Are you recovering from your training?

The physiology of training and fitness development is complex. More so, the physiology of recovery is just as complex. In this article we will highlight a few key recovery concepts to consider when training for your next event.

Let us start with a strong statement- recovery is an integral part of fitness adaptions. The recovery time after a hard or long training session is crucial for the adaption of the body systems to that session. Essentially, fitness is being ‘absorbed’ into the body systems. Your cells, ligaments, tendons, bones, and muscles are adapting to the stress they have been under. That is the amazing thing about the human body- adaption. We are living organisms that change with the stress placed on our systems. This principle in training is called supercompensation (we will not get into the science of supercompensation here). But the one thing that occurs after training is a state of fatigue, where the body essentially slows down and spends time recovering and adapting. Followed by this is a heightened state of readiness i.e. ‘fitness’.

The fatigue state is essentially where recovery comes in. If you do not allow the body time to recover, it will not get adaption, and you will eventually become stale and overtrained… i.e. constantly in a state of sluggishness. Some science: we talk about heart rate variability (HRV) a lot. What this refers to is the day-to-day variability in the time between each heartbeat. Essentially, a heart rate of 60 beats per minute (bpm) is not just 60 beats every second. It may occur that one beat occurs at a 0,5 second interval, but another at a 1.5 second interval… and so on. When the body is fatigued, the HRV is commonly used to monitor the extent of fatigue. It is accepted that a lower heart rate variability indicates a heightened parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest), indicating more fatigue; and a higher heart rate variability indicates a heightened sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight), indicating a state of readiness. Currently, though this has been challenged by the concept that HRV is affected by time of day, emotional state, hydration status, eating regime throughout the day, etc. Some research has indicated that a reduced deviation from your nocturnal HRV (higher or lower) is possibly a better indication of your state of recovery.

Active recovery is well researched and provides a useful method for recovery. The principle is that the short, low intensity effort stimulates nervous system recovery, increases blood flow though the fatigued muscles (essentially ‘flushing’ the system of metabolites from hard training), and prevents staleness and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). The exact dosage depends on factors such as training status of the athlete, training block goals, and many other factors.

The point is this: measuring recovery is complex. So how can we decide if recovery is happening, and what can we do to improve our state of recovery. Measuring recovery is difficult and not 100% accurate. So prevention is better than cure (as the age old medical term goes). Essentially, your training should follow a progression of increasing intensity and volume, followed with recovery weeks. We like to work on three weeks of effort, with one week of recovery. Other research uses two weeks of work, and one week of recovery. Also, within a week you should have time to recover. One research paper has shown that athletes who rest less than two days a week have a 520% increased risk for injury. The point is, make time to recover in your week, at least one day, preferably two. And rest includes physical, emotional, and mental recovery.

Here are some guidelines that may be useful for recovery in your training blocks:

  • Sleep 8 hours per night
  • Eat well balanced, calorie dense food, especially carbohydrates (replenish energy stores) and protein (repair muscle damage) after training sessions
  • Restore fluids and electrolytes after a training sessions
  • Have at least one, possibly two, rest days in a training week
  • Have one recovery week of reduced training volume and intensity every third or fourth week in a training block
  • Include active recovery sessions such as short, low intensity aerobic efforts between hard training days
  • Other methods such as oxygen chambers, massage, cooling-compression systems, and others could be considered based on your personal preference

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