Recovery Part I: Active Recovery

Recovery is a topic that is vital to training, but is frequently overlooked. A proper training regime should have an emphasis on recovery for many different reasons, one being that the sooner the body is ready to perform again, the sooner you can get back to training. Substituting recovery time for workout time can predispose the athlete to fatigue and injury, which will result in extended recovery times. 

This is the first installment of a three part series. Part I is about how the body reacts to the stresses of training and then active recovery strategies. Part II and III will discuss rest and nutrition, respectively. 

The basic principle behind training is to provide enough stress to the body to create a desired reaction. Stress in this article will refer to the physical stress of training, however, the psychological stresses of training should not be overlooked. Psychological stress is inextricably related to the physical stresses of training. 

There are four stages that the stress of training will cause your body to go through. 

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The first stage is called the alarm phase. In order for the alarm phase to be triggered, the body must be placed under a sufficient amount of stress. The amount of stress placed on the body will depend on your type of workout, frequency, and intensity. This physical stress causes micro-damage to the body, which triggers the next stage to begin.

The second stage is the resistance phase. The resistance phase is when the body makes the adaptations to the physical stresses placed on it in the alarm phase. If you are lifting weights, this is when the body makes more muscle fibers. If you are running, the body will create a more efficient cardiovascular system. Obviously there are more adaptations than just the examples above, but hopefully you get the idea. 

The third stage is the super-compensation phase. This stage is a continuation of the previous stage, where the body will over-compensate for the exposed stress. This is in preparation for future. Using the examples above, the body will either build more muscle fibers or a more efficient cardiovascular system than what is necessary to prepare for the next workout session.

The final stage is called the exhaustion phase. In this phase, the body is unable to adapt to the stresses placed on it and tissues begin to breakdown. The goal of training is to increase the baseline (starting point) to a increased fitness level rather than a decreased fitness level. 

So where does recovery fit into this picture? Well, everywhere. Recovery mainly aids in reducing the exhaustion phase by providing the body with the proper resources it needs to heal. Think of it as a NASCAR race. The green flag is displayed which starts the race (triggers the alarm phase). As the race progresses, the car uses up it’s resources (resistance phase). Finally, the car goes in for a pit stop to refill its resources. If the car doesn’t stop for a pit stop, the car breaks down or runs out of gas (exhaustion phase).

Your body needs similar maintenance to keep it performing laps at the gym (or life for that matter). If the body does not have adequate resources it needs to respond to the stresses of training, the body will fail to recover from the training session and begin to breakdown. This is called maladaptation and can lead to injuries, fatigue, decreased performance, and a whole list of other problems. 

Here are three strategies that can help provide the resources the body needs to recover from a training session and prepare for the next session. 

Active Recovery

A 20 minute low intensity workout can help start the recovery process after a moderate or high intensity work out. The light contraction of muscles creates a pumping effect, which can help increase blood flow to the body, helping bring nutrients to the area while removing waste materials. Some low intensity examples can include: light jogging, walking, or water running. Yoga is also a great option for active recovery.  

Self-Myofascial Release

Using a foam roll, lacrosse ball, or a massage-stick can increase blood flow and aid in increasing the quality of your tissues. Self-myofascial release (SMR) creates pressure to the tissues which will enhance the movement of fluids, again this increases the delivery of nutrients while removing waste products (notice a pattern?). SMR work can also help decrease trigger points in muscles and fascia (tissue that connects everything in your body). A few areas to focus on are the soles of your feet, gluteals, and thoracic spine. A 5-15 minute session of SMR a few times a day can help prepare you for your next workout session. 

Cold and Heat

Cold water immersion is a popular way to decrease muscle soreness after a workout (also called delayed-onset muscle soreness). The basis of cold water immersion (CWI) is to decrease inflammation and swelling by constricting the blood vessels. When using CWI for recovery, the water temperature should be around 50-60ºF. Any colder than that may neutralize the benefits. The problem with using cold water immersion is that with decreased blood flow, there will be decreased nutrients delivered to the area, which could reduce recovery time. 

Hot water immersion increases the blood flow into the area, which will increase nutrients and improve recovery. The heat from the water can also decrease muscle spasms. There is a risk with using hot water immersion, in that this can promote too much inflammation and swelling into the area. There is also another risk… please don’t burn yourself with this method. 

Contrast therapy is also becoming a popular recovery strategy. This is a mixture of cold and hot water immersion (1-2 minutes cold then 1-2 minutes hot, repeat). This method works by combining constricting the blood vessels (cold) then dilating the blood vessels (heat), which (you guessed it!) can help bring nutrients to the area. 

From a tissue healing prospective, I generally recommend hot water immersion or contrast therapy because of the increase in nutrients delivered to the tissues. Cold water immersion can be used immediately post-exercise to help limit the amount of inflammation; but remember that the goal of recovery is to allow the tissues to heal quicker so that the tissues can resume their normal performance levels.

With all that being said, everyone will have a little different recovery strategy. It is important to use a combination of the above strategies to determine what works best for you and your lifestyle. Feel free to add any of your own strategies to the comments below! 

Keep a lookout for part II of recovery strategies which will discuss the importance of rest.