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Rest and Recovery: Why It’s Important for Senior Triathletes

Rest and Recovery:  Why It’s Important for Senior Triathletes
Circular relationship between training overload, refueling, and rest

How do senior triathletes rest while working to become more competitive? Or show our kids that we really are not old?  How do we train efficiently when we have a much lower tolerance for training errors?

“Successful runners are those who have recovered the best.”1

Rest A Main Pillar of Senior Triathlete Training

The advice I repeatedly hear from senior triathletes and those who coach them is that we need to make rest an important part of our training plan.  A podcast on training for endurance sports for those over age 50 listed ‘Rest’ as one of four main elements in training for those over 50.

Those committed to improving their performance ‘at all cost’ will ignore this advice or interpret it to fit their plan.  Those less committed or motivated can use this advice to hit the snooze button a few more times or to take a few more days away from training.

Meanwhile, those of us somewhere in between can be left scratching our heads, wondering how to apply this all-important advice.

Where Does Rest Fit Into Training for the Senior Triathlete?

According to the Furman Institute1, “train hard and become fatigued, then rest and recover while your body adapts to an increased workload.  Repeating this cycle of overload, fatigue, recovery, and adaptation makes you fitter and faster.  However, there is a limit to one’s capacity to endure and adapt.  The progressive overload must be done gradually.”

We can picture this process through a circular flow diagram (below).

picture of the circular relationship between overload, refueling, and rest in an effective triathlon training program
Circular relationship between training overload, refueling, and rest

Overload includes the effects of training exercise.  However, overload has other sources, including those that come with living such as our physical environment (for example, altitude, humidity, temperature extremes), colds and allergies, dietary choices, travel, stress at work, and personal relationships.

As illustrated in the above flow diagram, the combined overload influences our nutrition (refueling) needs and needs for rest and recovery.  Balancing the three components of the flow diagram while progressively increasing overload will lead to continuous improvement in fitness and performance.

What Is the Correct Way for the Masters Triathlete to Rest?

Triathlon coaches repeatedly write that rest should be scheduled and structured just as are the workouts.   Rest and recovery must be considered part of the overall plan and treated in a disciplined way.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, the initial phase of ‘falling to sleep’ is followed by a state in which our muscles relax.  During this phase, blood supply to the muscles increases, tissue growth and repair occurs, and hormones, such as growth hormone, are released.  The growth hormone contributes to building muscles stressed by hard workouts.

To achieve quality sleep, these processes must occur uninterrupted.  If interrupted, muscle repair, tissue repair, and the release of growth hormones are not completed.

One way to achieve consistency is to schedule sleep.  By ‘schedule’, we mean providing the time and environment (bed, temperature, lighting, etc.) for both the optimum quantity of sleep and uninterrupted, quality sleep.

Rest is Sleep and Much More

Sleep is an essential component of rest.

For a comprehensive review of the benefits of sleep – and the detrimental effects of not getting enough sleep – take a look at Sleep and Athletes by Tuck Sleep.

However, rest also involves giving time for repair and development of specific muscles and joints used in a sport.

“Active, yet low-intensity, exercise such as non-weight-bearing swimming, kayaking, and cycling allows muscles stressed from running to recover.  It is during the recovery that the adaptation from the training stimulus (the hard run) occurs.  That adaptation, or improvement, helps you run faster.”1

Swimming is an effective means of rest and recovery for senior triathletes
Cross-training is an important component of rest. By definition, cross-training involves primarily muscles other than those needing rest. Swimming is one of the favorite forms of cross-training used by triathlon coaches.

Proper fueling is important.  There are many who report that post-exercise fueling requires protein.  However, this is not necessarily true, especially for our day-in, day-out workouts.  High quality carbohydrates will also be effective in replacing our glycogen stores.  The human body is capable of providing the amino acids for repair of the limited muscle damage.

Advice from Dr. Jeff Sankoff is to avoid alcohol during the recovery phase of exercise.  During his December 9, 2019 podcast, Dr. Sankoff reported that “the synthesis of new glycogen is often impaired in the presence of alcohol”.

How Do I Know If I Am Getting Enough Rest?

Rest must be proportional to the amount of overload.  An imbalance in either direction (too much or too little rest) will lead to less than optimum results.

The main factors affecting the rate of recovery from training overload are:

  • Age
  • Fitness level
  • Exercise background and experience
  • Stress from life (work, family)
  • Health level
  • Diet – nutrition with respect to the body’s requirements during rest and exercise
  • Sleep – quantity and quality

Imbalance in the amount of rest will be indicated by:

  • mood disturbance,
  • irritability,
  • sleep disturbance,
  • increased susceptibility to colds,
  • appetite changes, and
  • a struggle to maintain athletic performance.

According to Joe Friel in ‘The Triathlete’s Training Bible’2, the importance of correct balance of training, nutrition, and rest becomes increasingly important with age.  Younger people can get away with more impatience or carelessness in training.  However, seniors have a much lower tolerance for training errors.  The price of mistakes in rest and recovery among seniors can be much greater than for the younger competitors.

Seniors have a much lower tolerance for training errors.

A Testimonial for Rest

In 2013, I met Jim Chapman at the Rocky Gap Triathon in Maryland.

After the race, Jim described how important rest had become to his training. Following is an excerpt from a message I received from him after the race.

“One of the hardest things to learn while training for this sport is knowing when to rest. I was self coached for many years and often found myself going two or more weeks without a day off and then I would collapse.

Since I had a goal last year to compete at the National Championship race in Vermont, I hired a coach, a nationally ranked professional triathlete who lives in the area. She has been adamant in making me take more rest days. It is not uncommon for me to take two rest days in a week now. And as you can see I am racing better and faster.”

For this 70+ year triathlete, more frequent rest had become part of a strategy for improving his race performance.

Rest for the Senior Triathlete

Senior Triathletes should take advantage of the wisdom that comes with age in their training.

Increase overload slowly.  Remember that overload is the sum of training and other stresses.  Refuel properly.  Rest through sleep and cross-training.

Remember, life is more like a marathon than a sprint.  Plan to finish strong.

References

  1. Pierce, Bill, et al., “Runner’s World Run Less, Run Faster: Become a Faster, Stronger Runner with the Revolutionary FIRST Training Program”, 2007.
  2. Friel, Joel, “The Triathlete’s Training Bible, 3rd Edition”, 2009.

This post was first published on April 19, 2016 and last updated on August 7, 2020.

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