Recovery, why?

It is not hard to find a topic to write a blogpost about: The World Championships Athletics in Doha, the case of Alberto Salazar and Nike, the world record in the marathon, and so on. Many things are happening in the world of sports, but I decided to keep it straight and simple: recovery.

It seems obvious: the more frequently and the harder an athlete trains, the higher the need for recovery. In this context I would like to address two important issues to consider:

The main question everybody seems to ignore is: WHAT do you want to recover? Because in any workout we use multiple physiological systems such as the metabolic system or energy supply system, neuromuscular system, passive movement apparatus, central nervous system, autonomic nervous system, cardio-respiratory system, or hormonal system.

It’s obvious that, dependent on the sport and the exercise, the athlete will use a combination of any of these systems in a different proportion. Most of the time we tend to see recovery as a general, overall factor, but it’s more differentiated than that. Certainly since all of the systems recover at a different rate. So if you don’t know which systems you train in any exercise, you don’t know which system you need to recover! The Omegawave system is good starting point to measure the actual status of the most important systems.

Training means loading a physiological system, be it in mechanical and/or in biochemical sense. The actual trigger for adaptation to training comes from the specific breakdown products of that system. Bodybuilders always state: “no pain, no gain” since muscle growth is for a large part triggered by mechanical damage of muscle tissue, or catabolism. The breakdown products of muscle again trigger an inflammation or repair process and this is the signal for muscle repair and growth. Many athletes tend to use anti-inflammatory measures in order to decrease the pain and soreness and to recover faster by taking anti-inflammatories, or using ice-therapy, probably not realizing they are blunting the signal for muscle growth and adaptation.  We also know that treatment with anti-inflammatories e.g. NSAID’s or cortisone will weaken muscle and tendon tissue. Notorious were the tendon ruptures after cortisone injections as was done in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

The principle mentioned above also applies to anaerobic or lactic training e.g. for 400 meter or 800 meter runners. Many of them tell me that they like to jog after the workout in order to “flush out the lactate” (lactate has a half-life or only 12-15 minutes, so jogging 1 hour after the workout is hardly useful since the lactate is already gone). Lactate itself is a trigger for the muscle to produce buffer substances such as carnosine and anserine and probably for the blood to produce the specific buffer systems in the blood. This will allow the athlete to handle lactate better during the competition and to decrease the reduction of running speed. So by doing slow aerobic work one might indeed speed up the breakdown of lactate in the slow muscle fibers, the heart and the liver, but at the same time diminish the trigger for adaptation to lactic training. Lesson: do not blunt the training response, but design a smart training program where training adaptation and recovery are both optimized.

For me there are two kinds of recovery:

  • Recovery after a training load with the goal to accomplish a maximal training adaptation. Here I try to avoid most of the common recovery measures.
  • Recovery before e.g. the Olympic Games finals tomorrow, e.g. soreness or fatigue of the previous rounds. Now I plug in all possible relevant recovery modalities to ensure the athlete will reach an optimal status for the next day, being able to run without limitations and fully recovered to increase the probability of a successful race. In this case I am no longer looking for a long-term adaptation to training.

In my opinion, the best way to ensure the athlete will be able to handle the next training session well is:

  • To carefully think about how intense you want to load each physiological system which comes down to choose the training intensity carefully on an individual base.
  • Carefully chose the goal, content and exercises of the next workout. It is easy to design a contrast to the current workout, so the loaded systems of today can recover, also during the next day since other muscles and physiological systems are targeted.  Or easier said: if you want to train strength three times a week, separate them in time. Avoid loading the same systems two or three days back to back or training the same muscle groups with the same exercises back to back.

Examples: Strength training: Monday, Wednesday and Friday or Saturday, instead of: Strength training on  Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.

Exercises: Workout 1: squats, Workout 2: leg press, Workout 3: cleans, instead of: Workout 1 squats, Workout 2: squats, Workout 3: squats: trying to load the same muscle groups in different ways.

Note: these principles work perfect for beginning and advanced athletes, but for “genetic freaks” and world class athletes, sometimes a different approach is recommended.

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