Recovery training: how to regain your fitness post injury

The quickest way to get your fitness back after a lay-off is to find a three-minute hill!

Let's say that things are going really well with your training. You're steadily getting fitter and racing faster as you get ready for that big race in a couple of months. But then - disaster strikes! Your Achilles tendon flares up, or you develop a monstrous case of the flu, or work pressures get out of control. Whatever the reason, you can't train at all for a couple of weeks, and when you start working out again, there are only two to three weeks left before your key competition.

What do you do to get your fitness back - or at least get as sharp as you can be before your race? There's no sense returning to routine training; while it's true that your regular work would eventually get you back in shape, you need the quickest-possible return to form, not a gradual progression. You need workouts which have the most dramatic impact on your fitness.

As you think about what these workouts would be like, it's important to remember that there are five paramount things you need to do to upgrade your capacity as an endurance athlete: you must improve your strength, power, VO2max, economy, and lactate threshold. All five will have been hurt by your lay-off, so all five will need shoring up if you're really going to get back to where you were. Thus, the 'return-to-form' workouts should enhance all five variables, or at least four of them.

That means - if you're a cyclist or your sport involves running - that you need to find a 'three-minute hill' - an incline which takes about three minutes for you to climb when, if you're a runner, you are moving at about your 5-K race intensity.

A three-minute hill? Why should you choose hill work over other forms of training, and why search for a hill which requires about three minutes to ascend? Well, the choice of hill training over flat-ground motion is fairly obvious. After all, you've lost economy and strength during your 'holiday', and hill training is the best way to restore economy and build up specific strength in your leg muscles. It will do much more for you than merely cruising along on the flat.

The uniqueness of three minutes

A THREE-minute hill is just right, because you need moderate-duration intervals to get back in shape. Since you've lost significant fitness, you're not really ready for sustained, hard exertion or very long intervals. Modest-duration intervals also beat longer work intervals because you'll be able to move faster during a three-minute interval than you could during a six-minute effort. Plus, when you get tired, you'll be more willing to tackle one more three-minute interval, while a six-minute attempt would give you the shakes. A three-minute hill is also practical; it's easier for most athletes to find a hill which takes three minutes to climb than it is to locate a six-minute upslope. The latter is usually at least 1200 metres from bottom to top, and many individuals would have to drive or ride for hours to find such a promontory.

In addition, the three-minute interval is long enough so that your rate of oxygen consumption will get to a very high level as you near the top of the hill. In fact, if you are attempting to move along at a decent intensity (say, at 9 to 9.5 on a perceived-exertion scale which ranges from 1 to 10), you'll probably reach 95% VO2max or even 100% VO2max as you near the peak of the hill. That means that your climbs will be great for lifting VO2max (and also means that we now have three of the key variables covered with this quick-fix workout - strength, economy, and VO2max)

Several years ago, work responsibilities kept noted Finnish exercise scientist Heikki Rusko away from running for several weeks prior to the Finnish National Masters Championships, in which he very much wanted to compete. Finding himself out of shape with just a few weeks left before the championships, Rusko 'took to the hills', carrying out three- to three-and-a-half-minute repeats on a steep slope near his office. 'I knew that I would have to boost my aerobic capacity (VO2max) rapidly to have any chance in the competitions, and I also knew that VO2max responds quickly to intense interval training,' said Rusko. 'I also knew that working hard on uphills could have a huge impact on my leg-muscle strength.'

Well said! Rusko was aware that a multitude of scientific studies have shown that a training intensity of 90 to 100% VO2max (which one can reach handily on a three-minute hill) is optimal for hiking aerobic capacity. For example, one investigation revealed that training at 90 to 100% VO2max hiked maximal aerobic capacity about 35 per cent more than working out at 70 to 90% VO2max. In a separate study, three-time Olympic gold-medalist Peter Snell (who is now a researcher at Texas Southwestern University) discovered that running about 30 minutes of intervals each week at 90 to 100% VO2max tripled the gains in aerobic capacity, compared to running almost 60 minutes per week at a lactate-threshold intensity of 80% VO2max.

Hill work for LT?

