Having been working with junior athletes between the ages of 11-18 for the last few years one of the major areas that is a concern for me is what opportunity, if any, do they have to recover within their weekly schedule? Do parents, school teachers and club coaches have any idea of the total work the young athletes are completing in any given week? What are the implications of their training schedules to the athlete’s long term development and their health?
What is recovery?
Recovery is a process resulting in a return to baseline energy levels and then an optimal performance state.
Understanding the process of recovery
Crucial to understanding the importance of recovery is understanding the process that the body goes through as a result of exercise/training/competing. The body is always striving to maintain homeostatis (balance) of the bodily systems so it will constantly adapt to stresses that we place on it. In the context of sport, stress comes in the form of training for and competing in that sport. Training is a manipulation of stress to bring about desired changes in the body as it strives to cope with the stress and achieve balance again. In training terms this is known as Supercompensation (Gambetta, 2007)
The diagram below (Figure 1.4 source: Zatsiorsky, 1995) is the theory of Supercompensation which is a four step process. The horizontal line is the athlete’s baseline level of fitness/preparedness. The vertical axis and curved line represents the changes in the athlete’s fitness/preparedness as a result of any workout.
Stage 1 – Application of training (stress)
When any form of training or sport is completed by an athlete this stress is followed by a depletion of the body’s energy stores creating a state of fatigue demonstrated in the first section of figure 1.4. At the lowest point if the athlete were to attempt to perform in their sport there would be a predictable drop off in the level of their performance.
Stage 2 – The Recovery Phase
When the athlete is given a suitable period of recovery which could be in the form of active rest, a recovery session or a light training session. The athlete’s energy levels and preparedness to perform will return to baseline levels.
Stage 3 – Supercompensation Phase
This is the body’s adaptive response to the fatigue brought about by the training and it is a rebound above and beyond the baseline levels creating a heightened state of energy levels and preparedness to perform. At this point if they athlete were to perform in their sport/training we would expect performance to be of a higher level than normal.
Stage 4 – Loss of the Supercompensation effect & return to baseline levels
From the peak of supercompensation there is a natural decline back to baseline levels if there is no new training stress applied, known as the detraining phenomenon.
Slaves to the Schedule
Athletes invariably train and compete according to a set schedule, and when careful consideration is not taken this schedule can be intense/excessive/challenging. Typically the athlete will follow this schedule regardless of the readiness of the athlete to train or perform. In such cases, athletes will not be at their optimum to train or compete due to insufficient recovery or poor adaptation to their training again as a result of little or no recovery time, or poor recovery strategies.
Certainly the young athletes I have been in contact with appear to have little or no recovery planned in to their weekly/monthly schedules. The more gifted and talented the athlete it appears the more demands are placed on them as the school teachers and club coaches insist on their involvement in any and every game/sport going with little thought given to the benefit of the session to the individual and there appears to be little communication between any of the parties to ensure that the young athlete is not overtraining. From teachers that I have discussed this issue with they are aware of young players playing 3 games in a week including 2 in a weekend.
I’m not pointing the finger of blame at any of the parties in the mix as they are all facing different challenges that make it unrealistic to plan to this extent for each individual athlete in the school or club. However, for that small percentage of young sports people who have shown signs of the capability or desire to compete at the highest level surely we must take the time to plan their training and competition schedule appropriately to avoid physical/mental burnout?
What is overtraining?
Overtraining is the result of a long term imbalance between the amount of stress applied to the body through training and the individual’s ability to tolerate and recover from the training. Symptoms of overtraining aren’t always clear but residual fatigue, persistent minor injuries, loss of motivation and a lack of progress are some examples of the negative effect that it can have.
Physical symptoms include reduced appetite, a tendency to tire easily during exercise, weight loss, a slight increase in blood pressure, an elevated resting heart rate.
The effects can also be psychological in nature and athletes may show nervousness, inner unease, poor motivation and eventually depression. (Siff, 2003)
The importance of sufficient recovery and optimally planned training
In an optimally planned training schedule another training session would take place at the peak of the supercompensation curve and the process would start again from step 1 and at the end the body would rebound to a level of preparedness above and beyond the level following the first training session as demonstrated in figure 1.5 below.
Figure 1.5 – Optimal recovery time between training sessions (source: Zatsiorsky, 1995)
If sufficient recovery can be achieved consistently over a long period of time the result is going to be a continually rising curve taking the athlete towards a superior level of performance as well as hopefully maintaining a healthier, fresher athlete.
In contrast, if the recovery period between training sessions is insufficient the results are much more detrimental to the athlete. If the next training session is applied before the athlete’s energy stores have returned to baseline then supercompensation is never achieved resulting in greater levels of fatigue and further reductions in the athlete’s readiness to train and perform.
Figure 1.6 – Insufficient recovery between training sessions (source: Zatsiorsky, 1995)
If this trend continues in the long term the athlete’s physical development will be hampered and their level of performance will be decreased as there are increasing levels of fatigue and less energy available to the athlete. In the long term this is the scenario that will lead to overtraining putting the athlete at risk of developing the symptoms described above.
Finally if training sessions are not completed frequently enough (i.e. too long between sessions) we will lose the supercompensation effect and there will be no noticeable gains from the training being completed as demonstrated in figure 1.7 below. The result again being limited or no development in the athlete’s physical capabilities or performance.
Figure 1.7 Recovery between sessions is too long (source: Zatsiorsky, 1995)
Recommendations / practical application:
Recovery should be planned in to the overall training programme and should involve not only recovery days but planned training weeks of a lower intensity and/or volume of work to maximise recovery and adaptation to the training. The table below identifies a very basic 4 week training cycle involving 1 planned recovery week every 4 weeks.
Very Heavy workload
Ensure that athletes have 1-2 days per week of ‘recovery’ which may consist of active rest, a recovery session or a very low volume training session.
A good use of recovery days is to focus on maintaining or developing flexibility with stretches focused upon areas of the body that have been used heavily within the weekly training or areas that are known to have a limited range of movement (e.g. tight hamstrings, hip flexors). Light prehabilitation exercises addressing any weaker areas & specifically looking to prevent common injuries in the given sport would also represent a good use of this time.
Essential parts of the recovery process that are often overlooked or poorly applied are good nutrition and adequate sleep (approx. 10 hours per night for young athletes)
Continual monitoring of the athletes physical state and the training that they are doing will help avoid overtraining and further their development as an athlete. How we can monitor the athletes will be a topic for discussion in a future article.
Please feel free to comment and question my views on this subject.
Author: James Baker
Zatsiorsky, V. (1995) Science and Practise of Strength Conditioning