Recovery is about creating balance—with training and in life. Stress greatly effects your overall ability to recover and while exercise is beneficial to your wellness, too much of a good thing can be counter-productive. Spending time training with adequate recovery is especially important when you are balancing other things in your life such as work, school, family, kids—things that most of us handle on a daily basis.
Studies have shown that stress can be accumulative, and this includes exercise. I am not saying that you shouldn’t exercise, but when you are a fitness fanatic, a health enthusiast, or a meathead, it’s hard to see the benefit of making time for the recovery part of your fitness equation. When you are training hard you have to take your recovery just as seriously as your training plan and nutrition.
Stressing Your Comfort Zone
Training is about creating enough of a stimulus to force the body out of its comfort zone, therefore making it get stronger, bigger, or more fit. This happens through a physiological process we call adaptation. As the body starts to adapt to the stimulus, the athlete or trainee has to keep pushing the body more and more in order to keep making progress.
Many of those involved in the fitness industry understand this principle, but what gets lost in translation is that in order to create that adaptation to the exercise stress, athletes and trainees need to rest appropriately with proper recovery.
On the extreme end of things, for those that are in the quest for more gains, continuing to add more stimulus can become a detriment if the exercise regimen if it isn’t programmed correctly. More stimulus means increased stress hormones are released and an overage of this can be catabolic and destructive to the positive adaptations that athlete is seeking.
I am not saying that exercise shouldn’t be performed with progressive overload while adding increased intensity and volume over time. That is positively needed in order to continue to progress, but I what I want to stress is that the harder one trains, the harder one has to rest in order to continue to grow and get stronger.
There are those that take this principle of recovery to the other extreme and wind up under-training. Under-training is working out in a way that doesn’t create enough of a stimulus and includes taking too much time between training sessions.
This happens when the athlete doesn’t have enough of an understanding of basic physiology. There is a lot of information that is floating out there about strength training and fitness principles. This thought process has spawned the fear of “over-training.”
Over-training is a very real physiological response to excessive exercise, but let me make clear that what is excessive exercise for one person may not be excessive for another. As a result, the word over-training becomes grossly misunderstood. Many times what most people call over-training should actually be called over-reaching. Over-reaching is the short-term effects of intense and difficult exercise programs.
To help one conceptualize over-reaching, what needs to be understood is that there will be periods of time where there will need to be a controlled over-reaching protocol if an athlete or trainee is serious about making continued gains and getting more fit. This is what we call the progressive overload principle—training where we purposely push ourselves into failure.
This failure will most likely lead to fatigue if done too frequently, for too long, or with too much intensity. The failure I am talking about is perceived effort of failure or intensity. This is not what I would call absolute failure which in many cases, if done on a regular basis, will surely lead to burn out and over-reaching/over-training syndromes.
Obviously, there are many ways to accomplish progressive over-loads and many programs have been written, but very few write about recovery techniques and why these techniques should be used from a physiological perspective. The obvious ways to recover are making sure you are sleeping, eating, and taking time away from training in structured deload periods. I will be writing about these individual factors in later articles, so stay tuned.
It’s About Balance
What I want to impress upon you in this article is that the reason why recovery is so important is because life is ultimately about balance. Without balance we become one-sided—not just in fitness training, but also in life.
Without getting too philosophical, finding balance is about ying and yang, light and dark, and, when it comes to physiology, anabolic and catabolic. Since this article is about recovery, it is important to understand the roles of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. When it comes to being an athlete of any kind, or just training for recreation and health, I believe everyone wants to be the best version of themselves.
The parasympathetic nervous system regulates your anabolic (or building) hormones, which are a function of rest and recovery. Many think that they are growing when they are training, when in fact the training is just a catalyst and a part of the sympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system is actually catabolic in nature and is responsible for all the physical processes that allow you to get through your workouts (i.e. adrenaline and noradrenaline). These hormones are also catabolic in nature, and in the fitness industry, we know an athlete does want to be catabolic too long.
What is often understood intuitively is that being in a sympathetic state for short, controlled periods of time is what catapults us toward our fitness goals. This state of being is what gives a person the feeling of having a great workout or the feeling of euphoria.
So why wouldn’t we want to be in a state where we are creating gains all the time? Unfortunately, the body doesn’t function like that. What is often missed is that the body is always trying to be in a state of homeostasis (or balance).
If the body stays in a catabolic state for too long it will break down all the things we want to build, like muscle. We have to help our bodies become more parasympathetic (or anabolic). In this phase, our bodies are making hormones, such as testosterone and other growth hormones, that help build and rebuild muscle while increasing our fitness or athletic abilities.
Writing about this topic in depth can be very complicated that is why it’s touched on and then glanced over when talked about by many coaches and fitness writers. However, if the explanation of these concepts is delivered in a platform where people can understand and process the complex research, I believe athletes and trainees will benefit and be able to avoid detriment of their ultimate goals.
Balance Training with Recovery
Working out is addictive and can easily get people in trouble when they fail to recover properly. The feeling of euphoria can make people passionately go after the pursuit of progress in the fastest way possible without foresight for how it will affect them in the long run. Intensity and volume of exercise must be progressively added to a program over time.
Smart training is being able to avoid burnout and knowing your body well enough to listen and back off when needed. My next articles will cover more in-depth techniques regarding recovery and the aging athlete, injuries and recovery, sports psychology approaches to recovery, recovery and belief systems, and other specific ways on how to use recovery techniques. Until then, I leave you with another motto I live by train, listen, recover, progress.
1. Shin, Kunsoo, Haruyuki Minamitani, Shohei Onishi, Hajime Yamazaki, and Myoungho Lee. “Assessment of Training-Induced Autonomic Adaptations in Athletes with Spectral Analysis of Cardiovascular Variability Signals”. The Japanese Journal of Physiology JJP 45.6 (1995): 1053-069. Web.
2. Chen, Jui-Lien, Ding-Peng Yeh, Jo-Ping Lee, Chung-Yu Chen, Chih-Yang Huang, Shin-Da Lee, Chiu-Chou Chen, Terry Bj Kuo, Chung-Lan Kao, and Chia-Hua Kuo. “Parasympathetic Nervous Activity Mirrors Recovery Status in Weightlifting Performance After Training”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 25.6 (2011): 1546-552. Web.
3. Budgett, R. “Fatigue and Underperformance in Athletes: The Overtraining Syndrome”. British Journal of Sports Medicine 32.2 (1998): 107-10. Web.