The performance triad

The concept of a “performance triad”: Training, recovery, nutrition

Being fit and not fatigued is what an athlete requires to hit peak form and surpass his/her performance at key competitions1. Peaking requires the psychological and physiological levels to be at their highest, and fatigue to be at its lowest. The difference between the two extremes has to be maximised for the day of the major competition.

Physical training increases fitness, but also brings with it fatigue, hence the need for body and mind to recover from training. An appropriate supply of nutrients will optimise the bodily adaptations induced by the training and allowed by resting periods. Recovery and nutrition facilitate the management of fatigue. In order to improve, an athlete must consider all 3 aspects in equal measure……read that again – EQUAL measure. One is NOT more important than any other.


Physical conditioning… Train!

The principles of training have been introduced in order to help coaches providing efficient training programs. They include the principles of individuality [1], specificity [2], progressive overload [3], periodisation [4], and disuse [5]. Recovery is another training principle further discussed below.

[1] INDIVIDUALITY: First of all, any training program must take into account the specific need and abilities of the individuals for whom it is designed. This is why within the first period of a training program, a physiological profile of the athlete needs to be drawn, from which strengths and weaknesses will be depicted and worked upon (see periodisation). Heredity plays a major part in determining how a person responds to a training program, therefore no two individuals (with the possible exception of identical twins) will respond in the same way to a given training program3. The individual variations in body adaptations will explain why some athletes show great improvement after participating in a given program (responders) while others experience little or no change after following the same program (non-responders).

Profiles of athletes tested in a laboratory have to be compared against “gold standard” profiles corresponding to their particular event. [An example of key components explaining endurance performance is given in the fact sheets “Determinants of endurance”]. Likewise, it is possible to depict strengths and weaknesses of a particular athlete for a particular event, to then decide on the main objectives the training should aim for (reinforcing strengths? Improving weaknesses?), and train specifically toward these objectives.

[2] SPECIFICITY: “To improve a particular component of the physiological profile, it has long been recognized that the training must emphasize that component in training3. Achieving specific training adaptations will be possible thanks to appropriate training and will lead to improvement in the target key component of performance. Monitoring training using rigorous scientific testing will be essential at this stage to control the way the athlete copes with, and adapts to, his training. Interestingly, the principle of specificity doesn’t refer to the intensity but stimulus / stress the body is put under during the training.

From the principle of specificity, we understand that training at intensities close to the ones used in competition is the optimal way of improving the key physiological factors associated with that particular performance. For example, training around lactate threshold would enhance lactate threshold. However, it is surprising that we can improve some components of a physiological profile by training at intensities that these components would not be necessary intuitively associated with4. A recent study5 has demonstrated this key aspect of specificity in the training stimulus (as opposed to training intensity). It shows that physiological adaptations following very high intensity training induces greater improvement in the aerobic components of fitness (VO2max, lactate threshold) than previously thought5.

[3] PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD: Now the training has been designed according to the principles of individuality and specificity, periodisation must include overload and progression to be successful. “The body must be overloaded so that it has to work harder than normal3. All is about “progressively pushing your limits”. The process of periodisation will give a framework of progressive overload to be structured over time.

[4] PERIODISATION: To be “shaped” and enable a peak at the key event, a training period of 6 to 12 months (up to 4 years for an Olympic athlete) in preparation for the ultimate date needs to be organised. The major objective of periodisation is to program the time frame of various training stimuli the body will be put under during training1. The training stimulus can be a single training session, a given training week, or even a period of several weeks. Consequently, the stress the body will be put under, is specific, but pre-anticipated psychological and physiological adaptations will occur.

A progressive overload will help to MAXIMISE THE BENEFITS OF TRAINING. The periods of training have to include sufficient periods of recovery for the body (and mind) to adapt to the training load. We now know for example, that training hard each day at high intensities or for long duration, or both, will lead to body mal-adaptations because too little variation is assigned to the total volume of training.

[5] REVERSIBILITY: A break from training will induce a gradual lost in the training effects: “Use it or lose it”… This needs to be considered during the period in-between two seasons, as well as when an injury limits the training that can be / was prescribed. Strategies to limit the loss of fitness (“maintenance plan”) can be put in place according to the circumstances and the original training plan (cross-training, strength-training).

