Written by Antonio Robustelli
Recovery is a fascinating subject, and like all the things that have a special charm, it is still surrounded today by an aura of misunderstanding as if it were something difficult and mysterious.
Indeed, talking today about the management of recovery process means talking about success; the knowledge of the contribution of optimal recovery in the process of adaptation, improvement of performance, and prevention from injuries is the key to deal with the needs of the modern training methods.
More than 20 years have passed since Charlie Francis stated: “Technique has not changed very much since the days of Jesse Owens. Where changes have occurred is in knowing how much work should be done, when it should be done, under what conditions it should be done and how to recover fully from it” and “an athlete who is receiving regular regeneration methods & treatments is able to increase the volume of high quality-high intensity work by as much as 40%.”
Have today’s coaches and trainers fully understood the meaning and importance of recovery and its management and monitoring?
This is a fundamental question to understand what direction the world of strength and conditioning is moving.
It’s impossible, however, to talk about recovery without first discussing the role of the human body’s regulatory mechanisms.
Regulatory mechanisms are control systems with the function of maintaining a relatively stable internal environment within narrow limits, despite changes in the external environment.
The two regulatory mechanisms of the human body are:
- Autonomic nervous system
- Neuro-endocrine system
Autonomic nervous system
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the part of the nervous system that involuntarily regulates internal body functions. It is divided into the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which prepares the body for intense physical activity and is referred to as the fight-or-flight response, and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which relaxes the body and inhibits or slows many high-energy functions.
The ANS is activated by the brain when the body is challenged by anything that happens to us. Once activated, the ANS controls and stimulates the output of two hormones, cortisol from the adrenal cortex and adrenaline from the adrenal medulla. The adrenaline keeps us alert by increasing heart rate and blood pressure and by quickly mobilizing energy reserves while cortisol, which works more slowly, helps replenish energy supplies.
All of these adaptive responses are described by the term “allostasis,” which means “maintaining stability, or homeostasis, through change.”
The neuro-endocrine system is a complex biological mechanism in which the nervous and endocrine systems interact together to regulate the physiological processes of the human body.
It is composed by the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland and has a critical role in integrating biological responses through the regulation of cellular protein synthesis, body’s metabolism, reproductive function, body fluids, plasma electrolyte homeostasis, body’s response to stress, fat metabolism, mood and blood pressure.
Controlled disorder recovery
In which direction is it moving today in the world of strength and conditioning regarding knowledge and understanding of the meaning and importance of recovery management and monitoring?
There are three fundamental concepts of recovery I want to talk about:
- Recovery-disturbing elements are not easily identifiable
- Recovery as a paradoxical process
- Recovery doesn’t mean adaptation
Recovery-disturbing elements are not easily identifiable
Recovery patterns are not linear and there are several disturbing elements that can delay and obstruct their path. The body is a complex biological system composed of multiple structures and superstructures that are sometimes not easily identifiable.
The identification of any weak link is, however, due to the knowledge of the physiology and biochemistry of the human body.
It is important to understand which parameters to analyze and monitor to create a baseline and an individual profile, since there are several markers that are useless for the management of the functional reserves of the athletes.
For example, assessing heart rate variability without the analysis of baroreflex sensitivity and a complete blood count/salivary panel can’t give us a complete picture of the regulatory mechanism’s patterns.
Smartphone apps are good for recreational athletes, but the needs of high-level athletes and clubs require a more complex and comprehensive approach.
Sometimes an athlete can score a good value on sympatho/vagal balance (the vagus nerve is one of the 12 cranial nerves and interfaces with parasympathetic nervous system through the control of the heart and digestive tract. It extends from the brain stem to the abdomen, via various organs including the heart, esophagus and lungs) and a high activation of recovery patterns but show abnormal muscle function values on surface electromyography and vibromyography regarding local muscle fatigue index. The baroreflex sensitivity analysis can bridge the gap and detect a problem with adrenal function that affects metabolic muscle status due probably to dehydration and sodium depletion.
This is why not all systems are dysfunctional to the same degree and at the same time, so we can see overall good values of HRV because of the reactive compensatory mechanisms of the autonomic nervous system.
Take-home message: The knowledge of how the body works at a physiological, biochemical, and neurological level is fundamental to understand the most important biometric parameters and how to monitor them.
