STRENGTH: After a set, your body needs to recharge the taxed energy systems it relies on for short-term strength work.
WHAT TO DO
CARDIO: During interval workouts, recover at about 60 percent of your maximum heart rateor about 50 percent of maximum effortfor at least as long as the interval lasted. This may mean some walking between intervals.
STRENGTH: With lighter weights and more repetitions, rest for one to three minutes between sets. With heavier weights, take at least three minutes off between sets. Listen to your body: If you don’t feel fully recovered, don’t touch the weights.
Studies have shown that people get the most bang for their buck with three to five workouts per week. Anything more provides only negligible fitness gains.
CARDIO: During low-intensity aerobic workouts, your body burns primarily carbohydrates and fat. During high-intensity intervals, you burn more carbs than fat, and stress your cardiovascular system.
STRENGTH: Weight lifting literally breaks down muscle fibers.
WHAT YOUR BODY NEEDS
CARDIO: First, you need to cool down. Then you need carbohydrates and some protein, and a lot of fluids to replace water lost through sweat.
STRENGTH: Your muscle fibers need two things to rebuild themselves: protein and time. According to Henderson, it takes 48 hours for stressed muscle fibers to fully repair.
WHAT TO DO
CARDIO: Cool down with five or ten minutes of easy jogging, walking, or cycling. This will gradually bring your heart rate down and allow your body to return to its resting state. Then eat a good recovery meal. (For some suggestions, see “The Meal After,” below.)
STRENGTH: Take at least one day off between harder workouts.
Pro athletes use a smart strategy called periodization to maximize fitness gains. This involves breaking the year into distinct training sections, each with different workout goals and rest periods. Do you need to do this? Probably not. But taking breaks from training is key if you want to avoid chronic fatigue and its myriad side effects.
Each person has a limit to how much work he or she can do. Once you exceed that limit, you experience symptoms like muscle pain, increased resting heart rate, and lethargy.
WHAT YOUR BODY NEEDS
After two to three weeks of training, take a week in which you cut the duration of your workouts in half. And do them at a low intensityabout 60 percent of maximum effort. This may have you getting passed by dudes in jeans if you’re a jogger, but resist the urge to speed up.