Do you tackle recovery as hard as you tackle your workouts? If not, you may be selling yourself short. Your recovery should be congruent with your exercise programming, regardless of your skill level or fitness goals. Don’t skimp on this vital component – read below to determine the best way to recover.
What is Recovery?
Simply put, recovery is the physiologic and psychologic restorative period in between competition or bouts of training. From middle school to professional sports, athletes and coaches look to gain any edge that has the potential to improve performance. Recovery seems to be the next frontier.
Multifactorial in nature, a strong recovery program should include considerations for:
- The Type of event. Whether off-season training, in the middle of an 82-game season, or attending bootcamps twice each week, the volume, intensity, and duration of these events play a large role in your plan for recovery.
- The Potential for Injury. Though steps can be taken to aid in the prevention of contusions, strains, sprains, and other common injuries, the reduction of inflammation, muscle microtrauma, and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS – muscle soreness/stiffness felt 24-72 hours after strenuous activity) should also be addressed.
- Mental Health and Sleep. There are many psychological factors at play, many of which there is little to no control over. We can focus on how we respond to stressors, however. Also, the quality and duration of sleep must be optimized.
- Nutrition. The car may not arrive to its final destination without the appropriate fuel. Your body is no different.
How Do I Apply This Formula to My Training?
Now that we have defined the important components of a recovery plan, the next step is to cater it to your specific needs. This involves careful consideration of many factors that may all have an effect, good or bad, on your ability to perform at your highest level or reach fitness goals.
If your training revolves around competition, you likely have a coach or other staff member that can provide guidance in your recovery. Elite athletes may have available support 24 hours per day. As not all of us have round-the-clock access to a professional staff , it is vital to listen to your body. The process should be fluid and evolve based on your feedback. For example, if you are too sore to tie your shoes but are scheduled to squat at 90% of your max, steps should be taken to alleviate soreness and/or alter your workout programming accordingly.
Determining the best recovery plan for every possible scenario is beyond the scope of this article. The goal here is to describe options that may benefit some of the more common workout programs. Read below to learn how to apply these principles to your exercise of choice.
Endurance athletes can include cyclists, swimmers, skiers, runners, etc. These activities are typically high volume, may vary in intensity, and can be low-impact or high-impact events.
Factors related to training are easy to modify, though preparation for these activities requires large volumes for optimal performance on race day. For example, an advanced marathon training program can include 60-70 miles each week. To make this training style manageable, volume can be split across multiple days, the running surface can be varied (grass and sand are lower impact, for example, and crosstraining can further limit wear (elliptical or cycling in between days with long runs).
Aches and pains are common in the higher-impact endurance sports, though even low-impact events like swimming are not without soreness or risk for injury. There are a number of modalities that can be initiated after training, as well as on off-days.
Active recovery (general or sport-specific low-intensity training), massage, compression garments (graduated pressure sleeves for lower limbs that can aid venous return), hydrotherapy (hot, cold, or contrast immersion baths), and cryotherapy (exposure to freezing temperatures in a cold chamber) have all been shown to have variable effects on DOMS, though massage seems to be the most effective. Any of these modalities can be incorporated whether you are on a competitive team or a week-end warrior, keep in mind that they can come with a hefty price tag.
Training and events all require the competitor to cycle through any number of psychological factors, both related to the activity, as well as those that exist in day-to-day life. These factors can be stressful or motivating. Often times, exercise can provide an important escape for stress we encounter on a daily basis. Meditation and visualization can further help manage the load. If you ever feel like the stress is too much, do not hesitate to reach out to a friend, loved one, or health professional.
Sleep is vital to recovery as many physiological functions are at play during this time. Thus, steps should be made to optimize your potential for meaningful rest whether in-season or off-season. Mattresses are in the show-room for a reason, take them for a test drive before purchase. Ensure your bedroom is quiet. If it isn’t invest in ear plugs or use a white noise app. Limit screen time. ideally your bedroom should be for sleep and sex, but if you must have a TV in plain view, have a firm cut-off a couple hours before you go to sleep. Exercise can assist with a good night’s rest… if done earlier in the day. Lastly, caffeine is also better to consume earlier in the day – have a firm cut-off.
Nutrition is another key component. Naturally, a 45-year old woman interested in losing 5lbs will have a diet that differs significantly from a 26-year old NFL offensive lineman. In either case, I believe it is imperative to select a diet that consists mainly of single-ingredient, whole foods and limits the amount of sugary and overly processed items. Also, in both instances carbohydrates are an important fuel prior to activity, but also vital in replenishing muscle glycogen stores after activity. Protein is another important nutritional component that aids in muscle repair. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends protein intake to be 10-35% of total caloric intake, based on a 2000 calorie diet.
Nutritional supplementation may have a variable role in recovery as well. Adding branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA) to your recovery regimen may prevent or reduce exercise-induced muscle damage. Similarly, protein powders are a simple and effective way of increasing your protein intake. These supplements may enhance both muscle mass and performance in active individuals by assisting in muscle repair after exercise. Creatine is another popular supplement whose benefits include improvements in athletic performance, but may also have a role in post-exercise recovery and injury prevention. As DOMS may be significant at high volume exercise, these supplements can be beneficial in recovery.
Though these supplements are relatively safe to use, it is imperative to seek the opinion of a medical professional before their use.
