Joe Maloy

The pros and cons of cold recovery

THREE is a new lifestyle community for triathletes, by triathletes. In this bi-weekly newsletter, we share training insights, curated articles and videos, new gear and tech. THREE’s mission is to help triathletes thrive on and off the course.

When’s the last time you looked at the stars? Can you imagine those twinkling pinpoints of light, floating in that sea of darkness? Hold onto the image. The night sky is going to be our metaphor in order to better understand training and recovery. You can think of the stars as your workouts. They command your focus and draw your attention from one to the next. The bright ones — even the moon itself — are your big races. The North Star, the Full Moon — you can talk about these and everyone will know what you’re referencing. Now, consider the space between those stars. It’s the emptiness that allows those stars to shine. The emptiness that gives the night sky definition is the recovery for your training and racing.

In the same way that stars shine brighter on darker nights, better recovery sets the tone for more consistent training and faster racing. Even if you accept this truth, it’s so damn hard to focus on that emptiness! Therein lies the problem with recovery. Many athletes have a decidedly boring idea of recovery, viewing it as the space between workouts and races. Remember, it’s the darkness which allows stars to shine. This space must not be overlooked or dismissed as unimportant.

My long-time triathlon coach, Paulo Sousa, preached “I’m a big recovery coach. We only train 4–5 hours per day, which leaves 19–20 hours per day for recovery.” It wasn’t until I was 25 or 26 years old that I learned to appreciate the importance of those “other” 19–20 hours. The recovery and the workouts need one another.

Achievement-minded people are used to moving from one task to the next. It’s the only way to get a lot done! Focus darts from star to star without giving much thought to that space in between. Training is the necessary stimulus, but recovery is what actually makes athletes stronger and faster. Training sessions injure muscle tissue. The injured muscle tissue then demands resources from the body to heal itself stronger than it was before. This process channels increased blood flow to the muscles, which creates inflammation, which ultimately leads to training gains. Our bodies learn what they must adapt to during training. Recovery is when our muscles make those necessary adaptations so we can come back stronger.

For anyone looking to improve recovery, I’d start by encouraging them to look at the big things. What are you doing during the rest of your day? The single largest part of that is likely either the 8–10 hours you spend at work or the 5–9 hours you spend sleeping. Then, look at hydration and nutrition. Exercise and progression is all about things you do over and over again — there are no “silver bullets” — so how can you be better at work, when you’re sleeping, or with your nutrition to help your body better adapt to training?

The final piece of the puzzle is what I’d call the 1%. Foam rolling, massage, cryotherapy, ice bath — these methods all “jump-start” adaptations associated with recovery, but the amount of time they take up is such a small percentage of one’s day or week that their impact is negligible if you don’t first look at how you’re spending your big chunks of time. Then, think of the additional recovery methods as activities which outline your stars and help them shine brighter.

Joe Maloy 2016 U.S. Olympic Triathlete, Co-Founder and Editor-at-Large

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CAN CRYOTHERAPY HELP YOU RECOVER? At this time of year, most of us in the northern hemisphere are settling into the off-season, which usually means dialing back the volume and focusing on technique, strength, and recovery. Although ice-cold therapies, like ice baths, haven’t been proven to give athletes an advantage when it comes to aerobic training or speed and power performance (see this Bicycling magazine report from last month), research indicates that cold could be beneficial for post-season recovery and relieving sore muscles. With that in mind, THREE’s Joe Maloy decided to test whole-body cryotherapy for the first time, and recorded his experience for this week’s edition of Triathlon Training by an Olympian on YouTube.

COLD BENEFITS Even if you’re not eager to enclose yourself in a cryo pod set at -190 degrees fahrenheit for three minutes, simply spending time outdoors in the cold could bring a different set of adaptive benefits. The Wall Street Journal reports that “getting uncomfortably cold is good for you.” WSJ interviewed Christopher Minson, a physiology professor at the University of Oregon, who “studies the body’s response to extreme environments and works with professional and Olympic athletes and sports teams.” While the elderly and people with pre-existing health conditions should take extra care, Minson says there are benefits to getting out of your “thermostatic” routine.

When temperature pushes you out of your comfort zone, ‘your metabolic rate goes up, your heart works a little harder, the blood vessels constrict. Every single cell of your body is challenged a little bit, the same as with exercise.’”

