Recovery for Ironman

Matt Dixon, IRONMAN Master Coach (and author of The Well-Built Triathlete) is known as the "recovery coach" for the importance he places on restoring your body between workouts. Our friends at Life Time Fitness' Experience Life magazine put together this Q&A with Dixon; we think it offers the best bang for your buck in terms of recovery education. 

Experience Life: In your book, you discuss the "four pillars of performance." Can you explain what they are and why they’re important?

Matt Dixon: The four pillars of performance are: endurance training, recovery, nutrition, and functional strength. This explanation is a driver to retain a more balanced approach to training and performance. By shifting the training emphasis away from simply training, and placing equal emphasis on all four of the pillars, we enable athletes to retain a logical and smart decision-making process in their daily life.

The four pillars are really an educational tool to help athletes gain and retain a strong vision and framework of decision making as they undergo their own journey of performance. Too many highly motivated athletes are driven only by accumulating training hours and lose sight of the big picture of performance evolution.

I believe in aiming to make complex areas of performance simple, so by teaching athletes to focus on the four pillars, this ensures that the essential areas such as recovery, eating and fueling well, and maintaining a specific functional strength program, will never become afterthoughts. Instead, they become a part of the comprehensive plan.

The beauty of this approach is that is provides athletes with a basic fallback to allow perspective when making daily decisions. I find this helps achieve the magic word of performance evolution: consistency.

Each of these pillars relates to each other and can have great positive impact if practices are put into place—as well as negative results if ignored or approached incorrectly.

Are all four of these pillars essential and equal—or can you make fitness gains without giving your body time to recover from training, for instance?

Any successful long-term performance evolution should absolutely include focus on all four pillars of performance.

As individual performance improves, the required focus becomes greater, since the marginal gains become tougher to achieve. While there are plenty of athletes who have improved or achieved solid results while compromising one or more of these areas, this doesn’t mean that any of them are not essential; many short-term gains have ended in future roadblocks of performance, or even declines, due to insufficient focus on one or more of the areas.

There is nothing revolutionary about this, yet athletes consistently struggle to make smart decisions and apply required focus on these areas. The result is typically either declining or plateaued performance over time, or a lack of results relative to effort put in.

It’s important to understand that shifting one’s lens to truly focus on all pillars of performance does not equate to a short cut to success or less work. Triathlon is a challenging sport that rewards hard and consistent work. The key is to make this effort effective, and ensure that athletes are able to achieve long-term results and rewards, and continue to improve year after year. My record of athlete development is an area I am very proud of, and am sure that a strong part of the reasons of our success is the commitment to both specific and progressive workload, as well as a heavy emphasis on our four pillars of performance.

What are the benefits of recovery?

The simplest benefit of recovery is that it enables you to maximize the results of your training.

Many athletes and coaches make the mistake of thinking of recovery as a short cut or a route to do less. But the truth is that properly integrated recovery enables you to do more training that will yield positive results. Instead of viewing recovery as laziness or a short cut, I encourage athletes to view it as a part of the plan that allows more work.

The benefits of properly integrated recovery are that you can create an incredibly consistent training approach that maximizes the results from your hard work and enables you to arrive at your races both fit and prepared to perform.

I think athletes should remember that our goal is not simply fitness; it is about preparation to race well. That subtle shift in focus can evolve the athlete’s relationship with recovery and how powerful of a tool it can become.

What does "recovery" mean?

Recovery is not "taking time off." In fact, some of my athletes seldom have a complete day of no exercise. I segregate recovery into three main areas:

Training recovery encompasses building lower stress training or breaks into the architecture of the training plan. Beginning at the 10,000-foot view, this can be season breaks, multiple days of recovery and rejuvenation, or simply workouts that are design to facilitate recovery from the harder foundational sessions.

Lifestyle recovery includes the all-essential sleep and downtime, nutrition, fueling, hydration, and other life activities that can help, such as meditation or naps. Post-exercise fueling—or the lack of it—is one of the major contributors to poor endurance performance, and hence a massive component of recovery.

Recovery modalities include, if I am being cute, the "recovery you can buy." In other words, modalities are all of the secondary recovery tools, such as massage, compression gear, and foam rollers, which can be important, but pale in importance when stacked against training and lifestyle recovery.

