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

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

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

How do we rest when we want to become more competitive and/or show our kids that we really are not old when, as seniors, we have a much lower tolerance for training errors?

Rest and recovery

The advice that I repeatedly hear from senior triathletes and those that coach them is that we need to make rest an important part of our training plan.  A podcast that I recently listened to entitled ‘Training Over 50’ listed ‘Rest’ as one of four most important elements in training for those over 50.

Those who are committed to improving their performance ‘at all cost’ will ignore this advice or interpret it to fit their plan.  Those who are not as committed or motivated can use this advice to hit the snooze button a few more times in the morning or to take a few more days away from training.

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


Where does rest fit into training?

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.”

One way to picture this process is through the circular flow diagram shown below.

training refueling rest

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 it the correct way to rest?

Triathlon coaches repeatedly write that rest should be scheduled and structured just as are the workouts.   It 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, blood supply to the muscles increases, tissue growth and repair occurs, and hormones, such as growth hormone, are released.  The growth hormone contributes to development of muscles that are stressed from hard workouts.

To achieve quality sleep, it is important to allow the processes to occur uninterrupted.  If interrupted, the various phases are not allowed to be completed and the result is incomplete muscle repair, tissue repair, and release of growth hormones.

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 as well as 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


Cross training is an important component of rest. By definition, cross training involves primarily muscles other than those to be rested. Swimming is one of the favorite forms of cross training used by triathlon coaches.


How do I know if I am getting adequate 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 that 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

Meanwhile, an imbalance in the amount of rest can 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.



So, 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 both through sleep and planned cross training.

Remember that we are in this for the long run (pun intended).



  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 originally published on April 19, 2016 and last updated on March 29, 2018.

Please follow and like us: