Updated: Jul 26, 2018
In training, a stress must be placed on the body, which will cause it to adapt and improve, for example becoming stronger or increasing endurance (supercompensation). This can only occur if the right level of stress is compensated with the right restorative period. If the balance is not there, you will either not improve at all or worse, may start to experience overreaching and overtraining. Before we look at means of restoration it is useful to define what we mean by some of the terms above.
Acute Fatigue & Functional overreaching: when the right level of training stress is applied, resulting in improved performance once recovery is complete (recovery: days to weeks). This is what we want!
Non-functional overreaching: a short term performance decrease due to an imbalance in training stress and recovery (recovery: weeks to months). This is means that there are some issues with your training that need to be sorted out quickly.
Overtraining (syndrome): the result of long term overreaching - long term performance decreases caused by both training and non-training stress factors. In this situation not only will you not experience improvement but you will experience fatigue, increased risk of injury, illness (reduced immune function), stress and exhaustion (recovery: months or longer).
As a side note, it is important to understand that injury does not only occur througovertraining, and is not predictable or completely preventable. Injury can be an accumulative process where behaviour adds up to a resulting injury, or it can be the result of trauma or a random accident. To quote Supertraining (see references) - “injury and adaptation are both results of stress – no stress – no progress – no injury”, suggesting that it is impossible to remove the risk of injury when enough stress is put on the body to enable adaptation.
Restoration is an essential part of training programmes. This article is a discussion about improving performance and the prevention of overreaching and overtraining, not a guide on helping you recover once this has already happened! To put it simply: To improve performance and avoid “over doing it” requires:
Being reflective about your training (are you monitoring progress? What is your attitude like during the session? Are you logging your sessions?
Being aware of how your body feels during training and outside of the gym (mind-set, fatigue)
Accepting causality and when to change something (identifying the factor that is causing the issue with performance and then correcting it)
Understanding and applying effective methods of restoration between sessions
There are many different types of restorative activities, and quite often you have to find what works best for you. In general make sure you are hitting all three types of restoration modalities below:
We are only going to touch upon this as this is an enormous topic which is mostly out of the scope of this article. Most importantly, training programmes will depend entirely on what you are training for. However it doesn’t matter if you are training for a sport, to lose weight, or just get stronger you will need to plan for effective rest periods to achieve the most out of your programme. ‘Beginners’ have it relatively easy as simple programming will often produce reasonably fast results up to a point, however the more seasoned gym goer will struggle to make progression without a well periodized plan.
Training sessions have to be planned intelligently with some sort of foresight on how it will affect you later on. This means not going in like a bull in a china shop and smashing out 3 hour sessions on targeted muscle groups then wondering why your tendons have fallen off. This is often called the ‘train to failure’ approach which may produce volume induced overtraining. At the other end of the spectrum is the, equally common, ‘go heavy or go home approach’ which may cause intensity induced overtraining.
Even just keeping a basic log of the sessions you have done during the week, so that you can monitor exercises, volume, intensity, volume-load, frequency and recovery, will help you avoid falling in to non-functional overreaching. It’s a well-known principle that you do not get stronger during the workout, but during the time after in which your body is going through recovery – so make sure you allow yourself the time! Without this monitoring it’s incredibly difficult to judge, as we all know you forget all about how much your previous workout hurt when you are buzzing for your next one.
2: Physical Restoration
This is what we and many other coaches consider to be the most important means of recovery, but often is the most neglected. Sleep is not only important for resetting your mental wellbeing, but to allow countless biological functions crucial for recovery to be carried out effectively. From experience we have found that a lot of people do not prioritise a strict, regular sleep pattern. Routine is absolutely key to using sleep for recovery, and the responsibility of sticking to this is completely down to the individual. Unfortunately interrupted sleep occasionally can’t be helped due to unforeseen circumstances, medical reasons, or even people’s family and work commitments. If you are lucky enough to have time and a private place to go during the day, a 10-15 minute power nap can be effective to help accumulate enough rest time. Not eating too late, avoiding caffeine, sugar and alcohol plus a good winding down routine can really help you to control your sleeping pattern. We suggest beginning at least an hour before you fall asleep, with relaxing activities such as: showering, reading a book, meditation or visualisation. It’s really important during this time to avoid using electronic devices, ban TV, phones and anything with a screen from the bedroom or
after a certain time in the evening.
Being sedentary on rest days is not ideal for recovery because it will make your muscles feel tight and slow. It is better to take part in gentle “active recovery”, this is exercise that is low in intensity and carried out at a much lower volume so as not to cause fatigue. Good examples of these are
a leisurely swim (potential anti-inflammatory benefits from cool water), a gentle row (utilises similar range of motion as weightlifting, so can be a good for mobility), or a light warmup similar to what you’d do before training. This is also where people may find gentle foam rolling and relaxing yoga style stretches useful.
Recovery Therapies Some examples of things that many people like to use to help with their recovery are massage and hot/cold therapies. Although scientific evidence on massage is largely inconclusive, the potential benefits towards your recovery include:
reduced anxiety, stress, depression and tension
improved mood, increased relaxation, wellbeing and perception of recovery
reduction in delayed onset muscle soreness and increased lactate removal
Hot, cold and contrast therapies are primarily used by sports medicine professionals to
treat sprains and injuries but are becoming increasingly popular in aiding recovery. Heat therapies such as heat-packs, saunas and steam baths are used to increase blood flow which can speed up recovery. This works by increasing capillary, cellular and lymphatic permeability, in turn increasing metabolism, nutrient delivery and waste removal from cells. Cryotherapy
or cold therapies such as ice baths, and ice-packs focus on pain relief as the cold reduces the rate of neurotransmission of pain reception to the central nervous system.
