Ed. Note—Matt Dixon, head of Purple Patch Fitness and host of The Purple Patch Podcast, returns to our pages to discuss a topic with which he is often associated: proper recovery for endurance athletes. We're lucky to have a coach of Matt's caliber to explain his methods, and how "recovery" has come to be a misunderstood topic in our world.
I have been labeled the recovery coach, a label that has not always been applied in the most complimentary way, but one that I wear with honor. My focus on recovery began fifteen years ago sitting in a one-bedroom studio apartment with the relics of a poorly executed professional triathlon career in my rearview mirror. I sat there, loaded with chronic fatigue induced by my poor approach to training and supporting habits, and reflected on the consistent symptoms of under performance that I saw at the time across all levels in the sport. Everyone seemed to be singularly focused on the accumulation of training, while critical supplemental topics such as recovery, nutrition, and strength were ignored or given simple lip service. In fact, the mention of recovery was viewed as a weakness in this tough sport and led many to chase more hours as their barometer of success, ignoring early signs of deep fatigue accumulation.
I saw a lot of athletes who were very fit arriving to races fatigued. Luckily a rescue was at hand, with the emergence of compression socks and other fancy recovery gadgets! Of course, these were only a band aid and hardly did anything to fix the underlying issues of performance. While many challenged my position on recovery and claimed my assertion of its value were positioned as life hacks and quick fixes, the truth emerged. To succeed in this sport you must embrace recovery as an integrated part of your program, not a simple afterthought. In fact, I still believe that the we can place much of the performance evolution that has occurred in the sport over the last decade more to coaches and athletes becoming smarter about integrated recovery more than any magical new approach to intervals or increased training load. With this in mind, let’s outline a case study of properly integrated recovery in action, and frame the key components of your approach to appropriate integrated recovery.
Purple Patch Fitness athlete, Becky
You may see parts of yourself in her story—as it is a common one—so I hope that you can draw lessons from the approach and intervention that helped her. Becky is a committed triathlete, but also a mom and busy executive. By definition she lives a big life! Upon joining Purple Patch I labeled her "miss efficiency" as her mission was to make everything work, with no compromise. Becky was very performance- and results-driven across all areas of life.
Training: When approaching training she aimed to squeeze in 14 to 16 hours weekly, the training load she believed necessary for success. Reviewing the program, I saw that the prescribed sessions were of good quality and there was plenty of variance of prescribed intensity. The baseline program was actually pretty good! Looking beyond the program was where the challenges began to surface. I immediately noticed that the training was heavily scheduled into a busy life. There was little opportunity for wiggle room, and Becky habitually ate on the fly, missed post workout fueling opportunities and had next to no downtime. Consistently, she compromised quality and quantity of sleep to fit in unforeseen chores or make up missed sessions on the training program. Toughness was the supreme virtue.
Despite the sleep challenges and poor fueling habits, she still held a highly structured focus on eating "well." She had tried various diets to help both performance and body composition. While she had enjoyed initial success over the first couple of seasons, the most recent years had plateaued and performance had not risen in line with the effort put into it. She was frustrated. While many others may have been inspired by her journey, she wasn’t happy with her performance. The symptoms of under performance showcase the reasons:
- Results: Her results were flat. She was getting little return on investment for her hard training, despite the fabric of the prescribed program being reasonably good.
- Becky aimed to eat well, trained hard, yet continued to experience fat retention. How can one exercise that many hours and still not improve body composition?
- Daily fatigue and energy fluctuations as a result of consistently compromised sleep.
- Finally, she was sick of the frequent niggles and injuries that derailed training.
It was clear that the effort was there, but there was something wrong with the recipe. Becky was at a crossroads, with a choice to either double down and work even harder, or reflect on her global approach. This was the start of a journey that asked for some introspection and a shift in her lens on performance. I bought up the topic of recovery and she launched in: “I knew you would talk about that—I do recovery boots, stretch pre- and post-workout and foam roll every day. I even have a massage therapist come to my office! There is nothing wrong with my recovery." Her reaction showed me that Becky and I didn’t understand each others' perspectives on the subject. I broke my approach into three main parts, the first two of which I'll discuss this week, and really make up the frame around the subject of recovery. We'll put a plan of action inside that frame next week.
- Seasonal: Ensuring seasonal breaks of blocks of lower physical strain to facilitate great recuperation from the consistent training load.
- Phase / Block Recovery: 2 to 5 days of lower stress training integrated into main training to help restore balance and facilitate adaptations in training.
- Easier training days / sessions: Lighter load training days that either help recovery from prior tough training or prepare for upcoming key sessions.
- Rest days: Complete rest. I believe this is relatively over-valued by coaches, and only needed when an athlete would benefit from emotional recovery from the sport globally.
A successful approach to recovery doesn’t begin and end with training. There are key habits that are critical to enabling recovery in sport.
- Sleep: Massively important for athletes - and where most physiological adaptations occur. Important in terms of both duration and quality
- Nutrition: A platform of health, physiological adaptations and performance. You cannot put coal in a race car!
- Fueling: Particularly post workout fueling. A critical habit to limit stress, repair muscles and facilitate proper nutrition
- Meditation: Emerging (really arrived) science on its benefits for all performance-minded individuals - and assists in recovery
- Naps: Aligned with meditation - short daily 10 to 30 minute naps create increase natural HGH and other hormonal and restorative benefits.
- Qualitative recovery modalities: Everything you can be sold! These are the most talked about components of recovery and include: massage and body work, foam rollers/self-massage, heat (sauna / hot tub), ice and cryotherapy, compression (active and passive)
So those are the elements and resources of a proper recovery plan for an athlete. Next week I will put those elements into action for Becky, and you can see how she fared!