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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Breen

The Top Two Keys to Recovery

The world is inundated with opinions, quick fixes and “bio-hacks” to become better, faster, stronger and the triathlon world is no exception. There are many so-called “recovery tools” such as massage, compression clothing, etc…, that claim to help athletes recover quicker so they can tackle their next training session fresh. Most of these so-called tools have no legitimate basis for actually aiding in recovery. The mere act of slowing down, putting your feet up and simply resting contributes more to your recovery than these so-called recovery tools. Don’t waste your time and money on questionable recovery tools without first utilizing the two best recovery tools that require little money. However, these two tools I’m about to mention do require time. Just like there are no shortcuts to training. Athletes must at some point put in the training time in order to become a better, faster athlete. The same goes for recovery. Athletes must devote time to recover in order to reap the benefits of their training. With most amateur athletes leading busy lives regardless of sport this is often an area of sports performance that gets overlooked. Unfortunately, and more importantly this also has profound effects on your overall health.

Keys to Recovery

Number 1: Sleep

Sleep is the number one recovery tool every athlete has access to. If quality sleep is not established first, then all the other restorative techniques (massage, ice, compression, etc...) won't mean a thing. Ten minutes of foam rolling a day doesn’t mean a thing if you are not getting quality sleep. Sleep has to be treated the same way as you would treat your Saturday bike session, and that is by making it a priority and being consistent with it.

Sleep needs to be restorative. Think of it as that and make it a priority to ensure it is restorative. Stop focusing just on the quantity of sleep and start to also focus on quality. Many athletes have difficulty falling asleep, or fall asleep quickly but then wake up shortly thereafter. Don't count the number of hours you lay in bed awake trying to fall asleep as hours of actually sleeping.

The sleep cycle consists of five stages. Stages 1-4 and REM sleep. We typically will cycle through this 4-5 times a night. Stages 1 and 2 are considered light sleep and stages 3 and 4 are considered deep sleep. It is during stages 3 and 4 and predominantly stage 3 where growth hormone is released in order to restore your muscles from the previous day's stress, through cell regeneration and reproduction. It is during this stage where your immune system is repaired and where your brain also refreshes itself. If we are getting good quality sleep we will spend anywhere from 4-7 hours between stages 1-4 and another 90-120 minutes in REM sleep. Therefore, aiming for 7 hours of quality sleep per night should be your priority.

In order to get quality sleep try to make the following a priority everyday.

  • Wake up the same time every morning as this will allow your body to feel ready for sleep at the same time every night. Don't linger in bed.

  • Reserve the bedroom for sleep and keep it that way. Keep your bedroom cool and dark, and invest in a high quality mattress that you find comfortable. Don't watch television in bed. In fact, take the television out of the bedroom all together. Don't use the tablet or phone in bed and don't even read in bed. Even better is not watching any television or using the phone or tablet within one hour of going to sleep, as it provides too much of a stimulus at a time when we want to avoid just that. Light reading is ok but should be done outside the bedroom.

  • Avoid caffeine in the late afternoon. If you are getting high quality sleep then caffeine can be avoided all-together and you won't feel a need for it in the morning. This can allow its use as a true performance aid for key training sessions and races.

  • Avoid working out immediately before bed.

  • Be mindful of what you are eating and drinking in the hours prior to going to bed. Avoid alcohol late in the evening. Although alcohol has a relaxing and sedative effect it can also lead to nighttime awakening due to sympathetic activation which if prolonged releases adrenaline. Drinking any fluid in high amounts, even water prior to going to sleep will also likely awaken you frequently to use the bathroom.

Number 2: Nutrient Timing

Proper nutrient timing is the second most important recovery tool athletes should be focusing on. Nutrient timing enables us to maintain our glycogen stores, thereby helping us to adequately recover so we are energized both for our next training session as well as for life.

  • Practicing proper fueling and hydration begins immediately upon awakening and lasts until we put into practice our next tool, which is sleep as mentioned above. Getting a quality 7-9 hours of sleep means we are not eating for that amount of time and likely even longer. Although we do not deplete muscle glycogen while sleeping we do deplete liver glycogen. This means our blood sugar is low. As most age groupers get at least one workout in soon upon awakening it is important that you ingest a small amount of carbohydrate along with a small amount of protein in order to remain satiated.

  • Fueling during a workout is important for two reasons. First it enables us to practice getting our stomachs accustomed to the types of fuel we will be ingesting during race day and second it allows us to maintain a balance between carbohydrate intake and use. Chronic fatigue and an overall feeling of tiredness is not simply a result of increased training as much as it is a result of an imbalance between carbohydrate use and intake.

  • Fueling immediately after a workout, meaning 20-30 minutes following completion, is the time to replace lost muscle glycogen and kick start muscle synthesis by adding a small amount of protein into the system. The window to continually replenish carbohydrate stores after a workout is approximately the same amount of time as your workout is long. As you were likely eating engineered sport supplements during your workout and immediately after, then this is the time to start ingesting high quality nutrient dense whole foods. The rest of the day’s subsequent meals should also consist of unprocessed nutrient dense whole foods.

Don't forget Hydration

Remaining adequately hydrated keeps our cells functioning properly and minimizes energy fluctuations. It is important to start each day with a glass of water for the same reason mentioned above. It should have been approximately 7-9 hours of not ingesting any fluids. A general rule of thumb is to drink so you are peeing every 2 hours. In addition to your hydration during workouts make sure to drink water at every meal and carry around a bottle with you to sip throughout the day.


  1. Fullager, H, Skorski, S, Duffield, R, Hammes, D, Couts, AJ, Meyer, T. Sleep and Athletic Performance: The Effects of Sleep Loss on Exercise Performance, and Physiological and Cognitive Responses to Exercise. Sports Medicine. 2015;45(2):161-186.

  2. Wilmore JH, Costill, D. (1994). Physiology of Sport and Exercise. Champaign, IL. Human Kinetics.

  3. Nieman D. (1995). Fitness and Sports Medicine: A Heath-Related Approach. Mountain View, CA. Mayfield.

  4. Guyton AC, Hall JE. (2000). Textbook of Medical Physiology. Philadelphia, PA. W.B. Saunders.


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