We’re often told about the importance of recovery as part of your training, but so much falls under recovery that sometimes it can be hard to tell heads from tails with all the information.
What is recovery?
In the realm of health and fitness you will often come across the term homeostasis. Homeostasis describes the steady state of optimal functioning and the human body is always trying to maintain that state. For example, our body needs to function at an ideal temperature around 36.5 to 37.5 degrees Celsius. If we go out in the freezing cold our body will shiver to produce heat, likewise if we go out in very hot weather our body will sweat to help cool by evaporation. The same goes for maintaining the balance between acidity and alkalinity. The body needs to be kept slightly alkaline between a Ph 7.35-7-45 and it uses complex chemical processes to achieve this. Strenuous exercise causes a disturbance to this homeostasis in many ways, body temperature, acidity, blood pressure, heart rate, respiration rate and energy storage and expenditure to name a few.
It is important to understand recovery in the context of homeostasis because it is a holistic concept that incorporates every body system in some way, and there are many variables that influence its rate among individuals. Essentially however, recovery is the process of returning to homeostasis following exercise, where athletic potential has been restored or even slightly improved. Quite often recovery after exercise is pigeonholed as being limited to cool downs, stretching, massage, foam rollers, ice baths etc. Whilst many of these things are important and useful, and we will look at them further in this article, the research indicates that although beneficial they should not be the central focus.
Certainly, there is a far greater impact on recovery from diet, sleep and quality rest days. Unfortunately, it is increasingly common to find that people are unable to rest effectively. Training and exercise can become a distraction or an addiction in itself, we can be disrupted with the use of social media, work stresses, commitments and many aspects of modern life. Recovery can be a difficult and complex topic, but if there is anything to take away, it is that it is important not to overlook these less glamourous aspects of allowing our bodies to recover effectively.
What happens to our bodies during exercise?
It is important to remember that exercise is a form of stress on our body, and different forms of exercise cause different stresses. The physiological processes and energy systems used during exercise are incredibly complex, along with the underlying mechanisms involved in our capacity to recover. Research conducted by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) discussed three key mechanisms that occur during exercise, ultimately mediating post-exercise recovery:
- Skeletal muscle damage
- Depleted energy sources
- Accumulation of metabolic by-products (commonly referred to as lactic acid)
Each of these mechanisms were found to decrease our ability to produce muscular force until the muscle repairs, cause soreness, and significantly decrease overall performance, making it important for these processes to recover prior to recommencing exercise. As to how long this takes, is dependent on factors such as exercise type, intensity, diet, current fitness levels and various individual physiological variables.
If we do not allow enough time for these processes to recover and continue to exercise, we run the risk of overtraining which can result in a compromised immune system, increased fatigue and decreased performance to name a few.
Many studies have look at the effect of overtraining on the immune system, in particular the development of upper-respiratory tract infections (URTI). The “J”-shaped Curve is well recognized research identifying the relationship between varying levels and intensity of exercise and the risk of URTIs.
While physical activity levels and preferred mode of exercise are very individual, the Australian National Physical Activity Guidelines provides some excellent information on the amount of exercise we should be completing each week to maintain our health.