RECOVERY – THE FUNDAMENTALS
Training induced stress is hugely important when it comes to elevating levels of performance and/or general wellbeing, as we’ve discussed in previous blogs (‘Sometimes Less is More”). Successful training not only includes overload (training stress), but avoids the combination of excessive overload and insufficient recovery . This illustrates not only the importance of implementing the appropriate training stress (progressive overload) through the careful manipulation of training variables (sets/reps, tempo, contraction types etc.) that are based on either your training age, fitness levels, or stage of the season. But, how you’re using the other 22 hours of your day away from training is equally as important as the training itself, in order to elicit the training adaptations you or your athlete are seeking.
There are a host of external recovery strategies/tools out there that are designed to accelerate ones recovery, however, as detailed in the literature, you can’t go far wrong focusing on just three means of recovery that are deemed in the sporting world as non-negotiable; 1. Nutrition, 2. Sleep and 3. Stress Management . In no particular order of importance, these three recovery strategies can have a huge impact on ones ability to manage and/or dissipate either metabolic, neural, psychological or environmental fatigue (are all of) experienced as a result of training, competition and/or everyday life. The focus for the remainder of this blog will be on the three non-negotiable recovery strategies aforementioned, drawing on the their importance, physiological effects, and practical application.
As previously mentioned, both fitness and fatigue are subsequent by-products of training and/or competition. In particular, metabolic fatigue is the result of imbalances in the availability and replenishment of the energy required to perform, train, or execute everyday tasks. Therefore, an appropriate energy intake should be the cornerstone of yours or your athletes nutritional strategy, since it supports optimal bodily functions while promoting muscle repair, reductions in fatigue, replenishment of glycogen stores, cooling of excessive inflammation, digestion, immunity and overall health . It is important to note that yours or your athletes energy requirements will be dependent on a number of factors that need be considered and/or addressed, these include; your sport (endurance or strength/power based etc.), training variables which will fluctuate from off season to in season in regards to, number of sessions and/or changes in volume, intensity, frequency and density of training etc. Additional factors to consider include; exposure to cold or heat, stress, altitude training, physical injuries and increases in fat-free mass .
With this in mind, energy balance (calories +/-) plays the biggest role in the recovery process, as a negative energy balance (deficit) can result in catabolism, while a positive energy balance (surplus) alone is a major stimulator of anabolism . Energy balance occurs when your total energy intake (EI) equals total energy expenditure (TEE) (calories in equal the calories going out), which in turn consists of the summation of basal metabolic rate (BMR), the thermic effect of food (TEF), and the thermic effect of activity (TEA). The latter, TEA which includes planned exercise expenditure, spontaneous physical activity and non-exercise activity thermogenesis (fancy word for burning energy) can be determined using a METs chart (Metabolic equivalent of task) . This not only indicates the importance of consuming enough calories to promote the recovery process and subsequent adaptation. But, if you are in a state of low energy availability there is less energy to support red blood cell production, bone health, growth/repair, immunity, digestion and cardiovascular health . The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends 50-80 kcal/kg/day for strength and team sport individuals , but it is important to consider your own sport, training, and everyday tasks to calculate the correct energy balance to ensure an efficient recovery response and subsequent adaptation. Additionally, not only is the quantity of calories you consume important, but the type of, and quality of calories need to be considered also . Nutrients can be divided into two categories; macro and micro, whereby all nutrients that fall under these two categories are interdependent within the body , your macronutrients are deemed the “biggest rocks” and are made up of proteins, carbohydrates and fats, while your micronutrients consist of your vitamins and minerals.
Your ability to build and repair muscle is dictated by your net protein balance overtime, whereby you’re consuming a sufficient amount of protein post training and incrementally throughout the day (15-25g per meal, over 3-6 meals) to ensure muscle protein synthesis is taking place . Dietary protein in the form of food and/or liquids is necessary to support metabolic adaptation, growth and repair of tissues (muscles and connective tissues), remodelling and immunity with the recommended guidelines being in the range of 1.6-2.0 g/kg/day. It is important to note that higher intakes may be indicated for short periods during intensified training or when you’re reducing your energy intake . Although protein has 4 calories per gram it is important to note that it has the highest thermic effect when compared to other nutrients, whereby it costs the body more energy to metabolise. This is important when looking at your energy balance and factoring in energy expenditure when completing your training and everyday tasks .
Carbohydrates and Fats
Like protein, carbohydrates provide the body with 4 calories per gram and is known as one the bodies energy yielding macronutrients . Carbohydrates provide a key fuel for the brain and central nervous system and is a versatile substrate for muscular work where it can support exercise over a large range of intensities due to its utilisation by both anaerobic (gym sessions, high intensity interval training) and oxidative pathways (endurance style training; running, swimming, cycling) . When consumed through food, the body converts carbohydrates to glucose which either gets used immediately as energy, or is stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen, to be used for energy in your next activity or training session. In addition to its role as a muscle substrate, glycogen plays important direct and indirect roles in regulating the muscles adaptation to training, with the recommended guidelines or target of carbohydrates at around 4-7 g/kg/day, but again this number can vary depending on your sport, type of training and your body type .
