Recovery – It’s part of the program

Nov 28, 2019

Lets start with the definition of training. This a definition from a different perspective.

Training:  The exercise and its matching recovery; whether it is a single repetition, a single session or a group of sessions. There is always a corresponding recovery. Exercise without recovery is worthless.

The exercising component is just one part of it, the part that puts the stress on the body, pushing the muscles, tendons, ligaments, nervous system and brain to the edge. In a sense, tearing the body down. The recovery is the part where adaption takes place, rebuilding and repairing, making the body stronger and more resilient, because it knows, there will be a next time.

In this article I am going to cover three main points:

  • The effects of exercise on the body
  • How recovery affects the body during and after exercise
  • Recovery methods

Man resting

The effects of exercise on the body

In simple terms, training is a process of stimulus and adaption. Depending on how the training is manipulated to achieve the adaption you want, sets the stage for what recoveries will be needed during your workout and what recovery is needed before the next workout. When I build training plans there is a lot of variety since everyone who has a goal, has a beginning season, mid-season and competition season. Sessions cannot be the same at the beginning of season as they are at the end season since the adaptations that we want will be different, and so will the recovery needs. Let’s get into the meat of this article which is about recovery and look at how balancing recovery in your training program improves performance.

How recovery affects the body during and after exercise

During recovery, muscles repair and physiological systems that were taxed recover. In the process of recovery and repair the body also adapts those parts to work more efficiently, so when undertaking the same stresses of the previous exercise, the exercise becomes easier.

We consider three recoveries in a training plan: the recovery during exercise sessions, the recovery after the exercise session (before the next session) and periodised recoveries.

1. Recovery during exercise sessions During certain sessions there is a need for a recovery period, whether it be the downhill jaunt of a hill session or a short recovery between lactate threshold runs. Modifying the amount of rest (intervals) you have between repeats changes the overall intensity of the session, and changing the intensity changes the effects on the physiological system, in the end changing the role the exercise will play in the adaption process i.e. what benefit may come of the session. Let’s put this into perspective – what benefits do we receive from different rest periods?

  • Shorts rests – Promote nervous system communication, faster brain to muscle impulses, faster muscle contractions for faster running, more forceful muscle contractions for improved stride power and efficiency, fatigue resistance.
  • Medium rests – The intensity of the session is lower, allowing for longer or more repeats which builds specific endurance and makes for more fatigue resistant muscles.
  • Longer rests – Repeats are done maximally. Relying on longer rest provides the body full recovery before doing the next maximal repeat. These are also for neuromuscular improvements and power improvements.

2. Recovery after exercise sessions Your recovery after exercise is of the most importance because this is the time you give your broken body to repair itself. The time alotted for and the type of recovery before your next session depends on where the athlete is in their training block. The body starts with muscle repair and the nervous system adapts itself better to handle future exercise bouts.

3. Periodised recoveries (reload weeks) These are the recovery weeks built into specific training blocks. These recovery weeks are not designed to completely rest the athlete but just to lower distances and mileage while raising exercise intensities in quality sessions. Because of these weekly mileage and distance cuts, the volume of recovery between the more intense sessions are inevitably increased. The effect of periodised recoveries is to shock the body. This inhibits the bodies intention to plateau, in a sense removing it from its comfort zone. The reload week also allows for a larger window for recovery, preparing the body for a new training block.

Now that we have dealt with how the body is affected by recovery, we move onto recovery methods. What can we do during our recoveries to get the best benefits from exercise?

Methods of recovery

There are two mainstream types of recoveries -complete resting recovery and active recovery.

Complete resting recovery is exactly what is says – sit on the couch, sleep, whatever it is, just rest properly.

Active recovery could be anything from an easy jog to an upper body strength session. This recovery keeps the body moving, yet still keeps the heart rate down and muscles stay in easy mode, allowing time to recover. It must be said though that active recovery allows for slower recoveries, while complete resting recoveries allow the body to fully recover. A we go through the methods, active recovery and complete resting recovery will be attributed to each.

Let’s start with those recoveries we take during are exercise sessions.

