Training is intense. It’s a constant battle to out-perform your previous efforts in the quest for improvement. In the gym, this might be done by increasing weight, sets or reps. For an endurance athlete, increasing distance or decreasing time are the usual goals. A surfer might increase their time on the water, or aim to catch more waves within a session to objectively monitor their improvement. However, amidst the excitement of chasing PR’s, it’s easy to overlook one of the most important training variables: recovery.
NOT training is a hugely important, yet underrated, part of your training. Now, exercise is usually considered the best way to get healthier, stronger, faster and become more of a badass. And this is completely true - in the long-term. In the short-term, exercising has the opposite effect. You deplete your body of energy, create micro-trauma within your tissues and ultimately come out of a training session weaker and slower than you were when you went in (don’t worry, there’s no negative effect on your badassery). The beneficial changes only begin after the training session as your body recovers. Your body adapts to the training stress and prepares to handle a similar stress more efficiently in the future. Without an adequate recovery period, you’re impeding those positive physical adaptations and potentially setting yourself up for injury.
Recovery is multifactorial which makes it difficult to set hard and fast rules on appropriate rest times following a training session. Here are some general guidelines that should be taken into consideration:
Type of Training:
Resistance training aims to create damage in the muscle to stimulate growth. This damage requires time to heal before you should workout again. A good general rule of thumb is 24-48 hours of rest before training a muscle group again. However, every individual differs and some people can still have increased intramuscular inflammation up to 72 hours after training. This is where a structured workout plan can work wonders. By breaking up your workouts to target different muscle groups on different days, you can still work out frequently while still suitably recovering between sessions.
Endurance training doesn’t cause as much muscular damage but does deplete the energy stores within your body. These energy stores should be fully replenished to optimize performance in the next training session. Endurance activities also tend to by repetitive which can cause wear and tear on joints and tissues. Knees, shoulders and hips in particular all need adequate time to recover from each bout of activity or you can increase your risk of overuse injuries like tendinopathies, patella-femoral syndrome and shoulder impingement.
Most sports require a combination of strength, endurance and skill-specific training. These can be trained in isolated or combined training sessions which will affect the necessary post-training recovery time.
Intensity and Duration:
This should be fairly obvious but your recovery will depend on how long and how hard you train. While longer workouts are generally more strenuous and will require more recovery, intensity is likely the more important factor. Something like 10 minutes of high-intensity interval training will require more recovery than an easy 20 minute jog. Similarly, heavy strength training will impose increased recovery demands vs training with light to moderate loads. You may lift fewer total repetitions in a training session but the heavier weight will trump the increased volume in terms of recovery. The same applies for sports training. You rarely practice at the same intensity you play, so recovery following games will need to be longer than after a practise session.
In general, with higher levels of physical exertion, expect to incorporate longer recovery times.
Training volume is the accumulated amount of training over a given period of time (weeks, months or years). Even if your recovery is on point on a day-to-day basis, that schedule may not be sustainable for a 6 or 12 month period. Having de-load or rest weeks programmed into your training can give your body a longer chance to recover and physically prepare you for the next training cycle.
Sleep is another massive but often overlooked factor in recovery. As far as we know, the whole purpose of sleep is to provide an uninterrupted opportunity for our body to rest and rejuvenate. Regardless of how well you’re managing every other variable of your training, not consistently getting an appropriate amount of sleep is a surefire way to halt your progress. Aiming for a solid 8 hours per night is the best way to ensure you’re meeting your recovery demands.
Training of any kind uses energy which we need to replace. Healthy, nutrient rich foods are the obvious best choice in this department. Tailoring your dietary requirements to your type of training will also be beneficial. Strength training will require a higher protein intake to repair and build muscle while endurance activities will demand increased carbohydrate intake to restock energy supplies.
To fully understand your recovery needs, you need to consider factors outside your training. An holistic view of your day-to-day life may illuminate other aspects influencing your training. For example, an office worker's recovery demands will be different than someone who works a more physically intensive job. Shift workers will have constantly changing schedules that training will need to be planned around. Someone training for a triathlon needs to recognize the physical exertion of their weekend soccer game with their mates and factor that into their overall recovery. Even running around with your kids or dog each day can accumulate some extra exertion that should be noted and accounted for.
As a final note, the purpose of this blog isn’t to justify a 2 km run followed by a 6-day Netflix binge in the name of recovery. Recovery can come in different forms and doesn’t necessarily mean rest. If the training sessions are frequent and highly intense, complete rest may be appropriate. In most cases, active recovery strategies will be the most beneficial. Active recovery can include any activity that doesn’t compete or conflict with your training demands. This can be as simple as some mobility work, or an easy walk or surf on your “off” days. As long as the intensity is sufficiently diluted, any activity that promotes movement and general fitness can help to maximise the recovery process.
Determining your individual recovery needs is best done by considering the “big picture”. Recognize the above factors and determine which are strong and which ones could use improvement. Address any weak points and plan your recovery as systematically as you would your training. Incorporating pre-planned recovery strategies into your training will promote consistent, long-term development and prevent overtraining, plateauing, overuse injuries, and burnout. If you really want to improve, try putting some serious effort into NOT-training!
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