Recovery FAQ

By: Kelly Baggett

The topic of recovery is a subject that is definitely beat around pretty good in the training world. Due to some of the questions I get on a daily basis I decided to address and explore a few things related to it. Entire books have been written about the subject and a short article can never do the topic full justice but in this you’ll hopefully find some useful tidbits of info.

It’s been said that you don’t make progress when you train, you make progress when you recover from training. This is true. Whether your goal is getting bigger muscles or improving your athletic performance, the same basic tenet holds true. Training acts as a stimulus. Your body perceives training as a threat, or a stressor. Progress occurs as your body adapts to the threat, or threats, you’re throwing at it. That adaptation comes about as your body recoversfrom the fatigue induced by the stimuli you throw at it. So you train, then rest (recover), and come back to train the next time and hopefully find you’ve improved upon what you did the first time. Depending on what type of training you’re doing, that rest might be as short as a few hours for something like low intensity movement work, or it might be as long as several days for something like heavy strength work.

The Single Factor Approach

Most athletes with less than 3 years of solid training experience can continue to progress from session to session for years. For example, a beginner entering a strength program might perform squats every 4 days. Lets say they start off squatting 100 pounds for 5 reps. The next workout they squat 100 pounds for 7 reps. The next workout they squat 105 pounds for 4 reps. They continue progressing in that fashion and a year and a half later they’re squatting 250 pounds for 5 reps. The same thing holds true for power, speed, and plyometric work. Most athletes should note fairly regular progress from workout to workout to workout over time. This is called single factor training. You fatigue, recover, progress, fatigue, recover, progress, fatigue, recover, progress etc.

The Dual Factor Approach

However, advanced athletes often need more training stimulus to provoke an adaptation and that extra stimulus means that they won’t always be able to fully recover and progress from session to session. Sometimes they train with higher frequency and volume over the course of several weeks without ever allowing full recovery to take place then cut back on training volume over the course of another several weeks so that they can fully recover. During the higher volume phase, also called an accumulation phase, they probably will not note many, if any, improvements as they build up a lot of fatigue. The lower volume phase, also called an intensification phase, might be as short as a week, or as long as a month. During the lower volume phase they allow themselves to fully recover and this is when progress is noted.

An example of this approach might consist of an athlete squatting 3 times a week for 4 weeks than squatting once every 5 days for a month. This is also called dual factor training. You intentionally induce a lot of fatigue in one phase and then allow yourself to recover in the next phase.

Keep It Simple

Even though I know a lot of people are going to want to try this more advanced approach, in all honesty unless you are an advanced athlete the first approach will yield quicker results. Think about it. Would you rather wait a month to note any progress or would you rather progress from session to session? If you can progress session to session you might as well take those easy gains. Even though an athlete following the single factor approach can often benefit from an occassional lower volume or rest week to fully freshen up, from a strength standpoint, the only athletes who really need the more advanced approach will tend to be advanced lifters or powerlifters benching well over 400 pounds and squatting 600 plus. In the speed and power department, most of the athletes that can really benefit from that approach will be high level sprinters or other specialized track and field athletes. If you play a team sport it’s actually doubtful you’ll ever need a more elaborate 2 factor setup to progress.

If In Doubt Do Less Not More

With that being said, when most people reach a sticking point in their progress the first thing they look to is their training. If a given plan isn’t working the natural instinct is to do more. So when most people hit a sticking point they inherently want to add to their existing protocol. So they add this, add that, start doing this, start doing that. However, many times this is the worst thing they can do. When I talk to athletes that are stuck and haven’t been making progress I’ll have them show me on paper what they’re doing. About 80% of the time I can get them progressing again by just reducing their overall training volume. Sometimes these changes come through a reduction in training frequency and other times by a reduction in exercises, sets, and reps, but the important thing is all I did was improve their recovery. It’s a 50/50 battle.

If you’re training hard and consistently and not progressing look to your recovery just as much as you do your training. If you’re training at least fairly regularly and you’ve actually regressed over short periods of time, 9 times out of 10 this is simply due to insufficient recovery. One easy way to improve recovery is to simply take more rest between workouts. For example, if you normally train 4 days per week try reducing to 3.

