What is recovery from strenuous sports performance training about? People who exercise regularly and play sports often spend a lot of time preparing careful sports performance training programmes. These focus on positively building all the areas of fitness and technique important to the successful conduct of their favorite activity. Some enthusiastic runners, cyclists and triathletes plan their year’s activities around participation in races (marathon, triathlon, etc) or hoping to perform maximally at each race. In the haste to go faster and stronger, an important aspect of training is often neglected: sports recovery. From the experience of successful athletes though (particularly those in endurance sports) more time spent on sports recovery leads to improvement in the quality of sports performance training as well as optimal results in competition.
What is Sports Recovery?
Exercise at all levels of intensity acts to do one thing to the body: it depletes it. The depletion involves your energy stores (muscle glycogen, blood glucose and fat products in your blood), hormones, and muscle structures. In other words, you use up the body’s valuable resources as you exercise and something must be done to replace them.
In order to return to training and to continue conditioning your body to meet your exercise goals, it is important to create time and take active steps to bring about a re-building of the depleted body resources. This is what sports recovery is all about: the conscious action to help the body return to its optimal exercise state. This is especially important if you are intending to exercise intensively or for long durations soon after an exhausting bout. This could be endurance programme training, multi stage bike race, or sports competitions that are only 2-4 weeks apart (e.g. the Port Dickson triathlon less than 4 weeks after the OSIM event).
Why bother with Sports Recovery?
In the very simplest terms you need to bother with sports recovery to keep you physically exercising at the level that you want to. Even more importantly, to allow the body’s systems to re-charge sufficiently that your mental edge remains honed to that fine sharpness you desire. A blunted edge comes about from insufficient recovery and can come back to haunt you in these ways: staleness, loss of interest, reduced physical ability, decreased sports performance training tolerance. Yes indeed, the first steps towards over-training.
A good approach to sports recovery will ensure that the quality of your sports performance training and competition is high. This will contribute to you feeling satisfied with your efforts and achievements, and bring about continued confidence in your chosen endurance sport. Good recovery also enables you to exert a greater overall sense of control of your sports performance training destiny!
When should I think about Sports Recovery?
You should consider sports recovery at both macro- and micro-levels. An example of a macro level would be a period of sports performance training preparation time (e.g. a week or month), or the period between competitions on your race calendar. A micro-level consideration would be after a single very hard or exhaustive work-out.
At the macro level, the depletion of resources will have arisen as a systematic and progressive wearing away that parallels your rigourously planned training program. It is not the single mind-blowing training session that is involved here but rather the accumulated effect of all the sessions combined, and possibly inclusive of the race. While a single sports performance training session may leave you feeling fatigued, the depletion of body resources over a period of time (it can be as short as a week or as long as months) will leave you feeling that your ability to physically exert yourself is a little blunted. Your legs feel heavy and tired, and are unable to sustain prolonged effort in the way they used to.
The micro recovery level answers the body’s aching need following that supremely challenging sports performance training session, back-to-back training sessions in some training camp, or the actual huge effort put into a competitive event (e.g. marathon running) . The latter involves not just the event itself but also the mental stress, increased adrenaline surges, and even mundane activities such as travel to the competition venue.
What are the steps I should take to recover properly?
Ensure that you take account of your macro and micro needs. Maintain an awareness of these using a sports performance training /race calendar that allows you to visually assess the training and competition phases you are going through. Akin to the periodisation approach to training, this will help you to plan for recovery periods and make these an integral part of your sports performance training plan. Now consider the elements of the recovery: nutrition, structure regeneration, inflammation reduction, hormonal, and mental. Make plans for each of these.
Nutrition involves replacing the resources that you have used up in your prodigious attempts to go faster and stronger. This includes particular emphasis on replacing the following nutritional components: carbohydrates to re-build muscle glycogen for muscle recovery, and minerals and electrolytes to make up for loss in your sweat. The best time to re-build glycogen stores is within the first 3 hours after sports performance training as this is when the rate of glycogen storage is highest. Such storage remains elevated in the next 21 hours but not at the same rate as during what has been called the “critical re-energising window.” There is scientific evidence to suggest that the very first hour after your exercise bout is actually the time that your body responds best to glycogen replenishment.
However, for some athletes, there are barriers that need to be overcome to meet this immediate post-exercise nutrition need. This includes not feeling hungry or not having the correct nutrition available. Positive steps must be taken to overcome these. Have nutrition available. If you can’t stomach eating, then drink your nutrition (energy drinks, carbohydrate mixes). Find nutritional sources that agree with you, and use these.
If you are quite lean (meaning your body fat content is low), you should also ensure that your energy replacement includes a balanced diet that has FAT and protein in it. Your overall energy needs are higher than someone who has not discovered long distance runs or triathlon training yet (poor people). So meet your higher energy needs and balance the sources of your energy: about 50-60%from carbohydrates, 15% from protein, and up to 30% from fat.
Reducing your physical exercise is a good idea for 4-5 days after a punishing race. This does not mean just lying around doing nothing, although that may be the order of the first day or so after competing. You will want to spend time actively stretching those tired and tight muscles, and by the 4th or 5th day, a light spin on the bike or some easy laps will help to keep your mind happy while you rest the muscles, tendons, joints and bones of your body. This is what is called “relative rest” with components of “active recovery.”
The sports recovery period is a useful time to catch up with equipment maintenance matters. And in the long run, these really do matter. Clean the sea water out of your running shoes, wash your bike and take it to the shop for a tune-up, wash those hard-worn heart rate monitor straps and, so on.
Finally, there is massage. Do I detect some glee out there? The aim of massaging tired aching muscles is to relieve the tension that has built up in the muscles, as well as to assist in the removal of chemical substances that build up during exercise and as a result of cell activity. So, just as top cycling teams bring their own masseuses to races (especially cycling tour competitions), you can help your body along with some judiciously administered massage. And if aches or pain persist, perhaps there is an injury that needs some attention from your sports doctor. The recovery period is a great time to have this managed, to deliver you in optimal shape as you return to training again.
All in all then, sports recovery is not something which every athlete thinks about, and some do it better than others. It’s something you should invest your effort into as much as you do your sports performance training preparations. It is an integral part of restoring your body to a condition which allows you to enjoy regular and continuous challenging training and competition.