THE ARGUMENT FOR STAYING OUTDOORS Now that the weather is changing, you’re probably adapting your training sessions to account for the cold. As daylight hours shorten and temperatures fall, Cycling Weekly assesses whether it’s really necessary to keep doing high-intensity sessions outdoors. Writer Anna Marie Hughes compares the arguments for training outdoors and indoors at this time of year. Her verdict won’t surprise many die-hard athletes: outdoor sessions remain important but indoor cycling training “can bring greater strength and power to your sessions outdoors.”

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THE MENTAL GAME Pushing through a tough training block is as much physical as it is mental, and this mental training can help you push through on race day. USA Triathlon certified coach Justin Chester posted a blog about the importance of working on your mental game in triathlon. “Without a strong mental game, all of the fitness gained during training will be compromised on race day,” he posits. “As Yogi Berra noted with baseball, ‘(this game) is 90% mental and the other half is physical,’ the same is true with triathlon.” Chester focuses on three key areas that can help improve your mental skills: Self-talk, visualization and dealing with setbacks.

  • Self-talk: While positive self-talk is extremely powerful, negative self-talk can be exceptionally destructive — it’s important to have a strategy on how to deal with the negative self-talk.
  • Visualization: Visualization is another powerful tool in the mental game. It begins the days and weeks before the race.
  • Setbacks: There is no reason to let a minor issue ruin a race and it’s possible that your goal may still be achieved.

Chester teaches that “a strong mental game will ensure that all of the fitness gained during training will be evident on race day.” Click here to read his full write-up.

BREAKING TWO (HOURS) Although most of us aren’t trying to achieve what was once seen as an impossible feat — a sub-two-hour marathon — we can still benefit from what researchers have discovered about athletes who have come close to achieving that elite pace. Runner’s World breaks down researchers’ findings and shares the good news for everyday runners and elite runners alike: that running economy — or how much energy you spend when running a certain pace — and lactate threshold are very malleable with consistent training. Beyond that, amateur athletes can also work to mirror the elite athlete mindset that exhibits high levels of mental toughness and self-efficacy. “Just as you’re training your body for endurance and performance, you have to train your mind as well,” Geoff Lovell, the lead for Hartpury University’s Sport and Exercise Research Center in the U.K., told Runner’s World.

Even if you never come anywhere close to that two-hour mark — an average finish for well-conditioned runners is closer to four to five hours — it’s helpful to train as if you’re in the elite category, Lovell suggested. ‘Spend time learning how to show up for yourself,’ he said. ‘Qualities like goal setting, positive self-talk, keeping your promises to yourself, and celebrating your achievements are helpful for training your brain to run better. But those habits also resonate beyond running.’”

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WHY YOU’RE TIRED We’ve talked a lot about recovery in this edition and, in order to fully recover, it’s important to pay attention to whether you’re tired from training, in a rut where your mind is tricking you into feeling tired or if your mind-body system is truly exhausted. Performance coach Brad Stulberg writes Outside’s Do It Better column and recently looked at the differences between two types of fatigue — so called “real fatigue” and “fake fatigue.”

Generally speaking, the cost of pushing through real fatigue is greater than the cost of acquiescing to fake fatigue. Going too hard for too long, and pushing over the edge, can result in burnout, which research shows can take many months — and in severe cases, years — to reverse. The safest bet, then, is to treat the onset of exhaustion as if it were real fatigue. Take a day off, or a few. Sleep a little extra. Disconnect from digital devices. If you can, spend time in nature. Reexamine your regular routine, and if something seems haywire, make adjustments. If you do all this and yet still feel malaise, then it’s worth seeing what happens if you firmly nudge yourself into action.”

SEASON ENDER Last weekend marked the unofficial end of this year’s very limited race season. Professional and amateur athletes took to Daytona Beach, Fl. to compete at the iconic Daytona International Raceway. The pro athletes competed for a million-dollar championship purse. You can check out the race finishes below and watch a replay of the full race on the Professional Triathletes website.

THREE THINGS TO KNOW

A little R&R can go a long way, particularly in the off season, which makes the holidays a perfect time to put your feet up and read a book. Since that type of seasonal transition can be tough for athletes, for this week’s THREE Things to Know we’re re-upping this list of endurance-related books that might capture your personal or gift-giving attention. On the recovery list is Rebound, there’s some running wisdom in Out of Thin Air, and if you’re looking for a deeper dive into the science of running, the aptly titled Science of Running might be a good fit.

Take a little time to read and relax this month. We look forward to seeing you on a starting line soon.

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2016 U.S. Olympic Triathlete and editor-at-large of THREE. Focused on helping triathletes thrive on and off the course. Get my newsletter: https://three.sport