Note, don’t overdramatize under-recovery and change your program just because your not at your strongest and most explosive each day of the week. What I notice is many athletes freak out when they see their performance fluctuate on a daily or weekly basis. If you did a heavy squat workout yesterday your probably not going to feel all that springy tomorrow. But if your not as explosive or as strong this week as you were last week or 2 weeks ago do you really think you lost your explosiveness and strength that quickly? No way. Your not as explosive because your body is fatigued. So pay attention to any consistent regressions in performance. Even in the absence of any training at all it takes a fairly lengthy time for strength or performance parameters to diminish to any appreciable degree. A powerlifter will often lay off a lift a full 10 days prior to a meet. Their strength doesn’t suddenly dwindle away during that time span it actually improves as they allow their bodies to rest.

Now I’d like to dive a little deeper into some of the things that influence recovery.

Local and Systemic Fatigue and Recovery

Recovery really consists of 2 aspects

A: Local muscle recovery
B: Systemic recovery

Local muscle recovery refers to the recovery of individual muscles. Say you train your biceps. The next day your biceps are sore and not as strong as they were the day before. This is because the local muscles you trained, in this case the biceps, are simply fatigued. Local muscle recovery is affected by muscle damage, neural fatigue, and energy depletion. When you exercise intensely you often inflict microscopic damage to the muscle and you also fatigue the nerves firing a muscle. Energy depletion consists of the energy, or glycogen, used up by a muscle during exercise. The depletion of energy can usually be replaced rather quickly - as in hours. However, recovery from muscle damage and neural damage can take a week or more. If you go in and do a max bench press tomorrow you might not be able to match that effort for 4, 5, 6, 7 days or more. However long it takes can be explained by muscle damage and neural fatigue.

Systemic recovery is a bit more complicated. It refers to generalized whole body fatigue involving the nervous system, muscular system, and brain that can occur for a variety of reasons. It involves mood, energy level and other subjective measures. If your body is a city and a powerplant supplies power to the city, whole body fatigue could be looked at as fatigue of the powerplant. Multiple things can influence it including lack of sleep, stress levels, as well as exercise.

From an exercise standpoint, when you inflict micro-trauma (damage) to a muscle this creates a local inflammatory response and inflammatory messengers called cytokines are released. The bigger the muscles worked and the greater the damage the more inflammation is present. These cytokines travel around the body where they eventually wind up in the brain. The brain senses these inflammatory messengers and basically sends your body a variety of signals telling you to shut it down and rest. This is why you can do a hard leg workout one day and go in and try to do a hard upper body workout the next day and even though your upper body muscles are fresh you might still find it difficult…your body just doesn’t want to put out much energy. The same basic symptoms can occur with lack of sleep or lots of stress – your body just doesn’t wanna perform at max capacity.

The 48 Hour Rule

It generally takes about 48 hours after an intense training session for full systemic recovery to occur. In general, if an activity makes you sore or has the potential of inducing lots of soreness, it has the potential to impact systemic recovery. If it doesn’t it’s probably not something to worry about. That’s why low intensity activities like jump rope, cardio, low intensity plyometric drills, and lower intensity conditioning work can be done every day without any detriment in performance unless they're performed at insanely high volumes. Higher intensity activities like intense weight lifting, sprinting, intense agility work, and high impact plyometric activities often require a day or more of rest in between workouts for optimum performance.

Other Things Impacting Recovery

Both local and systemic recovery are influenced by the size of the muscles being worked, the type of activity, volume of activity, level of athlete, as well as your arousal level, or intensiveness. Performing a maximum deadlift for a single rep can probably be performed every day by a beginner without any daily performance dropoff or need for extra recovery. But a 900 pound deadlifter would be hard pressed to hit his max single once a week, simply because he's capable of inducing a lot more damage when he trains. Stimulants and energizers like caffeine and anything else that gets you jacked up can improve performance but can also lengthen recovery time due to the extra fatigue induced by that increased performance. Keep this in mind if you routinely use these aids.

