Recovery training is vital for achieving maximal physiological adaptation as well as for reducing the risk of illness and injury

As Tour de France legend Lance Armstrong says "Recovery is the name of the game… whoever recovers the fastest does the best"

All work and no rest makes for an injury-prone and weakened athlete. Read top conditioning coach Nick Grantham’s rules for recovery and reap the benefit.

Talent alone is no longer enough to guarantee victory in the sporting arena. Athletes striving for high level success must push their bodies and minds to the limit (1). If you cannot adapt to and cope with the physical and mental demands of training, you will quickly become exhausted. So how can we reach the limits of human performance without tipping over the edge? The key lies in one of the simplest yet most neglected training principles: recovery. In the words of one who should know, the seven-times Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong: ‘Recovery… that’s the name of the game… Whoever recovers the fastest does the best.’

There is very little rigorous scientific research to help us decide which recovery strategies work – we still rely heavily on the accumulated experience of athletes and coaches. Even so, it is possible to set some ground rules and parameters that will enable athletes to tread the fine line between maximising performance and sustaining injury.

Progressive overload

Athletes love to train. But in order for the body to adapt it must have a period of recovery. This is not a new concept; it is a cornerstone of everything coaches and athletes should be trying to achieve. To understand the significance of recovery, you need to understand the fundamental principles of progressive overload.

If we introduce a recovery method at the point of fatigue we can expect to reduce the length of time it will take to recover from training, so you can move ahead with your programme more rapidly.

One of cycling’s best coaches, Peter Keen, explains it thus: ‘Nature has given the human body a wonderful engine management system. It actually responds to stress by adapting to cope with it better… the bottom line is the body does not get fitter through exercise; it gets fitter through recovering from exercise.’

Before we can introduce a recovery strategy we need to know which type of fatigue we are dealing with. The type of training effort will determine which of a number of forms of fatigue an athlete will experience (1).

Recovery strategies

It’s easy to get carried away with all the new ‘toys’ such as compression clothing, ice baths etc, and forget about the basics such as sleep and nutrition. Figure 2 (above right) presents an overview of some of the recovery strategies that are available and suggests the order in which coaches and athletes should consider them. This list is not exhaustive.

Strategies at Levels 3 and 4 should not form part of the equation until and unless you already have an established regime at Levels 1 and 2. Put simply, if you are not looking after the basics (sleep, nutrition and training), you are not going to get any additional benefit from more gimmicky recovery tools such as compression skins or contrast bathing.

Level 1 strategies

Sleep/rest (passive and active): Sleep is one of the most important forms of rest and provides time for the athlete to adapt to the physical and mental demands of training. Other forms of passive rest include reading, listening to music and flotation (see Level 4 activities). Active rest activities include walking, cross-training and stretching (2).

Nutrition (refuelling and rehydration): The most important components for nutritional recovery are fluid and fuel replacement. You should avoid drinks containing caffeine and drink enough fluid (water, cordials or sports drinks) before, during and after training to replace sweat loss. There is a 45-minute window of opportunity for optimal refuelling after a training session. The ideal recovery nutrition strategy (non-sport-specific) is a meal or liquid supplement containing high glycaemic index carbohydrates and quality proteins in approximately a 4:1 ratio that includes 10-20% of your total daily caloric intake of these two macronutrients (3).

Level 2 strategies

Periodisation: Periodisation is the cycling of the various training elements (strength, speed, endurance, flexibility etc) and variables (intensity, frequency, volume, load) over a period of time in order to ensure you peak for a particular competition or event. A well planned programme will incorporate not just periodised training but appropriate recovery planning (2).

Reactive programming

Once you have a periodised training plan, accept that there will be times when you need to deviate from it – usually because your need to recover will turn out to be different from what was anticipated. It is crucial that both coach and athlete can react flexibly and appropriately to situations that arise during the training programme. If you are tired, there is little point in training for the sake of sticking to the schedule.

Cooldown and stretch

The cooldown is a group of exercises performed immediately after training to provide a period of adjustment between exercise and rest. Its purpose is to improve muscular relaxation, remove waste products, reduce muscular soreness and bring the cardiovascular system back to rest. Stretching is often combined with the cooldown. It is common for athletes to lack sufficient flexibility to perform their sport’s movements with the greatest efficiency, so this period immediately after the main workout, in which the body temperature is still elevated, provides a good opportunity to improve your range of movement and reduce your risk of injuries (1).

Level 3 strategies

Recovery pool work

Angela Calder (1) recommends completing a 20-minute pool-based recovery session the day after a heavy training session or competition. Water is an excellent environment in which to conduct a recovery session, providing buoyancy and resistance properties that allow you to train with minimal impact on the body.

Guidelines (2)

  • Water temperature 20° to 28°C
  • Duration 10 to 20 mins
  • Intensity Light to moderate
  • Content walking (forward/backward), side steps, basic swimming strokes and aqua jogging, stretching (static and dynamic).

Compression skins

This is the latest boom business in terms of recovery, and leading sportswear manufacturers are producing garments with ‘compression qualities’. Heavy training can cause muscle damage resulting in soreness, swelling, pain and impaired athletic performance (4). Recent scientific research has indicated that external compression can be an effective treatment that minimises swelling, improves the alignment and mobility of scar tissue and improves proprioception (sense of body position in space) in an injured joint after eccentric damage and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) (4).

