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No performance without recovery

In rest lies strength – the key to success in sport is not only the effort, but also the recovery. Only those who recover sufficiently can perform at their best.

Toni Hasler, the trainer and life partner of Natascha Badmann, has been successfully planning the training plans of the six-time Hawaii winner around recovery times for a long time. In doing so, he puts the rest periods above everything else. Now you might say that you are not a professional, but it is even more important for amateur athletes to allow their bodies the much needed rest periods to achieve the best possible performance. Because amateur athletes rarely have it as ” good ” as the professionals, who can concentrate completely on the sport. Hobby athletes have to cleverly organize their time in everyday life to be able to pursue their sporting hobby alongside their job. And yet the amount of training in endurance sports, even for amateur athletes, can quickly reach five to ten or more hours a week. It is not uncommon for the training hours to be planned in the early morning or late evening. What is often neglected is clear: recovery.

Training is not a sequence of as many physical strains as possible, but is made up of strain and recovery. It is only during the recovery period that the body undergoes the adjustment phenomena that lead to an increase in performance. Because our body is a wise guy: if it is not moved, it quickly builds up fat reserves in order to be prepared for any bad times ahead. On the other hand, it doesn’t just sit back if it can’t meet your demands. Therefore, the body reacts to physical stress first with fatigue. The more intensive the effort, the greater the fatigue. Immediately after a great strain, the body is therefore less efficient than before. It is weakened and more susceptible to possible short-term illnesses. “Open Window” is the name of this phenomenon, which occurs mainly after hard training and lasts several hours. During this time the reaction of the anti-inflammatory agents in the body is reduced and the function of the white blood cells is restricted. Pathogens are thus practically opened a “window to the body”. This weakening of the body’s defenses increases the risk of catching a cold or infection.

At the same time as the “open window”, however, the so-called regeneration phase also begins, the recovery phase, in which the body not only recovers but also equips itself for the next strain. After all, it does not want to tire as quickly again. A so-called supercompensation occurs (see figure on the below), i.e. performance increases above the original level before training. This effect forms the basis of athletic training, because if we manage to challenge our body with the right stimulus at the right moment, we achieve the optimum improvement in our performance and climb to the next higher level step by step. Like a pyramid, the upper levels are built on top of the lower ones.

Not every stress requires the same recovery

The key questions are how long can you wait until you have to train again and how long you do you have to wait until you can train again. If you wait too long and there is no stimulus to train again, your performance will quickly return to its original level. So it makes little sense to just do a two-hour run every weekend and otherwise remain inactive for the whole week. On the other hand, if you wait too long and start training again before the recovery phase is complete, you put additional strain on your body without any training effect. If this happens too often, performance drops to the bottom instead of constantly increasing.

An example: Six hours of training per week can mean a lot. In summer, maybe three times a relaxed two-hour ride on a racing bike. But it can also mean an exhausting 50-minute interval training every day. The amount of training is the same in both weeks, but the stress and the required recovery time are completely different.

The most important recovery phases over time

  • 4-6 minutes: Complete replenishment of muscular creatine phosphate stores.
  • 30 minutes: Heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure and lactic acid levels in the blood have all returned to normal.
  • 90 minutes: Reconstruction of destroyed muscle proteins begins. There is a change from decomposing to rebuilding metabolic processes.
  • 6-24 hours: In the first six hours, the first storage filling (carbohydrates), the balance of water and electrolytes (e.g. magnesium and iron) and the normalization of the ratio of solid and liquid blood components (hematocrit) take place.
  • 24 hours: replenishing the carbohydrate stores in the liver.
  • 2-7 days: replenishing the carbohydrate stores in the stressed and possibly (partially) destroyed muscles.
  • 3-5 days: replenishment of the muscular fat stores.
  • 3-10 days: restoration of the defective muscle fibers.
  • 7-14 days: restoration of the energy supply systems in the cells. Gradual recovery of full muscular aerobic capacity.
  • 7-21 days: Psychic recovery.
  • 4-8 weeks: Completion of regeneration after a marathon or Ironman.

The times given are averages; they vary and depend on the duration and intensity of the exercise and individual performance. It is important to replenish fluid reserves quickly immediately after exertion and to eat a diet rich in carbohydrates and protein in the days following exertion ( Sources: Kuno Hottenrott, Regeneration from a sports-methodological perspective, Georg Neumann, Regeneration from a sports-medical perspective).

Unfortunately, the recovery time cannot be determined to the minute, but depends on the duration and intensity of the load as well as on the athlete’s individual performance and constitution. The recovery time after a relaxed endurance run takes about half a day, whereas it takes several days after an intensive running training or short competition. And a marathon requires a time of several weeks or even months until the body has fully recovered. It is therefore no coincidence that top runners only run two or at most three marathons a year. Basically, it is true that intensity is more important than duration. A 30-minute high-intensity exercise requires more recovery time than a 90-minute exercise in the extensive, i.e. loose, area.

This rule also applies to strength training: A training with maximum weight and only a few possible repetitions puts more strain on the muscles than one with little weight and numerous repetitions. So we would do well to dose our regeneration time after a load appropriately. Not too short, so that the body’s adaptation symptoms are really complete and it is ready for new actions, and not too long, so that the improvements once achieved are not already invalidated. The art of optimal training is not high levels of stress, but the optimal timing to set the right stimulus at the right moment. Experienced athletes put together their training so skillfully that the recovery time of the parts of the body that are under stress during training is guaranteed as much as possible. In concrete terms: after an intense cardiovascular workout, the next day, only a very calm and slow endurance training is scheduled or, as an alternative, a technique or strength training. And after an intense strength training for the arms, the next day the arms are spared and the legs are strained. This way you can train at the same time and still allow your body sufficient recovery. Intelligent training. This works best if you keep a training log and always indicate the intensity level. If you add them up on a weekly basis, it is easy to see when high intensities occur.

What applies to a small cycle of a few training units should also be thought through for longer periods. After two or three weeks of intensive training in preparation, there are weeks of rest with less strenuous training. And after an intensive competition phase, it makes sense to stop training for a certain period of time and allow the body to rest completely.

Active and passive recovery

There are various measures for recovery immediately after a physical performance. A basic distinction is made between active and passive measures. During active regeneration, the blood flow to the muscles is increased, which promotes the breakdown of lactate and the anabolic metabolic mechanisms. Passive measures improve the subjective feeling of well-being and the suppleness of the muscles. Active measures include running out, stretching, gymnastics, walking, easy trotting, swimming or aqua jogging. Passive measures include nutrition, showers, sauna, massage, sleep, steam, bubble or heat bath, but also relaxation techniques such as yoga, autogenic training or meditation. Whether passive relaxation can accelerate physical regeneration processes is controversial, but it is undisputed that mental stress (hectic at work or stress in the family) can have negative effects on physical performance and therefore mental relaxation is just as important as physical rest.

Technical measures such as electrical muscle stimulation, magnetic resonance mats or compression underwear are also attested to have a recovery-promoting effect. However, there is no index of how well each measure works, and each athlete must try this out for himself.

The decisive factor is that stress and recovery are part of sports training, just as Siamese twins belong together. In competitive sports, the trick is no longer to increase the amount of training, but to improve the quality of the training and to shorten the regeneration time so that a new meaningful training stimulus can be introduced as soon as possible. Athletes that let their recovery go and overdo their training will sooner or later have to pay for it. Allow yourself and your body the time to recover!

Text from Andreas Gonseth and FITforLIFE– this blog post was made available to us by the Swiss magazine FIT for LIFE. If you want to read regularly informative articles in the field of running and endurance sports, then click here.

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