The importance of recovery and the dangers of over-training are investigated by Luke Stott
With British Summer Time here and the thermals put away until next winter, thoughts are turning to the season ahead. Throughout those long, cold months countless miles and reps have been pounded out all under the far too familiar mantra of “train hard, win easy”. But by definition, the idea of training hard, putting in the miles, the donkey work, the graft, will inevitably come at the expense of perhaps the most important component of any training regime – recovery.
The relationship between training and recovery is simple. Your training session acts as a stimulus. You give your body something to do that it’s not used to doing – it struggles, but somehow makes it through. This makes you feel happy because you’ve just done a hard session.
Now the real magic as far as your body is concerned occurs after you go home. Your body is smart. It realises that it’s possible that you would put it through a similarly horrendous workout in the future so it does what it can to avoid being caught out if the mood to run 10 miles or lift weights for two hours takes hold of you. It adapts to the environment put in front of it and it does so in many different ways. Firstly, it repairs the damage the previous session did to your body. When you wake up the day after a hard session and feel sore having succumbed to the dreaded DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) – that’s your powers of recovery at work. Secondly, the body facilitates strengthening of the muscles you use and reinforcing the movement patterns in your mind, making them easier to summon up when you need to perform that plyometric exercise or that Olympic lift.
The next time you do that tough training session it miraculously proves to be easier than you remember it. Your body has adapted. It is this adaptation to training that makes us run faster, throw further and jump higher.
But this is not instant and that’s where the “hard work” theory falls down. Recovery takes time and the time it takes very much depends on the stimulus you give it. A session where you run flat-out, throw 30 times or take a dozen jumps off a run-up is going to take a lot longer to recover from than a circuit session or an easy run. The general rule here is the greater the intensity, the more recovery you’re going to need.
Intensity is basically how much power output you’re generating – be it by running faster, jumping higher or throwing further. Intensity also goes up with performance level and so also varies depending on how naturally talented you are.
While full-time athletes obviously train frequently, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the very top athletes in the world train harder more often than the rest of us. In fact they can often do better doing tough sessions slightly less frequently.
Why is this? The reason is fairly simple – running flat-out for someone like Usain Bolt takes more out of him than you or me. He’s running that much faster so he needs that much longer to recover from the exertion.
Therefore, it’s just not possible to continually train hard and expect yourself to get better. If you do find yourself burning the wax at both ends, so to speak, you will develop a recovery debt.
A very simplified version of the scenario goes like this – you turn up on a Monday and do a hard session, push yourself really hard and head home that night exhausted. The next day you wake up and feel a little sore but off you go to training again and do another tough session.
It might not be the same as the one you did on Monday, but it’s just as intensive. Now because you haven’t allowed your body enough time to recover you feel even more sore the next day but you soldier on with yet another session.
This carries on and on until you’re so sore and fatigued that it’s impossible to train at the same intensity as you did at the start of the week. Your body has deprived you of this ability so you can recover and service the huge recovery debt you’ve built up. You’ve entered a state of over reaching and your performances are suffering as a result.
How many times have you heard an athlete say after an event that their training has been going really well but that they can’t put it together in competition? That could well be down to the build up of fatigue. Take a few days off. This is why elite athletes often taper their training before major championships. They reduce their training load so they can recover more and in doing so they emphatically place recovery over training. It is the very opposite of the hard work philosophy.
Poor performance is one problem, but there’s another issue with recovery debt – something that no athlete wants to really consider and that’s injury. As an athlete you should recognise that you are trying to turn your body into an instrument of high performance and this leads to fragility.
It doesn’t take Jeremy Clarkson to tell you that a Ferrari is a high performance car and can achieve speeds that are well beyond the capabilities of the vast majority of other vehicles. But will it still be able to perform those astounding feats of performance if you drive it up and down the country, fill it with the wrong fuel and neglect to service it? The chances of it breaking down are greatly increased. The same is true of your body. The more you treat your high performance body like a work horse, the greater the chances of it letting you down.
In a very real sense it isn’t the training that makes you better – it is in fact the recovery that improves you. You may think that those sessions where you push yourself hard for an extra 20-30 minutes aren’t necessary – clearly they are, otherwise you wouldn’t still be doing them. But contrary to popular belief, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Too many of those sessions will result in poor performances and a higher injury risk or pretty much the exact opposite to why we train in the first place – to get better.
So do we really need to work hard at all? In a discussion between some elite athletics coaches from Europe, Henk Kraaijenhof said: “Amateurs worry about training. Professionals worry about recovery!” What the coach of legendary sprinters Nelli Cooman and Merlene Ottey said resonated with what I’d come to realise myself – that there is a common misconception among large numbers of people involved with sport in this country.
This fallacy is well meaning, but possibly does more harm than good to an athlete. Let’s call it the “hard work fallacy” or the belief that by simply working harder than the next person it will make you become better than they are. It’s a nice idea and if it were true it would mean a completely fair world where what you get out is directly related to what you put in.
But an empirically measured sport like athletics is not a meritocracy. It was George Orwell in Animal Farm that said it best: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Some of us are just more naturally talented than others and while we can all ‘train hard’ it is natural talent that dictates who will set foot on the rostrum.
Do not despair though if you aren’t blessed with Mo Farah’s endurance or Phillips Idowu’s spring. Athletics is about being the best that you personally can be – that’s why they’re called personal bests. By getting the most out of your recovery between sessions, you stand a much better chance of producing one this year.