The Science of Recovery
Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part article on recovery. Part one presents an overview of the importance of rest and recovery. Part two summarizes the signs and symptoms of fatigue and the challenges that undermine our attempts to quantify athletes' recovery status. And part three introduces the first reasonable (inexpensive, valid, simple and intuitive) tool to accurately quantify recovery; www.RestWise.com
Authors: Matthew Weatherley-White, Jeff Hunt & Dr. Vern Neville
Tel: (+1) 978-371-1433
Part 1: The role of recovery in Performance.
As athletes we all understand the importance of recovery..., or do we?
Recovery plays a role in every training program, whether intentional or not. Every athlete who has trained hard and experienced fatigue the following day understands that the body's resources are finite. Few of us, however, approach recovery with the same intentionality with which we approach training. The result is a failure to effectively utilise recovery, not only to prepare for the next training session, but to increase performance.
One of the more common misconceptions in sport is that since performance gains are derived from hard training, the more one trains the greater the potential for improvement. Wrong! Yes, hard training is necessary to stress the body and initiate the adaptation processes which lead to fitness and performance gains. And yes, hard training could be important in psychologically preparing an athlete for the stress of competition. But the fact that most athletes alternate high load training with lighter training sessions, and include more recovery after tough competitions (or hard training blocks), demonstrates the need for recovery. Without sufficient recovery the body is not be able to respond consistently and predictably. As a result, training quality and competition performance will likely be compromised.
"Recovery isn't just important, it's a biological necessity"
- Dr. Vern Neville (Loughborough University)
The human body is a robust structure that continually strives to maintain a state of homeostasis by responding to overcome stress. This is the basis of training adaptation which forms the foundation for all training protocols, and which is divided into three distinct phases (Figure 1). The first phase is the application of training stress, resulting in fatigue and reduced performance. The second phase is the recovery period when the body attempts to overcome and adapt to the stress of training. Phase three is an adaptive rebound above baseline fitness as the body attempts to regain homeostasis. This rebound is often referred to as "supercompensation".
The aim of this article is to highlight the fact that although training is a necessary stress, to maximize performance requires optimizing the relationship between rest and recovery. It is not how hard one trains that ultimately determines performance, but how smart one trains.
From this, one could conclude that effective training is relatively simple. All one need do is train hard to create the required stress to initiate adaptation and then allow time for the adaptation to occur. True, but... the recovery process becomes complex when one considers that training affects many different energy systems within the body, each requiring a different period of recovery. Furthermore, non-training related stress (daily life; social stress; travel and environmental stress; etc) can substantially influence an athlete's recovery needs. Recovery requirements may therefore vary considerably between identical training sessions executed at different times. Understanding and implementing optimal recovery is thus a necessary, but challenging part of an effective training plan - optimal recovery will eventually determine the degree to which adaptation (fitness gains) occurs.
In summary, it is not the training load that ultimately determines performance, but rather the precise balance between training load and optimal recovery. Too much recovery and one may be under-training, and too little recovery introduces the very real risk of over-training.
First, let's look at two scenarios; both are represented by simplified periodization plans (Figure 2 and Figure 3). The blue shaded areas represent periods of intense or high-load training, the yellow areas represent periods of rest and recovery and the horizontal line represents baseline fitness. If the relationship between training and recovery is such that each period of training is followed by an adequate (optimal) period of recovery then the athlete will experience a gradual improvement in performance (Figure 2). A well-structured program - with an optimal training load/recovery ratio - will set the foundations for satisfaction, enjoyment, a positive relationship with the activity and, likely, increased performance.
Conversely, if the training load is increased relative to recovery (or recovery is inadequate), the ratio between training load and recovery becomes unbalanced (Figure 3), leading to a gradual reduction in performance, increased stress, an increased risk of injury and illness and, ultimately, Over Training Syndrome.
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