training recovery hierarchy
Whether it’s for muscle gain, strength gain, aerobic endurance, or even bone growth, training is where you stimulate the body to grow and adapt and is crucial for making gains. For those of us engaged in training, we all know this to be true at some level.
However, we often forget that training is just the first part of the equation. In order to grow and adapt, we also need to focus on recovery. This is where the body rests and rebuilds to accommodate the new stressors being placed on it.
The process of training and recovery can be summarized in the equation: Stress + Rest = Growth. This equation, though simplified, shows that there needs to be both stress and rest for the body to grow and adapt.
Without adequate recovery, you might get by for a little while, but after a period of time your performance and health will suffer, and it’s likely that you’ll start to experience symptoms of overtraining. This could result in a burnout, stagnation, or sickness.
Just like with our training, we want to maximize our recovery. If we train hard, we want to make sure our body recovers effectively and efficiently. Train hard, rest hard. To get the most out of your recovery (and therefore your training), follow the guidelines below.
Train at the edge of your ability.
The first step in maximizing your recovery starts with your training program. Constantly training to failure or beyond can temporarily lead to a super compensation effect. Although short lived, this effect usually results in overtraining, soreness, fatigue, injury, or sickness.
Instead, organize your training to be at the edge of your ability. This means the combination of your current fitness (peak ability) and readiness (daily ability). Training should push you close to failure, but rarely past it. Training too far past failure will make subsequent sessions less productive and increase the need for recovery time.
A simple training log is all that is required to monitor whether you are going too easy or too hard. This log should keep track of your total reps, sets, weight, rest, and total time of sessions. These variables should progress slowly and usually not all at once.
For example, if you are increasing reps, sets, and weight, while also decreasing rest, you are either not at the edge of your ability yet, or you are pushing towards overtraining. Instead, keep reps and sets constant while adding more weight. This will make it easy to recover and leave you ready for your next session.
When you increase the intensity, frequency, or volume in your training, you're spending more time breaking yourself down. In order to adapt and grow, you need to increase your sleep and relaxation schedule to build yourself back up.
Sleep is extremely important for recovery. It is the time when the body builds your muscles, refines neural pathways, and repairs areas of overuse. If you don’t get enough sleep, protein synthesis drops, testosterone production drops, and neural drive drops. All of this will, at a minimum, lead to a training plateau.
When it comes to sleep, quality and quantity matter. Our body naturally goes through different stages of sleep, and if we get too little we don’t get through enough of each cycle. High quantity with frequent interruptions will result in higher-quality deep sleep (reaching Stage 4 versus only reaching Stage 3 of deep sleep). Low quantity with high quality will result in reaching fewer stages within the sleep cycle.
Aim for 7-10 hours of sleep per night. The more sleep the better. If you are in a phase of training where you’re focused on pushing your edge of ability. I try to get at least an extra hour of sleep when I'm in a harder phase of training. To improve sleep quality, focus on sleep hygiene: making sure your room is cool enough, dark enough, and quiet enough.
Increase protein and carbohydrate consumption.
While all macro and micronutrients are important for recovery, protein provides structure and carbohydrates supply energy for building. Fat plays a role as a low intensity fuel source, but our body stores plenty of it and thus it’s rarely depleted after training. Our body cannot store protein, and it only has limited carbohydrate storage, so these take priority.
Protein is the literal building block for both repair and growth. If you train hard, sleep well, but don’t consume an adequate amount of protein, you will not grow and adapt. Our body is constantly using the protein we consume to rebuild, but it cannot store extra protein for later. Therefore, a steady stream throughout the day is best. Aim for roughly 1g of high quality protein per 1lb of bodyweight.
Carbohydrates can be stored, but only a limited amount. Our body stores carbohydrates in our liver and in our muscles as glycogen. Glycogen is the primary fuel source for lifting weights as well as high intensity exercise. This glycogen is also used as fuel for recovery. Building muscle is an active process, and the body needs energy to do this. Aim for roughly 2-4g of carbohydrates per 1 lb of bodyweight. The exact amount will depend on the intensity of exercise.
Utilize active recovery.
While it seems simple, if the first 3 guidelines are followed you will make incredible progress. Guidelines 4 and 5 are all about optimization. You cannot optimize a poor training plan, inadequate sleep, or a poor diet.
The goal with active recovery is to move air (oxygen and carbon dioxide) and blood (nutrition) for healing. Active recovery should be very low intensity, cyclical, and restorative. It's very common to turn a recovery session into a workout session, so be careful with your intent.
These sessions should focus on deep breathing with a slightly elevated heart rate, usually below 120 BPM. Cyclical modalities like walking and cycling are great, but low intensity movement can work as well. The key here is to get oxygenated blood into the muscles and deoxygenated blood out of the muscles.
Utilize passive recovery.
This piece is last on the hierarchy, but it is still important. Passive recovery includes foam rolling, compression, neuromuscular electrical stimulation, massage, etc. These modalities encourage and facilitate the body in it’s healing and recovery process, but are not recovery techniques in and of themselves.
The goal with each modality is to help bring the body to a relaxed state. This relaxed state, or a parasympathetic state, is required for the body to begin rebuilding. If the body stays in a state of action, or sympathetic state, it will focus on using muscle carbohydrates, and staying awake.
Passive recovery helps make the switch from sympathetic to parasympathetic. It can help work as a cue for the body to start recovering and this should start immediately after your workout. An effective way to do this is by finishing your training session with foam rolling, massage, or passive stretching. These signal the body that training is over and it’s time to focus on recovery.
Remember, if you are training hard, recovery requires more prioritization. The first 3 guidelines are the most important. Progressively train harder until you are at the edge of your ability, increase sleep quantity and quality, and increase protein and carbohydrate consumption. While you are maximizing these, add very low intensity active recovery sessions, and finish your training sessions with passive recovery.