Step Two: Practical Recovery
By Coach Morgan Hoffman
I recently had the parent of one our teenage athletes ask me what he could do outside of practice to help facilitate his development – a great question, though one with perhaps an unexpected answer. I think the expected response is usually some form of additional exercise and/or skills work. I see the “I just need to do more” mentality across the sport, but instead of focusing on the things that will actually allow us to do more, a primary difference between elite athletes and most amateurs is that amateurs tend to just keep doing more until their bodies tell them “no.” In reality, most amateurs may be capable of more, but the basic practices that would allow them to take the extra steps – recovery practices – are considered soft options, secondary to workouts and “pushing through.”
Building fitness is a process of applying stress to the body (during which time the body breaks down) and then facilitating recovery from that stress (during which time the body adapts and grows stronger to prepare for future applied stress). Without effective recovery, the body has no time to adapt, and eventually just continues to break down – the opposite of the desired effect. This is known as the supercompensation cycle. This cycle is built upon using periodization, which facilitates structured periods of stress and recovery based upon individual needs and timelines. In short, gaining fitness is a two-step process:
Step one: Apply stress to the body in the form of exercise
Step two: Assist body in recovering from stress, facilitating adaptation
For many of us, step two remains a bit of a mystery, or, just as often, merely a less exhilarating part of the process – however, when consistently treated as another workout or part of the training regimen, it will actually improve the athlete’s ability to manage more of the workouts he or she would like to accomplish. For those who want to recover better and be able to do more, below I’ve outlined some of our preferred “Step Two” actions that can put you on the road towards more effective training. Coach Ahmed has a great saying, that workouts are like pennies – one by itself is worth almost nothing, but save them up over time and one day you have a fortune to cash in on. It is important to note that, much like a single great workout, a single great day of recovery will do almost nothing for your training. It is the consistent application of recovery processes, saving up your pennies, that will lead to improvement.
Step Two Actions
Following are practical recovery actions that you can take to begin the process of facilitating your body’s adaptation. I usually recommend focusing on adding one thing at a time (just as with any new routine) so that the amount of actions does not become overwhelming. Spend 1-2 months focusing on one of following, and then examine the effects on your overall training capabilities and fitness.
Doing active recovery: Active recovery workouts are some of my favorite workouts of the week. This is a workout, usually a bike or swim (due to the low impact), that is used to increase blood flow in a sport-specific manner in order to increase the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to recovering muscles. Active recovery workouts are done at a very low heart rate – Zone 1 or below Training Pace (for those using Playtri zones) – with a focus on quality technique. I like to have at least one active recovery workout each week, and athletes with more time available may work in more as a way to spend more time on the bike or more time in the pool, increasing sport-specific neuromuscular activation and speeding up recovery from prior workouts. It is important to note that if you get excited and take your HR up past Zone 1, you are no longer doing strictly an active recovery workout, so learn to control your efforts here in order to have more quality endurance and high intensity workouts the rest of the time.
Rolling: Rolling out muscles and fascia with either a foam roller or a small ball is a practice many endurance athletes are familiar with, but few implement regularly. Often just called foam rolling (even though it is done at times with a ball or other tools), this type of exercise can encourage blood flow to tight/recovering areas, help work out built up lactic acid, and release adhesions in the fascial tissue covering the muscles (which create imbalances and restricted movement patterns). Rolling can’t be effectively taught in a brief paragraph, but I encourage athletes to reach out to an informed source (coach, sports chiropractor, or other professional) to learn more. I try to get on the foam roller or the ball at least 5-10 minutes every other day to facilitate hip and shoulder mobility specifically, which allows for smoother movement patterns in all of my workouts (meaning easier recovery and better technique development). My junior elite athletes are required to roll 10-20 minutes every day due to the volume and intensity of their training regimens.
Getting a massage: While rolling is extremely helpful, and assists in ways similar to massage, good sports massage still takes the cake for speeding up recovery and facilitating higher training load. I have a weekly standing appointment with the massage therapist at our training facility in McKinney that allows me to tackle any tight spots or soreness that I can’t fully address with the foam roller or ball. It’s a great mental boost knowing that whatever difficulties my body is handing me that week will get addressed in the near future, and I encourage all of my athletes to integrate quality sports massage into their routine. We are fortunate to have a great sports massage therapist in-house – however, if you are not from the McKinney area, make sure to do your research before selecting a therapist. Ask local coaches and athletes who they use and what their experiences have been to help you select a good fit.
