Less is Less: the Myth of More Recovery

From all-you-can-eat buffets to credit card debt, it seems that as long as it's couched in the guise of "more," human beings want more of it. I think that it's very possibly related to our internal hardwiring for loss aversion. Loss aversion is commonly demonstrated by two games with equivalent odds but a difference in perception. In game one, a donut (or some other desirable object, like a piece of bacon) is placed in front of you and, based off of a coin-toss, you either get a second donut (or piece of bacon) or just the original solitary donut; in game two, two donuts are placed in front of you and, based off of a coin toss, either one of those donuts is taken away or nothing happens. In both cases, the odds are exactly the same. In 50% of the cases, you get two donuts, and in 50%, you get one. But human beings (and, incidentally, Capuchan monkeys) demonstrate a very strong preference for game #1. The idea is that we much prefer the idea of maybe getting more, which is how we perceive game #1, than we like the idea of maybe getting less, which is how we perceive game #2. With regards to triathlon, the latest phenomenon sweeping our sport (and others) along these lines is the idea of getting faster as a result of, more recovery. But recovery is really the lack of activity (at least on a macro scale; there's plenty of "activity" on a micro scale when your body is recovering); it's not something you can "do" or something you can have "more of." In practice, learning this truth may not in any way change how you choose to implement certain changes to your life. As in the two games mentioned above, in practice, the odds are often the same. The idea of "more recovery" often effects the exact same changes that one would implement even if you correctly understood what was going on.

The human body (and even, it appears, the human brain) function as what we can call an impulse-response model; we apply a load to the body, and the body responds in a way that is a commensurate with the load applied. In actuality, the body over-responds in what's known as supercompensation. The idea being that some "margin of error" is important, and so if you are going to apply a load to the body, the body would like to be able to handle more than that load. This how we get fitter/faster/bigger/stronger. Sometimes, the load is too much – such as when you break a bone - and you can't supercompensate, and that's when you get injured/sick/broken-down. Things are further complicated when you consider that "load" is generally interpreted by your body as all one thing. Your body doesn't really, on a macro scale, distinguish between a really stressful day at work and a really hard training session. We distinguish between the two semantically - "unproductive" load we call "stress" and "productive" load we call "training." But, as anyone who's tried to do a hard workout and failed after a rough day at the office knows, the body considers all stress to be pretty much the same thing. But where the body differs is how it responds to each. The principle of specificity means that your body reacts in very precise ways, which is why if you want to get better at swimming, biking, and running, you need to train by swimming, biking, and running. (Though, with all three being "aerobic" or "endurance" sports, there is indeed some crossover benefit from "general fitness.")

Many disciples of the school of "more recovery" will tell you that you can get faster if you put more focus on recovery into your schedule. A common example is, "take one day a week to focus on recovery." Here's what actually happening when you do that - you are training less. You aren't recovering more. You are simply training less. The easiest way to demonstrate this is that if, for example, you spend that one day a week installing hardwood floors, you will probably not see much of an improvement. Why is that? Well, because installing hardwood floors is a form of load. It's just not productive load unless you want to get better at installing hardwood. Very often - but not always - what "more recovery" really means is less training. But those two things are not really the same thing. Let's look at another impulse-response model - how your body heals if you break a bone. Ideally, we'd like our bones to get back to being as strong as they were before the accident, and maybe stronger, but as anyone who's been to the orthopedist knows, mostly that involves two things - waiting, primarily, and a very long list of stuff we are not allowed to do.

There are, of course, numerous ways that you can influence recovery, many of which are illegal precisely because they enhance your body's recovery mechanisms. Anabolic steroids would be the most obvious example. There are some legal things that influence recovery, but the net effects are much less clear, which is probably a large part of why they are legal. Ice baths would be a common example. Ice baths definitely reduce the level of inflammation - part of the body's stress response - that you experience after training. The problem seems to be (according to research on the topic) that in reducing that inflammation, ice baths also reduce the degree to which your body overcompensates. The nerdy explanation is that ice attenuates the anabolic response. This same logic - and research - is being applied to all manner of recovery "aids," including things like anti-oxidants. The idea being that if you remove the stress, well then your body is simply going to compensate less.

There is one thing that is an "activity" which boosts recovery and has (sort of) no real downsides and a lot of upside, and that is sleep. The more you sleep, the more your body recovers, mostly because you can't do anything else when you are sleeping, so your body can go about the business of repairing itself without interruption. Unfortunately, for many people, training and sleep are inversely proportional. It'd be nice if we got to sleep more whenever we trained more, but that's very often not reality. And even if it was possible, it's not like sleep and training directly correlate. You can't simply ride twice as long and balance it out by sleeping twice as much. But sleep is certainly a very good thing. And so is its close cousin, commonly referred to as "doing nothing." Most triathletes, in general, seem to prefer "doing something" to "doing nothing." Sometimes that "something" is your job. Sometimes, however, it's just "stuff." But doing something requires energy, which means that energy is not going into repairing your body. Now, of course, some people would tremendously unhappy just sitting on the couch "relaxing" whenever they weren't training. And being unhappy has a physical cost as well. That's where the balance comes in, and it's different for everyone. This is really where you can make the most progress by "focusing on recovery." Not by doing anything, but by doing nothing. It's really what you are not doing which is important.

If you want to improve, you need to train (meaning that you apply a specific and productive load to your system). If you want to improve as much as possible, you need to train as much as possible. Whether you are a triathlete or a chess player, the more you train, the better you will get, unless… Unless what? That, "…as much as possible" part was important too. With chess, it's easy to just play more chess. But with endurance training, it's much more nebulous. Can you run for two hours? Can you run "well" for two hours without your form breaking down? Most often, you don't actually find out what was "too much" until you are injured or sick or really depressed, which inconveniently happens quite a bit after the fact. There are tools that can help - experience is the best one - and a good coach is an invaluable asset, but there isn't a simple answer to, "how much is possible?" Typically, it's something you learn by trial (and error). And you learn by changing how much you train. And by changing how much you rest. And by changing how much other stuff you do (or don't do). And this is where understanding what is going on becomes important. Because when you plateau - as every one does, whether it's in your Scrabble playing ability or your triathlon training - if you don't understand that it's training - and only training - that makes you improve, then you'll be stuck. If you plateau, and your first instinct is too look for, "more recovery" instead of "more training," then you aren't going to make any progress.

Less is never more. Less is always less. Now, that doesn't mean that less is bad. Sometimes less is good. Sometimes less (than what you were doing) is actually the right amount. But that doesn't make it "more;" that only makes it "appropriate." If you want to improve as much as possible, then you need to train as much as possible. Now, sometimes, that means being honest about what "…as much as possible" actually means, and realizing that you may have been doing more than what was possible, for you, at this particular time. In that case, what you need is to do less. You don't need, "more recovery." You might need less training, and that's fine. But it's not because less makes you better. It's because too much is, quite simply, too much.

So you can put away your divining rods. There is no such thing as "more recovery." There's only more - or less - stress. And more - or less - productive stress. And more - or less - unproductive stress. Less is always less. More is always more. Except if you are talking about "more recovery," in which case, it's just more hot air…