Resting Recoveries: These are common to high intensity sessions or maximal (full out) sessions. These recoveries are taken at complete rest, just standing around, getting the heart rate as low as possible before hitting the next repeat.

Active Recoveries:  These recoveries are common to longer sessions such as tempo sessions, active recoveries also feature in fartlek sessions and hill repeats.

There are other ways to implement both these types of recoveries and your coach could chop and change and add each one anywhere he sees fit and where the benefit would be best. I am combining the post exercise and periodised recovery methods as these methods would be used in both.

Cool downs: These are active recoveries. A slow jog or walk at the end of your session starts the recovery process, from clearing excess lactate from the muscles and improving blood flow, to the static stretching at the end of the session which helps reset the body to its natural posture after such a dynamic exercise as running.

Post exercise nutrition: Studies have shown that consuming a high protein meal within 30 minutes after the session will increase speed with muscle recovery. Since damaged muscle fibres constitute a loss in protein, the best possible way to replace this protein is through the intake of protein. This can be done by eating a meal high in protein or a muscle protein replacement supplement. In the time after that all the body’s nutrition needs must also be taken care of to make sure balance is once again acquired, including re-hydration, carbohydrate replenishment, vitamin and mineral replenishments. Athletes always prioritise putting their feet up and forget that nutritional recovery is one of the most important factors in recovery. Don’t let it slide.

Complete rest: Besides just sitting down on the couch or laying down and having a nap, here are some useful recovery methods that could hasten your recovery.

  • A foot spa– Look after your feet and give them the attention they deserve. In an endurance race or long training session, you are on them for hours, continuously throwing 2 to 3 times your body weight onto them. If you don’t have a foot spa, just get a bowl, fill it with moderately hot water and some re-energising salts and soak them. Ladies, don’t rasp your feet, the callouses on the bottom of your feet are created on purpose to create hard skin where rubbing occurs.
  • Sports massages: There are many types of sports massage including regular massage, deep tissue, lyno therapy etc. All sport massages will have the following benefits:
    • Improved blood flow – Massage dilates blood vessels, allowing all those important nutrients to pass through easier.
    • Improved tissues elasticity – Hard training makes for inelastic muscle tissues. Massage will aid in improving elasticity.
    • Stretching – Bundles of muscle fibres are stretched.
    • Pain reduction: Massage helps reduce pain in muscles by reducing tension and releasing the body’s natural pain killers and anti-inflammatories.
    • Anti-anxiety and Invigoration: Massage aids in relaxation and gives you that all around great feeling.
  • Foam rolling:This is really self-massage and should be adopted as part of recovery. Foam rolling is great for getting the smaller and quicker version of a massage therapist and can be added as part of your post workout cool down.
  • The swimming pool or ice bath:Research has shown that taking a dip, or the more extreme ice bath, can significantly reduce pain and inflammation for up to 24hrs after exercise.
  • Rest and sleep:Sleeping bodies heal faster. Make sure you get good quality sleep so that you can wake up feeling fresh, invigorated and ready for the day.

 Active Recovery: In between high intensity workouts, active recoveries can also be scheduled. These can come in the form of easy runs, strength sessions, cycling, swimming, rowing etc. These easy workouts keep the muscles in an easy-active state, promoting blood flow and keeping the recovery clock ticking.

In conclusion…. matching the specific exercise rep, session or training block with its appropriate recovery to balance your training plan is very important. Failure to do so will cause under training or over training, neither of which will be beneficial to your goals. Your coach will understand the importance of the balance needed between exercise and recovery and know exactly where to put each. They understand the physiology of the body, the nervous system and will implement the best possible training plan to get you to your goal. Remember your recovery is part of your training so take it as seriously as you do your training.

Clinton Hunter

Coach Clint is a qualified running coach based in Johannesburg. He trains athletes of all levels from complete beginners to top athletes in disciplines from track athletics to ultra running on road and trail. He is also passionate about Running form & Posture, training the mind, functional and sport conditioning and fitness training. Read more about Coach Clint here


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