The Importance of Rest and Recovery

Rest and Recovery. It’s called the most important part of training. Despite this most athletes do not get enough nor do they rest effectively. The primary principle of training is to elicit an adaptation response by shocking your body with rigorous activity. After the activity our bodies begin to repair the cellular damage caused by the activity and in theory we become stronger and faster. When you continually tax the body without giving it adequate rest, it cannot repair itself efficiently and do not receive the benefits of all that hard work and suffering. But how much rest do we need and what types of recovery are best?

Just like training cycles, rest and recovery can be classified into micro and macro recovery intervals. During a workout you might take short micro recoveries between hard intervals in order to allow your body to replenish its energy stores so you can complete the next workout. We also have to make sure we have enough time between workouts and training blocks. These are macro recovery periods. We can break down rest and recovery into three types: Micro Recovery, Macro Recovery I, Macro Recovery II. Each of these three types must be carefully allotted throughout your training plan to maximize your training, allow for adaptation, and prevent overtraining and injury. Before we talk about the three different types let’s first go over how recovery plays a role in adaptation and improved performance.

Training Adaptation and Compensation

AdaptationThe ancient Greeks were the first to identify the process of training adaptation and the theory of compensation and super compensation and we still follow the same basic model that they did 2000 years ago. When you go out for a hard workout, you tax your body’s energy producing systems. If you have taxed them sufficiently, your body will then enter a period of fatigue and adaptation. Your fitness ability will decline as result and your body will begin the adaptation process. As you become more rested your fitness begins to return and you go into a state of super compensation wherein your physical ability has now increased above the initial baseline (see image). This period of super compensation lasts only a short time. In order to continue to see gains the athlete must subject the body to another dose of hard training, eliciting the adaptation response once again. If the recovery period is too short, there will not have been enough time for the body to recover and the compensation effect is diminished. If the recovery period is too long, fitness will begin to return to its baseline levels and therefore the athlete will not see continued gains in performance. The amount of time for recovery depends on a number of important factors. Some of these include training age (number of years the athlete has been training), overall age, type of workout, training cycle, nutrition, sleep, psychological state, current fitness, etc. It is beneficial therefore to understand the three types of rest and recovery and how they affect your training so you can plan your recovery accordingly.

Type I: Micro Recovery

This is the type of recovery done between intervals during a workout. Recovery intervals can last anywhere from 10 seconds to 15 minutes depending on the work interval and goals of the workout. In order to plan effective recovery intervals you must first determine what the goal of the workout is. If you want to increase overall power for a certain duration, longer rest intervals are necessary to allow the body to recover to continue to push out maximal power in subsequent intervals. This is common during sprint training. It takes several minutes for the body to recover its creatine phosphate stores, the primary energy source for short sprint efforts. If you don’t allow your body to fully recover its creatine phosphate stores, you will not be able to achieve a hard enough effort to elicit an adaptation response and produce gains in performance.

Shorter recovery intervals are beneficial for developing fatigue resistance and muscle endurance. Bike racing, particularly criterium events, often require repeated high intensity efforts with little recovery. For those who wish to increase muscle glycogen stores and develop sufficient fatigue resistance to these repeated efforts, minimal recovery time is used between hard intervals. An excellent example of this is the ’20/40′ or 20/10′ interval. These workouts require a maximal effort for 20 seconds and then only 40 or 10 seconds of rest before the next interval begins. These are incredibly difficult intervals to do but they are effective for developing the ability to sustain repeated accelerations, attacks, surges, and punchy climbs that are common in bike races.

Recovery of this type consists mainly of riding at lower intensities, generally zone 1 or zone 2 efforts depending on the type of workouts. It’s important to not stop pedalling during rest intervals and to keep cadence quick. This maximizes the clearing of waste products built up in the muscles from the hard efforts and prevents seizing of the muscles.

