Training can vary widely in length and intensity depending on the event you are preparing for, and it can place huge demands on the body. Your training schedule can be anything from a few hours a week to more than 20, which leaves little time for proper recovery. Recreational triathletes also have the added demand of fitting training sessions around such distractions as work and a social life.
A good recovery strategy will help you to raise your training intensity and volume in stages and ensure you stay healthy. A poor recovery strategy can lead to fatigue, chronic tiredness, muscle soreness, poor sleep and increased susceptibility to infections and injury.
Recovery in the body involves a complex process of adaptation to the physical stress placed on it by training. This is the time for soft-tissue repair and the removal of chemicals built up as a result of intense muscle cell activity, plus refuelling.
Recovery can be either active or passive. Passive recovery includes sleep and relaxation and everyone knows how important they are. Active recovery requires more thought and planning if you're to keep performing at your best.
Active recovery includes low-intensity exercise immediately after exercise, which may sound counterintuitive, but actually helps to reduce muscle lactic acid levels faster than complete rest. Light training days and rest days should be scheduled into your workout programme.
Other active steps, such as ice baths, are an increasingly popular part of the recovery process for elite sportspeople. Recent studies have not demonstrated any significant physical benefit from ice baths, but it may be that the psychological boost is enough.
Nutrition is an essential part of your active recovery strategy. Nutrition recovery ensures that you are putting fuel back into the body to help minimise the strain you put on yourself during hard training. It will also help you return to training sooner and benefit from every training session.
Refuelling after exercise helps to restore muscle and liver carbohydrate stores (glycogen); replace fluid and salt losses (electrolytes) lost in sweat; regenerate and repair muscle damage (the adaptation process); and protect your immune and antioxidant defence systems.
The window of opportunity
Sports dieticians talk about 'The Recovery Window', meaning that your nutrition recovery should start 20 to 30 minutes after exercise. This recommendation came from research that demonstrated higher rates of muscle glycogen storage in the first two-hour period after exercise.
After hard training, your body's muscle and liver carbohydrate stores are depleted and this provides a strong drive for carbohydrate to be restored in the muscle. The most important factor to affect muscle glycogen storage is the amount of carbohydrate consumed post-exercise, providing you've trained hard enough to deplete the muscle stores.
Studies have shown that after exercise that depletes muscle glycogen, the ideal amount of recovery carbohydrate should be 7-10g per kilogramme of body weight per day. If you don't have sufficient carbohydrate during subsequent days of endurance training, your exercising muscles will have less fuel available and this will, of course, affect exercise endurance.
The requirements are lower if your training programme is of moderate duration and low intensity. That means you'll need to adjust your carbohydrate intake in the recovery phase of training if you reduce the duration and intensity of sessions.
Recent research has shown that the recovery window is crucial when time is limited between training sessions (fewer than eight hours) and less important when there is a longer recovery period (12 or more hours). If you are training twice a day, refuel as soon as possible after exercise to ensure you're ready for the next session.
If you can't stomach a meal after exercise, there are plenty of sports recovery products available. Drinks are handy if you can't manage a bigger snack. Make sure you also include some protein with your carbs: research has shown that protein is important for soft-tissue repair, muscle regeneration and the creation of new proteins.
Aim to consume 10-20g of protein immediately after training. Don't go overboard, though - excessive protein displaces carbohydrates and prevents adequate refuelling of muscle glycogen.
Many triathletes finish training sessions or competition in a mild or moderately dehydrated state. Ideally, you need to replace 150-200 per cent of your fluid losses. The challenge when you're training twice a day is to ensure you're fully hydrated prior to the next training session, but also to replace sodium lost through sweating.
Sweat levels of sodium vary considerably in athletes; they can be anything from 20-80mmol/litre. If you rehydrated with the optimum sodium level of 50mmol/litre, a sports drink would be unpalatable. On the other hand, rehydrating with large volumes of water isn't ideal either, as it stimulates urine production.
Sports drinks containing sodium at levels of 10-25mmol/litre are designed to be drinkable, effectively restore fluid balance and improve retention in the recovery period by reducing urine output. Foods that contain sodium when taken with fluids have been shown to do a similar job.
Eating a meal straight after exercise will also help you to rehydrate as it will stimulate your desire to drink - sodium-containing foods enhance fluid retention. If you are eating, aim for foods that have a moderate to high glycaemic index, such as boiled potatoes, couscous and white rice, rather than low-glycaemic-index foods that are often recommended as a slow-release energy source (beans, pulses, porridge).
A recent study has shown that milk-based drinks can help you to rehydrate quicker than sports drinks or water. The research revealed that milk has the ideal amount of salts and is emptied more slowly from the stomach, making it an effective rehydration drink.
Low-fat milk drinks contain carbohydrate for fuel replacement, protein for muscle and tissue repair and calcium, which is important for bone health.
The importance of recovery, active and passive, should not be underestimated. It's an essential strategy that, properly managed, will enhance your training and result in improved performance. You need it and you deserve it.
Becky Stevenson is a sports dietitian and a registered sports and exercise nutritionist. She is Head of Sports Nutrition for British Tennis. For more information visit www.proactivate.co.uk.