Whereas many books have been written about training, very few books have been written about recovery.
As we know recovery is an essential part of training, it takes place in the period of time after the actual workout. It consists of the physiological and biochemical processes that help the athlete to rebuild the structures which are damaged and to replenish the fuels that have been used during the workout. Through the intelligent system of feedforward, the organism anticipating another confrontation with the same training stressors in the future, rebuilds and replenishes a little bit more than previously present. This process repeated over time, leads to the adaptation we are looking for e.g. hypertrophy of muscle tissue. This is what we call supercompensation.
Recovery is mainly an autonomic process; we automatically recover from a physical load e.g. a workout or competition. The different physiological systems that are used during the workout do not all supercompensate at the same time. We call this the heterosynchrony of supercompensation. Some processes recover very fast, in minutes or a few hours, whereas other processes need many hours or even days to supercompensate.
There is a strong tendency to speed up the recovery of an athlete. In itself this is not a bad idea, an athlete who works out all the time and challenges the same physiological structures and systems without adequate recovery, runs the risk of depletion, overtraining or overload injuries. In this view it is logical to speed up recovery and supercompensation.
The coach has a lot of options and tools for speeding up recovery. In my lectures I distinguish between (just an extremely brief overview):
- training-technical measures
- nutrition and supplementation: glycogen, creatine, etc.
- physical measures: massages, ultrasound, cryotherapy, heat therapy, vibration, etc.
- psychological measures: autogenic training, visualisation, biofeedback, etc.
- alternative/complementary measures: aromatherapy, acupuncture, etc.
- medical measures, in the hands of doctors
But here is the issue to think about.
A lot of recovery methods work well, because they slow down or block the physiological/biochemical cascade of events happening in the body. But this is exactly the effect of training that we wanted to accomplish in order to get an adaptation!! Does this sound too abstract?
Here are some practical examples:
- suppose your 400 meter runners are doing high-intensity tempo running and produce a lot of lactic acid.
Question: do you want them to jog down after each run or after the workout? Or should they squat down to hold the lactic acid in the muscles longer? This last option may sound silly, unless you start thinking about what you want to accomplish with these runs. You want the muscle to adapt to the high level of lactic acid, but therefore you need to expose the muscles to lactic acid. The effect of this is that the muscle will increase the level of intra-muscular buffer substances, that neutralize the lactic acid where it is produced. Jogging will improve the circulation and flush away the lactic acid faster, but is this really what you want, because you are taking away the necessary adaptation to lactic acid exposure! The longer the muscles “soak” in lactic acid, the better the response of the muscle and the better the training effect. The highest level of lactic acid in the blood is seen 1-2 minutes after the run anyway.
- suppose your athletes did en explosive training with lots of plyometrics. In plyometric work, part of the adaptation is the change in muscle tone and recruitment based on the input from muscle spindles (positive) and Golgi-tendon organ (negative) on muscle contraction.
Question: do you want your athletes to stretch the used muscle groups for recovery or leave them alone?
Stretching produces a tremendous amount of neural information which results in a lower muscle tone. Stretching changes the total input in the spinal cord and central nervous system. But in the opposite direction of the plyometrics! Just think about it.
- suppose your athletes did a hard workout on the pitch and they want to step into the ice bath to prevent them from being sore the next workout.
Question: will you let them?
Remember the old saying no pain, no gain? They were right! The pain comes from the cascade of inflammatory processes that the body produces in order to repair the damaged tissue. Cryotherapy may indeed block that process, but therefore also limit the full repair and adaptation of the tissue through anabolic processes!
Even stronger we find this concept expressed in the taking of NSAID anti-inflammatories that also block the adaptation processes. The ultimate expression of this idea comes from the use of cortison injections for inflammation. Yes, they do a great job in stopping the painful inflammation completely, but already after a few injections the risk of muscle or tendon ruptures increases tremendously! These injections weaken the affected tissue, due to the total block of anabolic repair processes and stimulation of the catabolic processes.
Now in my concept I have to objectives for recovery measures:
- recovery before the next training session
- recovery before an important competition
In recovery before the next training session (1) I am primarily interested in getting the maximum training effect for the long term adaptation, with as much recovery as needed for the next high-quality workout. In other words, I do not care that much about a little soreness or fatigue.
In recovery before an important competition (2) e.g. before the finals of a Grand Slam or Olympic final, I am not that much interested in having an maximum training effect from the last workout or competition round for the long term. No, now I am very interested in ensuring the optimal conditions for a perfect performance the next day, that means minimizing limitations from fatigue, pain or soreness for the short term. Summing up: in this case I do care about, pain, soreness and fatigue and will use all possible recovery methods that we have.
So don’t get me wrong I will still make a choice from all the recovery measures at my disposition even after a work-out, but I always try to find the balance between the short term effect of recovery which is ensuring a quality workout tomorrow and the long term effect of recovery which is ensuring an optimal training effect by not limiting the relevant adaptation processes.