If your goals include performance improvements such as running faster or getting stronger, how you train is not the only consideration. Whether you’re a competitive or a recreational athlete, a 20-year-old or an 80-year-old, there will be times when you hit a plateau and wonder what you need to do differently.
More training does not always mean more improvements. Many things happen to the body during and after exercise. There may be brain chemical changes, damage to muscle cells, fatigue, depletion of electrolytes, glycogen and fluids, and psychological changes. Most exercise-induced adaptations occur during recovery, not during exercise. Recovery allows your body to heal damaged tissues and replenish energy stores. Recovery is essential for optimal performance and improvement.
Short-term recovery is when you give yourself a brief respite between sets or intervals. For example, after a set of 12 repetitions of hamstring curls, you rest for a minute then proceed to the second set. Without a short rest, your leg muscles would be unable to perform the second set and overall you’d feel too fatigued.
One of the most overlooked types of recovery is training recovery. This is a period of time that you abstain from an activity. For example, after a full-body strength training workout, your body may require 48 hours to recover. Depending on the volume and intensity of the exercise as well as individual factors, you may need more time. If you don’t allow yourself a proper training recovery period, you may perform sub-optimally, fail to improve or experience injuries. When my clients are unable to perform optimally, it’s typically because they haven’t recovered properly.
Besides refraining from a particular activity, you should also consider other activities that can impede recovery. One of my clients was feeling so confident and energetic from her training sessions that she decided to move heavy furniture and steam clean her carpets on her recovery days. Then she wondered why she was feeling weaker and experiencing joint pain when she came back to train with me at her next session. If you’re lifting weights as part of your workouts, your recovery days should exclude other types of activities that involve heavy lifting. Progressive overload during resistance training (forcing your body to do more than it’s accustomed to) is necessary for performance improvements such as getting stronger or bigger muscles; overtraining impairs performance.
What can you do besides rest to maximize the effects of your recovery periods? Experiment with different recovery lengths. If you’re a recreational runner, you may need several days after a run to have an equal or better time on your next run. Some people run almost every day, thinking that more is better, but science has shown otherwise. Tapering is an effective recovery strategy for duration training such as long-distance running or cycling. Tapering means you revise your training schedule by reducing the volume while maintaining the intensity; for example, fewer long runs in the weeks prior to a race. It may seem counterintuitive, but tapering can significantly improve performance.
Make sure you don’t become dehydrated. Drink plenty of water throughout the day. After an endurance competition or a gruelling workout, you can restore your electrolytes and carbohydrates with sports drinks or chocolate milk. Water is suitable for the average exerciser following a moderate workout. A post-workout protein-rich snack will help with muscle rebuilding.
Research into the benefits of active recovery strategies on performance has shown ineffectiveness or inconsistencies. For example, massage therapy, cold baths or over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications may provide psychological benefits, but no clear-cut benefits have been demonstrated as far as subsequent performance goes.
If doing nothing is not in your vocabulary, you can cross-train on recovery days. For example, walking, running, swimming or cycling the day after strength training allows you to condition and reduce stress on different muscle groups. If you feel really tired out from exercise, you can do gentle yoga. Don’t feel guilty about doing absolutely nothing. Just be sure you stay focused on your goals, eat well and get a good night’s sleep.
The most important take-away lesson is to allow your body adequate time to recover between exercise sessions, regardless of the type of exercise. Take into consideration how long you’ve been exercising, past experience with recovery and any other individual factors such as your fitness level, health issues and age. You’ll experience more consistent improvements if you balance your motivation to exercise with a willingness to allow your body to recuperate.