Practicing good nutrition: Most of us have heard the phrase “eat to train, don’t train to eat.” This essentially says that food is fuel, and without proper fuel, the good training isn’t going to happen – or worse, it will happen and we won’t see the benefits. There are a million fad diets and “superfood” trends out there at any given time – ignore these. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Find an experienced sports nutritionist (preferably one who is also a registered dietician), and do a consult to discuss your needs. Regardless of your goals, it is always a best practice to eat a sufficient recovery meal (more or less calories depending on the length of your workout) within 30 minutes of finishing every workout, as this is the period during which your capillaries are most open, and will send nutrients to replenish fatigued muscles most efficiently. Worst case scenario, if you can’t make 30 minutes, definitely have something within 2 hours of finishing. Because your body will be express sending these calories to your muscles, it is also important to make sure these are some of your healthiest calories of the day – save the burger and beer for later.
Hydrating: We’ve discussed the importance of in-workout hydration in prior articles, and daily hydration is equally important. I can often tell going into a workout how high quality it will be based on how well I hydrated throughout the day prior to exercise (particularly with end-of-day workouts), and the same goes for how I’ll feel the next day, based on how well I hydrate during and after the workout. The easiest solution for daily hydration is to take a water bottle to work, and sip on it throughout the day, refilling as needed – there are ample guidelines available for appropriate daily hydration based on individual weight and activity levels (higher exercise load means more hydration is needed). If you have a job that takes you outdoors during the warmer months, consider adding a zero-sugar electrolyte supplement to one of your bottles. This is also an area that you can discuss at a nutrition consult.
Sleeping: A simple action that seems to be increasingly difficult for athletes. 7-8 hours is the minimum recommended amount of sleep for adult athletes, while 9-10 hours allows for more thorough recovery. Developing athletes (teens and younger) need 9-10 hours at a minimum. During sleep, the body produces increased amounts of Human Growth Hormone (HGH), which speeds up the repair and adaptation of muscle tissue. Less sleep = less time for repair and adaptation. To facilitate better sleep, athletes should put down their phones and other “blue light” devices an hour or more before going to bed, and stick to a regular sleep schedule. Those who have difficulty falling asleep should also avoid afternoon naps if possible, as these can throw off your evening sleep schedule.
Wearing compression: I mentioned above the value of increased blood flow to recovering areas, and compression apparel can provide that and more to athletes. There are two primary types of compression – recovery compression, which is usually a tighter fit and is more focused on increasing blood flow to recovering areas, and performance compression, which is usually a lighter fit designed to support muscles and dampen vibration during exercise. Many compression garments are now designed to be functional for both uses, though some will still specify one or the other (2XU in particular is good about distinguishing their compression items, which is one of the reasons we stock them at Playtri). I like to put on recovery compression for a few hours after all my longer and/or harder workouts, and to wear performance compression during active recovery workouts, and any time I feel that I am not quite recovered from the previous day’s training.
The above seven practices are my favorites for athletes to start with. Other helpful practices include various forms of cryotherapy and sports chiropractic adjustments, among others. Essentially any habit that aids in your muscular recovery and adaptation becomes part of “step two” for you.
Actions that do NOT aid in recovery
I also want to take a brief moment to address actions that hinder our recovery and ability to complete more and harder workouts. Of course, “life happens,” as they say, and some days we don’t have an option – however, I have found that just being aware of the actions that are best avoided can greatly decrease their overall occurrence. Finding ways to avoid the following actions will have a positive impact on your training.
· Following up a hard workout with more challenging physical activity – mowing the lawn, jumping into cross-training, heavy chores, etc. mean more stress on your body, the opposite of recovery and adaptation. Get the most out of workouts by actively practicing recovery afterwards whenever possible.
· Following up a hard workout with alcohol and processed/greasy foods – as mentioned above, capillaries are wide open immediately following workouts, so unless you want recovering muscles getting a double dose of poor nutrition, have a healthy option available for right after training, and save the other stuff for later.
· Anything that increases stress – our bodies have many and varied responses to stress (particularly prolonged stress), and in general they work against the recovery processes. While no one chooses to be stressed, finding ways to reduce stress can facilitate faster recovery, also making workouts (and life in general) more enjoyable. My husband and I enjoy yoga classes as a guided way to empty the mind and re-center, but anything that allows you to intentionally relax and refocus counts!
My response to the parent question mentioned in the initial paragraph was to ensure that their athlete was hydrating throughout the day, making good nutrition choices, sleeping 9-10 hours a night, and using the foam roller regularly. Fitness is a two-step process – don’t neglect the second step. Find a way to add a new recovery action to your routine every few months, and you will find that not only will the quality of your training and fitness increase, your quality of life will, too.