There can be no doubt that the effort you put in to your training largely determines the results you acquire. Whilst there is no secret to success in terms of exercise and results, we all know that working hard will generally get you one step closer to your training goal. Be it increased energy, greater levels of endurance, enhanced muscle tone or simply improved health, there is no better alternative to a structured and effective exercise routine.
It is vital to remember that your results are actually influenced during the time in between your exercise sessions and not just during the time you spend lifting weights or running on a treadmill. In fact, many experts suggest that the time between your exercise sessions is actually more important than that when you exercise. At the elite level of sport and exercise you will often find coaches and conditioners spending more time and putting more effort in to the planning of an effective recovery strategy than they do planning the actual exercise and training of their athletes. Tour de France legend Lance Armstrong has been quoted “recovery is the name of the game… whoever recovers the fastest does the best”. And when you are performing at the highest level and the highest intensity you can be assured that successful recovery is key to success.
During the recovery process the body adapts to the stress of exercise in what is referred to as the ‘principle of adaptation’. This states that when we undergo the stress of physical exercise, our body adapts and becomes more efficient. This is very similar to learning a new skill – at first it’s difficult, but over time it gets progressively easier as you repeat the same skill. Once you adapt to a given stress (load), you require additional stress (overload) to continue to make progress. In exercise terms, this may mean lifting heavier weights or running a further. Without a gradual increase or overload of the exercise stimulus (running, lifting weights etc) and the body’s ability to adapt and recover, your progress will be slow and often insignificant.
Recovery also allows the body to replenish energy stores and repair damaged tissues. Exercise or any other physical work causes changes in the body such as muscle tissue breakdown and the depletion of energy stores (muscle glycogen). Recovery time allows these stores to be replenished and allows tissue repair and growth to occur, hopefully resulting in your improved ability to perform. Without sufficient time to repair and replenish, the body will continue to breakdown and may even reverse the effects of exercise.
Unfortunately, recovery doesn’t just mean sitting in front of the TV with your feet up reflecting on what was a fantastic workout. There are a number of important factors to consider under the umbrella of recovery and all should be considered to ensure you make the most of the valuable time between exercise.
Overtraining Syndrome (OTS)
One simple way to recover faster is by designing an intelligent and effective workout routine that provides you with progressive adaptations and allows you to continually perform at your best. Excessive physical overload and poorly planned recovery can often lead to a condition referred to as ‘overtraining syndrome’ or ‘OTS’. Whilst pushing the body hard enough is essential for instigating the ‘principle of adaptation’, pushing too hard may result in reduced performance, interrupted training or even physical and mental illness.
Effective physical conditioning requires a balance between overload and recovery. Too much overload and/or too little recovery may result in both physical and psychological symptoms of OTS. In the worst case scenario, you may actually find continued training results in diminished returns, and performance levels progressively deteriorate. The line between sufficient levels of overload and overtraining is a very fine one, making it particularly difficult to know when you should take a step back and slow down.
To avoid overtraining you need to understand your body and how it adapts to exercise. But the most effective tactic is to make sure you plan and periodise your training schedule to allow for full recovery and progressive adaptation. Whilst strategies for implementing effective recovery within your training routine are varied and should be tailored to the individual, some key principles include:
1. Plan in rest days: as we know, the body can keep growing for up to 48 hours after a training session, so don’t feel like you need to exercise every day and take a full day off.
2. Allow for easy training days: reduce the volume of work you perform once a week to allow your body to catch up and recover.
3. Mix up your routine: you might find one particular style of exercise suits you best, but repetitive stresses and strains from that style can suit escalate to injury. Try and mix up what you do with new exercises every 2-4 weeks.
4. Consider regeneration weeks: consider having a full week or fortnight completely away from any form of exercise. If you have gained a good level of fitness your body will cope just fine and you will hit the gym on your return with twice the energy.
5. Reduce your training load percentage: dedicated athletes will strategically plan to increase their workload by 30% each week. However, don’t feel you need to progress all year round and introduce sporadic phases of lower level training.
6. Balance training with recovery: if, for whatever reason, you have a particularly heavy training week you must ensure that you give your body a suitable amount of time to recover. Essentially, there is little wrong with periodic ‘overtraining’ as long as it is followed by a suitable recuperation period.
There are a number of key signs of overtraining including (but not limited to):
Should you notice any of these, you should take an objective look at your training schedule and judge if it is too much…this highlights the importance of keeping a detailed training journal, recording your exercise load and the progression you have made on a weekly basis.
Complimenting your training plan with a detailed and precise nutrition plan will undoubtedly help you achieve your training goals more effectively whilst resulting in a healthier and more capable athlete.
Within nutrition, a number of strategies have been developed over the years to speed up the recovery process, not only to ensure athletes recover quicker between competitions but also to ensure their body develops in parallel to the effort they put in to their physical training. One of the most interesting areas covered has been ‘nutrient timing’. A well documented theory suggests that there is a limited amount of time, directly after training, in which an athlete should look to replenish their glycogen stores and increase glycogen synthesis. If this is achieved, you are more likely to replenish energy stores within your muscle and also fuel the recovery process where the growth of new tissue occurs. This is largely due to increased insulin sensitivity and the fact that glycogen levels can largely influence the secretion of hormones associated with muscle growth.