Ice baths/contrast bathing (hydrotherapies)

Contrast bathing: Alternating hot and cold showers/baths provides an increase in blood flow(2) to the working muscles and speeds the removal of lactic acid (1). Contrast bathing also stimulates the nervous system and helps to increase arousal, because the brain has to receive and recognise two different types of information (hot and cold).

Guidelines (1,2)

  • Complete within 30 minutes of training/competition
  • Begin and end with cold
  • Repeat the alternations 3 to 4 times
  • Temperature, cold 10° to 16°C
  • Temperature, hot 35° to 37°C
  • Shower, cold 30 to 60 secs
  • Shower, hot 1 to 2 mins
  • Bath/spa, cold 30 to 60 secs
  • Bath/spa, hot 3 to 4 mins

Cold baths (cryotherapy): Cold baths have primarily been used for their pain-relieving properties (2). But more recently the thinking is that when you plunge your body into a bath full of icy cold water, the blood vessels constrict and the blood will be drained away from the muscles that have been working (removing lactic acid). Once you get out of the bath the capillaries dilate and ‘new’ blood flows back to the muscles, bringing with it oxygen that will help the functioning of the cells. Recent research by Sam Erith at Loughborough University, UK, has shown that treatment with cryotherapy improves muscle function, reduces muscle damage and decreases soreness associated with DOMS.

Guidelines (5,6):

  • Keep body parts moving to prevent a ‘barrier’ of warm water forming around the limbs.
  • Cold temperature 5° to 15°C
  • Duration 7 to 10 minutes to cool the muscles (shorter for short-term pain relief).

Massage

While research results vary wildly, the reported physiological benefits include:

  • increased blood flow, enhanced oxygen and nutrient delivery to fatigued muscles, increased removal of lactic acid;
  • warming and stretching of soft tissues, increasing flexibility, removal of microtrauma, knots and adhesions.

Reported psychological benefits include:

  • Improved mood state;
  • Increased relaxation and feeling less fatigued.

Massage also improves your body awareness of which muscles have been stressed (1). Calder advises athletes to spend 10 minutes at the end of a training day performing some self-massage (particularly legs and shoulders) (1,2,7).

Level 4 strategies

Flotation tanks

These provide an environment with minimal stimulation (reproducing weightlessness and eliminating sound and sight). Reducing the level of stimulation to the brain allows us to focus more effectively on relaxing and becoming emotionally calm(1).

Omega wave

Analyses electrical activity in the heart and slow brain waves to provide an ‘inside look’ at how your body is functioning. You sit or lie down comfortably. Electrodes are placed on the body and the system collects data on electrical activity in the heart and on brain-wave activity, particularly very slow ‘omega’ waves. It analyses this and produces a report for the coach or athlete.

The system looks at:

  • Heart regulation. Is the heart ready to support high intensity loads, low intensity loads, or is it over-stressed, sluggish, or maladapting to previous training?
  • Which energy systems (aerobic, anaerobic) need development, which are ready for work and which are in need of further recovery?
  • The functional systems that strive for homeostasis (central nervous system, gas exchange and cardiopulmonary system, detoxification and hormonal systems).

Manufacturers claim that, armed with the relevant information, you can work out whether you have recovered from the previous day’s competition or training, which energy systems need work, which energy systems are ready to be worked, and the appropriate heart rates – for that particular day – between which you should be working your various energy systems.

It’s not an exact science, but Table 2 will give you a head start on which recovery strategy may be the most appropriate for any given type of fatigue. Remember: get the basics established before you try to get too clever.

Conclusion

Recovery cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach. It is a process that should form the cornerstone of a structured training programme, so that athletes can attain maximal physiological adaptations while reducing the risk of residual fatigue that might result in illness or injury (8).
Coaches and athletes are well advised to think about the fundamental principles relating to training and recovery in order to make an informed decision on which recovery method is the most suitable.

References

1. Calder A ‘Revive, Survive and Prosper’ in Castella, R and Clews W (eds) (1996) Smart Sport - The Ultimate Reference Manual for Sports People (chapter 7)
2. Bompa TO (1999) Periodisation - Theory and methodology of training (4th Ed)
3. Goldberg P, ‘Recovery Nutrition for Athletes’ Performance Training Journal 2004; 3(5):13-15
4. Kraemer WJ, French DN and Spiering BA ‘Compression in the treatment of acute muscle injuries in sport’ International Sports Medicine Journal 2004; 5(3):200-208
5. Bailey DM, Erith SJ, Grant N, Brewer D, Dowson T, Griffin J and Williams C ‘Influence of Cryotherapy on indices of muscle damage following prolonged intermittent shuttle-running exercise’. (in press) Journal of Sport Science
6. Erith SJ, Bailey DM, Grant N, Hupton J, Thomas A and Williams C ‘The effect of cold water immersion on indices of muscle damage following prolonged intermittent shuttle-running exercise’ (in review) Journal of Sport Science
7. Hatfield FC (1996) Fitness: The Complete Guide
8. Hawley JH and Burke (1998) L Peak Performance – Training and nutritional strategies for sport

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