It’s important to understand what happens both during the training session and in the workout recovery period afterwards. This way, we can understand how to optimise recovery and enhance our performance.
When you exercise, a number of changes take place. One of the most obvious is that your energy reserves become depleted. In particular, your stores of muscle glycogen (your body’s premium grade fuel for exercise) run down. This is important because even partial depletion can severely reduce performance. Your limbs feel tired, heavy and ‘lifeless’. Water loss is also inevitable, leading to a degree of dehydration.
There are other effects too. Up to 15% of the energy required to fuel hard training may be derived from the breakdown of protein. This protein comes from the deconstruction of muscle tissue and releases amino acids. The net effect is tissue breakdown and a loss of muscle mass. Therefore the longer and harder you train, the greater the breakdown.
Muscles also accumulate lactic acid and other by-products during hard exercise. These substances can also produce post-exercise fatigue. Micro-tears to muscle fibres sustained during vigorous or unaccustomed training can also lead to DOMS. This is made worse by inflammation, as the muscle fibres themselves must undergo repair.
Recovery after the workout
The recovery process should allow your body to replenish, repair and regenerate itself fully. A proper recovery will do more than this though. It'll allow adaptation to take place. That is to say at the end of the recovery period, your body is fitter. Your muscles and cardiovascular system become more efficient. As a result, they're better at responding to the demands of exercise.
Therefore, recovery involves the replenishment of muscle glycogen stores and proper rehydration. Furthermore, the repair and growth of damaged muscle tissue is also important. This requires eating sufficient protein and other nutrients.
Finally, your body must clear metabolic by-products such as lactate and muscle breakdown debris.
Workout recovery rules
Nature is full of cycles and rhythms; night and day, changing seasons, fluctuating tides – the list goes on. It’s hardly surprising that humans have also evolved to function cyclically too. We are not machines running constantly.
You’ll never reach your full potential unless you balance your workout with enough of the right kind of recovery.
Ask anyone who’s been involved in training at an elite level. They’ll tell you that just because some is good, more isn’t necessarily better. In order to make progress in your fitness program, you need to combine two critical elements:
Whatever your sport or activity, you need to train with sufficient intensity.
You need to push the muscles and energy systems hard enough to create a training stimulus. You need to impose a degree of stress on the muscles and energy systems. This way, your body adapts.
Your muscles and energy systems develop to cope with future demands. This is what most people think of when they plan a training program. If it’s done right, the overload created by your training will produce enough intensity for positive adaptation. Too hard or long, and injury or breakdown is likely. Too easy or short and you won’t produce a training stimulus.
Adaptations to your workout
The overload phase is only half the story.
The changes required to build a fitter body take time. Adaptations can only take place with sufficient recovery. You might not realise it, but when you leave the gym after that blockbuster workout, you’re actually less fit than when you went in. Unless you allow yourself sufficient recovery, your adaptation will only be partial or not even occur at all. Sufficient recovery requires good nutrition and rest following a workout.
This is where many training programs go wrong. If recovery isn’t sufficient; optimal adaptation just won’t happen. As a result, all that hard work may have been for nothing.
Worse still, insufficient recovery often leads to tiredness and staleness. It's therefore virtually impossible to train intensely enough to create the overload stimulus needed. Unfortunately, this is the training rut that many people find themselves in. Is it any wonder why they never seem to make progress?
Recovery is part and parcel of training. A workout program without enough recovery is just as flawed as inadequate or incorrect training itself.
Now you know the why, find out how to maximise your recovery in my other article.