Gabby Thomas is a two-time Olympic medalist and 200-meter US national champion. She also graduated from Harvard where she studied global health and neurobiology, and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in epidemiology. We recently had the chance to sit down with Gabby for a Q&A on all the things she does to optimize her recovery on a daily basis.
To start, we know you are very big on sleep. What are some things you do to sleep better that help your recovery the following day?
Gabby Thomas: There are three big things that I decided to change once I realized that they were affecting my next-day recovery, and all of them were habits that I was feeding into right before bed or in the evening.
1. I cut back how much time I’m spending on a screen before I go to bed.
2. I try not to eat after 9 pm.
3. Limiting caffeine consumption later in the day (i.e. no coffee after 2pm).
Learn more: How Eating Before Bed Affects Your Sleep and Recovery
How is your sleep consistency? Is there anything else you make sure to do regularly to help keep your circadian rhythm aligned and improve your recovery overall?
GT: I would give myself an “A” on sleep consistency. I tend to stay in the range of 8 hours of sleep per night, and they are typically at the same times each night. This varies a bit when I travel or depending on my strain levels that day. On meet days, the stimulation of competition can also affect my sleep schedule.
When it gets difficult to keep my circadian rhythm aligned, like when I am traveling, I try to be very disciplined about my pre-sleep routine (as mentioned above). No caffeine after a certain time, limiting screen time, and even taking a Magnesium supplement that is certified for sport to ensure that my quality of sleep isn’t affected.
WHOOP has helped emphasize the importance of quality of sleep in addition to quantity.
Learn more: Does Magnesium Before Bed Improve Your Sleep?
Do you like to take naps?
GT: I do not nap! However, I do notice a correlation with more sleep and higher recovery.
Previously on our podcast you told us that eating before bed hurts your recovery, is there anything in terms of your nutrition or diet that you’ve seen has a positive impact on it?
GT: Focusing on staying hydrated has noticeably helped my recovery score stay higher generally, and I can physically feel the difference as well.
I’ve also noticed how junk food – like ordering a pizza or eating greasy, fried foods – can negatively impact my score the next day. Overall, whenever I fuel my body adequately, I haven’t seen a huge difference in any specific diet. As long as I’m getting the nutrients that I need.
Our data shows that hydration is definitely a big factor when it comes to recovery, do you have any go-to tricks to stay hydrated, or to make sure you’re well hydrated in the days leading up to competition?
GT: A big trick to staying hydrated before competition is laying off of alcoholic or sugary drinks! I personally do not drink anything with sugar in it (a lot of people are shocked by this) unless I need electrolytes on a hard training day or long competition day.
I also keep a large gallon water bottle with me all day long. It motivates me and reminds me to stay on top of my hydration goals!
You’ve said you’re not big on muscle recovery (beyond occasional epsom salt/ice baths) and like to let your body figure it out on it’s own. Are there other things you do to help your body figure it out on a more holistic level?
GT: I’m a huge advocate for focusing on holistic health. I make sure that I’m fueling my body well with my diet and limiting foods that don’t provide any nutritional value. I drink a lot of water and take multivitamins. And, I like to minimize the amount of stressors as much as I can. This can be psychological or physical stress. Meditation helps with that and participating in active recovery activities that recharge and re-energize me (going on a walk with my dog, chilling at the park with my friends, etc).
I am a big fan of hyperbaric chambers when I need to because they increase oxygen concentration in my bloodstream, which means faster recovery.
Do you adjust your training load based on your WHOOP recovery day to day?
GT: My coach and I will assess my recovery and adjust the training accordingly. Some days we simply have to do the workout that’s written, but some days we can push it off. It’s very important to listen to my body, especially in a sport like track and field, where performance is a direct result of the body’s physical state.
Pushing my body over the edge on a day where my recovery is too low may result in injury. For example, after travel days, we tend to take a rest day to allow our bodies to get back to a higher recovery before we hit it hard on the track.
Going even deeper, what about your resting heart rate and heart rate variability–do those metrics factor into any of your daily decisions?
GT: Resting heart rate and HRV definitely impact my recovery, and as a result, go into my decisions.
If you had a really hard training day today, what will you do this evening to help your body feel better?
GT: I would make sure to:
I’m very simple when it comes to recovery, because if I am taking care of my body in those three ways, it does a great job of repairing itself and getting stronger. If I can, I like to spend some time in a hyperbaric chamber too.
Does stretching benefit your recovery? Anything you particularly like or don’t like?
GT: After an intense training day it is critical to cool down immediately after, before leaving the track. Our muscles feel the difference the next day, and even the day after. Neglecting stretching can actually cause injury over the long term. I like to focus on dynamic stretches before a workout or before competition, and static stretching afterwards.
As a sprinter, I also try not to overdo it. Too much elasticity can be an issue and make me slower! So, there’s a very precise amount of stretching that I stick to to maintain optimal recovery and avoid injury–dynamic stretching in my warm up, static stretching when I cool down, and minimal stretching here and there throughout my day to stay loose.
Is there anything else you find important for recovery as a runner that applies to your sport maybe more than others?
GT: I think when it comes to track and field, every little thing counts so much more. In track, the only variable in performance is how your body is prepared. In other sports, variables include how your competitors play or what skills you’ve worked on. With this being the case, what we put into our bodies as far as diet goes is critical. You can’t get away with a lot of unhealthy meals.
You mentioned meditating, how does that benefit you?
GT: Yes, I meditate often to lower my heart rate and reduce stress hormone levels. This helps with psychological stress and focus, and helps me to be more physically prepared for training sessions.
Along those lines, have you noticed if your mental state affects your recovery?
GT: Definitely! I’ve noticed that if I have a lot going on in my life with school or work, my stress levels increase, my RHR increases, and consequently my HRV decreases, and my recovery does as well. These are good time periods to focus on breathing exercises, meditation, and active recovery.
There are even a couple days each month during my menstrual cycle where I have heightened anxiety and lower recovery. At first, I thought I may have been imagining this, but then I started tracking my cycle and recovery, as well as my mood, and noticed that it is consistent. Even my coach notices (she doesn’t know that I’ve attributed it to my cycle, but on those days of training, she always seems to check in and have an intuition).
Learn more: Impact of Stress on HRV, Resting Heart Rate & Recovery
What’s something unusual you do to boost your recovery that most people probably haven’t thought of?
GT: Doing something each day that genuinely makes you happy, even if it’s really small. Reducing mental stress as much as you can really does have an impact on overall health and recovery.
Besides sleep, what have you noticed has the greatest effect on your recovery from day to day?
GT: Traveling has an impact on my WHOOP score. It can be pretty significant when jumping time zones, and the more extreme the time zone change, generally the lower my recovery score can be.
If you’re competing tomorrow, what are you going to make sure you do today to get your body in the green?
GT: Eat clean. Stay very hydrated. Limit how active I am/strain level.
Learn what improves your recovery by tracking various behaviors in the WHOOP Journal.