The Science of Recovery

"Recovery should be so well understood and actively enhanced that it becomes a fixed component of your training," Tudor Bompa

"Recovery is when your body actually grows stronger and more efficient. It is when the benefits of your hard training are realized. Working hard is easy, everyone knows how to work hard, but those who know how to recover hard (well) are the ones who win," Bob Kersee, Track & Field Coach to 24 Olympic medal winning performances.

This column has dealt with the importance of Periodization Science in training for the triathlon. We have defined Periodization Training as a systematic way of developing fitness in a scientifically rational sequence. We have discussed the specific physiological and structural adaptations sought through the various phases of the training process and their importance in your success. Although this month's column doesn't have a phase named for it, it is the most important aspect of your training. Without recovery all your hard work is futile.

Progressive Overload and Supercompensation

The foundation of all successful training is the concept of increasing stress on the body as a means of triggering an adaptive response, resulting in a strengthening of the physiological systems to a degree greater than they were before (the Supercompensation Principle). Following periods of hard work, fatigue and an initial decrease in performance occur before the body becomes stronger or more efficient. However, this occurs only if time for recovery is provided. Periodization Training Science was born of the need to avoid mental and physical burnout and peak performance when it counts most. The well-constructed Periodization Program manipulates intensity and volume (generally inversely related) to create the right amount of stress on metabolic and structural systems of the body. After an appropriate time for recovery the adaptive process occurs. Using progressive build periods of training followed by a week of decreased workload allows for proper recovery-to-work ratio. Overload of stress without the reprieve of recovery leads to a breakdown of the systems involved and not a strengthening adaptation. The body can only reach an ultimate level of fitness following these principles. Focus on the recovery of the metabolic and structural systems is critical. In endurance athlete's, limitations of the structural system (tendons, bone, fascia) to withstand the rigors of the training load necessary to peak the metabolic systems (energy production) is often their demise. Additionally, the metabolic system can be overtaxed and weakened not strengthened with inappropriate balance of stress and recovery.

Prevention of Overtraining

The best way to remedy overtraining problems is with prevention with built in rest and recovery periods at regular intervals in your training program. As fatigue is a reasonable and certain result of training it is erroneous to use one's perception of fatigue as an indication for rest. Fatigue to the point of decreased performance is a natural and predictable response to systematic training and the likelihood of becoming overtrained increases when the uncoached athlete increases training load if they "perceive" a plateau or decrease in performance. The well-designed program accounts for the fatigue and performance deficits associated with hard training and provides, not only the expectation of such, but the recovery time necessary to allow for the subsequent Supercompensation Adaptation.

From the Beginning

The prevention of overtraining begins with Base Training where the expressed goals of improving metabolic and structural infrastructure facilitates better recovery and faster adaptation. Improved vascularization and an increased ability to produce energy aerobically (i.e., metabolic efficiency) are critical. Improved vascularization facilitates recovery by assuring the presence of capillaries in close proximity to each working muscle cell, thus providing for the quick exchange of waste products and nutrients with the muscles. The prolonged low intensity exercise also improves the athlete's ability to produce energy aerobically where the burning of fats as a substrate produces no lactic acid. The greater the contribution of aerobic energy production to the total energy production the less waste products and lactic acid produced and the less recovery necessary. Additionally, the greater the fat burning capacity, the less reliance on carbohydrate for energy production and the less likely is the damaging event of glycogen depletion or "bonking." During long or difficult workouts, once muscle and liver glycogen has been depleted, the body begins cannibalizing muscle to produce energy. This is obviously counter productive to overall fitness.

The structural benefits of the low intensity Base Training exercise include a shoring up of the musculoskeletal infrastructure including fascia, ligaments, tendons and bones. A stronger more resilient musculoskeletal infrastructure will prevent injury and decrease recovery time when the exercise intensity increases later in the season. As important for performance and recovery is the result of strength and flexibility work to improve mechanical efficiency, i.e., economy of motion. The resulting decreased energy expenditure during workouts and races translates into less recovery time afterwards. Considering these benefits the time and effort spent in the Base Training Phase is directly beneficial to your recovery rate later in the season. Better recovery translates to the ability to work harder while staving off the dreadful overtrained state.