Most training schemes involving lots of muscle damage and neural fatigue, such as weight training, are usually set up based on how long it takes a muscle to fully recover from muscular and neural damage. This is why most training systems don’t have you hitting a body-part more than 3 times a week, and twice a week is probably more common. Activities like intense sprinting, plyometric work, medicine ball work, and agility work generate less damage and fatigue than weightlifting but are still capable of generating some. Most schemes call for these activities to be performed no more frequently than an every other day basis, which allows plenty of time for recovery.

Now for some practical tidbits and some answers to common questions:

How Do I know If I'm Recovered Or Not?

If, over the course of a week or so, you can't at least match what you did last time your not recovered. For example, let's say you go in the gym well rested on Monday and hit a max bench press of 300 pounds. You come back on wednesday and can only hit 290. You come back on friday and hit 295. You come back on saturday and hit 300. We know it took you at least until saturday to recover to the point where you could match your previous effort. Chances are you could take an extra day or 2 and hit slightly more than 300.

Here's another example: On Monday you measured your vertical jump and it was 32 inches. You lifted weights and played full court basketball on tuesday. On Wednesday your vertical jump was 30 inches. On Thursday you did some skill work and played some half court ball. You measured your VJ again on Friday and it was 32 inches. On saturday it was 33 inches. Would you want to plan another weekly training session on Thursday or Friday? Probably not. It's already taking you until saturday to fully recover from your Tuesday training. If you were going to plan another workout saturday would be the day to do it.

1. From a systemic recovery standpoint, it’s often best to have an off or easy day after an intense lower body day. If you do a hard sprinting and squat session one day you might find it hard to have a highly effective upper body workout the next day. The reverse is not necessarily true. For example, you can do a VERY intensive and volumous biceps and forearm workout one day and probably find your energy is fine the next day to train whatever you want to train.

What about “recovery” drinks?

Recovery drinks are something promoted heavily in the bodybuilding an performance world. Lets look at some of their benefits.

After an intense workout:

1. Glycogen stores are low

2. Protein breakdown is increased

As a result, there are potential consequences:

1. Poor subsequent performances in the gym – particularly if you plan on exercising the same muscles again within the next 24-48 hours.

2. Potential loss of muscle mass

So what we want to do after a workout is quickly:

1. Replenish low glycogen stores in muscle

2. Decrease muscle protein breakdown that occurs with exercise

Under normal conditions, the body restores itself and recovers (gets into a positive protein balance) in anywhere from 8 to 24 hours. However, proper post-workout nutrition can shift your muscles to a positive protein balance within an hour. Over the relatively short term, this leads to increased performance and muscle growth.

To do this, you need 3 things:

1. A proper amount of carbohydrates

2. A proper amount of protein with a good ratio of Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) and essential amino acids

3. High blood levels of insulin

High insulin levels, along with high levels of amino acids, can increase protein synthesis over 4 times that of normal post-workout amino acid and insulin levels. So, to create these conditions, you ideally want a protein that is high in BCAA and is also fast acting. For this purpose whey protein is perfect. You also need something that can stimulate insulin, like dextrose or maltodextrin. A good dosage for a postworkout recovery drink will generally consist of 0.8 g/kg (2.2 pounds) of carbohydrate and 0.4 g/kg of protein.

However, even though a post-workout recovery drink can obviously be beneficial, a home made post workout meal or standard drink can provide identical benefits to a manufactured recovery drink. A carbohydrate meal consisting of oatmeal, rice, cereal, pasta, juice or other carbohydrate source along with a scoop of whey protein will work just as well as any recovery drink, but may not be as convenient. Additionally, unless you’re training a muscle group hard and heavy every single day, you will have plenty of time to replete muscle glycogen through your standard diet. For one thing it takes quite a bit of training to become fully glycogen depleted. For example, with weight training it takes 15-20 sets of 15-20 reps to fully deplete a muscle. Most athletes, particularly, in speed, power, and strength dominated sports don’t train with nearly that much volume.

