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Ask any professional trainer or fitness enthusiast to name some of the most important aspects of an effective training program, and you are sure to get a quite a few answers. Ranging from specific rep and set schemes to dietary and supplement recommendations, most individuals who spend any amount of time in a gym feel that they know what it takes to succeed in achieving their fitness goals.
However, few of these same people will acknowledge or even recognize the importance of rest and recovery in their ultimate success.
When you look objectively at the dynamics of how our bodies adapt to training it quickly becomes apparent how important this often-overlooked aspect is.
The workouts themselves only provide the stimulus for change; the change itself (hopefully an improvement in fitness level) takes place during the periods between workouts.
How quickly and completely this recovery takes place is resultant of many commonly overlooked factors, including specific dietary habits, supplementation, age and personal stress levels, just to name a few.
When you consider that most people spend only 4-10 hours a week working out (about 6% of your total available time each week), you can see that the vast majority of our time is spent in the rest and recovery phase.
Since roughly 80-90% of your time each week is basically spent on recovery, it helps to be familiar with the best techniques available to help maximize your regeneration between and, as a result, your performance during workouts. As mentioned earlier, several factors effect recovery rate. Here are a few to consider.
Factors That Effect Recovery Rates
- Age: Older individuals will need longer recovery periods than their younger counterparts. It is suggested that around 25 years old is when most trainees will need to start to allow for longer recovery periods.
- Experience: More experienced trainees will need less recovery time than new trainees will.
- Fiber Type Trained: Fast twitch muscle fibers will fatigue faster than slow twitch muscle fibers.
- Energy System Used: Training sessions that tax the aerobic pathway of muscular energetics (oxidative pathway) will need longer recovery periods than sessions that tax the anaerobic pathways (ATP/CP and glycolitic pathways).
- Psychological Factors: Never underestimate the power of the mind. Work, finances, personal relationships and basic everyday life can all cause stress. If left unchecked stress can have very powerful physical manifestations—headaches, insomnia and an increase in catabolic hormones such as cortisol, just to name a few.
- Replenishment Of Nutrients: The availability of key micro- and macronutrients in a trainee's diet will have a large impact on recovery.
- Efficiency Of Waste Removal: The faster your body can rid itself of the metabolic wastes generated by training the faster you will recover.
This is just a partial list, but one that covers the majority of common factors that effect recovery. Looking over the list, we can see that you have the ability to manipulate a few of these factors, some to a greater degree than others will.
For example, there isn't much you can do about your age, but you can take steps to ensure adequate nutrition.
Recovery From Exercise
Exercise recovery can be split into two categories:
- Recovery between sets
- Recovery between training sessions
Recovery for both depend on the energy system used the intensity of the session and the training goal. Training sessions focusing on hypertrophy, for example, will use shorter rest intervals, both between sets and training days, than a training session that focuses on absolute strength levels.
Recovery between sets is dependent on the replenishment of ATP/CP, commonly referred to as phosphagen.
The phosphagens are energy storage compounds, also known as high-energy phosphate compounds, are chiefly found in muscular tissue in animals. They allow a high-energy phosphate pool to be maintained in a concentration range, which, if it all were ATP, would create problems due to the ATP consuming reactions in these tissues.
Your body replenishes phosphagen by using the aerobic energy system to metabolize carbohydrates, fats and possibly lactic acid into energy producing ATP/CP.
Exercise duration dictates how much phosphagen is depleted—for activities that last 30 seconds, 50% is depleted, 60 seconds depletes 75%, and 90 seconds depletes close to 90%.
Your body replenishes phosphagen rather quickly, however, with 50% to 70% being restored within the first 20-30 seconds after cessation of an activity (like a set) and the remainder within 3 minutes.
Adequate rest between sets is a key part of a quality training session. Cut your rest too short and you'll be left without enough ATP/CP to optimally fuel your next set, leading to a decreased training response.
Maximizing recovery between training sessions requires a multi-dimensional approach. While we'll touch on a few of these methods in a minute, now is a good time to point out that glycogen replenishment is an extremely important thing to consider when planning recovery from a training session.
Glycogen is used up during exercise and takes much longer to replenish than phosphagen does, ranging from 24 hours for after intermittent activity (like performing sets in the gym) to 48 hours for prolonged activities (like a long, continual run). The first 2 hours after exercise are very critical for glycogen replacement.
During this time your body has the ability to very rapidly restore muscle glycogen, which is why a post-workout shake high in protein and carbs is so strongly advocated in most strength training circles.
Miss this window of opportunity and your recover is greatly retarded. Only a diet that is relatively high in carbohydrates can ensure full glycogen replenishment, making a ketogenic diet and other low-carb diets a bad choice from a recovery standpoint.
Today the fitness professional and enthusiast has access to a dizzying array of methods and options to help speed and maximize recovery between training sessions, but random application of these tools (often referred to as "therapeutic modalities") can cause more harm than good.
One modality can not be used exclusively to help with all aspects of recovery, making it necessary to be familiar with a variety of methods and their most effective applications. Here are some of the more common methods and their applications.
This refers to rest as most of us think about it. Hard training individuals will need between 7 and 8 hours of sleep a night and most would benefit from an additional short nap (30 minutes) during the day as well.
