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Recovery in Training: The Essential Ingredient

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.

Rest—Sets and Sessions

How much rest is enough?

Rest Between Sets. Willardson (2008) describes rest between sets as a multifactorial phenomenon affected by several factors (see Figure 1). However, summarizing previous research he proposes some specific rest periods (in multiple-set training) for the following training protocols:

muscular endurance training: 30–90 seconds

hypertrophy training: 1–2 minutes

power training: 3 minutes

muscular strength (for clients less well adapted to strength training): 4–5 minutes

muscular strength (for clients well adapted to strength training): 3 minutes

Rest Between Sessions. The more stressful the workout is, the greater the overall muscle recruitment and the greater the potential for muscle damage and soreness—so the longer the recovery time that is needed. For most individuals, muscle recovery between resistance training sessions is also influenced by other types of training performed, such as cardiovascular training, interval sprints and sports conditioning sessions. Rhea (2003) concluded that for untrained and trained individuals a frequency of 3 and 2 days per week, respectively, per muscle group is optimal, which translates to 1–2 days’ rest between sessions. However, this will vary depending on total volume of resistance training, individual training status and overall goals (e.g., training for hypertrophy, strength, endurance, etc.).

Figure 1. Factors Affecting the Amount of Rest Between Sets

Common Questions About Recovery

Is there a gender difference in recovery? A gender difference has been shown in fatigue, which influences recovery. Numerous studies have found that fit women have a greater resistance to fatigue than their male counterparts; therefore, fit women are able to sustain continuous and intermittent muscle contractions at low to moderate intensities longer than physically active men (Critchfield & Kravitz 2008).

Do some movements require more rest than others?

Ground-based, multijoint movements—such as the dead lift and squat—require more rest than smaller-muscle, single-joint movements, such as the biceps curl. This is because there is greater motor unit recruitment and more muscle mass involvement with the multijoint exercises.

Can certain supplements aid in recovery after training?

Many supplements have been used to assist in recovery of training. Bloomer (2007) provides evidence on certain antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E, and their purported effect on attenuating muscle damage, thus enhancing the recovery of training. However, he confirms that these supplements do not eliminate muscle trauma from exercise; they only minimize some of the signs and symptoms (e.g., delayed-onset damage, inflammation).

Does massage therapy affect the recovery process? According to Weerapong, Hume and Kolt (2005), some studies have shown that massage reduces delayed- onset muscle soreness, while other studies have not realized this effect. However, it should be pointed out that the psychological benefits of massage toward recovery are often quite meaningful to the exercisers.


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