We get good at pushing hard into training. We all have been in that super-pumped zone or so sore we can barely move the next day, or so exhausted from a week’s training that we stay on the couch the whole weekend. As good as learning to go hard is, there is a critical Yang to that Yin that can make all the difference in training.
For most of us the opposite of training hard is simply not training. Taking it easy in the afternoon or having a couple of rest days or sleeping in on Saturday is about all there is to it. When you’re young, this can be all you need. But as we age or start to train harder, we have got to turn up the recovery dial.
You’ll often hear coaches caution against not going so hard and to recommend reducing volume or intensity to maximize gains. This isn’t bad advice, but I just don’t see avid climbers willing to do that. Since I know you are going to be hard to convince to do less training, what I want you to do is get serious about recovering. In fact, I insist that my athletes think of recovery training instead of rest. Once you’re as serious about recovering as you are about training, you’ll see gains you can’t believe.
Recovery is a huge growth area in sport science. Understanding that we can actually improve athletes quality and speed of recovery has led to some really good practices over the past couple of decades. From better tissue care, to better fueling, to better session design, there are many ways to recover better so you can train better. Below, I’ll outline the eight strategies that we’ve seen the most successful and easy to implement. I have only included strategies that are workable in the real-world with a normal person’s budget.
Sleep More. Most of us have a habitual sleep pattern, and will go to bed roughly the same time each night. At the other end, we wake to an alarm and race into the day. Although there are still many unanswered questions in the realm of sleep’s relationship to exercise performance, it’s been shown over and over that deprivation of sleep is exceedingly damaging to motor coordination and sport performance. Some studies suggest that adding as little as 15 minutes more sleep per day can enhance recovery by nearly 5%. We do know that sleep enhances protein synthesis and boosts immune function, so there are many reasons to help yourself to more. It’s hard to add sleep in the morning – most of us leave just enough time to race through our routines and get out the door. The best tactic is to get into bed just 15 minutes earlier. Believe it or not, climbing a grade harder should be more important than watching the last season of Narcos.
Eat After Training. You’ve heard the hype – “Eat a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein within 40 minutes of a training session, ideally in the form of x brand recovery drink.” Although simple enough, it’s hard to justify trying to get an exact ratio of macronutrients in a specific time window when you don’t really need to. The more research into recovery nutrition they do, the more flexible it seems to become. The current wisdom is simply to eat within a couple of hours after a session, and to make sure that you have a full serving of protein at that time. Although a recovery drink or a glass of chocolate milk are decent choices, a sandwich, a salad with steak or chicken, or even an omelet would be fine, too. Aim for 150-250 calories, unless your training falls right before mealtime, in which case a normal meal would be appropriate. Things to avoid would be alcohol in excess or a purely carbohydrate snack.
Drink More Water. I am not one of those obsessive hydration people who buy into the idea that somehow we’re always dehydrated. The thirst response, it turns out, is a good indicator of whether you are thirsty or not. That being said, many athletes drink very little actual water. Coffee drinks, energy drinks, soft drinks, and alcohol make up a huge percentage of typical intake. Although all of these drinks help us to stay hydrated to some degree, water tends to absorb better and is markedly less expensive. We’re sold the idea of electrolyte energy or recovery drinks so often that we take the idea as gospel. Here is a nice informational video on sports drinks, and here is a good study that looks at using water as a means of rehydration. Our concern is not improved cardiovascular performance, however. It turns out that being under-hydrated can prolong soreness and extend recovery times. The easy solution is to drink a bit more during sessions than you normally do, and then to drink 20+ ounces of water after a session. This ties in well with your recovery meal above. A sandwich and a glass of water after training will provide a good base for being able to train hard again tomorrow.
Take a Nap. The benefit of short naps during the day is huge, especially when it comes to recovery from exercise. More sleep at night is good, but naps are great. The major benefit of napping is an increase in anabolic hormonal activity, but getting you out of the “Go-Go-Go” cycle is probably good, too. A nap can increase release of hormones, increase protein synthesis, and improve cognitive function. Optimal napping for athletes occurs within 2 hours of your main training for the day, and should only be 15-25 minutes in duration – longer naps can negatively affect nighttime sleep.
Do Your Cardio. OK, I know this sounds crazy coming from somebody who continually argues against nonspecific training for climbing performance, but bear with me. When we look at recovery, one of the big keys is movement of “bad stuff” out of the muscles and movement of “good stuff” into them. One simple way to accelerate this process is to elevate the heart rate and body temperature slightly. It’s important that you look at heading out the door for these sessions as recovery rather than as a chance to burn a few calories or improve your endurance. As a general rule, you should look at doing 30-60 minutes of easy activity- such as hiking, easy cycling, or easy running – most days of the week. You should keep your heart rate below 60% of your maximum at all times, and most of your time should be spent well below even this mark.
Take a Cold Shower. This one sucks, but it is surprisingly effective, especially if your muscles are sore. Cold baths or showers (10+ minutes in duration) have been shown to improve strength and power recovery times, and should be part of your arsenal of recovery modes after especially intense training. You can also explore contrast showers or baths. In this recovery mode, you’d spend 2-3 minutes under the coldest water you can stand, followed by the same duration under the hottest you can stand. Repeating this cycle 2-3 times in a session, and ending with cold has been shown to have a greater effect on reducing soreness than cold alone. Some research suggests that it can help improve recovery times, but it doesn’t seem as effective as cold alone.
Back Off on the Beer. Although kicking back a few beers at the end of a climbing day can be called an integral part of our culture, it’s probably not the best way to recover. As much as we want our alcohol to be a good thing, research shows that consuming more than a couple of drinks will increase the time it takes you to recover from training. The good news is that one or two beers or glasses of wine seem to have no ill-effect on recovery. This one goes hand-in-hand with trying to drink more water. Before you hit the bar, drink a full glass of water…you’ll save money and climb better the next day.
Eat Protein Before (or During) Training. There is some benefit to consuming small amounts of protein before or during training to jumpstart the recovery process even before you’ve beaten yourself down. Researchers suggest consuming small portions (so as not to upset the digestion) slightly before or during exercise. Because protein digests slowly, you can only do so much…try starting with around 30-50 calories in the form of a small snack or protein drink, and work your way up from there.
Recovering from training is easy at first, but as you advance in what you can load yourself with, you should be advancing how you deal with it. This is not an exhaustive list, and the suggestions here are merely starting points. The point I want to drive home is that there is more to getting better than going hard. If you put some focus into what happens after training, you will get more out of each session, and it might be the secret sauce you’ve been looking for to gain that next grade.