Simple and Effective Recovery Strategies for Increased Work Capacity
by Michael Garrity
Ever since I became a strength coach and a personal trainer the most common question I have received from clients and athletes has been “I want to see results fast, is it okay if I do extra workouts?” This question is a loaded one, and takes more than just a simple post WOD conversation to quench. Whether it be adding an extra strength session, cardiovascular workout, or an extra sports practice, people want to do everything they possibly can to see their goals come to fruition quicker. However, in this age of instant gratification, people rarely understand how physically and mentally taxing training at high volumes can be.
So my first piece of advice to the athlete hoping to add in some extra credit would be to TRUST THE PROCESS that your coach or trainer has placed in front of you. You aren’t going to see results right away, but if you are training consistently and doing your homework outside of the gym (proper nutrition and a healthy lifestyle) you are going to achieve more than you expect over time; it just takes hard work and consistency. So before you go on adding two-a-days to your schedule, stick to your current program as best as you can with as much devotion as possible to healthy choices outside of the gym too. The results will come.
On the flip side though, I know that people just flat out love training and want to push themselves to be better every day. If you truly wish to add in extra workouts, I am fully supportive of it, but only if done properly and attention is paid to the strategies of how to maintain such a lifestyle and such a substantial physical commitment. I know firsthand how effective training at high volume can be and, most importantly, how much fun it can be if executed properly. So I’m fully aware the attraction adding in extra workouts has. But there are some key guidelines to anyone undertaking this venture that must be followed.
In order to get fitter or improve in your sport, the body must be exposed to the stresses of training. Once this has happened the body then needs time to adapt to the stresses and to do this the body must recover properly. Once recovery is dialed in, the athlete will begin to see their results. Recovery is just as important as training is when it comes to seeing results but it is often neglected and overlooked because it is much more passive than the actual training.
Increasing your workout volume depends not only on your mental and physical commitment to your fitness goals but also your individual ability to recover properly within your program. This is the foundation to being able to train consistently at a high volume; all while trying to avoid overtraining and the nemesis of all fitness and athletic goals, injury. Expert opinion explains that adding extra workouts WILL help you see results quicker but ONLY if proper recovery is undertaken. Following are some simple and extremely effective recovery strategies for the everyday athlete trying to add in an extra workout to not only increase their work capacity but also see results faster.
Training is designed to progressively overload the body systems and fuel stores, placing stress onto the body. Training alone is not enough to see results, the athlete needs sufficient time to recover and adapt to the stresses. To adapt properly to these stresses the athlete must plan and maintain recovery strategies. Having a set recovery plan will help decrease fatigue and allow the athlete to keep up with their chosen training program. The more efficiently you recover from training stresses and fatigue (and the fresher you are at your next training session) the better chance you have at improving and seeing results.
One of the most important strategies for recovery is sleep. Sleep provides time for the body to adapt to the physical and mental demands placed on it through intense training. At least 8 hours of sleep per night should be sought after by an athlete in an intense program. However, one must ensure that these hours are of quality sleep, aiming to feel fresh and ready to go upon waking. Other good strategies for passive recovery include reading or listening to music. These help the mind and body relax between sessions and recover from the physical and mental stresses of intense training. Also, simply occupying your mind with other activities or hobbies than training helps the recovery process more so than expected. People need time to focus on more relaxing activities where they are not worried about hitting a new weightlifting personal record or beating a certain time in a workout.
Another helpful strategy to increase recovery is to plan rest days and “deload” weeks throughout your program. Plan recovery days within your training week to allow for rest and adaptation between heavy sessions. A simple format to follow is two days on, one day off. One can also plan and set up “deload” weeks where the athlete still trains but at far less intensity than usual, allowing for the body to adapt to the stresses of the previous weeks. A good format for deloading is three weeks on and one week off. Deloading entails scaling the loads and volume of training back from the prescribed amounts to let the joints decompress and allow the body to adapt. During a deload week, however, you should continue to follow the same movements and exercises as to keep the body active and help maintain commitment to the program.