Contrast therapy is the alternation of hot (37-44°C) and cold (7-20°C) treatments usually lasting 20-30 minutes. It causes an alternation between vasodilation and vasoconstriction which is suggested to reduce swelling, inflammation and muscle spasms. It can also improve range of motion, relieve stiffness and pain, and improve neurological recovery.
3: Psychological Restoration
Both stress and anxiety have innumerable negative effects on the body which would slow down your recovery, so managing this is extremely important for productive restoration. This again can be different for everybody, as stress can come from any part of your life or any activity we do. As stress can come from anywhere it is also largely unavoidable, which is why you must learn to manage it. The best way to allow for decreasing stress and anxiety is giving yourself enough time each day to do the things that help you to relax and let go. Generally this will involve some time where you remove yourself from noise and distractions, so that it becomes easier to focus on positive thoughts. As discussed in the section above on sleep it can be good to take the time to wind down and mentally restore before you go to bed.
So how do you spend this time in order to actually manage your stress?
We find that there are two main things to think about. Firstly, to focus only on the things you can control and also to focus on everything as either a positive or an opportunity to learn.
Spend time thinking about situations that might occur during the day and develop strategies to manage them. A hypothetical situation may be that you have been branding yourself as a failure because you did not manage to stick to your diet for the past couple of days and have gained a little body fat. This is where you have the option to either plunge into self-pity OR to realise you have complete control over this situation and can use the opportunity to learn from it. Why you did not stick to your diet? And how can you control
this in the future? For example maybe you were eating because something upset you that day, how else could you learn to deal with that without reaching for snacks? You have to accept what has happened, be accountable for things that happen which are under your control (certainly, don’t play the victim or blame others), and let go of negative situations you cannot control by using it to learn. It is incredibly important to take this approach of damage limitation and not reach for the automatic ‘all or nothing’ approach where you’d decide to quit based on one failure – the sooner you deal with it the easier it is to get back on track. Below is a diagram (adapted from Chasing Excellence, see references) which shows the things that are under your control, and should be constantly planned, considered and part of your routine, as well as some examples of things which are out of your control and should be ignored, or turned in to positive learning experiences.
Sleep & Psychology
Sleep plays a huge roll in decreasing stress and anxiety, and improving your mood. Unfortunately not everyone prioritises sleep, even when they have big training goals – which not only causes negative impacts on restoration, but also on your training motivation. In our experience it is very easy to spot when a trainee hasn’t had enough sleep and slumps into the gym with a foul mood and zero motivation (you’re probably better off staying at home). When someone is lacking energy from neglecting sleep it can make it very difficult for them to take away anything positive from that workout (and maybe even the next few workouts after that!) When it comes down to it you would have to be pretty deluded to think that you could balance the lifestyle of late nights and partying with motivation and successful progress in training.
A fantastic way of managing stress outside of spending time thinking about mind-set is developing a good routine that is easy to stick to and ensures that you stay on top of your jobs. Getting behind on your work or chores can cause a lot of stress, so it’s best to reduce the chances of this with routine. Make sure you are planning time to have fun, play about, laugh, do fun things outside of work and training, socialise!! These are all things that will hugely reduce your stress too! Another great activity to help your mind restore is spending time outdoors, sunlight and fresh air have fantastic psychological benefits, as well as sunlight lending itself to vitamin D synthesis. This is something you can also consider when training – a noisy, packed, dark gym, particularly with no views of the outdoors can sometimes be very unappealing so why not try taking your training outdoors – this can make you feel great!
How to know if you are recovered
So if you are carrying out all of the above to maximise your restoration, how can you tell when you are recovered?
It can be hard to tell, but the best way is to ensure that you are not continually feeling the symptoms of overreaching and overtraining (tiredness, severe prolonged muscle soreness, lack of progress, headaches, loss of motivation, reduced immunity). As discussed this can be done by keeping a log of volume, intensity, workout duration, body weight fluctuation, wellbeing (mood), sleep quality, comments during training (how things feel), illness & injury, positive taken from your session. This can be useful to look back over and see if the tired, achy feeling you feel like you’ve had for a while, or a lack of improvement in the gym is actually the result of overreaching.
Judging when you are recovered and avoiding overreaching can be a long personal journey but the general rules are:
Be aware of all the potential stress factors in your life
Use a variety of restorative methods suitable for your lifestyle
Log your training and pay attention to affects
Look for constant improvement in your performance
Listen to your body, take a rest whenever you feel like you may have overdone it – because it will be worth it to avoid overtraining!
- Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training 5th Edition. T. Bomper & G. Haff. 2009.
Olympic Weightlifting: Complete guide for Athletes and Coaches, 3rd Edition. G. Everett. 2016
- Supertraining 6th Edition. Y. Verkhoshansky & M. Siff. 2009
- Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning 4th Edition. G. Haff & N. Triplett. 2016
- Chasing Excellence. B. Bergeron. 2017
- Planning Effective Programmes for Sports Performance. UK Strength and Conditioning Association. 2016
- Exploring the Science of Recovery. American Fitness. F. Comana. 2017
- Sport Psychology: A complete introduction. J. Perry. 2015
- Overreaching and Overtraining of Athletes. University of Bath. R Meeusen. 2015
- Practical Programming for Strength Training 3rd edition. M. Rippetoe & L. Kilgore. 2008