Using the Recovery Principle to help your athletes recover better and perform at their peak
If your athletes are feeling tired and not seeing performance improvements after training, chances are that what they need is more recovery rather than more training. Our bodies can not repair themselves unless they’re given time to recover. Yet the Recovery Principle is often the most neglected training principle, possibly due to the pressure coaches come under in competitive environments where winning matters most. In this article, we’ll discuss why recovery is so important, look at some proven recovery methods, and how you can help optimize your athlete’s recovery so they reap the benefits of their hard work.
Why is recovery so important?
The Recovery Principle states that athletes need adequate time to recuperate from training and competition. Leading many to argue that recovery is just as important, if not more important than the training itself.
Training places stress on our bodies but it’s not until after training that the adaptations take place. Therefore, what athletes do in between training and competitions is critical. If they can optimize their recovery it can maximize performance, accelerate training adaptations, ensure consistent training, minimize fatigue, illness, and burnout, and reduce the risk of injury.
When we overload the body with training stresses it causes small amounts of damage to our cells which trigger the release of hormones to promote growth. During this period, performance decreases as our bodies adapt, due to fatigue and the damage caused to cells, as shown in Figure 1.
Coaches need to allow time for this growth and adaptation in their training programs to avoid the accumulation of damaged cells and fatigue, which can cause decreases in performance. If recovery is sufficient, adaptation occurs leading to an increase in performance.
If the correct stresses and recovery periods are applied successively, adaptations are optimized to maximize performance, as shown in Figure 2.
The risk of overtraining
However, if training intensity is too high and sufficient recovery time is not allowed for, performance declines, and the risk of illness, burnout, and injury increases due to overtraining, as shown in Figure 3.
The Principles of Recovery
The Recovery Principle applies both to immediate/short-term recovery needed between sets of exercise, as well as to longer time intervals of several hours/days between training or competition.
The following methods apply to what athletes do in between training and competitions to help them recover sufficiently and maximize performance.
Common recovery methods
As well as for overall health, sleep is also crucial for recovery. Insufficient sleep can lead to decreased performance, while chronically bad sleep on the other hand can have a host of negative effects including fat gain, increased risk of illness, reduced focus, reduced sex drive, and hormone imbalance.
While we sleep, our bodies release hormones, including Human Growth Hormone, that are critical to recovery. Morris et al. (2012) indicated that a “growth hormone surge” occurred roughly every two hours during prolonged sleep.
Read more on how to help your athletes optimize their sleep here.
What we eat provides fuel for our bodies, so proper nutrition is critical for effective recovery. The amount and type of food will vary depending on a number of factors including the type of training, training intensity, training duration, and training frequency, as well as the individual and their goals. But good practice is to eat a balanced meal between 1 and 2 hours before and after your training. Please consult a qualified nutritionist to discuss your own individual requirements.
Every chemical reaction in our bodies requires water as a medium. Only when we are sufficiently hydrated can our bodies function to their full potential, and that includes recovering effectively. Guidelines recommend a minimum water intake of 3L per day, however, athletes training regularly may require significantly more than this. It’s recommended that you replace every 1kg of body weight lost during training with 1.5 litres of fluid. This can be made up of water and electrolyte drinks to replace those lost during exercise.
Active recovery involves performing low-intensity exercise after training such as a cool-down, or on recovery days, to help muscles recover from recent high-intensity exercise. It is intended to aid the removal of lactates and other metabolites from the muscles, and reduce muscle soreness and stiffness. Multiple studies show positive effects of active recovery however, it’s not yet clear what the optimal duration and intensity of activity is to maximize recovery.
Stretching after high-intensity exercise is intended to relax muscles and minimize tightness and/or muscle soreness. A nighttime stretching routine can also trigger a relaxation response helping athletes sleep better and accelerate recovery. Therefore, the timing of stretching can be important if it has the desired effect of helping an athlete “shut down”.
Cold water submersion
Submersion in cold water, between 10 and 14 degrees celsius, whether in a bath, plunge pool, or the ocean aims to decrease body temperature and reduce muscle soreness and inflammation. It is seen to benefit recovery and is most effective when carried out immediately after exercise but also has positive effects in the days following heavy training.
Muscle compression via elastic clothing or inflatable devices is believed to alleviate muscle fatigue and soreness, accelerate lactate and metabolic byproduct removal, reduce muscle stiffness, increase venous and lymphatic flow and muscle oxygenation, and accelerate recovery while also improving performance. Research is yet to uncover the true effects of compression, however, Hill et al. (2014) found that there appear to be some small recovery benefits with little concern about harmful side effects.
Massage is intended to boost recovery by increasing circulation and lymphatic flow, and decreasing muscle soreness and stress. However, researchers are yet to confirm its value and Wiltshire et al. (2010) even warn of its potential to create more muscle damage if performed too aggressively or too soon after exercise. Despite its popularity, it’s still unclear whether massage can improve recovery and therefore shouldn’t be the sole focus of a recovery plan but possibly used in conjunction with other recovery methods.
The Recovery Pyramid
As outlined above, not all recovery methods are equal, some have a greater impact than others and therefore should be the priority for athletes and the coaches advising them. The following recovery pyramid highlights the most impactful methods of sleep, nutrition, and hydration as the base for effective recovery which all athletes whether high-performance or amateur should focus their efforts on for the greatest impact on their recovery.
Recovery is individual
It’s important to remember that each individual athlete will react differently to the stresses of training, have different external stressors in their lives, and have a different recovery response. Therefore, recovery must be individualized.
Tools like sRPE, session Rate of Perceived Exertion, and HRV, Heart Rate Variability, to monitor internal training loads, or GPS technology and training diaries to monitor external training loads, as well as athlete well-being can give useful insights into each individual’s response to training and other stressors in their lives. These insights can be used to individualize athlete training loads and achieve a training-recovery balance so that athletes recover better.
Recovery is often the most overlooked training principle, especially as coaches working with competitive athletes are judged by results, so the temptation is always there to do another session. However, recovery is arguably just as important if not more important than training itself as it’s after training that our bodies adapt and realize the performance improvements.
Therefore, getting the recovery basics of sleep, nutrition, and hydration right is absolutely critical, and supplementing them with other recovery methods where applicable. Keeping in mind that recovery is individual and using tools to manage training loads and recovery can help coaches optimize their athletes’ recovery so that they maximize performance, accelerate training adaptations, ensure consistent training, minimize fatigue, illness, and burnout, and reduce the risk of injury.
- Hill, J., et al. 2014. Compression garments and recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage: a meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 48 (18), 1340–1346.
- Morris CJ, Aeschbach D, Scheer FA. Circadian system, sleep and endocrinology. Mol Cell Endocrinol. 2012 Feb 5;349(1):91-104. doi: 10.1016/j.mce.2011.09.003. Epub 2011 Sep 10. PMID: 21939733; PMCID: PMC3242827.
- Wiltshire, E.V., Poitras, V., & Pak, M. 2010. Massage impairs post-exercise muscle blood flow and “lactic acid” removal. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 42 (6),1062–1071.
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