So, to summarise – training is simply the act of taking the body to a new level of functioning: taking it out of its comfort zone (so to speak) and causing it to change – in anticipation of more hard work ahead. The principles of training above make sure that the rate and suitability of training allows stress to be imparted without over straining and consequent breakdown.


Recovery is the most under-rated aspect of training. It is actually a major principle of training3, “which posits that adaptation takes place during the recovery period after training is completed3. Even coaches who understand its importance can find it hard to prescribe rest during or following training sessions as well as following periods of hard training (a couple of days, weeks – see periodisation). However, recovery is vital for adaptations to occur. To perform throughout the season at peak levels, your muscle must be able to recover and repair themselves after each hard effort. That means putting as much effort into your recovery as you do in your riding.

How can recovery be more important than the training?

Recovery is required for the repair of damage to the body caused by training or competition. It includes changes within the muscles alongside a re-balance if not enhancement of the hormonal functions and immune defenses. During recovery, muscles for instance should repair their structure, if not increasing in size (protein build), at least replenishing their energy stores: all these changes enhance the athlete’s physiological potential. Long-term adaptations to training are generated by the cumulative effects of the transient events following exercise bouts2.

The decrease in fatigue with good recovery, alongside the fitness enhancement given by training, will lead to performance gain1.  This phase of improvement in overall form is often called supercompensation (Figure 2). It means that a correct balance between the training stimulus and recovery is essential for an overshoot in performance to occur (Figure 2, Panel A). When the frequency of the training stimuli is too high, the training stimulus too strong, and/or the recovery too short, the fitness level can decrease leading possibly to overreaching or overtraining (Figure 2, Panel).

Figure 2: Principle of supercompensation


It is all about pushing optimally - as opposed to maximally. A fine line! Sport scientists always seek ways of monitoring this fatigue/fitness balance, such as the use of heart rate variability.

“I am fit enough to cope with my training. I don’t need any kind of recovery!” … Wrong!

The nature and duration of the recovery will depend on the type of training being performed, the level and nature of the overload, and the level of fitness of the athlete but every individual has to take a rest.

Recovery can vary in nature, going from complete rest, to easy training sessions – although it is debatable that if you are prioritizing recovery, why exercise at all! Nutrition will be essential to speed up the recovery process and make sure you get ready for the next training session. Good-quality, long sleep will give time to your body to recharge its batteries, all the energies usually reserved for performing daily tasks being dedicated to the self-reparation of the body. Self massage and stretching are also popular with athletes, although most support for these tends to be anecdotal.



The choice of recovery time is also dependent on the aim of the training being performed as well as the level of fitness of the athlete. Fitter athletes tend to recovery quicker  (Table 1) Sport scientists are still studying the speed of recovery and body adaptations following training to better define the recovery time needed after particular sets of training.

As recovery is an inherent aspect of training, some nutritional strategies can speed up the rate of recovery, as well as maximizing physiological adaptations to training. Good nutrition is crucial for high peaks of form. Sports scientists are now trying to understand how exercise and diet affect genes and protein expression within the muscle6 as the genes alterations explain changes in our physiological potential… so dietary intervention, alongside physical training, is considered to have a massive impact on cellular adaptations2 (Table 2).

Table 2: Post-exercise recovery: What to consider?


Eating well to promote training adaptations

“It is better to prevent than cure” Fuelling during training will enable to exercise for longer, especially at intensities around lactate threshold and critical power. At lower intensities, the energy is mainly supplied by the utilization of lipids, the contribution of the carbohydrates increasing with increasing intensity. But the utilization of lipids to produce energy during exercise requires the burning of carbohydrate as well, hence the massive need for carbohydrate whatever the intensity.

Without any carbohydrate, you just stop!” So, since carbohydrates play a predominant role in the performance of prolonged exercise2, its provision during exercise enables more work to be done, and therefore more stress for the whole body (consequently greater adaptations).

Don’t forget, water is the most essential ingredient to a healthy life. Water has many important functions in the body including transportation of nutrients, elimination of waste products, lubricating joints and tissues, temperature regulation through sweating, Facilitating digestion.

Proper hydration is especially important during exercise as dehydration impairs performance as well as training adaptations (muscle cramps, dizziness, fatigue, heat exhaustion, heat stroke). Adequate fluid intake for athletes is essential. The longer and more intensely you exercise, the more important it is to drink the right kind of fluids. Studies have found that a loss of >2% of one's body weight due to sweating is linked to a drop in blood volume, the heart having to work harder (higher heart rate) to move blood through the body.