And what about lactate threshold (LT), the movement speed above which lactate begins to accumulate in the blood? No one has ever said that hill workouts are good for improving lactate threshold, but in fact they are an excellent way to do just that. Remember that LT is the best predictor of endurance performance, because it actually takes into account several variables - lactate production, lactate clearance, and also exercise economy. The lactate factors are obvious, but perhaps the inclusion of economy as an LT determiner isn't. If you're struggling with the concept, remember that if an athlete has bad economy, he/she expends energy at high rates while moving along, breaks down carbohydrate at too-sizable a clip, and therefore produces too much lactate, usually leading to a rotten LT. Improving economy slows down lactate production and thus helps LT. And since hill training is sublime for economy, it must also have a very positive effect on LT.

Only power is left, and we'll have to admit that our three-minute hill climbs can represent a prelude to power development but aren't exactly optimal for power itself. That's of course because for the endurance athlete improved power means sustained, faster movement, and when you climb hills you are usually moving along more slowly than you would on the flat. Thus, hill ascents don't represent the fast, fast surges that are necessary for full blossoming of power, but they do build up the strength which can be transformed into power with subsequent training.

A simple workout - if not easy

Still, reaching four out of our five key goals isn't bad, and the three-minute hill workout couldn't be simpler to carry out. You just warm up, surge up the hill (on your bike or by running) at what feels like a '9' to '9.5' effort, ease back to the bottom, and repeat. Actual steepness of the hill isn't terribly critical (research hasn't identified an optimal angle). The hill should simply be steep enough so that you really have to work - but not so steep that your leg action slows down dramatically. For your first workout, about four to five reps are fine, and you can add a rep or two with each subsequent session.

Carry out the three-minute hill session two to three times during your first week back from your lay-off (and do the same the following week), but remember that the three-minute workout has one key deficit (in addition to the small problem with power we mentioned). Since the tough parts of the workout last for only three minutes at a time, the session doesn't fully prepare you for the sustained movement which you must carry out in your key race. So, once a week you should warm up and then cruise along for about 20 to 25 minutes at a pace which you estimate you couldn't sustain for more than 30 to 35 minutes or so. If this feels too tough after you get going, simply move along easily for a minute to recover your poise and then keep working, trying to complete as much of the workout as you can at the decent pace. This effort isn't bad for LT and may have a small effect on your damaged VO2max, too, but its chief merit is that it will get you back into the groove of continuous, (pretty) hard exertion.

What if you live in a pancake-flat part of the country and can't find a three-minute hill? If you're a runner, you'll just have to get into a well-equipped gym, set a treadmill at a four per cent inclination or more - and start hitting those three- to three-and-one-half-minute intervals (of course, you'll complete your recovery intervals with the slope set at 0 to 1 per cent). If you're a cyclist, you simply have to complete the intervals on an exercise bike against very high resistance.

If you're a runner, the only other problem you really have to worry about after your lay-off is your lost 'feel' for running, ie, your lost coordination. This will come back pretty quickly, however, especially since you are going to be running at decent intensities on your three-minute hill and during your 20- to 25-minute continuous runs. However, you might also perform some quick-and-easy drills, including hops and one-footed balances on soft surfaces in order to more quickly bring back your all-important 'kinaesthetic sense'.

Final words

What else should you do to recover fitness quickly? The hill climbs are hard, so be certain to take at least one day off each week (the temptation will be to train each day to 'make up for lost time', but a day of no training will actually help you much more than an hour's exertion with tired legs - by letting your muscles re-build key structures and synthesize important enzymes. Trying to get back to your usual volume levels is not as important as getting in the quality work, and regular rest will enable you to train at a higher intensity level.

If you return to training after your lay-off about two weeks before your key race, you should be able to fit in about three to four hill-climbing sessions and two 20- to 25-minute hard, continuous workouts during that two-week time frame. Be sure to take at least two days completely off, and make the day before the race a very, very easy or rest day. If you do, you'll be surprised at how well you will perform; you may even startle yourself with a PB.

Of course, you can't continue with the three-minute hill training throughout the rest of your year. Variety is one of the key principles of training, so once your race is over, you'll need to get back to doing different things and working specifically on your five key performance variables.

Owen Anderson

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