Recovery and Juniors

Pete PhillipsDecember 7, 20114

“Give a Man a Fish and Feed Him for a Day. Teach a Man to Fish and Feed Him for a Life Time.”


The common metric for the amount of cross-country ski training done in a year is the total number of hours spent training in the different intensity zones.

One of the more vicious hazards of becoming pre-occupied with hours put in is missing or ignoring the hours NOT put in. These are important for all skiers, and for juniors they are doubly so. If kids have come to a year-round ski training program one would hope it was not for short term success. Junior programs should be in the business of building a solid and intelligent training foundation, and part of that foundation is knowing how to use time off.

Time off includes recovery hours. While we often enter them in a training plan as “Rest” or “Off” days, it is easy to forget how important it is that athletes know how to use that time. Recovery hours are as fundamental a building block as any other part of the training plan. It is during recovery hours that the work sinks in and when the body and mind refresh themselves. It can be both a conscious and a subconscious break in a routine that prepares us well for the next load. The tricky part is that rest and off days are easy to miss or to misuse. The athletes need to understand the part recovery time plays well enough to give it the same quality of attention they give to any other aspect of training.

Give a Man a Fish

In our training plans at Burke we often use the expression “OFF off” for a rest day and “Off” for a training recovery day. Here is how we present that to the group as a whole (individual plans get more specific).

[NB: Before you read one word further allow for the fact that this contains the highly personalized opinions and spins of someone who tends to be a judgmental old fart. Armed with that proverbial salt shaker, read on.]

“What do we mean by ‘OFF off?'”

That means no structured training and largely a day of below zone one activity; it allows and encourages an easy walk, easy mobility, and rest. Reading, music, homework, making food, etc. It does not mean staying up late and sleeping in, blubbing around your room with computer games, breathing stale dorm air all day, and consuming a steady diet of snack food. That ain’t “off, ” that is backwards! The day in bed is useful too if you are running a little sick; HR 10+ bpm higher than normal, any hint of fever, and any other signs of impending illness. For any recovery day to be most helpful you should be IN bed not later than 10 and out of it by 8:30-9:00 AM. Kids need more sleep, and getting it at the right end of the day lets it do the job better.

A day described with only one “off” can and should mean a light run, and easy ski, an easy hike, a low key field game. It doesn’t mean a full day of top to bottom Alpine skiing or a century ride with your Dad. Research has shown that recovery is quicker and residual waste is processed out of the muscles best by activity at around 60% of the max heart rate. That can be a slightly lower key version of our usual recovery intervals (which are explained later), and that type of work is also constructive in maintaining a base. If you are healthy and feeling good, but know that you are a little tired or have been working extra hard, then a session of sub level one (e.g. 120 bpm up to level one e.g.130-135 bpm on a 3 min / 6 min cycle repeated 3 -4 times) is always a good off day activity. It keeps fresh oxygen in the system, and moves waste products out without creating any fatigue. This type of session is part of recovery, but don’t let it sneak into compulsive guilt training and let the intensity creep up. The mind needs a break too. Let it go somewhere else. Mellow out, enjoy it.

This may be all very well as far as it goes. It provides a reasonable set of ideas as to how to use a recovery day, but it doesn’t go too far to explain why these days are valuable, even critical, in planning an increasingly advanced approach to training.

Teach a Man to Fish

The school of training thought with which I am most comfortable puts a high value on the athletes gaining an understanding of why we do what we do, and on developing confidence and independence in training. We try to share information in a way that is directly useful to them and gives them a greater sense of investment in their efforts.

How do we best exchange and share information? What do we need to know about recovery time, and what does the athlete need to know? In my mind the best and first approach is to establish open and frequent communication between coach and athlete. Any early experience and understanding the athlete has is just that, but we should regularly draw on it and point out how accumulating individual experience increases the knowledge of capacity, and personal physiological response to stress and stimulus. Seeking and respecting the athlete’s input, however novice or “green” it is, is important.  That builds mutual trust, a willingness to share thoughts, respect and a common purpose. Once established, that relationship becomes a powerful tool in effective information exchange.

If one of our goals is to help athletes become independent and self-confident, then we need to have concrete material to give them. Not rules—but ideas to discuss, to try on, to analyze and to digest. Kids like numbers. They seem less interested in and less convinced by anecdotal evidence. Having something concrete to go over with them can go a long way to convincing them that recovery is as important to moving ahead with training and ultimately going faster, as is any other single part of the foundation.

A good place to start is to review what we as coaches think we want and need from a recovery day; to revisit some of the science behind the idea and to see if we are consciously taking it into consideration and applying it in our programs for juniors. After that bring each athlete into the loop and clearly and simply share the principle of load and adaptation, of catabolic and anabolic processes, and the concepts of load, breakdown, recovery, and overcompensation. This goes a long way to letting kids see how interrelated all the work and rest is, and it encourages them to begin to develop an awareness of their own systems. Producing a diagram that illustrates the relationship between load and breakdown, recovery and repair, and eventual overcompensation and improvement over time will help involve the athlete much more effectively than simply saying, “Take today off.”