With this established, it becomes clear that there is no single recipe or strategy for recovery, as individual athletes require different amounts of these different types of recovery. This is why recovery needs to be established as a part of a program, and a strong pragmatic mindset needs to be retained.

If you are keen for some rules of thumb, I like to get in front of fatigue with shorter and more frequent mini-blocks of recovery. I typically have athletes take two to three lighter days of lower-stress training about every 10 to 14 days. Some athletes bounce back after a single day; others require two to three days.

One thing that we know is least effective is to load for three continuous weeks, then spend an entire week recovering from the efforts. This classic build-build-build-recover schedule makes little sense and is certainly not the most effective method of designing a training plan.

How important is it to listen to your body, versus setting an arbitrary recovery schedule?

The key is setting the mindset and education. Once athletes shift their relationship with the recovery process and its role in the training process, they can make less emotional decisions and actually track and listen to their body. This has wider implications than simply understanding when it is time to rest.

With the advent of so many training "tools," such as GPS and power meters, many of today’s less-experienced athletes have poor self-regulation and poor understanding of how they feel during and following the workout. We call this "athletic IQ"—a term coined by coach Gerry Rodrigues of Tower 26 training. Development of your athletic IQ is a powerful tool for all athletes to have.

Why do some people fail to embrace the need for recovery?

It takes courage to recover. Nearly all athletes fight a natural emotional battle with the concept of recovery. Nearly all athletes know how to train hard, yet few can truly embrace recovery with the same vigor. Hence, a lack of confidence is the typical reason athletes skip recovery.

It is easy to understand how this occurs. The first piece of the puzzle is the relationship that most athletes establish with recovery. They tend to view it as a time of laziness or decline, instead of viewing it as a performance booster and facilitator of more effective work.

The other reason recovery fails is a lack of understanding of how to effectively apply it. Remembering the three areas of recovery—training, lifestyle, and modalities—many athletes simply don’t know how the recovery recipe is woven together, and end up only focusing on the easily accessible and fancy modalities, while missing out on the foundational lifestyle and training recovery protocols.

Does recovery mean less training?

Quite the reverse. It means more training that is more effective.

To think that recovery equates to less training is to set a very short term and myopic lens on the overall training plan. Just retreating to a slightly wider lens and viewing training over a week, or a few weeks, let alone a month, is an easy way to see how recovery is a key part of the overall plan. Unfortunately, too many coaches and athletes make immediate decisions for today, even if it means a negative impact on tomorrow. This is a lack of smart discipline.

Does recovery mean sitting at home on the couch watching TV?

In the same way that "training means exercising.' You may choose to include some TV time in your recovery, but this would be a slither of the recovery puzzle.

As mentioned previously, recovery is made up of training recovery, lifestyle recovery, and recovery modalities. All three play a role in the training approach, and cannot be discussed without consideration of the roles the others play.

What are the biggest mistakes people make during recovery?

If we consider recovery periods being lighter workouts, or multiple days of lighter workouts, the biggest mistakes include:

Going too hard: Shifting emphasis mid-session and evolving the session into a workout that is tougher than anticipated. Many athletes struggle with too small of a divergence in intensity and load between easy workouts and key foundational sessions.

Under-fueling: Many athletes fail to follow proper fueling protocols on lighter sessions and days, and certainly fail to eat enough daily calories to maximize recovery. They tend to fall into the old trap of "calories in, calories out," which doesn’t work for training athletes.

Filling up the day: I see many amateur athletes filling the free time with lighter or shorter workouts with other chores and activities, but still fail to sleep and rejuvenate. You don’t want to remove a training stress, and simply replace it with a different life stressor.

What is the difference between overtraining and under-recovering?

Over-training occurs through repeated chronic poor practices—either too much load, or under-recovery from the load. The term "over-training" is thrown around too much in our sport; it’s very challenging for athletes to drive themselves to over-training.

On the other hand, many athletes tend to under-recover, which I view as an athlete failing to maximize the yield from training. They are failing to train and yield positive adaptations, either from too much training load, or a failure to properly recover due to poor fueling, rest, sleep, or any other component.