This blog post is all about race season rest and recovery – and there's a warning right up front: this stuff is not easy!

For most of us, making and taking time for recovery is hard, especially in the middle of race season.  And when it’s forced on us through injury or circumstances it can feel deeply frustrating.  My coaching of several clients in the last few weeks, and my own experience, has made me reflect on these feelings and – without pretending there are any easy prescriptions – some lessons.

I can think of three different types of mid race season rest, involving a mix of theory, practice and emotion:

  • routine rest
  • revitalising rest
  • enforced rest and recuperation

Routine Rest:

This is all about building in regular, systematic rests and recoveries into every training programme.  Our bodies can’t sustain intense, high volume training week in week out.  We need the lighter, rest periods to adapt to new levels of training and activity.

For this reason, in setting training programmes through the year for those I coach and myself, I plan in lighter recovery time, either on the basis of two harder weeks, one lighter week or two x ten harder days and eight lighter days.  Each harder week or ten days has a specific emphasis.  And each block of three or four weeks then gradually progresses through to reaching peak condition at the right time.

We also look to “protect” key sessions in the week, ensuring you go into the more demanding sessions reasonably fresh and follow them with lighter sessions to maximise the benefit from the harder days.  In race season those key sessions might involve blocks of very high intensity efforts with tight intervals and longer recoveries between blocks.

And as race season for many will extend over several months, the challenge is about allowing enough time to recover from one big event, maintain and finesse sharpness and taper down for the next priority event.  So in these ways routine rest can make the difference between blindly hoping you’ll do better in your next event and knowing you are ready, in the very best shape possible.

Revitalising Rest:

The idea here is more about planning in time to switch off and refresh yourself, particularly when shifting focus from one big event to another.  There’s also something about the reenergising, calming art of being kind to yourself.

In my own case, I completed the very demanding Isles of Scilly Ötillö SwimRun just over two weeks ago and am now switching to a series of long river swims, the first in just under three weeks: the wonderful 6km Bantham Swoosh.  Ideally I would have had a longer gap in between switching from one type of training to another.

After the event I had a week doing very little, the odd brisk dip in the sea if I felt like it, relaxed strolls along beaches and lots of indulgent food.  I’m now coming to the end of ten days of gradually getting back into the regularity of consistent swim training, without any of it being hard or long.  The plan is to follow this with another ten days of longer, harder “protected” sessions and then very light swimming on race week.

Similarly, but planned over a longer period, is some work I’m doing with a super GB Age Group Duathlete.  We planned out the year for two very different challenges: up to the end of June targeting a mix of sprint events, then a short rest before a gradual build up to the infamous long distance Ballbuster in November.  At our last weekly check in, when we got on to talking about the impending two weeks of rest, he looked worried, saying he was unsure he could do the "rest thing".  His fiancé called out from another room “he’ll be terrible to live with!”

"If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck … then it probably is a duck"

"If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck … then it probably is a duck"

For active people the idea of rest is hard, especially if you’ve built up to a new found level of fitness.  So the idea is active rest: for example, maybe going out on a mountain bike ride, exploring new routes or going over old favourites, with lots of stops to admire the views; or as I have just been doing, swimming without a watch, no interest in the time or distance just to enjoy the crystal clear water and swell of the waves.  It also means not stressing or feeling guilty about extra rest days – nothing is “missed”, because the schedule is active rest.  The rule of thumb is a twist on the duck test: nothing to look like, feel like, sound like, smell like… training.

Enforced Rest:

This is probably the hardest bit.  Injury strikes or circumstances change and we are forced to stop.  I spoke earlier this week with another athlete I am coaching on the twelve month Coaching Support programme.  Just before his biggest event for the year he suffered a back injury that two months on has stubbornly persisted and ruled out pretty much any training (let alone taking part in his big event).

How frustrating – on top of holding a debilitating pain that doesn’t seem to go.

Needless to say rest is the only option.  Again thinking of my own experience of debilitating injuries, at such times its very easy to become despondent – spiralling downward into a place where we don’t do the very things that would help because of feeling that its all pointless.

Note: no snake goes back to the starting point!

Note: no snake goes back to the starting point!

Hard though it may seem to accept, injuries are rarely like a harsh game of snakes and ladders where every time we start back at zero, all fitness lost.  Some setbacks obviously take longer to recover from.  But in many cases we will be surprised at how quickly fitness can be built up again.

Key recovery and recuperation steps to get back to where you were and beyond  (without wishing to downplay the frustrations) include:

  • sorting out the fundamentals: serious injuries require serious treatment, addressing the fundamentals of strength and alignment.  Rest on its own won’t do it.  So a first step in overcoming despondency is to book in time with a muscular-skeletal physio or maybe a chiropractor who can not only assess the injury but prescribe Strength & Conditioning exercises to get you on the right path
  • patient perspective: I know easier said than done, but there’s an important step in accepting that an injury will take time, that goals set months before need to be set aside – and that there will be other super, rewarding challenges ahead.  Few events are only held for one year only.  And a period of enforced rest can also be a time to get other priorities aligned and in balance
  • new focus: sometimes when we’ve been set back from doing a particular event, we automatically set our sights on completing it the following year or maybe doing the same distance or type of event later on in the year once we’re back on track.  It can help, though, to add in a new focus – an aspect of the training or the event itself that will be different and will give a new edge.  Dare I say it, even setting aside the original goal and deciding on a new challenge can be a great way of energising oneself and gradually working back to fulfilling challenges.

For now though, I’m feeling excited about working with all my clients – some aiming to be in the best condition of their lives for one big event, ready to give their very best; others sustaining great performances over a prolonged race season, keeping sharp and excited; and supporting others through their setbacks so they are ready to achieve new goals.  And preparing for my next big challenges.