Without adequate nutrition, the period immediately after strength and endurance training can be largely catabolic where muscles continue to break down much like they do when you are actually training. To convert this period from catabolic to anabolic, it has been suggested that you should consume a carbohydrate and protein supplement at a ratio of 2:1 (carbohydrates: protein), within the first 45 minutes directly after exercise. Products like Recovery XS and Recovery Evo are specifically designed to combine rapidly absorbed sources of protein and carbohydrates whilst also providing electrolytes to replace the salts you lose through sweating. After this initial nutrient intake, it is then recommended to consume slower digesting protein and carbohydrate sources (such as Milk Protein Smooth and Instant Oats ) at least twice over the next 6 hours, at a ratio of 1:1 (carbohydrate: protein).
Another nutrition strategy for recovery is to introduce antioxidants to your diet, specifically during and after exercise. During exercise, you burn off large amounts of energy whilst consuming large volumes of oxygen. This can lead to increased levels of oxidative stress which may ultimately reduce performance and increase muscle tissue damage. Specific free radical scavenging vitamins such as Vitamin C and Vitamin E can help reduce muscle soreness after exercise and also reduce markers of oxidative stress. However, new evidence suggests these vitamins should be combined with phytochemical rich foods such as fruit and vegetables. Superfood XS provides massive antioxidant protection, whilst other plant extracts such as Trans Resveratrol are extremely effective and powerful sources of antioxidants.
The bottom line is the body does not get fitter through exercise; it gets fitter through recovering from exercise. Avoiding ‘overtraining’ and periodising your routine to offer progressive overload is essential whilst manipulating your diet can also enhance the recovery process. In addition to these strategies, we can also shape our recovery process in order to provide greater results and this can be done through to further concepts; ‘active’ and ‘passive’ recovery.
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. During sleep a number of hormonal changes occur in which your body adapts and grows to the stresses it has undertaken during the day. The quality of your sleep determines the regulation of various growth compounds such as melatonin, growth hormone, testosterone, insulin and cortisol. All of these compounds play vital roles in improving your physical capabilities with their balance and production being seriously hampered through poor sleep. Deep, regular and uninterrupted sleep is vital for anyone who takes part in physical exercise and who wishes to make the most of the training they perform.Sleepmax is a great tool for optimal response to sleep, maximising muscle growth, and increasing physical well being. Other forms of ‘passive’ recovery include reading, listening to music and flotation. Unfortunately, sitting back and relaxing has not been proven to be the most effective form of recovery training directly after exercise…although it is definitely recommended on recovery or non training days.
A more advanced and scientifically approved method of recovery training is that of ‘active’ recovery, where the athlete continues to exercise but at a much reduced rate. A number of studies have shown that some form of ‘active’ recovery can help reduce lactate levels in the blood much more effectively than ‘passive’ recovery. Ideally, the form of ‘active’ recovery you employ should be very specific to the exercise you have performed, or at least using the same muscle groups. For example, runners should look to either jog or walk for at least 15 minutes to help bring the body back to its resting state and effectively flush out toxins such as lactic acid. Further methods of ‘active’ recovery include pool work where the athlete has the buoyancy and resistance of water to provide an ideal environment for low level exercise. Usually performed the day after training, it is recommended to exercise for around 15 minutes performing manoeuvres such as walking (forward/backward), side steps, basic swimming strokes and jogging. This technique will also allow your body to actively remove harmful toxins from your muscles.
As recovery continues to grow in terms of importance every sport scientist, conditioner and coach is looking for the most effective techniques to provide the greatest results from physical exercise. What we’ve looked at and discussed already are staple strategies for any recovery process, however there are a number of small techniques which can also be incorporated depending on your access to equipment and time.
Stretching is one of the oldest forms of recovery and is certainly an effective way of improving muscular relaxation, removing waste products, reducing muscular soreness and bringing the cardiovascular system back to rest. Stretches should be static and within your acceptable range of motion. Try holding them for at least 20 seconds.
2. Ice Baths
Ice baths are a recent phenomenon which involves plunging your body into a bath full of icy cold water. The theory suggests your 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.
3. Contrast Bathing
Contrast bathing involves the use of immersing yourself in hot water quickly followed by cold water. This provides an increase in blood flow to the working muscles and speeds the removal of lactic acid. Contrast bathing also stimulates the nervous system and helps to increase arousal, in comparison to the usual and often dangerous sedate feeling following exercise.
Massage is another common form of exercise often used by elite athletes and those with access to a qualified sports masseur. As wonderful and enjoyable as it is, this may not be the best form of recovery but theorised effects include increased blood flow, enhanced oxygen and nutrient delivery to fatigued muscles, increased removal of lactic acid, increased flexibility and removal of microtrauma, knots and adhesions.
So, if you don’t already employ a structured recovery programme and you do take part in regular exercise, then hopefully the above should give you an insight in to effective and scientifically researched strategies. The key to any recovery programme though is that one size does not fit all and you should experiment until you find something that works for you.