Let's Talk About Recovery
Updated: Feb 2, 2022
What is Recovery?
Recovery is a hot topic in the health and fitness world, and is becoming more and more recognized as just as much an important part of training than training itself. But what are we actually referring to when we say "recovery"?
First off, we have to understand the concept of homeostasis. Homeostasis is our bodies' state of balance of internal physical and chemical conditions; the conditions of homeostasis allow for optimal functioning of the body.
Stress refers to any stimulus that throws off this state of homeostasis. This is a huge category and includes things such as temperature, injury, illness, nutrient availability, psychological stress, lack of sleep, and exercise. Stresses can occur concurrently.
Recovery is then the process of returning the body to homeostasis after incurring a stress. When exercise is a stressor, recovery especially refers to the restoration of substrate for the body's energy development mechanisms. It takes place best when the body is in a state of parasympathetic nervous system dominance (our "rest and digest" system). Our ability to recover is dependent on several factors including but not limited to age, training experience, biological sex, nutrition status, environment, and psychological stress. For example, older individuals generally take longer to recovery than younger individuals; an individual with a higher training age (i.e. more years participating in strength and sport training) will recover more quickly than an individual of the same biological age, but of a lower training age.
When we refer to recovery within a single workout, this is the amount of time that is necessary to have between sets of an exercise/exercises to adequately refuel the specific energy system being trained. If adequate time is not given, then the target energy system will not be truly stressed during the workout. I'll be covering energy systems in another blog post coming up.
It is during the recovery process that the structural and functional adaptations to exercise take place, and we get our gains, i.e. increases in strength, muscle mass, neuromuscular control, etc. If we do not allow the recovery process to happen, our body stays within a state of sympathetic nervous system (our "fight or flight" system) dominance and increased catabolism, i.e. a state of breakdown. This means that not only we will not be able to adapt to the stresses of the training session, but also we can see decreases in performance and motivation, as well as increased risk for injury.
A perpetual state of inadequate recovery is what we call "Overtraining". Athletes, coaches, and parents should be made aware of overtraining symptoms to be able to identify them and react accordingly when present. It is up to coaches to program training in such a way that facilitates recovery within the each aspect of the annual training plan.
Follow this link to download your free Periodization Template for the Artistic Athlete, a printable resource to help you plan your training to prioritize recovery and optimize performance!
How can we optimize recovery?
As I spoke about in this post about periodization, when training consistently throughout the year, we need plan time within our training to allow the body to recover by decrease it's overall load for a period of time.
Within a microcycle, i.e. 2-7 days of training, there are many strategies we can use to help optimize our day to day recovery. Here are a few that have the science to back them up:
Here, the term active recovery is referring to a low intensity whole body rhythmic activity, e.g. cycling, walking/jogging, rowing, elliptical, etc., done for 10-15 minutes at 40-60% of your maximum heart rate. This promotes removal of lactic acid, hydrogen, and other debris and substrate of metabolism that can accumulate in the muscles and impede recovery. This strategy is especially important after training
sessions that heavily utilize the anaerobic lactic energy system, i.e. that are geared towards power development over a period of 10s to 1 min. This is equivalent to practicing tumbling passes in gymnastics or cheerleading, beam routines, or some hand to hand/ acrobatic gymnastics skills. (I'll be writing a post about our energy systems soon, no worries).
Studies have shown a quicker return to homeostasis when an active recovery strategy is used after a training session compared to more passive strategies.
The literature is inconclusive and inconsistent on whether hot or cold immersion is more effective than the other for aiding recovery. What has shown relatively consistent positive results is the use of the two together in either contrast emersion or via a contrast shower.
Contrast emersion or a contrast shower is done by alternating between hot water (37-40 degrees Celsius) and cold water (10-15 degrees Celsius) for 30-60 seconds each for 2-5 sets. This helps to decrease inflammation and promotes blood flow, speeding up the removal of the byproducts of energy metabolism and exercise from the muscle tissue, allowing for quicker recovery.
Parasympathetic System Stimulating Activity
As we spoke about above, recovery and adaptation best takes place when we our parasympathetic nervous system, i.e. our rest and digest system, is dominant. At some point between after your training session and before bed, taking 10 to 30 minutes to perform a parasympathetic system stimulating activity can help but the body into this dominant state and therefore help facilitate recovery.
This can be something like a low intensity yoga session, meditation or guided breathing, watching a relaxing tv show or reading a good book.
Good Quality Sleep
Sleep is one the most important factors for not just our sport performance, but also for our bodies' overall functioning. It is the time that our bodies recover and
adaptations to exercise take place. Our body has a baseline amount of sleep that it needs every night, and while this number does vary, the average individual requires between 7-9 hours. For athletes, this number is generally higher, closer to 8-10 hours per night.
When we do not get enough hours of sleep per night, we accumulate a sleep debt. The higher our sleep debt, the more our sympathetic nervous system takes over, and more stress hormones, like cortisol, are released into the body. This keeps our parasympathetic nervous system from becoming dominant and facilitating our return to homeostasis.
To help facilitate longer and better quality of sleep, a few strategies can be implemented. Some of these strategies include but are not limited to:
Going to bed earlier
Decreasing or eliminating blue light exposure up to 2hrs before bed (i.e. no screens!)
Having an established night time routine that helps tell our body it's time to wind down
Using black out curtains or an eye mask to ensure a dark sleeping environment
Making sure your sleep environment is at a cool temperature, whether via AC, a small fan or a cooling pad for your bed.
It should be noted that sleep disruption, either an inability to fall asleep or to stay asleep, is a symptom of overtraining.
Let's do a quick review: recovery includes restoration of storage of substrate needed for energy metabolism, and adapting to the stresses of the exercise session, e.g. rebuilding muscle to be larger and strengthening the neuromuscular connections to be stronger and more efficient at moving.
If we do not provide our body with adequate nutrients, such as protein for rebuilding muscle, carbohydrate to restore glycogen, and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that are necessary for creation of neurotransmitters and facilitating the processes behind recovery and adaptation, this cannot happen! When we lack adequate nutrition, our body will break down muscles to gain protein, and, via a process called gluconeogenesis, convert it to glucose to be used for nutrients and energy metabolism instead.
Consuming a meal or snack with adequate carb and protein after exercise is important to give the body the fuel it needs to restore energy, neurotransmitter, and facilitate adaptation.
Let's Sum it All Up
Recovery is a necessary aspect of training. If it is not done properly, performance and motivation will suffer. However, there are many ways to help promote recovery that can be easily incorporated into your regular training regimen. It is up to the coaches and integrated medical team to make sure athletes understand the importance of recovery and know how to recognize overtraining, that recovery is a priority in their training regimen.
Comment below with some of your favorite methods for recovery! Want to talk about how to optimize your recovery plan, contact me here and let's chat.
Buzzichelli, C., Bompa, T. O. (2015). Periodization Training for Sports. United Kingdom: Human Kinetics.
Comana, F. (2017). Exploring the Science of Recovery. https://blog.nasm.org/the-science-of-recovery.
THE SCIENCE OF POST-EXERCISE RECOVERY.RESEARCH FROM THE ACE SCIENTIFIC ADVISORY PANEL American Council on Exercise
Strength and Conditioning: Biological Principles and Practical Applications. (2011). Germany: Wiley.