By Evan Peikon
What is Recovery?
In order to define Recovery we must first fine what it means to be Under Recovered. Which, well break into three distinct phases that well refer to as fatigue, overreaching and overtraining.
Fatigue can be broken into two distinct types, which are acute and chronic fatigue. Acute fatigue is relative to the task an athlete is undertaking at a given moment, and thusly can be caused by low glycogen, lack of phosphates, and changes in intracellular ion concentrations (Ie- normal training stress). Based off of this definition it is clear that the dissipation of acute fatigue can be achieved via correct post workout nutrition and simple recovery modalities (which we will cover later in this article).
The second, more serious, form of fatigue is Chronic Fatigue. Which well define as a cumulative stress load that supersedes and athletes recovery capabilities.
Once the athlete begins to experience chronic fatigue such that their performance levels begin to decline, then they enter a period of Overreaching. However, there are two sides to this story.
The first is what can be called functional overreaching. This is when the overreaching phase is part of a periodized plan before an athlete de-loads (backs off) from training. In this instance the athlete will experience a super compensation effect in which their performance will increase (theres more to it, but thats a simple explantation). The second form of overreaching is called nonfunctional overreaching. This occurs when an athlete continues to train with intensity after a chronic fatigue scenario and reaches a point of stagnated performance (which can take weeks to months to recover from).
If an athlete continues to train through a period of nonfunctional overreaching for a continued period of time they will reach an overtrained state. Overtraining not only has a physical component, but it also has nervous system and hormonal implications which we discuss in detail Here (Nervous System) & Here (Hormonal).
Now that we’ve laid those definitions out, we can begin to define recovery (easier said than done).
At first glance defining recovery seems like such a simple thing to do… That is until you account for all the factors that effect recovery. Such as: Sleep, social life, genetics, environmental factors, physiological factors, psychological factors, work stress, nutrition/supplementation and of course training.
That being said, we can however break recovery down into a few distinct pieces…
1. CNS Recovery
2. Muscular Recovery (Protein Synthesis)/ Muscle Glycogen Repletion
3. Hormonal Recovery
*Other include mental aquity, ATP-Resynthesis, Lactate clearance etc… The list can go on for days, but for the sake of this article I just named the most relevant in terms of what well discuss in this article.
For the purpose of this article we will define active recovery as any low intensity exercise that is done with the intention of speeding recovery. Active recovery is useful in promoting blood flow/ elevating heart rate which can both increase lactate clearance and dissipate the acute fatigue associated with training. However, we believe there are “better” and “worse” ways to perform active recovery which is why well layout our thoughts surrounding the topic.
Guidelines/ Best Practice
- To start, active recovery work should be performed at around a 50% effort. Which well often refer to as Zone 1 (Z1) work.
- Active Recovery can also be Structured or Unstructured, which is best explained through the examples i’ll later present.
- When programing AR you should avoid excessive eccentric loading. The best example of this would be a spin on the airdyne vs a run. The airdyne is entirely concentric, while running has an eccentric portion (Note- muscle damage occurs during the eccentric portion of a movement), making the airdyne a better choice.
- Work mobility on problem areas.
- This is also a good time to work skills without being under fatigue.
- Have Fun & give yourself a mental/emotional break from the stress of training!
Structured Active Recovery (Examples)
30-60 Minute Airdyne @Z1
___ Sets @Z1
:30 Bear Crawl
:30 KB Front Rack Carry
:30 Jump Rope
For Completion @Z1
20 Minute Airdyne
20 Minute Row
20 Minute Airdyne
*Get up every 5 min and walk around
30 Minute Structured Flow Work *reps are relative to the athlete (should be EASY)
25 Cal Airdyne
20 Uneven Wtd. Lunges
Unstructured Active Recovery (Examples)
30 Minute Unstructured Flow Work *just hit touches on each movement and cycle through them.
Play Outdoors, Hike, Play a pick up game etc.
The possibilities for both structured and unstructured active recovery are endless. Play around and experiment/try and find what works for you. Chances are it’ll help you in the long run.
If you need something written out in stone for you to follow, then you can check out Crossfit Invictus’ Blog (CJ Martin programs cyclical active recovery for his athletes on Thursdays/ Sundays) or try some of the examples we posted in the section above.
While not active recovery in the formal sense, cool downs are a form of AR. Im not going to go into to much detail here, but a 10-15 minute easy cyclical piece after workouts can help speed recovery as well (Calm nervous system back down to baseline, flush out metabolites, etc.)
Passive Recovery/ Recovery Modalities
If we define active recovery as any low intensity exercise that is done with the intention of speeding recovery, then we can define passive recovery as collapsing into the fetal position after a tough lactic endurance session (when I say tough I really meant absolutely miserable). In all seriousness though… We can define passive recovery as simply relaxing/ restoring. However, in this portion of the article well also discuss different recovery modalities as well (though they don’t technically fall under the category of passive recovery). Also note that we only included a few modalities here. There are tons of others, but I feel these are the best bang for your buck options and they are also accessible to anyone. If you want a broader list of option check out the chart in this post.