[While it isn’t the purpose of this article to go into detail on load and recovery one important related concept is worth considering; the load on an athlete is not only the load from a given workout, or series of workouts, but rather is the total load being carried. The total load is made up of additional factors from everyday life including relationships, school, social pressures, economics, family and work situations and the mass of stimuli and thoughts that bombard teenagers every day.]

A diagram can show how a hard load can weaken and break down the system, and how proper recovery can bring it back to a higher level. It can illustrate how new loads applied too soon or too frequently, and not allowing for full recovery, can turn the performance curve downward into overtraining.

“To avoid sickness or overtraining, the training plan ought to be designed such that the athlete achieves a complete recovery every two to four weeks.”  — Endurance, Olympiatoppen. 2005.

For Juniors from 14-16 years old,  I would be inclined to say recovery should happen every 6-10 days, and for 16-19 year olds, every 10-14 days. This is full recovery and would tend to require some time totally off.

We can look at hard numbers when it comes to determining how much recovery is necessary. The research has been done.

The book ENDURANCE -Training That Produces Results contains an interesting table that we can use as a starting place.

It compares the length of recovery times from work in different intensity zones, with the caveat that shorter periods of work require less recovery and that for the table the length of load is typical for the I-zone, i.e. an IZ 1 workout might be three hours and an IZ 4 workout might 30 minutes of total on time. On the far right of the table is the length of the “overcompensation phase” which occurs after a specific training load plus good and complete recovery and helps us gauge when to take the best advantage of the recovery process with the next session.

Average recovery times for well-trained endurance athletes after training in different intensity zones.

I Zone

HR (% max)

90-95% Recovery Incomplete

100% Recovery Complete

Over-compensation Duration



ongoing/in a few hours

up to 36 hours

1-3 days



7-12 hours

12-48 hours

2-4 days



12 hours

24-72 hours

3-5 days



12-24 hours

48-96 hours

3-6 days



15-30 hours

60-120 hours

3-6 days

*As skiers we do not often exceed I Zone Five in training. The scale on the chart goes on to IZ 8. Everything over five is at thundering max heart rate and is of short anaerobic duration.

“Recovery time is also dependent to a large degree on the athlete’s total current life situation. A lot of stress in connection with work, studies, social and family situations can lengthen recovery time significantly.”

The thing that shouts out at me from this table is that, given all the other things that come into play with juniors we may, in our quest for filling in the hours, be short-changing vital recovery time. We are in the process of building a well-trained endurance athlete. We probably don’t have one yet so we should likely be ready to add time to the numbers here. If we rush it, or we completely trust the athletes’ own inexperienced evaluation of readiness without observing them closely, we may be asking for more than they can or should give; that is where the slippery slope to declining performance, chronic illness and overtraining can begin.

It helps to know as much about the individual athletes’ worlds as we reasonably can (living at home with an endorphin addicted Type-A parent can play hell on recovery time!), and we need to recognize that the hard workout doesn’t end when the sweat stops; it ends when good recovery time has passed and we are ready for the next and perhaps increased load. That comes back around to the importance of that relationship of communication between the athlete and the coach. It, too, needs to be trained and nurtured. Patience is key.

Having that in mind when we sit down to lay out the next plan is being forearmed and better guaranteed to come up with something good.


Days Off Gone Wrong

These may look familiar.  The first two are unfortunate but ubiquitous adjuncts to the freshman year of college, the third to the junior and senior years of high school, and the fourth to all ages but endemic among high school girls. Two, three and four can frequently be aggravated by well-intentioned, caring and ambitious parents.

  1. Oh boy, no training tomorrow!

A frequent problem for kids with early talent but no performance or process goals.

Hazard: A) Stay up late with pals after a hard week of training while immunity is still a bit compromised. B) Sleep in until noon, eat Froot Loops, play video games, put two hours into Facebook, stay up late. C) Add C2H5OH and set things back 10 days.

Rx: Get it together. Come out of denial and check your goals. What do you want? Very tough, because this is a lot of fun and being honest with oneself has perhaps not been learned yet.

  1. Oh boy, no training tomorrow!

Hazard: A) “Gee, that’s great dear! Now we can do something together! Let’s go ride that century we had so much fun on last year. B) “Way cool! Let’s see how much vert we can do at the Glen!” C) I will be able to go do the time trial with the old team. We don’t have ski intervals until the next day.”

Rx: Just say NO to the craziness. Believe in your plan and say that a short easy ride is fine, but not another race with Dad. On the other hand, time with the old man, or mom, or finding powder in the glades with friends is good for the soul and the head. It is healthy and refreshing. The trick is to take another day OFF from activity and not to drive yourself down. Do not double up on workouts for two different sports! Be honest with your coach.  An extra day off costs a lot less than an extra day ON.

