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Ironman champ: The importance of R&R

By Chrissie Wellington, Special to CNN
updated 1:58 PM EDT, Fri August 3, 2012
Chrissie Wellington takes a break after winning the Challenge Roth Triathlon with a new long distance world record in 2011.
Chrissie Wellington takes a break after winning the Challenge Roth Triathlon with a new long distance world record in 2011.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rest and recovery are just as important as working out during training
  • Champ suggests athletes spend around 10% of total training time cooling off
  • Getting enough sleep is vital -- try to log 8 or 9 hours a night

Editor's note: Chrissie Wellington is a four-time World Ironman champion and a guest coach for CNN's Fit Nation Tri Challenge. Her autobiography, "A Life Without Limits," is available on Amazon.

(CNN) -- My first coach once suggested that in order to be successful, he would need to cut my head off.

"You don't know how to relax," was one of his criticisms. "You don't know how to rest your body and mind. Unless you can learn to do this, you will never be a successful athlete."

He was right. I was that proverbial chicken. Given that "rest" only entered my vocabulary as the beginning of a word ending in "-aurant," I nearly reached for the carving knife and performed the decapitation there and then.

Yes, I was able to beast myself with the best of them. I could swim/bike/run until I was falling over with exhaustion. But this wasn't enough.

No amount of ticks in the logbook, no amount of training sessions would create a champion. The puzzle would always be incomplete unless I could develop the all-important, as-yet missing piece of the jigsaw: rest and recovery. I am sure those words are as alien and scary to the CNN Fit Nation Team as they were to me.

Some of us are creatures of habit, loving routine. Some of us are obsessive-compulsive perfectionists who break out in hives at the thought of an easy session, a nap or, heaven forbid, a rest day. Some of us are so scared of not reaching our goal, that we lose perspective and rational thought -- unable to rest in case we get weaker.

But I cannot say this clearly enough: It is not the swim/bike/run sessions that will make you fitter; it is the recovery -- the adaptation and regeneration from the stress caused by those activities. And it is not just about physical recovery, it's mental recovery/relaxation too.

That's why I say that I train 24/7. Recovery is training my body to be the best that it can be. I know that the CNN team has to balance training with jobs, families and other commitments, and that fitting recovery into their daily lives and weekly schedules can be difficult, but it shouldn't be impossible. And it must be seen as part of training for the Nautica Malibu Triathlon, not as an add-on or a luxury.

So, what form should this rest and recovery take? Space is too tight to do justice to all of the different techniques, so I have picked some of the most important.

Easy training/active recovery

The emphasis is on the word "easy." If you are not being overtaken by a grandmother (apologies to all the 60+ age group triathletes) in a motorized shopping cart, then you are not going easy enough.

If it goes from being a 90-minute spin on the bike to a two-hour ride with a few hills, then you have totally changed the nature of the ride -- and its purpose. Hard sessions/days should be followed by an easy session.

Also important is a cool down after a hard workout. It doesn't have to be long, but I would suggest that you spend around 10% of your total training time cooling off -- this can also include targeted, light stretching afterward.

Wellington: Train your brain, then your body

Rest days

I have about two total rest days a month. This may not sound like a lot, but pros have the luxury that age groupers often don't. We can rest between sessions while you are juggling all your balls (not literally).

There is no hard and fast rule, but I would suggest incorporating a rest day once every seven to 10 days. The key is to listen to your body and its signals, irrespective of your planned training schedule. Spending the afternoon trawling the Gap for a bargain, pulling up every weed in your overgrown garden or trying in vain to assemble a wardrobe do not count as rest.

Buttocks-on-sofa is the position to assume.

To reiterate, it is not wasted time. Push aside any (unnecessary and self-destructive) feelings of guilt or laziness and trust that resting makes you better, faster, stronger and more resilient (and also gives you the chance to watch "Top Gun" for the 100th time).

Sleep

Knocking out the ZZZs is something I always hated. "I can sleep when I'm dead" was an oft-uttered mantra of mine.

No longer. I love to sleep. We don't all have this luxury, but I try to get eight to nine hours of shuteye a night, and having a routine is key. I go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.

Sounds like an oxymoron, but if my sleep is broken it is one of the first signals that I need more, not less, rest. A good bed, quality sheets and a non-snoring partner/ear plugs are also recommended.

Compression

Until recently, people wouldn't be seen dead wearing tight Lycra garments that resembled a dress code at a kinky fetish club.

Times have changed. Now myself and athletes the world over are squeezing our muscles into a wide variety of skintight attire without getting arrested.

According to claims, these garments increase the velocity of blood flow in and to the muscles, enhance the removal of waste products and also reduce muscle damage. I wear them. They work.

Just make sure that you choose a brand, like Compressport that actually compresses (especially after a few wears and washes), rather than ending up like baggy MC Hammer pants. (You could also try leg elevation to enhance the effects. But leave any headstands to those working at said fetish clubs).

Also note that, despite being de rigeur in the triathlon world, you may wish to hide your compression attire underneath other clothes whilst at work/weddings/job interviews. The general public can still be put off by the sight of middle-aged men wearing tights.

Massage

A good-quality sports massage is always useful. Obviously, the frequency will be determined by what you can afford and your access to a good therapist, but I have a regular weekly deep-tissue massage, and then a light massage two days before a race.

A massage is great not only for loosening muscles and increasing flexibility but also for allowing you to mentally switch off for an hour (in between screams of pain as the therapist shoves his/her hands into your knotted hamstrings). A foam roller is a good second best.

Go mental

Most importantly, you have to relax your mind as well as body -- turning the switch so that you forget about everything related to Nautica, Malibu and triathlon.

Watch "The Voice," play Scrabble, cook a delicious meal, meditate, read a book, log onto CNN for the latest updates, pet your pet, go to the movies -- anything which gives your mind a break from training, from work and from the stresses of everyday "headless chicken" life. And before you head out on your next hard session, ask yourself some simple questions.

Have my last few workouts been pretty suboptimal? Has my sleep been broken? Am I moody and irritable? Do I feel overly lethargic and tired? Has my appetite disappeared? Do my legs feel like they have been run over by a truck? If so, maybe it's time to chop your head off, rent "Top Gun" for the 101st time and have a well-deserved duvet day.

Don't forget your fetish tights!

Ironman champ joins Fit Nation team

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