Rest and training go hand in hand

Improved recovery through better sleep and proper diet is ultimate performance enhancer

For nearly a decade, I was lucky enough to train and race full-time.

First, with the support of my parents and later, as I improved, as a professional athlete through sponsorship, prize money and funding from Triathlon New Zealand.

As a professional athlete, it's your job to perform to your best as you represent your sponsors and country in each race.

Countless hours are spent planning your preparation with the support of a team of specialists to optimise every detail.

It's not enough to train hard; you need to train with purpose and recover so you improve consistently.

Coaches, sports scientists, dietitians, physiotherapists play a role in optimising an athlete's training plan, diet and activities outside training to improve recovery so the athlete stays healthy.

Training and recovery must be in balance.


If you're like the majority of the athletes I work with, I imagine you're balancing your training with a full-time job, family and social commitments. With so many things fighting for your time and attention, it's often your recovery that gets neglected.

One hour less sleep, poor dietary choices and too much caffeine. No time for naps, stretching and other recovery practices.

  • #AskCoachBen

  • Ben Pulham is a former professional triathlete and the founder of Coached, a heart-rate training programme that helps you to optimise, track and enjoy your training.

    If you have a question, visit and post it in the #AskCoachBen section.

Genetics aside, these are the real things that differentiate the pros from their amateur counterparts.

While the pro trains and then goes home to fuel, nap and recover, the amateur gets dressed for work and grabs breakfast on the go.

The performance equation states that Performance = Stress + Rest.

Rest is 50 per cent of the equation, yet many hard-working runners believe that more training is the answer to improving performance. While that is the case sometimes, often you'll benefit more by focusing on your recovery and improving the quality of the runs.

Let's look at some things you can do to improve the quality of your recovery and increase your training consistency, the ultimate performance enhancer.


Running 10km up a mountain will take you a lot longer and put you under more stress than a 10km run down a hill. An hour, however, is 60 minutes regardless of whether you're running uphill or down, into a headwind or on sand. When stress is higher, for example, you run 10km up a mountain on a grass track into a headwind; you'll cover less distance. When stress is low, like running on a flat road, you'll cover more ground in the same time.

  • HIIT-ing the right intensity

  • Lim Yao Peng (above left), 30, co-founder of GritYard, assisting ST Run participants during a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) session yesterday. The 45-minute session was the first of The Straits Times Run's pre-race activities that are geared towards preparing runners for the Sept 29 race. The next activity is on Saturday, when a 5km/8m training run led by the ST Run's pacers takes place near the Singapore Sports Hub. It will be followed by a coaching clinic run by Ben Pulham, the ST Run's official coach. To sign up, visit ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

As I discussed in a previous column, the amount of time you spend running is more important than the kilometres you log because it's the duration of effort that your body senses - the stress.


Heart rate is a way for your body to communicate the amount of stress it is under. When your body is stressed, either through a hard training session or from life, it will respond with an increased heart rate. When under stress, you must run slower to stay within your zone. Likewise, on days when you're feeling good and your heart rate is lower, you'll be able to run faster. Always run hard enough to elicit a benefit but not so hard that you overdo things and can't recover.


Studies have shown that you need seven to nine hours of high-quality sleep each night to function optimally. As an athlete, you're likely on the higher end of that scale. If you're not getting enough sleep, take a hard look at your priorities and where you are spending your time, and try to increase the amount of sleep you're getting.

Improve the quality of your sleep by sleeping in a cold, quiet and dark room. Wear an eye mask and earplugs and avoid screens before going to bed.


Look at the ingredients list of the food you are eating. If your grandparents wouldn't recognise the ingredients, you're likely consuming a food product, not real food. To improve your ability to recover, and your health, you need to eat real food. Real food is minimally processed, whole food that has a minimal ingredient list, if any. Think fruits and vegetables, meat and fish, nuts and seeds.

So review your lifestyle and make better choices if you're serious about becoming a better runner.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 21, 2019, with the headline 'Rest and training go hand in hand'. Print Edition | Subscribe