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by Chris Ritter

July 20, 2013

Not all performance improvements are gained in the pool

Have you ever stopped to think about when improvement occurs in your training cycle? You may have never thought about this, but you should. Is it right after a hard workout? Is it 12 or 24 hours after a workout?

For most people, the benefits of the work done need time to transpire, and once the body has adapted, you start to see performance improvements.

Some coaches even refer to this recovery period as “invisible training,” less obvious than the actual workout, but vitally important. You may not be doing sets and reps, but when and how you recover determines how much you’ll reap from your “real training” sessions.

Understanding when your improvement happens is crucial if you want to continue to improve your performance because the ability to recover is what changes most as you age. You do not lose the ability to increase strength or power as you age, rather your body slows down its recovery response rate. This cannot be overstated: your ability to recover from training is what changes as you age, not your ability to improve strength or power.

If you don’t adapt your training schedule and intensity to match the biological changes that your body is going through, your training will not continue to produce the effects you seek.

Anyone can train hard, that’s usually not the issue. Instead, it’s whether or not you know when to train hard and when to back off to allow your body to fully recover. If you don’t know when to retreat, you’ll slowly drive yourself into a deeper and deeper hole. This is when sickness and sub-par performances take the place of feeling healthy and seeing improvements on a regular basis. Also known as overtraining, this is a lousy place for performance-focused swimmers to reside, and it happens to many Masters swimmers who may think that more training is always better.

Though this problem is common, the fix is simple. Shift your mindset. Realize that some benefits are gained not from training harder, but by recovering better. Intensify your recovery period, and you’ll notice more gains. This might seem counterintuitive, but recovering effectively and consistently is a skill you can learn, and you’ll probably have to experiment to find the best methods for your body.

Over the years, some of the athletes I train have found one or two strategies from this list that really help. Individual variation is an important component of applying these strategies. Experiment with these strategies to see whether your performance improves.

Recovery Strategies

  • Consistent and sufficient sleep. Many people are chronically sleep deprived, and although it can be difficult to get enough sleep, it’s vitally important to your performance not just in the pool, but across all aspects of your life.
  • Proper nutrition. We all seem to be eating on the run these days, but take the time to eat properly and you’ll likely see a performance increase when your body has the appropriate balance of nutrients it needs to perform at the top level.
  • Stretching, foam rolling, and self-myofascial release. All of these activities can help release lactic acid that accumulates in the muscles during a training session. When the body can efficiently flush these toxins out and repair the training-inflicted damage done to the muscles during a workout, you will likely see bigger gains from your work in the pool.
  • Proper warm-up and cool-down procedures. Similar to stretching, warming up and cooling down before and after a tough training session prepares your body appropriately for the work that’s coming and helps the body process the work after it’s been completed.
  • Icing, cold plunges, and contrast baths. Though chilly, these methods can help reduce inflammation in the body after a workout, which also helps flush out toxins and improves your body’s response to a training session.
  • Massage and chiropractic adjustments. Keeping everything limber and in alignment can also help your body work smoothly and may enable you to get more out of your training time.

How to Test Your Recovery Strategies

  • Check your resting heart rate in the morning. A lower heart rate is better, as that indicates your body is adapting to the work you’ve asked it to do.
  • Use a heart rate variability monitor or smartphone app. Though tracking your heart rate via monitors and phone apps is relatively new, it’s based on the old science of keeping tabs on your heart rate and understanding how your body responds to work and stress. These tools can be especially effective in helping you stay on top of this important biofeedback.
  • Take a vertical or broad jump test. As it sounds, this simply means measuring your jumping capacity and tracking your results over time. Over time, you’ll discover your average jump distance; a below-average score indicates you’re not fully recovered.
  • Swim a specific set regularly. Do the same set over a period of days or weeks and track your performance. You can then use this set to regularly gauge your ongoing performance level. Deviations from normal can indicate whether you’re overtraining or if you’re registering performance gains.
  • Keep an eye on your pee. What color is your urine? Does it change over time or in relation to your training schedule? Urine color indicates hydration level and can show whether you’re hydrated properly. Too dark and you’re probably not drinking enough. Too pale and you may be overhydrating.
  • Keep a recovery journal. Use this journal to record how you feel after each training session on a zero to 10 scale with zero meaning no fatigue felt and 10 indicating maximum fatigue. After you’ve charted some data, look for trends and places where you can make a change to recover more when you’re experiencing more fatigue.

Remember, improvement does not come strictly from actual training sessions. You improve during your recovery, that space in between training sessions when your body does important repair, adaption, and improvement functions.


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