Recovery training: too much hard training can devastate your muscles and implode your immune system

To train well, you must find the right balance between hard work and recovery

Creating a great training programme is not just a matter of writing tough, high-quality workouts. Almost anyone can do that.In fact, if reaching maximal athletic potential were simply a matter of finding the right workouts, then you would have no difficulty becoming maximally fit. You could carry out a strenuous effort on Monday to boost VO2max, a rough affair on Tuesday to breed better economy, a scintillating tempo session on Wednesday to heighten lactate threshold, a sizzling set of intervals on Thursday to further raise VO2max, and so on. Within a few weeks, you would be performing as well as you possibly could.

Unfortunately, that won’t happen, because high-quality work is a double-edged sword. It can lead you to your highest-possible level of fitness, or it can destroy your ability to produce top performances. Doing too much hard training can devastate your muscles, harass your hormonal system, and implode your immune system.

That means that to create your best-possible training programme, you have to figure out a way to do as much quality training as possible during a given time period – without doing too much work.

You’re looking for the right balance of hard work and recovery, and that’s the really difficult problem in putting together the right training programme. Basically, you must figure out a way to complete a difficult training session, one which will produce the needed improvements in your fitness, and then recover for just the right amount of time before undertaking another quality session.

If you don’t recover for long enough, your muscles won’t be ready for the subsequent session, and muscle damage will occur. If you recover for too long, you’re wasting your time. Instead of carrying out another fitness-boosting workout, you’re taking it easy, thinking that you need recovery.

You have to recover for just the right amount of time. As noted training theorist Tudor Bompa says in his popular book Theory and Methodology of Training: ‘Recovery should be so well understood and actively enhanced that it becomes a determinant component in training’.

How not to do it

But how can you determine exactly how much recovery you need? Most athletes simply use a trial-and-error method. Many of them train hard until they become overly fatigued and then have to take time off to recover. It’s an inefficient system, and one that carries a high risk of overtraining. Other athletes are more cautious, training hard once every three or four days or so because they’re afraid to overdo it. This is also inefficient; these individuals could perform much better if they could fit more quality work into their schedules.

What does science have to say about finding the right balance? Researchers know that the key aspect of the recovery process occurs in the muscles. After an intense workout, muscles are slightly damaged. Damaged structures need to be repaired to prevent more serious damage in subsequent workouts – and to ensure that the next workout can be carried out effectively. Also, muscle fatigue must disappear; otherwise the subsequent session will be carried out in the tired state, increasing the risk of injury.

In addition to the repair and fatigue-removal processes, things need to be created in the muscles. More proteins must be laid down so that the muscles can contract more forcefully, and more energy-producing enzymes must be synthesised so that the muscles can work harder without becoming fatigued.

In other words, recovery is a process involving the creation of new muscle proteins. If scientists could track how long this process goes on after intense sessions, they could help us reckon optimal recovery lengths. After all, you don’t want to work out when protein creation is just getting started – or when protein is being produced at a high, steady level. Working out then would disrupt the recovery process. You want to wait until the protein creation has just about ended – and then immediately train again to start the process anew.

The latest evidence

Recently, researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario and the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis made a head start on reckoning recovery times. Their subjects, six healthy young men who regularly engaged in weight training, carried out four sets each of biceps, ‘concentration,’ and ‘preacher’ curls (12 sets in all), with three to four minutes of rest between sets. Resistance (weight) was set at 80 per cent of maximum (80 per cent of the heaviest weight which could be lifted successfully one time), and each set consisted of as many reps as a subject could handle.

The unique aspect of the research was that each subject carried out the curls with only one arm; the other arm rested. The scientists could then use an isotope tracer to determine protein uptake in the exercised arm and compare it with routine protein synthesis in the arm which had not exercised.

Combining this research with a similar, past effort, the scientists determined that muscle protein synthetic rate increases by about 50 per cent four hours after a workout. This is evidence that muscles are repairing damage accrued from the workout – and also building new ‘stuff’ to make themselves stronger and more fatigue-resistant.

This ‘repair and renew’ process seems to peak about 24 hours after a workout, when muscle protein synthetic rate was up by a hefty 109 per cent in the McMaster-Washington research. However, about 36 hours after a workout, the whole process is pretty much over, and muscles are back to routine housekeeping.

It’s important to point out that this study was done with experienced weight trainees; novice lifters might have required a longer recovery process. It’s also important to note that the research was conducted with strength rather than endurance athletes. The recovery process might proceed with a different time frame following a more endurance-type workout. Also, there is variation between athletes. Some individuals might be all done recovering after just 30 hours or so, while others could take 40 to 48 hours.

Still, the McMaster work is intriguing – and has some interesting implications. If 36 hours is about the right recovery time for most athletes, then training could be adjusted accordingly – and in a pattern which most endurance athletes do not employ.

Using a 36-hour recovery clock

For example, you might carry out a lactate-threshold workout early Monday morning. 36 hours later you would be recovered, so you could do fast, hard intervals at 90 to 95 per cent of maximal heart rate on Tuesday evening. 36 hours after that, you would be ready again, so you might complete some hill work or fast reps on Thursday morning. By avoiding working out at the same time every day and by using the 36-hour principle, you would have completed three good sessions in the Monday-through-Thursday time slot, instead of your normal two, and yet achieved excellent recovery (naturally, you would ensure that your fluid, protein, and carbohydrate intake would be high between workouts, especially during the two-hour ‘window’ following each session). Not wishing to push your luck, you could take it easy (or do nothing) on Friday, and then have a race or long run on Saturday. After an easy Sunday, you would be ready to resume your 36-hour plan.