In regards to fat, the most calorie dense of the macronutrients at 9 calories per gram, whose place in a healthy diet is very necessary, not only for providing energy in the form of plasma free fatty acids, intramuscular triglycerides and adipose tissue, but for a host of other benefits . These benefits include; the facilitation in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, reductions in inflammation and reactive oxygen species (ROS) and providing essential elements of cell membranes which allows for superior passage of nutrients, hormones and chemical messengers into and out of cells, which is hugely important for supporting muscle growth and repair following training . It is recommended that fat intake should make up 15-30% of your total caloric intake and come from whole foods in the form of meat, oily fish (omega-3 & DHA), various nuts and nut butters, oils and various vegetables . Additionally, your brain is made up of 60% fat, so a lot of the fat you consume from a whole food diet supplies the brain with energy. Of this 60%, 1/3 is made up of the long chain omega-3 fat DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which plays an important role in cell signalling, nerve growth, inflammation cooling and supporting membrane fluidity and structure . With this in mind (no pun intended), the brain will consume a lot of this fat for energy and other functions, so it is important to consume enough fat to ensure all the bodily functions noted above can still take place, and ensure your maximising the recovery process following training and/or competition.
The forgotten nutrient or often over looked nutrient is an absolute powerhouse when it comes to recovery. Exercise in any form stresses many of the metabolic pathways in which micronutrients are required, and training may result in biochemical adaptations that increase the need for some micronutrients . Going back to your energy balance, if you are not hitting the appropriate amount of calories per day to aid recovery, then you may be running the risk of consuming sub-optimal amounts of micronutrients that are essential for bodily function such as; energy production, immunity, gene expression, hormonal levels, reducing fatigue and reducing levels of inflammation . Micronutrients come in the form of vitamins (A, C, D, E, K and the B vitamins) and minerals (iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium etc.) and are needed in different amounts depending on the micronutrient and your individual needs. Collectively, they all play a huge role not only in the bodily functions previously mentioned, but the whole recovery process. The most reliable source of micronutrients is through a variety of whole foods such as fruits (of all colours of the rainbow), leafy and cruciferous vegetables, dairy products, meat products, various seeds/nuts and other external sources such as sunlight exposure (vitamin D production) .
In summary, and I know this analogy has been used a lot in this context, but, think of yourself as a sports car. You need to keep your engine (the body) topped up with enough fuel (energy through calories to promote a positive energy balance) in order to maintain and prepare for performance both in training and competition. You also need to ensure you are providing your body (the sports car) with high-quality fuel (macronutrient and micronutrient dense whole foods) that will allow the engine to repeatably maintain top performance. You should also understand that different types of training will place different demands on the body, therefore, your nutrient intake should match this to ensure adequate recovery. Lastly, appreciate that your energy needs and requirements are different to the person next to you, so take the time to work out what works for you and your body/health and secondly, what works for you and your performance.
Arguably the most advantageous and inexpensive recovery strategy at our disposal. Sleep is fundamental to life and boasts a host of benefits that include; improved athletic abilities (strength, power, speed, endurance etc.), immunity, attention, learning, decision making etc. In contrast, insufficient sleep is associated with various metabolic, cardiovascular and psychological illnesses as well as hindering the four key domains of athletic performance (physical ability, technical and tactical skills, and psychological mettle) . The recommended guidelines for sleep is 8-10 hours, and there are a host of beneficial strategies that you can employ to promote your sleep time and quality (visit one of the earlier ION blogs, that goes into more detail about internal and external factors that can hinder or enhance sleep). Additionally, factors such as training schedules, travel (training and competition), balancing training with work, academics, relationships, family commitments, anxiety etc. can all impair sleep and contribute to psychological and environmental fatigue. This leads into the final ‘non-negotiable’ of recovery; stress management.
3. Stress Management
As you’re probably well aware now, stress is hugely important for adaptation. However, stress can come in many shapes and sizes and can be categorised as physiological (stresses of training) and psychological (mental and emotional) , the latter being a by product of the the factors aforementioned in the sleep section of this blog. As has been mentioned in previous blogs, it is important we understand the roles and function of our autonomic nervous system (NS) and its divisions; sympathetic NS (fight or flight) and parasympathetic NS (rest and digest) when it comes to stress management. Moreover, if stress is not managed or general “life stress” silently accumulates below the surface then a number of negative effects can become present in the body; digestive dysfunction, bodyweight fluctuation, sleeplessness, reduced ability and efficiency to recover, mood swings, the list is endless. So, with all this in mind it is important to take the time to listen to your body and look to employ strategies that allow you to manage the many forms of stress that are frequently exposed to the human body on a day to day basis. Strategies/techniques may include; breathing work, meditation, good sleep routine (circadian rhythm), grounding, keeping a journal (daily affirmation/tasks to complete), consuming good whole foods, cold water therapy, positive connections with those around you (people are fuel), being out in nature, organising your week in advance, again the list is endless. But, take the time to elevate your own self-awareness and find out what works best for you and your schedule of training and work/life commitments.
Considerations and take homes
At this point it is clear to see that your time spent away from training is equally if not more important when seeking the adaptations you desire from your training. Secondly, it is important to note that the three recovery strategies detailed above are all inter-related whereby negligence in one can have a negative impact on another. For example, if you’re not managing your everyday stresses very well or your workload is too much, it could reduce your sleep quality, in turn lack of sleep can lead to suppression of the satiating hormone leptin and increase activity of the hunger hormone ghrelin, causing you to consume more food which can offset your energy balance and subsequently your ability to recover efficiently between training sessions. Overtime, this could lead to injury or missing reps at sub-maximal loads in your key lifts etc. This is just one example, but, it illustrates the importance of focusing on all three recovery strategies simultaneously along with adopting a training strategy that produces enough but not too much stress on the body to promote positive change overtime. Lastly, don’t take everything from this blog as gospel! Be accountable for your own recovery, take the time to workout what’s best for you in regards to your energy balance, sleep routine, stress management and most importantly… Enjoy the process!
Written by – Richard Walters
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