Recovery as a paradoxical process
Biological adaptations, recovery patterns, and injury risks are all multi-factorial issues. As such, they must be addressed in a comprehensive and multi-factorial manner.
The body is a high-definition machine consisting of many high-precision microstructures highly related to each other; there is a chain that binds nervous/sensory system to muscular, biochemical, mechanical, cardiac, and emotional systems.
It is the care of all the details paired with a scientific/multi-factorial approach and not the “good luck” that makes the difference between the winner and the loser, the injured and the healthiest.
But the role of the autonomic nervous system and the vagal tone patterns are very paradoxical. According to Stephen Porges, this is why the vagal system does not represent a unitary dimension and we have, as mammals, two vagal motor systems.
There are two different neural circuits in the vagal cable, so the parasympathetic nervous system can cause both a restorative or a “deadly” response. It can promote health, growth, and restoration but also immobilization and inhibition of breathing acting as a primary defense system.
This is the vagal paradox, as the vagal system can help you recover, but it can also slow your functional state through bradycardia and hypoxia.
Take-home message: High parasympathetic activity is not always a sign of great recovery, but it still needs to be analyzed globally.
Recovery doesn’t mean adaptation
Recovery is a whole body biological process involving regeneration from neural, muscular, metabolic, and chemical load.
Recovery does not imply adaptation.
Adaptation occurs when:
- Correct manipulation of training parameters is applied
- Improvements in basic motor skills (speed, strength) and metabolic capacities are properly included and used in motor and metabolic patterns of subsequent training blocks
Training adaptations are not stable and require a complex process of storage and fixation within neuro-mechanics and chemical patterns.
The path is training-recovery-adaptation-fixation.
The subsequent progress is based on the fixation and maintenance of the previously developed parameters.
Take-home message: Recovery works in a multiplanar fashion, and it is not the only indicator of training adaptation, as the stabilization occurs when the new acquired motor skills are properly included in the right neural and metabolic circuits.
Improve your recovery and your training
For all the serious strength athletes who can’t have a professional sport performance consultant for functional assessment but who still want to improve recovery patterns, I will suggest some practical tips to implement on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis.
Track your daily heart rate, HRV (through a smartphone-based application), and blood pressure measurement.
Blood pressure measurement should be performed via the Ragland test: Take your blood pressure while you are lying down and relaxed, then stand up and take it immediately again. Drop in values are a valid indicator of probably-fatigued adrenal glands.
As I said earlier, it is important to also track your blood pressure together with HRV because HRV alone can’t find the problem, and you could show a good autonomic balance while in a fatigued adrenals state.
Although the Ragland test is very superficial and crude (the best method would be the baroreflex sensitivity analysis but that’s another story), it’s still a good indicator for daily tracking.
Track your parasympathetic activity indices once a week with your smartphone-based application to create your own baseline.
From this point, take note of any changes from normal values that are both below and above the reference limits.
Any change that lasts more than three weeks without returning to normal values can be an indicator of an overreaching state, so adjust your training load parameters according to your own baseline deviation to prevent any risk of overtraining.
At the end of every training block (depending on the length and load modalities of your plan), start to spend a week for stabilization and fixation of your strength gains.
As coach Dan Pfaff stated, “Once you have stimulated and the athlete adapts to that stimulus, then you have to spend a certain amount of time allowing that new performance level to stabilize. Then in the fourth step the athlete must learn to actualize it in any kind of environment and under any kind of stress, at any point in time. I think a lot of coaches fall into the trap of stimulating and adapting and as soon as the athlete looks like they have got things under control they then change something and push forwards for greater gains and in doing so compromise the adaptation process and set the scene for injury.”
Try to plan a stabilization week to give time to your new strength gains to properly fit in the existing motor circuits before going on to set new training parameters.
This will improve your performance thus leading to better recovery under stress.
Antonio Robustelli is a strength and conditioning coach and sport performance consultant from Italy. He works around the world with semi-professionals, professionals, and Olympic athletes in various sports (including athletics, soccer, weightlifting, football, basketball, powerlifting, rugby, volleyball, boxing, hockey, martial arts, and cycling). He is also an expert in the monitoring and management of recovery and physical stress.
He is columnist and writer for the British magazine Athletics Weekly, the world’s number one magazine for track and field, where he writes articles about strength training and answers readers’ questions in the Strength Issues section.