Resistance training is another common workout of choice, and is often a component of most competitive sports and fitness programs. Again, volume, intensity, and level of impact can vary greatly depending on goals. Common goals include functional strength, hypertrophy, and power. Though certain performance goals necesitate work with large volumes. this can be altered to a larger extent when compared to training for a marathon – it is hard to run long distances if you don’t train by running long distances.
You can alter intensity and volume by varying the load, sets, and reps, as well as by managing rest in between sets. Optimizing your split, the number of days each week you train and the muscle groups you work on these days, is vital to ensuring adequate recovery. Total body workouts are challenging to incorporate into a program that has more than 3 training days, as the desired rest between working the same muscle group is not possible. If you workout 4-6 days per week, vary the muscle groups you target each day – opt for push-pull or upper-lower splits. Other considerations should include whether or not you are training in-season and if athletic practice will occur in addition to resistance training. Keep in mind that competition and practice contribute to volume, so ensure you are not over-doing it. Lastly, a recovery week is typical where strength is the main goal. This week is essentially a built-in active recovery week that typically occurs every 4 weeks or so. During this time, you work at lower loads in preparation for ramping things up the following week.
Depending on your goals, the chance for DOMS can vary greatly. Bodybuilders and powerlifters may encounter more soreness when compared to those that complete a 4 exercise circuit on machines. Nonetheless, the same modalities discussed previously are largely available. Again listen to your body and be proactive. If you have a sense that impending soreness will alter your performance, get out in front of it.
Work, school, family, and other commitments likely have similar psychological effects, regardless of performance and fitness goals. If your event of choice does not seem to at least temporarily alleviate stress, seek other forms of relief such as meditation or talking with a loved one or professional.
Sleep is just as important whether you are an Olympic lifter or simply interested in continuing to remain independent in your daily activities. You also need meaningful rest to tackle commitments outside of exercise. Make sure your bedroom is quite, dark, and around 65F. Minimize caffeine later in the day and try to knock out your training early.
Nutrition remains vital as muscle is broken down and in need of repair. My recommendation is to select a diet that consists mainly of single-ingredient, whole foods in which complex carbohydrates, lean protein and healthy fats are the focus. Again, carbs are important to provide energy and replace stores that have been burned up with strenuous activity while protein is helpful in repairing damaged muscle. Percentages of these macronutrients may vary person-to-person and also depend on goals. For example, though The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends protein intake at 10-35% of total caloric intake, many bodybuilding athletes believe consuming 2x your bodyweight to be the ideal target. Again, DOMS can be significant when training at heavy loads. Adding protein, BCAA, and creatine can aid in performance, as well as recovery time. Seek medical advice before using and check to see that they are free of banned substances.
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
Not to be confused with interval or circuit training, HIIT is specifically cycling through a select number of exercises for a predetermined time interval at maximal (or near max) intensity. As always, the desired exercises can vary from low-impact (elliptical or rower sprints) to high-impact (weighted jump squats).
Total body workouts are common though not required. If opting for a complete workout, use HIIT nor more than 3 days each week with cardio or other forms of low to moderate intensity movements on off-days. For splits with 4 days or more, select specific muscle groups to target or alternate upper and lower body days.
Though time in the gym and volume may be a fraction of what is typical in other modes of exercise, the potential for DOMS and other aches and pains can be substantial depending on you exercise selection. Again, dietary supplementation may be beneficial, though medical opinion should be sought.
As always, listen to your body. Memberships are available for various recovery modalities that include cold and hot water baths, as well as cryotherapy chambers. Additionally, most spas offer massage packages.
The psychological component and need for sleep remains an important component for this type of exercise. The nutritional component is variable as seen in other modes of exercise and personal goals. Optimize mental health, rest, and nutrition per the previous recommendations.
The Take Home Message
Whether optimizing performance or your ability to reach fitness goals, careful considerations regarding recovery must be addressed. Make sure that your level of recovery is inline with your level of training. For the best results, manage the following components and tailor recovery to your specific needs.
- Know your event. Manage volume, intensity, and duration – don’t overdo it.
- Listen to your body. Be proactive and address DOMS before it occurs. Massage is superior, hydro and cryotherapy can also help address soreness.
- Mental Health and Sleep. Optimize your mental well-being and your ability to achieve meaningful rest. Meditate, visualize, and seek help.
- Nutrition. Provide your body the fuel it needs to perform and restore. Opt for a single-ingredient, whole food diet where complex carbs, lean protein, and healthy fats are the focus. Protein, BCAA, and creatine supplementation may aid recovery. Seek the advice of a medical professional before use and check to see if they are free from banned substances, like this recovery formula.
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Author: Dr. Anthony Dugarte, M.D. C.S.C.S.
Dr. Anthony Dugarte has enjoyed success in academics, as well as collegiate sports. He accepted a full athletic scholarship to attend Kent State University and graduated, Cum Laude, with a B.S. in Exercise Physiology. While at Kent, Dr. Dugarte was a member of the Golden Flash Football Team and earned Academic All-American Honors as a defensive lineman.
Prior to continuing his education, Dr. Dugarte worked as an Exercise Physiologist in an outpatient physical therapy. During this time, he became a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and now boasts over 10 years’ experience in the field.
A 2016 graduate, Dr. Dugarte obtained his medical training at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. Most recently, Dr. Dugarte completed a postgraduate Research Fellowship in Orthopaedic Trauma at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota. While a fellow, he garnered invaluable experience in virtually every aspect of the research process. While he plans to continue his training in an Orthopaedic Surgery residency, Dr. Dugarte is passionate about sharing the knowledge he has acquired through creative and technical writing.