By Julie Gooderick (MSc, Bsc Hons, ASCC)
The process of recovery following training is important in the potential success or failure of the training stimulus. Improvements in fitness- strength, endurance and all other components – occur during the recovery time between workouts, not during the time spent under the bar or pounding the treadmill.
So why is it so common for people to give extensive consideration to what they will actually do in the exercise sessions, but no considerations for how they will optimise their recovery and adaptation to that carefully considered workout? Often so much time is spent overcomplicating the exercise process; what speed shall I perform this lift at, what percentage of my 1RM, what time is best to train, shall I do this on one leg or two…. All important factors but not the full picture. As with most things to do with training, optimising your recovery starts with getting the most simple things right.
Plan the loading of your week/month
Basic periodisation. Regardless of whether you are an elite athlete, a coach or just someone who enjoys the gym, considering some basic periodisation will enhance your workouts in terms of productivity within sessions and outcomes at the end of a time period. Getting the balance of volume, intensity and rest right is the first step to ensuring proper recovery between sessions. If your training high volume every day, all year with no let up, all the recovery modalities in the world will not counteract it.
At the most basic level of periodisation, consider your week. If you’re somebody who trains 6 days a week, intensity will alternate on different days, with maybe two high intensity days, two low and two medium. That’s a starting point. Obviously it is useful to have a picture of goals for the months or year also, and different training focuses will impact on the the intensity structure of your week. (DoTraining will have a future article on the basic guide to periodisation so be sure to check it out)
In today’s busy lifestyle, sleep is often something we sacrifice to make way for other “more important” things. Sleep has been shown to improve cognitive, psychological, immunological, metablic and neuro-chemical functioning… Simply put, it helps with a lot of things in our body and optimises our functioning on a lot of levels. So in reality, it should be one of the last things we sacrifice when our lives are getting too full. The amount of sleep we need is variable for individuals, but generally between 7-9 hours has been shown to be optimal for adults. In times of higher stress, for example, illness, work stress or high intensity exercise – longer sleep patterns have been associated with an increased recovery capacity and a faster return to full psychological and physiological function.
In terms of assisting with our recovery from training- induced stress, during the first wave of sleep, growth hormone is secreted. Growth hormone stimulates cell reproduction and regeneration, as is important for tissue repair following exercise induced trauma. Additionally, a lack of sleep has been associated with increased cortisol levels. Cortisol can be considered “ the stress hormone” and reduces protein synthesis and tissue growth. Which in simple terms, means you may be spending hour after hour lifting heavy weights with the aim of putting on some muscle size, but without adequate sleep, the results you want may not happen, may take longer and probably leave you feeling frustrated and stressed.
Sleeping well has to become a habit. Too many people use of the excuse of “I can’t go to sleep early”. I’m sure when you first started out in a gym, you said “ I can’t lift 100kg” as well. Like anything else, it comes with practice and has to become a habit. A good winding down routine at the end of the day can help; reading, stretching, talking (not television, too bright and stimulating!), and help you to feel like sleeping. Our bodies are sensitive to light and too much light during sleeping can results in increased Cortisol levels. When darkness occurs, Melatonin is released, which is a hormone which makes us feel less alert and increases our desire to sleep. Make sure you are sleeping in a well darkened room and avoid unwinding in the evening in bright lights.
Minimize stress and adapt your training
Most people (unless you lead an extremely charmed life) have multiple areas of stress in their life. Work, family, finances and many other pressures can lead to us having high levels of stress hormones, which is counterproductive to the process of training and recovery. The reality is, that you are unlikely to get away from all stress in your life, however non-training related stressors do need to be considered in the process of training and recovery. If you know you have had a particularly stressful few days at work, and have scheduled a high intensity training session for that evening, it is likely to be unproductive, and the recovery time from it will be significantly increased. Consider how you feel, and adapt programmes if necessary. Just because a stress is non-training related, does not mean it will not have impact on training related factors.
Getting these basic considerations right will markedly improve your recovery time between workouts as well as leave you feeling fresher for the actual workout itself. It is tempting to see highly marketed, “super” recovery strategies as a quick fix, to speed up your recovery and maximise your work capacities. For example, the ease of sticking on a compression garment after training, whilst going out late, burning the candle at both ends and living the high life, seems a much more fun option than actually improving your lifestyle and training habits with these three basic ideas. However, a lot of these highly marketed, recently popularised strategies are under-researched, and have been shown to be effective only for very specific groups following specific types of training. It needs to be understood that cutting edge recovery interventions will not out manoeuvre a poor lifestyle and poor training habits. Get your recovery basics right and enjoy your improvements in recovery time between sessions, training capacities and productivity within sessions.