Monitoring urine volume output and colour[1] and weighing yourself before and after exercise[2] are useful gauges of hydration level.

Alongside dietary intake during training, an appropriate diet during the training period (long-term) will also increase the impact of training on the muscular adaptations2. For example, it has long been recognized that there is a close association between dietary carbohydrate intake, muscle glycogen concentration, and endurance capacity2. For this reason, it is recommended that individuals training for sports in which carbohydrate is the most heavily metabolized fuel should consume a diet rich in carbohydrate (endurance sports). Another strategy that might enhance the training adaptation would be to utilize an alternative fuel source to carbohydrate and/or to slow its normal rate of utilization during exercise. Such a fuel is fat and the effects of fat supplementation during one or several training sessions on exercise performance has gained recent attention2. Protein availability is critical for optimizing many of the adaptations that take place in muscle in response to both endurance and resistance training. The main determinants of an athlete’s protein needs are their training regimen and habitual nutrient intake. However, the optimal amount of protein required by athletes to enhance training adaptation is unclear2 (~1 to 2 grams per kilo of body weight per day; 1 grams being the recommended quantity for the general population). Fortunately, most athletes consume sufficient protein to accommodate even the highest estimates of protein needs.

Eating well to hasten recovery from training

The quantity of intake has to match what the body needs to recover quickly. The need for carbohydrates, proteins, electrolytes, free-radicals, amino-acids, is not the same following all sessions (Table 2). For example, both type and amount of fuels being burned during exercise are dependent on the intensity and the duration of the training set. Of course, what you have been taking during the exercise would need to be considered for the dosage of post-exercise intake. Muscle energy reserves would have to be sustained if not enhanced for further training sessions to be performed.

The sweating rate will also be affected by the environmental conditions (heat, humidity), hence the need of taking these environmental conditions into account when offsetting the electrolytes misbalance caused by training. When you sweat, you lose more than just body water! Free-radicals are produced during strenuous exercise and carry a potentially damaging side effect of training hard. Free radicals have been associated with muscle soreness and in some cases, even tissue damage. The key to stopping free radicals is a good intake of antioxidants like vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene. Fortunately, most healthy athletes generally eat enough anti-oxidant rich foods like fruits and vegetables to keep their muscles in good repair.

There are also specific windows of time after a workout is over for food and drinks to be intake so that replenishment is maximized. For example, replenishment of glycogen stores via carbohydrates-rich foods and drinks should be prioritized in the first 15 to 30-min after exercise. It has been shown that during this window, the enzymes responsible for making glycogen are the most active, so you can replenish your store quickly during this time. For even faster recovery, adding a little protein[3] will stimulate the action of insulin – a hormone that helps transporting glucose from the blood to the muscles –enhancing glycogen replacement in the muscle. It has been shown that ingesting a mixture of carbohydrate and protein before or immediately after completion of a training session indeed increases the synthesis of protein and decreases their breakdown usually observed post-exercise2. Protein also helps repair broken-down muscle tissue, so you feel stronger quickly. Protein ingestion immediately post exercise also appears to have the greatest potential impact on training adaptations2.

[1] A large amount of light colored, diluted urine probably means you are hydrated; dark colored, concentrated urine probably means you are dehydrated.

[2] Any weight lost is likely from fluid, so try to drink enough to replenish those losses. Any weight gain could mean you are drinking more than you need. 1 kg = 1 L

[3] 1 gram of protein for every 3 to 4 grams of carbohydrates in your recovery meal.



1.             Smith.Sports Med 2003, 33, 1103-1126.

2.             Kent. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2002.

3.             Hawley. J Physiol 2008, 586, 1-2.

4.             Burgomaster et al. J Appl physiol 2008, 151-160.

5.             Hawley et al. Sports Sci 2006, 24, 709-721.

6.             Hargreaves & Cameron-Smith. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2002, 34, 1505-1508.

Table 1: How much recovery time do you need?

You need

I you spend

8 hours

0 to 6 hours below lactate threshold

8 to 10 hours

30 to 60 min at lactate threshold

24 to 36 hours

75 to 120 min at lactate threshold

24 hours

15 to 45 min at critical power

24 to 36 hours

60 to 90 min between lactate threshold and critical power

24 to 36 hours

10 to 30 min above critical power

36 to 48 hours

45 min or more above critical power