In the pyramid of recovery, rest is the foundation but hydration is the cornerstone that allows for the pyramid to stay intact. Athletes within an intense training program would not be able to maintain training at a high intensity without proper hydration, nor would they see the results they want. Intense training will increase your fluid needs as you lose sweat during exercise. Some people naturally sweat more than others but even small sweat losses can cause fatigue and impair recovery. However, many people don’t realize just how dehydrated the body can become during training…even if they don’t resemble someone who fell in a pool after their workout. They also don’t realize how this dehydration can impair many physiologic functions. According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, effects of dehydration include: decreased blood pressure, increased core temperature, increased heart rate, decreased blood flow to the muscles, and increased perceived exertion which all leads to a tough time trying to recovery between sessions.
On the contrary, properly hydrating before, during and post workout will help your body adapt to the stresses of intense training by regulating temperature, transporting nutrients and oxygen, detoxifying the liver and kidneys, and also dissolving vitamins and minerals which leads to better recovery by replenishing nutrients lost during exercise. Drinking the proper amount of water while training at high intensity also returns your muscles to the more supple/elastic state at which they were meant to move, allowing them stretch and contract at a more efficient rate. This in turn allows you to move pain free and with a decreased sense of exertion. This means less muscle soreness and enhanced recovery times between sessions.
It is important to limit dehydration during training and replenish those lost fluids as quickly as possible after you workout. But people don’t know how much water to drink. Just a 2% loss in body fluid can lead to 10% decrease in performance. The best way to estimate how much fluid you lose during a session (and how much fluid should be consumed) is to weigh yourself before and after exercise. Each pound of weight lost is equivalent to one liter of fluid lost. These fluids must be replaced during and after exercise. In general, we need about 2-3 liters of water to function properly while adhering to an intense training program. However, if you are looking to add in extra sessions, I’d recommend aiming for at least a gallon of water a day.
3. Active Recovery Strategies
Within the realm of recovery strategies are some more active forms of recovery that allow the body to adapt to the stress of training and maintain performing at a high level. The first, and easiest, of these active strategies is mobility and flexibility training. Just like strength and conditioning training, mobility must be regarded as a pillar of fitness that will help the athlete see results quicker and continue to train at a high level with less risk of injury.
Anyone can improve flexibility with consistent training. When you’ve finished your session is a great time to stretch. You’re muscles are warm and so there is less chance of damaging them. A light stretch after a session will help prevent injury and is a great way to wind down from the stresses of training. This will also kick start the recovery process between now and your next session. Flexibility improves posture, prevents hip and low back pain, releases muscle tension and soreness, and increases your range of motion which all in turn decrease your risk of injury.
A more exciting active recovery strategy is the dreaded ice bath. Simple but oh so effective, the ice bath is probably the most infamous recovery tool in the entire recovery arsenal. Ice baths are effective because upon plunging into the cold water the blood vessels constrict and the blood will be drained away from the muscles that have been working, which removes lactic acid. Upon exiting the ice bath the capillaries in the muscles dilate and fresh blood flows back into the muscles bringing with it oxygen and other nutrients vital to recovery. An ice bath should be no longer than 20 minutes. However, the sensation ice baths provide is intense and uncomfortable for most people, so if it is your first time try it out for at least 5 minutes. From there try and increase the time spent in the water each time after aiming to get up to 20 minutes. You will feel instantly refreshed after an ice bath and your ability to recover will be enhanced.
In conclusion, if you are trying to increase your work capacity in the hopes of reaching your goals quicker, recovery must be placed right next to your training and shown the same commitment and respect. These strategies will provide you with the ability to maintain a high intensity training regimen, allow you to perform consistently on a daily basis, and most importantly help you avoid injury due to overtraining. Although increasing work capacity is not easy, it is very effective in reaching goals efficiently, but only if the proper recovery strategies are followed and acted upon.