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Recovery - A general overview

Updated: Jul 29, 2022


Whether you're training for general health, sport, or for a combination of reasons, the principles of recovery remain the same

It's useful to understand why recovery is important for both performance and overall well-being. We can think of the training process as - Stimulus, Recovery and Adaptation (the SRA principle). The SRA principle outlines that once we stress the body and allow it the time it needs to recover, then the body will adapt by getting stronger in order to handle the next training stimulus.

If we don't give our body the time it needs to recover then we will likely see eventual decline in performance due to overtraining. The risk of injury is increased, you're more likely to have low energy and motivation and less likely to be consistent with your training. It's a smarter move to look at training as a long term lifestyle habit rather than a quick fix that helps short term but crashes because it's too much, too soon.

When trying to understand how we recover from a physical or psychological stress on the body it can be helpful to understand the different parts of our nervous system. We have a Central Nervous System (CNS) and an Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The CNS is responsible for maintaining homeostasis and voluntary movement while the ANS is responsible for involuntary actions (think digestion, heart rate, breathing etc)

There are two parts to the ANS, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system can be described as our fight or flight powers. It kicks in during stressful times, but it's not something that we always want running full steam. If it didn't switch off we would burn out very quickly. The parasympathetic nervous system is what allows us to calm down and be more mindful and logical, this is the time when our body lends itself best to recovery!

How well you can recover from sessions can be attributed to many variables including the modality of training, training intensity, your training age, genetics, sleep, nutrition, stress, recovery aids, etc.

Generally speaking recovery is really just about looking after your body and your mind, aiming to shift from a sympathetic state to a parasympathetic state as quickly as possible to allow the recovery process to happen.

This means getting adequate sleep, remaining hydrated, minimising stress levels, maintaining healthy nutrition, and staying active. Life happens and it can be unrealistic to address these things all together, all the time. Aiming for one that is realistic short term and then adding in another when you can will mean that over time you make them a habit. Something is better than doing nothing when it comes to recovery!

Here are some tips to improve recovery:

Adequate sleep - aim for unbroken sleep where possible. Aiming for 6-8+ hours per night is a great start.

Remaining hydrated - aiming for 1 litre of water per 25kgs of bodyweight each day, especially in the warmer months will allow for faster recovery from training. Adding an extra litre per hour of exercise is also a useful guideline.

Minimising stress levels - where possible this can be one of the biggest aids in recovery. Understanding your personality and what makes you tick can help identify the major sources of your stress and then assist you in managing it. Wherever your stress may be coming from, being more organised and knowing where your time is going, regular physical activity, meditation (short or long if you have the time), listening to music, watching a movie, being outdoors and getting some fresh air and sun, and being able to communicate regularly with someone you trust are all things that can help.

Healthy nutrition - you can check out Al's Nutrition content piece from June, Leaning up your diet: A very basic guide and the accompanying short podcast on it here:

Figure out what’s realistic for you when it comes to nutrition. What can you do consistently? Making your nutrition habits a lifestyle and balancing it out so that it’s sustainable for you. Of course making more healthy choices than unhealthy ones should be the goal, after all you only have one body. Wouldn't you want it to function and perform well for you your whole life?

Staying active - aiming to move more often and move differently where possible. Avoiding regular sedentary pursuits and staying active with regular walking, riding, jogging, gardening, hiking, etc can help recovery by minimising stress and aiding in a feeling of achievement, well-being and satisfaction. It will also promote oxygenated blood flow around the body which will help with musculoskeletal repair.

If you choose to constantly 'burn the candle', as they say, by having late nights, high levels of stress, a lot of alcohol, and basically abusing your body and your mind then there will eventually be some consequences. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand this, but from a physiological standpoint it is highly unlikely that you will be able to function and perform at a higher level in anything requiring physical or mental impetus. Don't expect your body or your mind to do things above the level required in your life if you constantly abuse it and spend too much time in 'fight or flight' mode. Therein recovery is arguably just as important as the training itself.

Your body adapts to a given stimulus over time and then will require something different or more challenging in order to continue adapting and evolving. For instance if you strength train on a regular basis, eventually you will need to lift slightly heavier weights in order to get stronger. If you’re more focussed on endurance style activities then you’ll need to increase your distances or your heart rate intensity in order to improve. Either way, recovery from the chosen training stimulus will become an important factor in your progress. This goes for someone training for general health and well-being all the way down the line to professional athletes looking for those one percenters.

When it comes to strength training we target the musculoskeletal systems but people often forget that our central nervous system (CNS) also gets a serious workout. After all it is the CNS that we use to recruit fast twitch fibres in order to make them stronger and this too needs time to recover and regenerate.

If we go back to the SRA (Stimulus, Recovery, Adaptation) principle, which outlines that after the body experiences physiological stress, like strength training, then there's a period of time in which it will need to recover and adapt.If we give it that time and we implement some healthy recovery tactics then we can expect that we will improve our performance.

In addition to the CNS some other areas of the body that need to recover include the joints, muscles, tendons, amongst others. Once adequate recovery time occurs then our strength and or performance should increase above the baseline of before, after which we would need to stimulate/stress it again in order to repeat the process. That increase in strength and improvement in performance is the actual super-compensation part.

The time for adequate recovery to occur can be quite subjective because (as discussed) there are so many variables that impact one's ability to recover from training stress. A general guide for recovery time could be 24-72hrs depending on the intensity of your session and how many of the recovery variables are in your favour.

When it comes to adequate recovery I wouldn't usually recommend training whilst still sore from a previous session, however, for the hardened long term trainers out there who have a good understanding of their body, how well it recovers, and are accustomed to back to back sessions then I would say that it can be ok, fill your boots!

However when you’re starting out and you want to create a long term sustainable routine and be able to slowly improve performance over time then I’d suggest having between 24-48hrs between strength sessions.

Did you know it can take 7-10 days to completely recover from a high intensity strength training session?

See you in the gym!


Prefer to listen? Catch our 15min Podcast discussing recovery!


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