Additionally, even though your muscles will be somewhat depleted of glycogen after a workout if you don’t train the same muscle group until 48 hours (or more) later is it really going to be that difficult for you to replenish that glycogen? No, not really. Therefore my recommendation is as follows: If you’re trying to gain muscle a post workout recovery drink or meal consisting of 20-40 grams protein and 50-100 grams of carbohydrate will definitely provide muscle gaining benefits. If muscle gain is not your goal it’s optional. You can get away without it just make sure you follow a good diet and don’t worry about it.

How important are nutrition and supplementation for recovery?

For the recovery of the energy used up in training, nutrition is everything. If you deplete a muscle of energy and don’t eat at least a maintenance diet you’re probably going to find things difficult. From a systemic perspective, lack of nutrition or a diet containing inadequate calories can negatively influence systemic fatigue by creating an additional stress. The positive effects of nutrition on systemic recovery are fairly minor, - sleep and rest are much more important. Having said that, eating more of an alkaline diet can relax the nervous system and can be of some benefit. Green veggies are highly alkaline. Other supplements that can help systemic recovery are magnesium and fish oil. I recommend 300 mg of magnesium per day and 6 grams of fish oil.

Does the type of diet a person eats have that much of an impact on recovery?

Not really. The important thing is that a person gets enough protein and carbs. Where the protein and carbs come from isn’t so important. With the volumes that most athletes eat this really isn’t an issue. Believe it or not, most high level athletes aren’t consuming Spartan or fancy diets. In fact, it’s not uncommon for athletes that try and eat perfect to end up doing themselves more harm than good simply because they don’t eat enough to meet their needs. For an active person with a good metabolism it can be hard to get enough to eat if they try to eat ultra clean diets consisting of nothing but egg whites, boiled chicken breasts, steamed veggies etc. Those foods are good, but can be hard to live on unless your whole life revolves around buying, preparing, and eating food, like a lot of bodybuilders.

What about recovery workouts?

Recovery workouts are often used to get blood into sore and fatigued muscles with the thought being this helps speed recovery and also allows one to engage in some extra conditioning. Sprinters often use “tempo” workouts. They’ll sprint intensely one day and go out the next day and sprint at lower speed over increased distances. A powerlifter might bench heavy one day and might come back the next day and do several light sets of 50 to 100 reps on exercises like pushups and triceps pushdowns just to get some blood flowing to the muscles. Or they’ll squat heavy one day and come back the next and do sled dragging. A baseball pitcher will pitch one day and go for a jog the next couple of days in hopes the jogging will increase blood flow to his sore arm and shoulder and speed recovery.

My personal feeling is that many athletes who use recovery workouts often do more harm than good and actually end up interfering with the recovery of local muscles. This is particularly true if the muscles used in the recovery workout are the same muscles used in the main workout. The intentions are good and recovery workouts can work, but people tend to perform these workouts at too high of an intensity with too much volume. My preference is that if athletes are using the same main muscles in the recovery workout that they are in the main workout, they should limit these workouts to activities that are unlikely to cause much fatigue. For example, instead of performing tempo workouts, which involve sprinting, a sprinter might perform a long dynamic warm-up. Another option is to engage in activites that involve different muscles. For example, a sprinter might swim some laps in a pool, hit a heavy bag, or swing a sledgehammer as a recovery workout. If you get creative you’ll find there are dozens of ways to stay active without interfering with recovery. I don't think one should feel that recovery workouts are absolutely necessary.

What about recovery methods like sauna, contrast showers, massage, foam rollers etc.?

I recommend athletes try all of these. None of them are world beaters but they all provide some good benefits. A sauna provides many positive hormonal benefits, burns calories, and also has the benefit of increasing whole body blood flow. This can improve recovery. Contrast showers can increase blood flow. Massage is great for adhesions, loosening up tight muscles, and plenty of other things.

What is the most important thing an athlete can do for recovery?

Besides eating a diet that contains adequate protein and carbohydrates and paying attention to the content and timing of workouts, one word – SLEEP! A chronic lack of sleep will kill even the best designed training program. An occasional stretch of bad sleep probably won’t have any ill effects but don’t expect to make many gains if you’re chronically sleep deprived.