As much as we all would like to be Olympic champions, there is a big difference between athletes who consistently improve and get stronger or faster (or both) and those who struggle and see little or no results despite hard efforts.
Ironically, that difference is post-workout recovery.
It definitely pays off to train hard, but it’s even more important to train with appropriate intensity and recover sufficiently.
You can push yourself to the limit every day and still be at the same level (if not worse) as someone who works out only 3 times per week and appears to put less effort in it.
The training program may not be super complicated, but if the post-workout recovery part is just right and workouts are scheduled at the right time, you’ll see a massive progress. In fact,
many professional athletes get to the top not because of the Terminator-style training schedule, but in spite of that
In practice, high intensity workouts alone will not yield advertised results, unless our body adapts to the workload and builds on that improvement (something known to others as “supercompensation”).
That’s the exact moment where many are taking the wrong turn towards more sets and more workouts instead of proper post-workout recovery.
Here I mean not only a 15-minute stretch ritual done with a dramatically-serious face. No, recovery is the time between workouts (sometimes even including easy workouts) when the body re-builds torn tissues, re-fills energy sources and makes other physiological adaptations (like broadens capillary network, increases mitochondria density and other handy-dandy stuff).
And how much time you devote to it and how you are spending that time largely dictates how much you will improve.
Training load and supercompensation
I just want to make sure we have read the same physiology book first.
Our bodies go through a certain degree of stress while exercising, which is known as training load. It can be big (especially when we are lifting heavy weights, training maximum speed with sprints or helping a friend bring a fridge to the top floor). Training load can also be not so big, like easy running, yoga, playing chess, maybe.
Now if you want to live the Olympic motto of better-faster-stronger, the training load of your key workouts should be higher than the one you can tolerate comfortably.
By lifting heavier weights or running faster than we are used to we create micro-traumas in our muscles. This happens due to the excessive lengthening of the muscle and soreness the day after may remind us of exactly how intense the training was.
As we complete the workout, our body starts to recover the damage we did and heal those micro-traumas by growing more muscles (yay!). That way it adapts to a higher workload to be able to tolerate that effort easier next time.
Depending on how difficult the training was that may happen fast or slow. Smaller micro-traumas are faster to heal and bigger are slower, which is why long strength exercises with big weights take much longer to recover from than an easy run with several sprints.
A so-called supercompensation is exactly that adaptation to a bigger workload.
It’s like a rainbow road to better performance – all you want to do in your preparation is to consistently target that adaptation and don’t side step from the path.
This effect, however, happens only when muscles are fully recovered and by fully I mean Recovered with a capital R. When there is no muscle pain, when muscles feel light, when you have more energy than you can spare. That’s what I call complete recovery.
You know those 1-2 taper weeks before a marathon after which your legs feel so light you can run faster than ever before? Or when you go to a gym after a week-long break and can lift heavier weights? That’s complete recovery.
Problems arise when people don’t allow their bodies to fully recover and carry on with further workouts just because those are in their 5-times-per-week-gym plans. What happens is that body starts to accumulate fatigue and performance either stays the same (plateaus) or even decreases.
It’s like when you have a day job and work extra hours – you start accumulating fatigue throughout the day and just aren’t productive in the evening as you are in the morning.
Fatigue can start accumulating when the training load consistently increases more than roughly 15% per week (give and take 5% depending on the background and fitness level). It’s, therefore, important to include recovery weeks in the schedule to avoid developing chronic fatigue or even get over-trained.
Over-training is when you have troubles getting out of bed – that’s not pretty.
Chronic fatigue is less severe than over-training, but symptoms are not that exciting anyway:
- Loss of energy
- Slow recovery from intervals/sets
- Reduced performance
- Low motivation (not only for working out)
- Higher risk of catching cold or illness
- Bad attitude in general
Doesn’t sound fun, right? Good news is that this can be easily avoided if you plan your workouts and recovery carefully.