Variety of Stress

Another cornerstone of periodization training is a constant variation in the exercise program. The body is such a great tool of adaptation that after about six to eight weeks of a certain type of exercise full adaptation occurs and to stimulate further growth the exercise stress must be altered. This keeps the body constantly off balance and forces further adaptation while avoiding staleness. Conveniently, this variety in training also avoids mental burnout and keeps focus and motivation high. Volume and intensity variation characteristic to each phase of Periodization Training creates a constantly evolving program which keeps the body and mind fresh.

Active Recovery

There is nothing passive about recovery. Recovery is an active process where light "adaptation" workouts stimulate recovery better than rest alone. Light workouts are akin to the self-cleaning oven where the heat is turned up but no roast is placed inside. Light workouts provide the body the same opportunity to do house cleaning functions without having to recover from the damaging effects of a new workout. The vascular system is stimulated to increase blood flow to the muscles delivering oxygen and nutrients to aide recovery. The muscle cells, stimulated by a release of hormones, step up the reparative functions and grow stronger. Similar occurrences improve connective tissue and bone repair as well. Stretching sessions before and particularly after light recovery workouts are more productive when unencumbered by the tightness that would otherwise occur following hard workouts. In this way your stretching efforts go further toward elongating connective tissue and helping tendons and ligaments heal and grow stronger. A good indication of when your structural system is recovered and ready for another hard workout is when the stiffness from the last hard workout is absent.

Self-massage is an excellent method to aide recovery after workouts. Manipulation of the muscles and tissues increases blood flow, breaks adhesions and promotes adaptation of connective tissue. No specific knowledge or training is necessary. Just take some lotion and begin rubbing your calf and thigh muscles, front and back. You will feel the fatigue and tension leave your body. When coupled with stretching and icing sore areas, these self-recovery techniques can make a very significant contribution to the adaptive process you seek., i.e., increased fitness.

Commandments of Recovery and Prevention of Overtraining

1. Build Adequate Base – early season training builds infrastructure that supports hard work and recovery efforts later in the season.

2. Built-In Rest Periods – your training program must have built in recovery weeks following every two to three weeks of harder exercise. This includes the Base Training Phase. Also, always allow for a period of detraining at the end of your competitive season to allow all systems to recover.

3. Vary Intensity and Volume – every eight weeks change nature of your workouts to keep the body off balance and force further adaptation. Remember, volume must decrease as intensity increases.

4. Stretch Before and After Every Workout - stretching prepares the body for exercise and minimizes the damage created during workouts. Stretching after workouts wrings the waste products out of the muscles and returns muscles to their normal resting length therefore avoiding maladaptive muscle and tendon shortening.

5. Self-massage Before and After Workouts - with this simple technique you can prevent damage and promote recovery like the pros.

6. Ice Sore and Tight Areas - ice reduces inflammation, muscle tightness and spasm and allows muscles to relax and recover better. Ice helps avoid injuries and treats minor irritations before they develop into overuse syndromes.

7. Keep Muscle Glycogen Topped Off – carbohydrate stores in the muscle and liver (glycogen) become the limiting factor in endurance events lasting greater than 90 minutes. Maintain adequate levels with sport drink supplementation during exercise and begin replenishing within 15 minutes after workouts. Back to back long or difficult workouts can create a constant glycogen depleted state.

Robert is founder of Forster Physical Therapy and Phase IV - A Scientific Training and Performance Center both located in Santa Monica, CA. He has over 23 years experience treating Elite athletes such as Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Gail Devers, Pete Sampras and many others. He uses these same skills to treat and teach the science of training to recreational athletes. Bob is also a columnist in Triathlete magazine. He can be reached at or 310-656-8600.