The importance of getting the right amount of rest and recovery
ATHLETES AND COACHES OFTEN THINK MORE IS BETTER, BUT YOU MAY GET THE BEST RESULTS FROM A MORE CIRCUMSPECT APPROACH THAT INCLUDES REST AND RECOVERY, WRITES JOHN SHEPHERD
PERHAPS the most important but under recognised of all the training variables – which also include volume, load, intensity and frequency – is rest.
Note, for the purposes of this article rest and recovery will be seen to be the same thing, although in reality there are differences from a training planning perspective.
Rest is vital. Physiological adaptations take place during the period when you’re not training rather than when you are actually training.
As an athlete you may have lifted a PB in the gym or run your fastest 40m time but it’s not when you’re in the gym or at the track when that gain will hopefully become cemented into your developing athletic ability. Adaptation is specific to the stimulus but, whatever the event, it’s when resting that the positive changes happen.
Broadly speaking, adaptation to speed and power stimuli rely on changes to muscle fibre’s contractile properties – that is, fast-twitch muscle fibres become better at expressing power. For endurance athletes, cardiovascular factors adapt, such as the heart’s stroke volume (but so do muscle fibres).
For all events, energy system use and contribution is trained to be specific to the event eg better lactate tolerance for 400m runners.
To these physical adaptations should be added neural and cognitive ones:
Technical adaptation – that is, improvements to throwing, running and jumping skill.
Neural adaptation – that is, the way the central nervous system “controls” movement).
And to all these adaptive processes must be added the “human element”– belief and confidence are crucial factors when it comes to adaptation to training. Also, if an athlete believes that they are improving through their training, then chances are there will be a greater boost to the physiological adaptation that is taking place.
Regardless of your event, if you don’t take time to rest you run the risk of overtraining and not allowing your physiological and neural systems the time to adapt and get better.
Let’s consider muscle fibre. Sprinters, jumpers and throwers will focus on developing more power – the ability to overcome a resistance as quickly as possible, whether this be the implement when throwing or gravity on take-off and their bodyweight for jumping.
To do this fast-twitch muscle fibres need to be targeted and the motor units (switches) that control them.
To fully exploit these fasttwitch fibres the athlete should use heavy weights, for example, in the gym while trying to move the weight as quickly
(but as safely) as possible. In doing so they will turn the key to unlocking more fast-twitch muscle fibres with increased neural stimulation.
With regular training the athlete’s neuromuscular system will adapt to being able to generate more force and this will improve performance – but only, and everything else being equal – if they allow time for adaptation.
If the thrower, for instance, tries to lift heavy and powerfully every session then they will not give themselves enough regeneration time. Their muscles will potentially atrophy (lose size) and the horsepower of their fast-twitch fibres will be compromised.
Another factor that will hit performance negatively – and this applies whatever the athletics event if sufficient rest is not taken – will be a loss of desire.
This could manifest itself in terms of not wanting to (or indeed being unable to) push hard on the track or when conditioning. Overtraining (also termed overreaching) could also result. Vvarious other symptoms of this include; irritability, general loss of motivation, difficulty
sleeping, difficulty concentrating and greater susceptibility to illness. The latter is particularly the case with endurance athletes – eg throat infections.
How to monitor rest
So how could you monitor whether you or an athlete you coach is not allowing sufficient time for adaptation? There are some sophisticated methods and some more practical/ usable everyday options.
Some of the more involved methods include testing hormonal levels. The androgen hormones – eg growth hormone and testosterone – are key to muscle growth, recovery and general feelings of health and zest.
When testosterone levels are low then the chances of elevated performance are reduced.
If (base-level) testosterone levels are established, when there is fluctuation then the coach/athlete may be able to adapt training accordingly – eg reduce load if levels are lower than normal.
Cortisol is known as the “stress” hormone and it’s also possible to monitor its levels.
On a much simpler basis an athlete can test their resting heart rate. RHR is taken shortly after waking. Once a baseline score is obtained then, should RHR be elevated, the chances are the athlete is in a stressed state and training should be adapted accordingly.
Note, it’s important to realise that “stress is stress”. If you are having a tough time off the track, it’s likely that this will also affect your training.
Many heart rate monitors/ activity trackers can now assess the quality of sleep. It’s when you are asleep that a myriad of restorative and adaptive processes occur – muscle protein is re-synthesised, for example, which can enhance “muscle power”. Growth hormone is also released and this will enhance adaptation.
A couple of poor nights’ sleep will affect performance. Sleep monitoring can therefore tell an athlete and their coach what state of recovery they are in.
Questionnaires are another way to garner important information on recovery state (called “subjective” measures, as opposed to the “objective” ones, such as endocrine system monitoring).
There are various types of these subjective assessment methods, such as Profile of Mood States (POMS) and the Recovery Stress Questionnaire for Athletes (RESTQ-S) – see the panel on the right for more on the latter.
As a coach there’s one final way that you can judge an athlete’s readiness – use your eyes and ears!
Sometimes it’s possible to identify through demeanour just how the athlete is and this pertains to not just what they do when training.
If they are aloof, not that chatty, or generally mooching around then the chances are they are tired, not fully recovered or have other things on their mind.
If you are the athlete’s regular coach then you will probably be able to determine pretty well what state the athlete is in and how they are feeling. You can also, of course, ask them at some point.
Additionally, if you observe them during warm-up then you’ll begin to see whether they are warming up nicely into the session of not. I’ve found that becoming quickly frustrated with
technical work is an indicator of potential lack of recovery whilst heavy footedness or increased contact time when doing plyometrics are others.
Knowing when to train harder or when to back off and when an athlete is recovered, recovering or needs specific regeneration work (a topic in its own right) or complete rest is vital to ensure improvement.
There are numerous means to assess these states and hopefully the information provided in this article will guide and direct athletes and coaches to ensure optimum recovery and resultant adaptation and performance improvement.
Knowing your athletes will certainly help in being sure they are sufficiently rested
Modern tech can help determine levels of rest and recovery