Wanting more precision, serious athletes could have their muscle protein synthesis rates assessed in the laboratory after different workouts and determine their required recoveries after intervals, long runs, reps, tempo efforts, etc. They would then be better able to coordinate their quality efforts with their recoveries and lay out scientifically sound training programmes.

Not just the muscles

Of course, one problem is that recovery is not centred only in the muscular system. You have to recuperate psychologically from stressful sessions (if your concentration is below-par during subsequent efforts, your coordination and overall form will deteriorate), and the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems all have to get well, too. However, the muscular and immune systems are interrelated (the muscles produce chemicals which stimulate white blood cells), so good muscle recovery should enhance immune functioning. If overwork is being prevented at the muscular level, we can only hope that the nervous and endocrine systems will be okay, too.

The bottom line? You probably can do more quality work than you’re doing now, but you have to make sure that the quality increase doesn’t lead to overtraining. Since scientists suggest that 36 hours may be enough time for recovery, one solution to the need for more quality work is to ‘stagger’ good workouts so that they occur on Monday morning, Tuesday evening, and Thursday morning (or some other similar pattern). That would still leave you with 48 hours to recover if you wanted to race on Saturday morning.

Unfortunately, we still don’t know much about recovery over the long term, so it’s not clear whether you could do this every week. One possibility would be to work out in a quality way just twice during the first week of the month, use the 36-hour principle during the second and third weeks, and then return to less-frequent intense training for the fourth week.

We also don’t know what effect a very easy workout has on the recovery process (using the schedule above, with 36-hour recoveries and tough work on Monday morning, Tuesday evening, and Thursday morning, would you be better off resting completely on Wednesday – or engaging in some light exercise?). You’ll have to study yourself to see how you respond. Although much more recovery research needs to be done, it’s safe to say that judicious use of the principle of 36-hour recoveries should help you gradually increase your frequency of quality work – and make you a better athlete.

Questions you’ve always wanted to ask about the recovery process

Athletes are often confused about recovery. To ease that confusion, we’ve posed the most commonly asked questions about recovery below, along with the appropriate answers. First, though, we need to define a couple of recovery terms.

Compensation is what happens to your body after a workout is over. It involves a return to normal for heart rate and blood pressure, removal of excess lactate in the blood, storage of glycogen in muscles, repair of muscle fibres, restoration of normal hormone levels, and so on. Compensation brings your body back to its normal state of functioning after a training session.

Overcompensation is the process that actually makes you a better athlete. During over-compensation, your muscles stockpile higher-than normal amounts of glycogen, synthesise greater-than-usual quantities of aerobic enzymes, add new proteins to muscles to make them stronger, etc. In other words, your training stimulates you to ‘rebound’ to a higher physiological state.

Q: Should you try to conduct another quality workout during the overcompensation phase which follows a strenuous session, as experts recommend?
A: Ideally, the time to carry out the next quality workout would be at the exact end of the overcompensation stage, which appears to be about 36 hours after a previous tough session. If you try to train before overcompensation has ended, you won’t be able to perform as well as you can, since restoration and repair won’t be completed (your workout will be lower quality).

However, it is true that top athletes sometimes try to ‘jam’ workouts together so that a second exertion occurs well within the overcompensation phase (an extreme example of this is the Kenyan cross country runners’ tendency to conduct two quality sessions within about four hours of each other when they are attempting to peak for the world championships). This jamming would interrupt the compensation process before it really got going – but might lead to ‘superovercompensation’ – a greater-than-normal response during the next 36 hours.

Q: Do men recover from tough exertions more quickly than women, as the experts suggest?

A: That would seem to make sense, since the male sex hormone, testosterone, is a noted booster of protein synthesis, but the available research doesn’t support the idea. If anything, studies suggest that females may recover more quickly from roughly equivalent workouts (say, doing numerous sets of a tough weightlifting routine). It is clear that age and experience play a strong role in recovery; the younger you are and the more experienced you are at a particular activity, the quicker your recovery.

Q: Is the recovery process psychological as well as physical?

A: Yes. Anything which enhances your ability to relax between workouts will help you, because it will improve your concentration and motivation during subsequent exertions. Relaxation also helps reduce stress-hormone levels, which should promote greater glycogen storage in the muscles.

Q: What if I start feeling too tired to train properly when I use 36-hour recoveries?

A: Go back to your usual recovery period, and try using 36-hour recoveries when you are better rested and fitter.

Q: What can I do to optimise the recovery process?

A: When you’re training strenuously, make sure you take in about 16 calories of carbohydrate per pound of body weight each day. Also get enough protein – about three-quarters of a gram per pound of body weight daily. Bias your intake so that much of it occurs during the two hours after a workout. Stay relaxed and get plenty of sleep. And finally, follow the 36-hour rule between some of your quality sessions. All of these steps should allow you to get in more quality work – and yet still recover effectively. The bottom line is that you’ll become a better athlete.

Owen Anderson

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