Let’s Talk About Recovery
By: Barbell Logic Team
“Recovery” takes different forms in different situations. Recovery for a competition is a little bit different than recovery from and for training purposes. Performance goals are heavily tied to the dissipation of fatigue. But training goals tend to rely on a low-level of quotidian fatigue. If our goals are to train for general strength, then smart recovery maximizes both our ability to train and the effects training has on our physiology. This is “recovery”—the practices that support your training goals and help move your body to a new set point for strength.
“Today, recovery has become a verb. It’s something that athletes—pros and weekend warriors alike—do with almost as much gusto and drive as their training.”
In her newly released book, “Good to Go,” science writer Christie Aschwanden examines the science and traditions of the most faddish recovery advice, devices, and practices. Immediately apparent from her review is that so much of the recovery industry has been built on the star power of professional athletes. The “illusion of causality,” Aschwanden writes, connects athletes’ endorsements, practices, and lifestyles with their success.
The genre of recovery now ranges from simple declarations of when and how to eat to therapies and procedures based on some intricate subtleties of your physiology. So subtle, actually, that claimed benefits are rarely borne out in research. This leads some athletes to take the shotgun approach to recovery, an indiscriminate sampling limited only by time and money. For those of us without such resources, it behooves us to consider the concept of recovery in a way that allows us to make high-yielding choices for the time and money that we do have to spend supporting our own training, getting the most “bang for our buck,” so to speak. For this, let’s start with what we actually mean when we talk about recovery.
Recovery For and From Training
“Recovery” takes different forms in different situations. It’s important to realize that much of the science and practice of recovery focuses on the competitive athlete during her competitive season. Meaning recovery from training or practice is dedicated to performance in competition. On competition day, the athlete wants to show up with the least amount of residual fatigue from training but still in a performance-adapted state. We sometimes think of this as “peaking” for competition. The athlete may manage this with a taper prior to competition—one to two weeks of reduced training stress. For athletes on a competitive weekly schedule or those who have multiple back-to-back weekly competitions, recovery becomes a way of life, at least for a short time. No matter how it’s managed, the goal is the same: show up for the meet, game, or fight in as good of shape as you can manage.
Recovery for a competition is a little bit different than recovery from and for training purposes. Take the same competitive athlete in the off-season. Her goals shift from great performances to great training. She needs to be able to train at the intensities that will help her improve, and she should work to maximize the physical effect of her training. So, recovery for training has a two-fold goal: part performance and part optimization. Putting this into more familiar terms, if you squatted 225 lbs. for three sets of five on Monday, what you do between Monday and Wednesday should both optimize the training stress of the squat workout from Monday and should prepare you to squat 230 lbs. for three sets of five on Wednesday.
These are not the same goals. Performance goals—like squatting 230 lbs. next training session—are heavily tied to the dissipation of fatigue. But training goals—a continual and optimized use of the cycle of stress and recovery—tend to rely on a low-level of quotidian fatigue. Because well-organized training constantly causes fatigue and that fatigue need not occur in a single session performed to your absolute maximum ability, any program that allows for a full recovery before every training session will be sub-optimal. Not to mention that any training program designed around constant 100% intensity will be unsustainable for very long.
If our goals are to train for general strength, then smart recovery maximizes both our ability to train and the effects training has on our physiology. This will be tempered by our personal goals and limitations.
Strength training involves actual loading and mechanical stress, and that stress is at least part of what promotes the increased contractile capacity of our muscles. (This is the part of strength production that is most trainable over a very long period of time.) Recovery from and for training, then, should consider the processes that return us to a ready-state between training sessions and the longer-term process of growing muscle and building strength. If we consider training and the accumulation of fatigue as something that disrupts homeostasis—our bodies’ physiological equilibrium—then we can assess the benefits of recovery practices by the processes that restore equilibrium.
Recovery and the Return to Homeostasis
For this framework, let’s again focus on recovery as supporting the adaptive change in our skeletal muscles’ function. The potential for change in skeletal muscle—myoplasticity—is incredibly high. “Altered gene expression is the molecular basis for adaptations that occur due to exercise training as well as detraining and chronic inactivity in skeletal muscle proteins.” (Brooks, Fahey “Exercise Physiology” (4th ed 2005): Ch. 19.) The muscle gene expression is a function of both the “loading state” (or the chronic level of work performed by the muscle) and circulating hormones. Depending on these and other genetic factors, every protein is going through a constant cycle of synthesis and breakdown. Within a muscle cell, when the rate of synthesis exceeds the rate of breakdown, your muscles grow. If we want to get stronger, that is if we want to induce a long-term change to our muscles’ ability to produce force, then our goal is to improve the balance between MPS and muscle breakdown, tipping it as much and as frequently as possible in the favor of synthesis.
We focus on synthesis because managing muscle breakdown would be both difficult and counterproductive. All muscle proteins degrade over time, when they break down they become the amino acids that form the building blocks of new proteins. And, while insufficient energy intake leads to greater rates of breakdown for fuel, it doesn’t take much food to minimize muscle breakdown. (Jorn Trommelen, “The Ultimate Guide to Muscle Protein Synthesis” (citing Staples, et al, “Carbohydrate does not augment exercise-induced protein accretion versus protein alone,” Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011 Jul;43(7):1154-61). Working out and maintaining a fasted state will be counterproductive, but as we will see basic principles of recovery will negate consideration of muscle breakdown.
When we train, our activities affect both the loading state of our system and the circulating hormones. Both are controlling the way we use our muscles. While a lot is happening behind the scenes, ultimately our bodies rise or fall to the level of our interaction with our environments. Think of the loading state as your status quo—the homeostatic state that you are used to. This is your set point against which your body will compare new stimulus. When you perform intense physical activity and you do so repeatedly, you change the set point of the chronic level of work to which you need to be adapted to perform. In this way, activity changes your loading state. These gains are changeable, however. If you are chronically inactive, your loading state will be lower because you require a less intense interaction with your environment.
This phenotypic expression, how we choose to engage with our environment, influences our muscular response to physical activity. This is a necessarily generalized and grossly simplified statement. A more detailed, but still non-comprehensive discussion can be found here: Sullivan, “The Year in Strength Science 2012,” pp. 14-15: https://startingstrength.com/articles/strength_science_2012_sullivan.pdf. In summary, however, low-force, high-frequency activities, like endurance sports, make you better at those activities. You get good at low-force, high-frequency contractions and experience are minimal adaptations to the muscle hypertrophy. But, strength training leads to strength gains. Those gains are further influenced by what you eat and your energy balance.
You can support this adaptive change, then, by fueling muscle synthesis, creating a nutritional environment conducive to muscle growth and promoting the hormonal responses to training that signal the desired change in our muscle’s phenotype. This is “recovery”—the practices that support your training goals and help move your body to a new set point for strength. This new set point is the cumulative response to your training workouts, a place of increased readiness to produce force. You are creating a reality in which strength matters to you, not just as an abstract concept but on the cellular level. Your body now cares about strength and bends its processes to develop and maintain strength.
Food, Water, and Sleep
If this is our framework for assessing recovery practices, then we can start to build a kind of hierarchy for recovery. Spoiler alert! Good recovery revolves around three basic factors—food, water, and sleep (though you probably already knew that). We will take a closer look at each of these factors to consider how they actually help restore homeostasis. And, beyond these basics, we will look at some other recovery practices in the same light, whether they actually help you build muscle and reach a new adaptive state, or just make you feel good and help you get to and through your next workout.