  1. Whew, no training tomorrow.

Hazard: A) “I am totally stressed out by these SAT tests. I’ll get up early and take three or four more before I start to catch up on calculus. Then I can spend the rest of the day trying to get the rough draft of my paper done.” B) “Oh my god I have to get this ED application in but I don’t where to send it! I have been waking up at night worried about not getting ‘pull’ and not getting in anywhere!”

Rx: Get a little help (coach, advisor at school, parent, friend) to put things in perspective. Talk it over. Find an order in which to deal with it. Chill time. Go fishing. Easy run with the pooch. Help the old coffin dodgers next door to stack wood.

  1. Oh no. A day off.

Hazard: “I know I am going to get slower if I don’t train today. All of my intervals are getting slower so I know I need to work harder at them. I missed two sessions last week because I was sick but I feel a lot better so I’ll count those as days off and get out tomorrow and go for it. I won’t say anything to the coach. I’ll just work that little bit harder and he’ll be surprised when I win the time trial.” (Yup, he’ll be surprised all right, and even more so if you finish the first race!)

Rx: Toughest of all, because this frequently sneaks into other aspects of life. Most of all it wants honesty with the self and a willingness to pay attention to facts of physiology and psychology. These are the athletes who can sometimes be helped by numbers; lactate tests, charts and plans about recovery that clearly relate quality recovery to quality performance, and recovery workouts of which the athlete can clearly feel the effect. Knowledge is power here, and helping these athletes recognize the effects of their efforts in quantifiable terms is valuable.


There are different kinds of recovery for coach and athlete to consider. To get the best out of all of these, the more the athlete knows about what is happening in his body and the more committed he is to “doing it right,” the more thorough the recovery will be.

Planned Active Recovery, which is frequently written into the daily plan or is mutually understood so it can be added to a workout with only a verbal reminder. They can be elaborate or simple.


At Burke, we’ve come to use “recovery intervals” either immediately after a hard interval session, or later the same day.  The athletes like the results of these, and take no convincing to do them. A frequent choice is a series, following a light warm up, of 4 x 8 minutes in IZ 2 (70-80 % of max HR) rolling down to IZ 1 ( 60-70%) for 4 min, done as continuous work.

Another recovery workout that should be planned, and is often forgotten in the heat of battle, is the immediate post-race cool down. We lay out a fairly specific routine for that and do our best to make sure it gets done. It is one place where kids’ judgment sometimes needs back-up until they are a little older and a little more experienced. Done properly and on time, the post race workout can make a race day a good work day, and can, if you are on a two-race weekend, go a long way to enable throwing down a good effort the second day.

Planned Long Term Recovery. This is time planned in over the training period but not necessarily specified as a certain type of recovery work out. The Coach/Athlete team needs to consider it in some detail before and after individual workouts. It needs to be flexible in duration and in potential activity. The Recovery Time Chart (above) can be helpful here.


What this really affects is the rhythm of a training period; how long after a hard effort or a long effort do we wait before doing another one? We occasionally do a workout we call an “overspeed,” which is an effort for an extended period slightly above race pace, at a speed that is a little uncomfortable. These are tough both physically and psychologically, and we plan not only immediate active recovery, but also long term recovery allowing a good passage of time. We also carefully plan activity to rebuild and refresh the systems before we plan another hard session. For J1 athletes we might think about two such workouts in a month. There is a lot of room for other work in between.

Rest and Recreation. This is non-specific but very important time. It is private time. The sense of freedom and ownership of participation are here. It is important to recognize that sometimes R & R involves a workout that should be written into the plan and the plan should be adjusted to take it in. A junior who has a day off but runs into buddies who want to go for a 4 hour mountain bike ride, and decides to go along, might be hesitant to tell the coach who has 4 x 4 intervals planned for the next day. However, he should feel able to speak up, should speak up, and everyone should make necessary adjustments. The subsequent and perhaps critical communication should be thought out and should be constructive. Helping athletes value their goals, and their commitment to the game, helps them feel more confident in making the best choices.


The more juniors operate with coaches as consultants, and the more they find and adjust their own best programs, the closer they are to learning how to fish.

Pete Phillips

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  • ColoradoSep

    December 7, 2011 at 11:14 am

    “we need to recognize that the hard workout doesn’t end when the sweat stops; it ends when good recovery time has passed”

    That is the greatest line about recovery I have read. I want to turn this into a poster and hang it on the track fence.

    Recovery is so tough in high school kids, especially endurance athletes. To be an endurance athlete, you have to be super-driven, and this carries over into all aspects of their lives. Just relaxing, chilling out, and re-focusing is so tough for these kids. But, great article, one I am printing out and giving to my asst. coaches!


  • highstream

    December 7, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    Thoughtful article. Doing a search for the book “ENDURANCE -Training That Produces Results” produces nothing via google or the used book sites. More specifics?


    December 7, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    In Norwegian: ” Utholdenhet- Trening som Gir Resultater”
    Published by Akilles (ISBN82-7286-145-3) in 2005


  • davidf2d

    December 9, 2011 at 8:23 am

    A really good article. This is good info for all ages not just juniors.
    One question: Is the idea that you put the next workout before the end of the overcompensation phase?

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