Structure training and plan post-workout recovery
If you’re looking for a silver bullet to make sure you’re not compromising recovery, there is one – create a proper training schedule. You won’t get consistent results unless you plan your intensity and recovery in advance.
If you are thinking about combining a stressful job and a hard-effort workout schedule to compensate for the stress level, think twice. Working 10h a day and doing 2 workouts in between is not sustainable and will leave you too tired most of the time if not burned out completely.
Ensure progressive loading
Imagine you’re riding a roller coaster that goes up and down all the time, only the roller coaster is your performance level and ups and downs are the training load. When going up, roller coaster slows down towards the highest point and when going down it accelerates.
This is exactly how your training plan should be structured.
When you give your body more stress and go up on the roller coaster – performance deteriorates. After you allow it to recover – performance improves and you accelerate.
The key to supercompensating is to ensure your next loading cycle starts when roller coaster is going full speed and you are fully rested. You feel faster and stronger than previously and ready to take on the world. If that’s the case – you’re doing it right! Don’t forget to increase the training load a little to account for your gains.
Progressive loading applies not only to endurance or speed events. You can also use it for strength training where you give your body enough stress and then take a recovery period to allow muscles to grow and supercompensate.
To make sure you hit that sweet spot consistently it’s important to track what has been done and plan periods of reduced mileage or intensity that are at least a week long. Stick to those recovery weeks even if you don’t feel like you’re that tired – that’s the rainbow road to better performance.
To know exactly how much to recover, first estimate your training load – be it in kilometers run/cycled or by total load lifted (kg * times * sets) and document it. Once done, add weekly progression to that load for the next 3 weeks and reduce the load by 50% on the 4th week. On 5th week go back to the 2nd week’s load and start your progression from there and take the 8th week easy. And so on.
It’s a slow process, but it brings sustainable results.
I keep it very simple – during the aerobic base building I simply sum up weekly mileage and include a week with 50% volume after every 3-4 weeks. When in competition period, I calculate the total time spent in zones 3-5 and ensure a gradual progression week-on-week from there.
My advice to beginners would be to take it easy and blend in with the training regime. Start slow and build up to where you want to get. Don’t lie to yourself and remember about the power of progression. If the weight is too heavy for you, take a lighter one and work your way from there.
Most importantly, if you don’t feel well it’s always better to take the workout easy, rather than push yourself to the limit.
To ensure constant improvement and avoid accumulating too much fatigue add no more than 10% progression to your calculated training load week-on-week.
Add easy-paced efforts
Easy-paced efforts should form the majority of any training plan. By majority I mean around 80% of a healthy training plan should consist of easy running or cycling, swimming, simple cross training (think opposite of CrossFit).
Limiting high intensity training to only 20% makes sure you don’t over-train and keep those workouts highly focused. On the other hand, low intensity helps you to burn fat, recycle accumulated lactate and build your aerobic capacity which later translates into faster recovery during and after the workout.
Too much time spent in high intensity training can leave your muscles fatigued and not ready for the next key workout (one where you target improvements).
Do you struggle with finding time for recovery runs? Take them first thing in the morning, it’s a great way to wake up and power on your body. It’s a myth that it’s not healthy to work out in the morning – it’s all about the motivation. Schwarzenegger used to wake up at 4am to squeeze in an exercise before his other commitments.
You can read all about training intensity, how to train using training zones and their physiological benefits in one of my earlier posts.
The bottom line
As said, recovery is not only about stretching a bit after the workout. Nor is it also laying in bed the whole day – blood needs to circulate to effectively recycle lactate and flush away toxins (but about that some other time).
There are many factors affecting how fast we recover in between workouts, so a good training plan taking that into account is important.
Make sure that plan targets supercompensation – that’s the secret formula to consistently getting fast and strong. Build up on that and approach your key workouts fully recovered and full of energy. That’s all there is to it.
I hope this helps you get the most of your workouts and rock whatever you are doing. Make sure you a reply here if it did or say hi on Facebook.
In the meantime, happy training!