Many things can effect sleeping habits and those who do not get adequate sleep on a very consistent basis will compromise their recovery. Sorry folks, there's just no getting around the need for sleep in order to maximize your fitness potential.
Don't let the word rest fool you here, this actually refers to using light activity to hasten recovery, most notably your cool-down period. By taking 10-20 minutes after working out to do some light aerobic activity and stretch you help to boost your recovery immediately.
Consider this—10 minutes of light jogging (no more than 60% of estimated max heart rate) will help remove around 60% of the lactic acid built up in your muscles, another 10 minutes will clear out an additional 25%.
If you don't cool-down, it can take up to 4 hours to completely clear the lactic acid and other metabolic wastes from the muscle tissue. Stretching helps as well to "wring" the metabolic wastes from the muscle tissue in addition to helping to restore the muscles to their normal length.
Besides your warm-up, active rest also refers to light workouts between heavy ones and periods of less structured training in a periodized program. Light activity will speed recovery faster than complete rest alone.
Massage is perhaps the oldest method of speeding recovery. It has been used for thousands of years (at least that's as old as the records go) and is one of the most accessible and useful methods available.
It can be used almost anywhere and can be applied by the trainee in many cases. Instincts tell us to rub on a sore or aching body part, and for good reason.
Massage can be used to help speed recovery between sets as well as between training sessions. It is used to increase blood circulation, reduce muscular fatigue, lower excessive swelling, stretch muscle adhesions and knots and increase lymphatic circulation.
Trainees should seek a massage at least once every few weeks. Check your area for massage schools; massage students have to do countless hours of massage training to receive their certification and most schools will offer clinics in which people can receive an hour long, full-body massage for around $30. If available, make sure to take advantage of massage to help speed your recovery.
Application of heat has many forms, from simply taking a hot shower to sophisticated methods such as ultrasound.
Heat will increase the blood flow to the targeted area (sometimes as much as doubling it) with obvious benefits for waste removal and speeding the delivery of vital recovery nutrients (like amino acids and vitamins).
Heat should not be used immediately after training or in the case of acute injury or trauma. Heat should only be used after the edema has gone down a bit, usually 3-4 days after the initial injury.
Cold therapy is another of the more popular and accessible therapeutic modalities. Its main benefit is localized pain relief without the aid of drugs. Cold therapy comes in a few forms, most commonly a cold bath or ice.
Applying cold to traumatized tissue will reduce spasms and increase local blood flow, levels of oxygen and metabolism.
For fastest results it is suggested that you apply the cold immediately after training and every 20 minutes for no more than 2 hours. Best results are seen in tissues that require longer regeneration periods like fast-twitch muscle groups and tendons.
Best if used before an injury becomes severe, contrast baths are very effective at reducing muscle spasms and decreasing pain.
The most common theory on why contrast baths work so well is that the changes between vasodialation (heat) and vasoconstriction (cold) cause a "pumping" action in the muscles and helps speed waste removal and nutrient delivery. However it works, contrast baths are a great tool.
Recommendations include starting and ending with cold, spending 3-4 times longer on heat treatment compared to cold treatment and keeping sessions to no longer than 20 minutes in length. Many options exist for the heat and cold therapy and one combination is not necessarily better than another.
These modalities are based on the ancient Chinese concept that energy (chi) flows along channels called meridians through the body.
A disruption of these meridians, either through stress or improper diet, can interfere with just about every bodily function, including those that effect recovery. Reflexotherapy is a means of restoring that flow and promoting healing and harmony in the body.
While both methods make use of key points along the meridians, acupuncture uses needles and acupressure simply uses direct pressure from the fingers.
While western doctors have been slow to accept these methods, as research and real world evidence grows it is becoming more and more common and accepted.
While not usually considered therapeutic, nutrition plays a huge role in the speed and completeness of recovery.
Your body needs raw materials to repair and restore bodily systems stressed by training and without adequate nutrition those materials will not be available. Vitamins, minerals, water, protein, carbs and fats must all be present in proper amounts in order for the body to fully recover from training.
A deficiency in even one key nutrient could slow this process down greatly, if not grind it to a complete halt. Proper nutrition can not be stressed enough when talking about the overall success of a fitness program and most trainees' frustration about their lack of progress can be traced back to this recovery factor.
Stress, as mentioned earlier, can have some very serious physical manifestations if left unchecked.
Relaxation techniques can help to greatly reduce stress and minimize these physical problems. Excessive muscle tension and an increase in catabolic hormones are two of the most common physical problems that can slow down recovery.
Techniques such as yoga, visual imagery, meditation, Tai-chi, breathe control and positive self-talk, just to name a few, have been used by progressive trainers and their clients to reduce stress related problems and greatly increase recovery.
Intelligent use of a few or (preferably) all of these therapeutic modalities will result in what has been dubbed by some "permanent recovery". This is the point where your body is able to keep up with the demands of your training program and fatigue is minimized.
If permanent recovery is not taking place fatigue will become more and more of a factor, eventually leading to overreaching and then the dreaded enemy of gym goers everywhere—overtraining.
In part 2 of this series we will look into what the different categories and causes of fatigue, overtraining vs. overreaching and some practical ways to monitor your recovery status so you can avoid burnout.
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