The topic of sleep as it relates to performance has been beaten to death, so I’m not going to explain the reasons why we need sleep. At this point we all know about its importance as it relates to recovery and performance. I will make some suggestions though, but note that these are for those who have dedicated their lives to sport and they will not be realistic for most…
To start i’d say the gold standard of sleep would be 9-10 hours per night, though I think 8-9 is more than sufficient. 7-8 is subpar, but shouldn’t have negative implications for most. I think anything less than 7 hours for an athlete is something that needs to be fixed.
I think getting a sufficient amount of sleep also comes down to priorities. If you tell me that you only have 7 hours to sleep a night, but you watch TV for an hour before bed then your values aren’t in line with your actions (Once again, this is for athletes).
If you really can’t make the time to sleep that much at night, naps can help as well. 10-15 minute naps spread throughout the day can do wonders for rejuvenation/ recovery.
*Side note- I’m also a big believer that each hour of sleep before midnight is twice as valuable as those after.
There are numerous proposed benefits from massage, and even more speculation as to why/how massage works at the physiological level. However, most studies seem to be inconclusive and the mechanisms of action are debated so I won’t go into the details about that here. What I will say is that massage can without a doubt improve recovery and prevent potential injuries. If possible, getting a massage once a week would be ideal. But, I’m not delusional enough to think thats a reasonable for most people. A more realistic option would be to get a bi-monthly or monthly massage (or any other type of structural work). I also think self myofascial release is a great option as well (ill defer you to K-Star for more details).
Thermotherapy, Cryotherapy, & Contrast Therapy
Thermotherapy is the application of heat which is used to promote increased blood flow (vasodilatation). Which in return can increase the rate of waste removal from the body/ muscles. Cryotherapy on the other hand causes vasoconstriction which decrease blood flow, swelling and inflammation. Cryotherapy can also increase endorphin release, and blunt pain via a decrease in nerve fiber transmission. However I believe Thermo & Cryotherapy are both way more effective when done in unison, which leads us to Contrast Therapy. Contrast therapy in the alternation of thermo & cryotherapy. The alternation of hot and cold creates a cycle of vasoconstriction and vasodilatation which in turn helps remove waste products/ deliver nutrients at a faster rate.
In regards to applying contrast therapy the best option would be to alternate between hot and cold tubs. If this isn’t an option, then contrast shower work great as well. As a general recommendation the hot cycle should be 3-5x the length of the cold cycle, and the process should be repeated as needed. Depending on time of day you can end on either hot or cold. ending on cold tends to fire up the sympathetic nervous system which is probably not the best option close to bed time so keep that in mind
*other personal favorites include EMS (Electric Muscle Stimulation which you can find at a reasonable price from medical supply companies), and compression garments (during training to decrease muscle damage, and graduated compression post training to increase venous return).
We’ve already discussed nutrition for recovery, health and performance so ill defer you to those articles as a reference if you haven’t yet seen them.
Post Workout Nutrition for The Fitness Athlete
Health Vs. Performance (Nutrition): Under eating, Stress, & Recovery
Usually this section is where the rubber meets the road. But instead I’m just going to throw out a few random thoughts. I honestly don’t have much to add here so if you stop reading right now you won’t miss much. These are just things that are related to the article, but didn’t quite fit in anywhere else or deserve their own section…
Note: I wrote this section while I was in a post-lactic training session fog, so if what you read below seems incoherent/ redundant it probably is. Just thought id forewarn you.
What is resilience? Well, in simple terms its the capacity to recovery quickly from difficulty (if you extrapolate this to sport, difficulty equates to training and life stress). What does it have to do with this article? Well, an athletes innate ability to recover from stress will be a huge factor when deciding how to go about programming their recovery work. This is something that should be taken into account at all time. It can also be an entire article in and of itself due to the fact that there are so many hormonal, mental, and physical factors that contribute to it. That being said, ill save my thoughts for when I get a chance to do the topic justice. But for now, just sit on this topic and take notice of your own resilience as well as your clients.
Paying Your Debts
This is something I personally started doing that I feel has allowed me to recover quicker/ feel fresh in my day to day training. The way I like to think about it is that every time you train you cash a check, and the only way to get your account back to balance is to do recovery work. All training and no recovery equates to a negative balance (not good).
So for every training session, I do something to balance it out. Sometimes this is zone 1 work, sometimes it’s an ice bath or massage. Regardless of what it is, you must stay on top of it. Don’t wait until you already feel run down to start doing recovery work, by then its probably too late.
Theres not much I can say about this one, other than that it will be different for everyone and that it needs to occur. It doesn’t matter how “mentally tough” an athlete is. At some point something has to give, and unless you give yourself mental/ emotional breaks from training it may be your desire to push yourself. That being said, a general recommendation would be to destress on your off days from training. This is different for everyone but could come in the form of meditation, reading a book, spending time with family/friends or just doing something fulfilling in general.