Type II: Macro Recovery I

This type constitutes the rest between workouts and ranges from 4 to 48 hours. The recovery time required between workouts once again depends largely on the intensity and duration of the workout and your current level of fitness. Athletes with a large endurance base may find that longer moderate intensity workouts require less recovery time than shorter high intensity workouts. It’s important to track the nature of your workouts so you know which intensity zones you are accustomed to and which will require prolonged rest. Monitoring your daily TSS is somewhat effective at gauging recovery time between workout but for the most part the athlete should self-evaluate using perceived fatigue, sleep quality and resting HR (or HRV if applicable). Pre and post workout nutrition and hydration are significant factors to this type of recovery. It takes approximately 12 – 24 hours to replenish glycogen stores. For back-to-back workouts it is important eat a nutritious meal post workout in order to effectively replenish glycogen stores for the following day’s workout. It is also imperative to maintain proper fluid levels during this 12 – 24 hour window. A good general guideline is to allow your body one full day of recovery for every 2-3 consecutive days of training.

This type of recovery usually consists of inactivity for shorter duration rest intervals (12-24 hours) or light riding on rest days. It’s important to never take more than 1-2 days completely off the bike during a training period or your body will begin to adapt and compensate too early in the cycle before adequate training loads have been achieved. Short recovery rides on days off also help speed recovery and prevent muscle soreness and seizing.

Type III: Macrorecovery II

The final type of rest and recovery focusses on long term recovery and periods of unloading. This ranges anywhere from a full recovery week to several months of offseason unloading. Those on periodized training plans will be familiar with the concept of a recovery or rest week. It falls generally at the end of a hard training block and it serves to elicit the super compensation effect on a larger scale. A rest week usually follows in the wake of 2-3 hard training weeks of increasing volume and/or intensity. This short period of unloading gives the body time to regenerate from the larger block of training and maximize adaptation.

This type of recovery cycle is highly generalized, however, and does not account for individual recovery rates. Some athletes will need more or less recovery than one week and in those cases athletes can lose out on potential gains by not capitalizing on the super compensation effect. Some athletes and coaches prefer to use a variable periodization schedule where the athlete trains to a predetermined level of fatigue and then rests only long enough to achieve a predetermined level of freshness. Depending on the types of workouts and fitness of the athlete this can mean that some macrocycles consist of only 2 weeks of training followed by only a few days of recovery or conversely a training cycle can last up to 5 weeks with more than one week of rest. In this case no two cycles are the same. The athlete takes a holistic approach to their training and monitors closely signs of accumulated fatigue to know when to take a recovery period. This approach requires strict observation of both the coach and the athlete of fatigue markers and if done correctly can maximize the effectiveness of training by capitalizing on the super compensation effect.

At the end of a training season its important to take several weeks, possibly even two months, of rest from structured hard training and competition. This doesn’t mean you should stop doing activity altogether but rather you train with lighter loads and lesser volume. Focus less on specific types of workouts or training specific energy systems and instead engage in activity simply for the pleasure of it. This is a good time for cross training or taking part in events that are outside your normal specialty. Unloading accumulated training fatigue is an essential part of the annual training process and helps restore the body both physiologically and mentally.

This type of recovery consists of light easy riding similar to type II recovery for shorter recovery durations such as rest weeks and unstructured workouts of low to mid intensity during offseason periods. In both cases it is okay and often beneficial to do hard efforts and workouts in these two periods of recovery but emphasis should be on recovery and not overloading the body with enough training to elicit an adaptation response.

Recovery is one of the most important aspects of training and athletes of all levels should be mindful of their training load and fatigue levels. Timing of recovery between workouts and during rest weeks is highly variable and unique to the individual’s particular physiology and development. This is why its important to keep a consistent training log that includes sleep quality, perceived fatigue, diet information and mental and emotional wellbeing. Understanding how your body responds to training stress and how well it handles training loads will allow you to develop better recovery strategies that maximize your performance gains and minimize the risk of injury and overtraining.

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Human Power Performance