Recovery is an integral part of any training program. How your body recovers from training and racing can directly affect performance in subsequent sessions, as well as attainment of the overall goal. There are many factors affecting your ability to recover both mentally and physically. This article explains the science behind recovery and discusses how and why these known recovery techniques will help you get the most out of your training program.
Generally you train in order to be able to perform at a level higher than you are currently. However, training initially causes a lull in performance levels as the body is fatigued. Then, as you recover, your body adapts to training and you see improvements. How you recover during this period of fatigue, significantly affects the effectiveness of your training and how quickly you are able to adapt. This theory is known as the supercompensation affect and can be explained by figure 1 below. Supercompensation is the physiological adaption that takes place following training, and sufficient recovery; that is, getting fitter!
[Figure one - supercompensation]
Source: Sports Training Company
Further exposure to a training stimulus will result in adaption and improvement only if you are in a state of sufficient recovery. Addition of a new training stimulus without adequate recovery can often result in further fatigue, injury and burnout. This phenomenon is commonly described as overtraining. It is also important to understand that fatigue comes in many forms. Emotional, mental, neural and hormonal stress and fatigue can occur from training, and are often added to the stresses of everyday life as well as physical fatigue. Consequently, your recovery strategies should be chosen accordingly. Inadequate recovery may mean that you are underprepared for your next session, and, in this situation, the session will have a negative affect.
There are some situations, such as overload and training camps which are designed to cause excessive fatigue. In these cases, the prolonged period of fatigue should be followed by a prolonged period of overcompensation and supercompensation to allow for adaption and improvement to occur.
Recovery techniques can be active or passive in nature. The advantages and goals of post training recovery include the breakdown and removal of lactic acid, replenishment of ATP-PC (the most basic unit of energy, required for every movement) stores; refuelling and restoration of glycogen stores; rehydration; and the repair and regeneration of damaged muscle tissues. Let’s explore some recovery techniques, both active and passive, than you can employ:
Recovery starts as early as the cool down. A cool down should include some low intensity activity, immediate following a training session or event, such as a 10min easy jog, or 200m easy swim. The cool down initiates the recovery process by allowing the body time to break down and remove the harmful by-products of intense exercise, such as lactic acid. This process also helps prevent blood pooling. Another form of active recovery might be a gentle walk later on in the same day or in the 48hrs post event/strenuous session.
Nutrition and hydration (for more detail please see Nutrition for Triathlon and Performance – Issue 4)
As discussed in Issue 4, nutrition and rehydration play an integral role in replenishment of muscle glycogen stores, fluid and electrolyte levels and in the regeneration of muscle fibres. Aim to eat a mixture of CHO and Protein based foods in the 30min window immediately following training, and replace fluids to 150% of their deficit. That is, if you know you have lost, 300mL of fluid, you should aim to drink 450mL. Low fat flavoured milk or smoothies are a great choice.
There are now a wide range of compression garments available to everyday athletes. Such garments increase the blood flow to muscles which assists in the removal of waste products and delivery of nutrients. This also increases venous return, reducing the risk of venous pooling and muscle soreness. Furthermore, some evidence exists to suggest that compression garments reduce the movement of the muscles, which can also reduce the risk of further damage or strain.
Hydrotherapy is one category of regenerative therapy, and simply involves the use of water to aid both physical and psychological recovery. The aqua environment provides buoyancy, and reduces stress on the joints. Numerous researches have also suggested that hydrotherapy has a great mental affect for athletes, i.e. – athletes that perform hydrotherapy, often feel rejuvenated following their recovery session.
Perhaps the simplest method of hydrotherapy, Cryotherapy involves the use of cold water or ice in recovery. This reduces blood flow to a joint or tissue, and hence reduces the chance of swelling and fluid retention. This is especially effective in treating micro traumas in the soft tissue, and injuries. One such example of this form of therapy is cold water wading/emersion.
Contrast therapy involves alternate use of both hot and cold water, generally in the form of plunge pools or showers. The protocol used by the AIS uses 30sec hot/30sec cold, seven times through. The exposure to cold water causes vasoconstriction (narrowing of the blood vessels), whilst exposure to hot water causes vasodilation (widening of the blood vessels). Together, they causes ‘shunting’ or a ‘pumping’ action, which increases blood circulation. This is effective in waste removal and nutrient delivery.
The use of spas and mineral springs has become increasingly more popular in sports science. Known as balneotherapy, such methods promote recovery, as well as, facilitating the healing process. Bathing in a spa or spring increases hydrostatic pressure on the body. This stimulates blood circulation, and, in turn, leads to the dissipation of waste products from cells. Furthermore, thermal water has been shown to increase metabolism and stimulate the process of digestion, so could aid in the replenishment of fuel stores if coupled with a good post exercise recovery strategy. This method should not be used if you have sustained a new soft tissue injury. Heating the troublesome area within the first 36-72hrs may have a negative affect, by increasing swelling and inflammation.
Many athletes report feeling stiff and sore after a solid week of training, a big session or a race. Post training / activity training has been shown to reduce this affect. Both scientific and anecdotal evidence has said that recovery stretching helps reduce the risk of injury, prevents muscle stiffness, maintains/promotes joint mobility, and also promotes recovery. Static stretching should be used as part of the cool down and in the hours and following training
Massage can be beneficial at various stages of the recovery process. It is a regenerative therapy, which can be employed for its relaxation and stress management qualities as well as for its physical benefits. Massage stimulates blood flow, which aides in the removal of the by-products of exercise, reduces stiffness and soreness, and reduces the risk of cramping. Immediately post exercise, massage can also be used to relieve swelling caused my micro traumas in the muscle fibres. On other occasions, massage is also effective in injury management and prevention. It is important to note that deep tissue massage should not be employed within 36hrs following a big session or race, as it may exaggerate fibre traumas or soft tissue damage.
Initially ‘passive’ recovery should be avoided. That is, it remains important to take some time to practice the methods discussed above in the first 1-2 hours following training and racing. However, passive rest is probably the most important form of recovery. Sleep is the best form of recovery because it allows recovery from physical, neurological, immunological and psychological stressors. 7-10hrs per night would be considered ideal. Furthermore, following a session or race, and active recovery methods/nutritional intake, a short nap of between 30-90mins can allow the body the best opportunity to recover physically and mentally, and will leave you feeling refreshed. If a nap isn’t possible, try complete rest and relaxation. Some methods include watching a DVD, or lie down with your feet elevated. Recovery days and even weeks, whereby, training is drastically reduced are critical to improving performance over time, and to allow the body time to adapt to training! They also provide an opportunity for psychological, neural and emotional relaxation.
The best recovery techniques to employ depend on a number of variables, including; the type of training you complete and what stage of training you are in. The above content provides a brief description of a number of recovery techniques available to the everyday athlete. Generally, a combination of two or more of these techniques would be most effective.
The content and information in this article should be used as a guide only. For more information on the recovery methods discussed above please contact an ETPA coach directly.
James Marshall, Sports Training Company
David Smyth et. Al., Live It Up 2, 2nd Edition
Joe Friel, Triathlete’s Training Bible, 3rd edition