• Isaac J. Wedig MS, CSCS

Recovering From Training: The Missing Half

How to break through plateaus and realize optimal improvement by maximizing your recovery

Whatever your fitness goal may be- increasing strength, building muscle, or improving some aspect of athletic performance- proper training is only half of the equation.

Smart training yields noticeable improvements over time. However, in the short term, this isn’t usually the case. The immediate result of a hard training session is not improvement, but rather, a temporary decline in performance.

Training causes an accumulation of fatigue, it disrupts physiological systems, and leaves you feeling exhausted, temporarily breaking you down and masking your fitness potential.

The benefits of a productive training session are not realized instantaneously. Improvement is a delayed response that can only be realized after a period of effective rest and recovery, in which fatigue is allowed to dissipate and systems are given proper time and the necessary resources required to adapt and improve.

Smart training is what 'stimulates' improvement but proper recovery is what 'permits' it.

Its not about how much training you can do, its about how much training you can effectively recover from. One component is nearly pointless without the other and establishing a balance between the two is a critical aspect to optimizing your progress.

Although both components are just as important, we tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time and effort focusing on training and pay little attention to recovery. When we fail to see improvement or we hit a plateau, our training program is typically the first suspect.

A better question to ask, before changing your training, would be 

“Am I properly recovering from what I’m already doing?”

If you’re already training in a relatively intelligent manner, perhaps your recovery is what's limiting your progress, not your training. 

In this newsletter we’ll discuss the various factors within your control that effect recovery. We’ll summarize their hierarchy of importance and discuss how to practically address each in order to break through training plateaus and ensure optimal progress.

Recovery Strategies

There are many factors that influence your ability to recovery from training. Overall, an effective recovery period is one that gives your body both the necessary time and resources needed to properly address and handle the stress of training.

This involves limiting additional stresses outside that of training (work, anxiety, sleep deprivation, illness, etc) and delivering resources such as calories, protein, carbohydrates, and electrolytes. 

Many different strategies can be used accomplish this, however, not all of these strategies have an equal effect . Thus, they can be ranked into a hierarchy ranging from those with a rather large effect on recovery to those with a much smaller one.

You can’t make up for poor sleep and a bad diet with massage and other therapeutic strategies

The diagram below is adopted from Renaissance Periodization's 'Recovering from Training' ebook, reflecting the work of Dr. Mike Israetel, Dr. James Hoffman, and Dr. Melissa Davis. For an more in depth look at recovery and the theory behind it, I highly recommend this book.

The strategies at the base of the pyramid have a rather large effect on recovery. As you move towards the top of the pyramid, they have a proportionally smaller and smaller effect. This helps to highlight the most important areas to focus on when addressing your recovery.

You can’t make up for poor sleep and a bad diet with massage and other therapeutic strategies. Recovery factors at the bottom of the pyramid should be prioritized over those at the top.

Passive recovery (sleep, relaxation, and stress management) and nutritional strategies (calorie, protein, and carbohydrate intake) provide the largest effect and should be the main focus of your recovery period. Things like light training sessions, delaods, massage, compression, heat, cold, and supplements are details that can be added after first establishing the base. 

Optimizing Recovery and Breaking Plateaus

In glancing over the pyramid, we can pinpoint four primary strategies to focus on. These four strategies are fairly easy to control within your life and have a powerful influence on recovery, making them a great practical starting point in assessing your current efforts outside the gym.

1) Sleep 

2) Calorie intake

3) Protein intake

4) Stress Management

For more endurance-based athletes, carbohydrate intake may be a fifth factor to consider, but we’ll leave it out for now as it’s less important for pure strength and physique enhancement.

If you’ve hit a plateau in your training and aren't seeing the improvements that you expect, these four factors are the first thing to address. 

Recommendations for each are given in the figure below.

If you’ve been consistently falling short of these goals, it’s possible that your recovery may be the limiting factor of your progress. Try improving each strategy as much as possible and see if you make improvements.

If you’re sleeping enough, eating enough calories and protein, and spending as much time as you can relaxing, managing your stress, and unwinding, then you’re probably doing a pretty good job of maximizing your recovery.

Once your recovery is maxed out and you’re still not seeing improvements, then its time to address your training. In this case, you’re probably in one of two situations;

1) you’re either training too hard, or

2) you’re not training hard enough

1) If you're training too hard;

The sad truth is, you can only recovery from so much training. If you're constantly feeling sore, beat up, and achy, you dread going to the gym, your sleep quality is worse than normal, or your performance is actually declining, then you’re probably overtraining and need to reduce your volume. 

Take a planned week of light week of training, also known as a deload, and let yourself fully recovery. After taking an easy week, go back to the same training plan but reduce the number of sets that you are doing on a weekly basis. If you find yourself under-recovered again in the future, repeat the process; taking another deload and proceeding to reduce your number of sets even more once you get back to hard training.

2) If you're not training hard enough;

If you seem to be recovering just fine, and you're not showing any of the previously mentioned symptoms of being overtrained, then you've probably plateaued because your training isn't hard enough.

In this scenario, add sets to your weekly training plan and see if that helps. If you add sets and still don't see improvement after a month or so, try a adding more sets. Just be sure that you don't overshoot your ability to recover by adding sets too fast.


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