Recovery in Training: The Essential Ingredient

by Jonathan N. Mike, MS and Len Kravitz, PhD on Feb 02, 2009


Understand it; plan for it.

Recovery from exercise training is an integral component of the overall training program and is essential for optimal performance and improvement. If rate of recovery is improved, higher training volumes and intensities are possible without the detrimental effects of overtraining (Bishop, Jones & Woods 2008).

While recovery from exercise is significant for athletes and other clients alike, personal trainers and coaches vary in their approaches to the recovery process. Understanding the physiological concept of recovery is essential for designing optimal training programs. Also, individual variability exists within the recovery process due to training status (trained vs. untrained), factors of fatigue and a person’s ability to deal with physical, emotional and psychological stressors (Jeffreys 2005). This article will provide evidence-based research and practical applications on recovery for personal trainers and other fitness professionals.

Recovery Defined

Bishop, Jones and Woods (2008) define recovery as the ability to meet or exceed performance in a particular activity. Jeffreys (2005) has specified that factors of recovery include (1) normalization of physiological functions (e.g., blood pressure, cardiac cycle); (2) return to homeostasis (resting cell environment); (3) restoration of energy stores (blood glucose and muscle glycogen); and (4) replenishment of cellular energy enzymes (i.e., phosphofructokinase, a key enzyme in carbohydrate metabolism). In addition, the recovery is very dependent on specific types of training (see the sidebar “Rest—Sets and Sessions”). Recovery may include an active component (such as a postworkout walk) and/or a passive component (such as a postworkout hydrotherapy treatment).

Physiology of Recovery

Muscle recovery occurs during and primarily after exercise and is characterized by continued removal of metabolic end products (e.g., lactate and hydrogen ions). During exercise, recovery is needed to re- establish intramuscular blood flow for oxygen delivery, which promotes replenishment of phosphocreatine stores (used to resynthesize ATP), restoration of intramuscular pH (acid-base balance) and return of muscle membrane potential (balance between sodium and potassium exchanges inside and outside of cell) (Weiss 1991). During postexercise recovery, there is also an increase in “excess postexercise oxygen consumption” (or EPOC). Other physiological functions of recovery during this phase include the return of ventilation, blood circulation and body temperature to pre-exercise levels (Børsheim & Bahr 2003).

Types of Recovery

The most rapid form of recovery, termed immediate recovery, occurs during exercise itself. Bishop and colleagues (2008) give the example of a race walker, for whom one leg is in immediate recovery during each stride. During this phase of recovery, energy regeneration occurs in the lower extremities between strides. The more quickly each leg recovers, the more efficiently the walker is able to complete the striding task.

Short-term recovery involves recovery between sets of a given exercise or between interval work bouts. Short-term recovery is the most common form of recovery in training (Seiler & Hetlelid 2005).

Training recovery is the recovery between workout sessions or athletic competitions (Bishop, Jones & Woods 2008). If consecutive workouts occur (e.g., within the same day) with insufficient recovery time, the individual may be improperly prepared for the next training session.

Connection to Fatigue

Fatigue is usually perceived as any reduction in physical or mental performance. However, in relation to various aspects of training, fatigue can be described as a failure to maintain the expected force or as an inability to maintain a given exercise intensity or power output level (Meeusen 2006). Bigland-Ritchie and Woods (1984) describe fatigue as any exercise-induced reduction in force or power regardless of whether or not the task can be sustained.

There are two types of fatigue—peripheral and central. Peripheral fatigue during exercise is often described as impairment within the active muscle. The muscle contractile proteins are not responding to their neural stimulation. Depletion of muscle glycogen (for fuel) is thought to be an important factor in peripheral fatigue, especially during prolonged exercise (Jentjens & Jeukendrup 2003).

Central fatigue is concerned with the descending motor pathways from the brain and spinal cord. Bishop and colleagues (2008) explain that brain messages may signal reductions or complete cessation of exercise performance. A central fatigue hypothesis suggests that the brain is acting as a protective mechanism to prevent excessive damage to the muscles.

Other Associative Factors of Recovery

Gleeson (2002) lists the following as factors affecting a person’s ability to recover effectively:

1. muscle soreness and weakness

2. poor exercise performance

3. decreased appetite

4. increased infection

5. quality and quantity of sleep

6. gastrointestinal abnormalities

Personal trainers should be aware that these conditions may have an adverse influence on client recovery from exercise.

For clients to achieve optimal exercise performance, fitness professionals need to be proactive about planning recovery into the training program. There is no consensus on a central strategy for recovery, but monitoring and observing clients’ exercise performance will always give trainers a lot of insight into how to adjust and plan for this essential training ingredient. In addition, educating clients about the importance of recovery (e.g., emphasizing proper sleep) may empower them to complete suitable interventions to enhance the process.


Bigland-Ritchie, B., & Woods, J.J. 1984. Changes in muscle contractile properties and neural control during human muscular fatigue. Muscle & Nerve, 7 (9), 691–99.

Bishop, P.A., Jones E., & Woods, A.K. 2008. Recovery from training: A brief review. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 22 (3), 1015–24.

Bloomer, R.J. 2007. The role of nutritional supplements in the prevention and treatment of resistance exercise-induced skeletal muscle injury. Sports Medicine, 37 (6), 519–32.

Børsheim, E., & Bahr, R. 2003. Effect of exercise intensity, duration and mode on post-exercise oxygen consumption. Sports Medicine, 33 (14), 1037–60.

Critchfield, B., & Kravitz, L. 2008. Fatigue resistance: An intriguing difference in gender. IDEA Fitness Journal 5 (6), 19–21.

Gleeson, M. 2002. Biochemical and immunological markers of overtraining. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 1, 31–41.

Hicks, A.L., Kent-Braun, J., & Ditor, D.S. 2001. Sex differences in human skeletal muscle fatigue. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, 29 (3), 109–12.

Jeffreys, I. 2005. A multidimensional approach to enhancing recovery. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 27 (5), 78–85.

Jentjens, R., & Jeukendrup, A.E. 2003. Determinants of post-exercise glycogen synthesis during short-term recovery. Sports Medicine, 33 (2), 117–44.

Meeusen, R., et al. 2006. Central fatigue: The serotonin hypothesis and beyond. Sports Medicine, 36 (10), 881–909.

Rhea, M.R., et al. 2003. A meta-analysis to determine the dose response for strength development. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 35 (3), 456–64.

Seiler, S., & Hetlelid, K.J. 2005. The impact of rest duration on work intensity and RPE during interval training. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 37 (9), 1601–1607.

Weerapong, P., Hume, P.A., & Kolt, G.S. 2005. The mechanisms of massage and effects on performance, muscle recovery and injury prevention. Sports Medicine, 35 (3), 235–56.

Weiss, L.W. 1991. The obtuse nature of muscular strength: The contribution of rest to its development and expression. Journal of Applied Sport Science Research, 5 (4), 219–27.

Willardson, J.M. 2008. A brief review: How much rest between sets? Strength and Conditioning Journal, 30 (3), 44–50.

IDEA Fitness Journal, Volume 6, Issue 2

© 2009 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Authors

Jonathan N. Mike, MS IDEA Author/Presenter

Len Kravitz, PhD

Len Kravitz, PhD IDEA Author/Presenter

Len Kravitz, PhD, is the program coordinator of exercise science and a researcher at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he recently won the Outstanding Teacher of the Year award. Len w...


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