If you only get one thing out of this article, it needs to be this: the recovery process is just as important as the actual training.
As I conclude this series on program design, I will finish with what can be the most valuable part of a training program. Recovery is more than just rest days and doing nothing.
I’ll start by looking at how athletic performance creates stress and then discuss what the body needs to adapt.
To understand why recovery is so important, we need to understand what happens when you train, whether you’re strength training or speed training. Most training results in muscle damage. Muscle soreness, sometimes referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), is simply when the muscle fibers are damaged and you’re feeling the inflammation of the muscle tissue. This can happen from regular resistance training or targeting muscle groups for hypertrophy. Both are a process of increasing your muscle size or strength by damaging the cells so that they must repair. When they are repaired, they grow bigger and stronger. It can also occur doing high-speed sprints or heavy change of direction work.
I’ve said before that soreness is not the goal. Not every workout session requires the same amount of recovery time. It is also important to remember that you don’t have to worry about soreness being a sign of overtraining. Properly programmed high intensity training will usually do the trick. Still, stress is cumulative. Even when your aim is to just get some blood flow, training still has a physical and mental toll on the body. You can get fatigued from “easy” workouts. It takes time, energy and effort to train, and this stress has real physiological consequences.
When I talk about the body absorbing the training, that involves the body adapting to the stress that training puts on it. That adaptation involves nutritional and neurological elements. The best way to achieve those two goals is to have the time to eat well and time to let the nervous system program and store the stimulus it has been given.
Everybody’s favorite post-exercise recovery is eating. Who doesn’t love to eat? Training creates a greater calorie demand. The metabolic effect of training creates an increase in your metabolism, which makes you hungrier because you’ve burned more calories.
While there is some debate about the anabolic window (when the ideal time to consume protein is), what isn’t up for debate is that protein is necessary for the synthesis of muscle. Whether it’s before, during or after, just encourage your athletes to fit it in. Get it in the system. Lean meat is good, but don’t be afraid of some hearty 80/20 red meat. Active kids who are weight training and involved in regular physical activity will be able to handle it. Nothing is off the table, pun intended: chicken, fish, beef – it's all good.
Carbohydrates are another macronutrient important for post-workout recovery. Good carbohydrates, like fats, again start with whole foods.
Some main examples are:
•Fruits and veggies
•Whole grain pasta
Glycogen is one of the fuels your body uses for training. When looking to replace sugar, obviously natural sugars are preferred over processed or refined sugars. Of course sports drinks are a quick and convenient solution to replace glucose, just mind the label. That being said, hydration is a high priority for recovery. Plain water will always be a winner. As for what can go in water, that raises another question.
Many people use supplements for recovery. Again, this is an age-appropriate question and another topic that would be worth going deeper on another day. When I talked about nutrition, I advocated first and foremost for educating kids on having a healthy view of eating. While creatine is one of the popular ingredients kids go for, especially teenage boys, the truth is that supplement companies don’t formulate their products for adolescent kids. So even if the ingredient is good, the dosage may be bad.
For the body to catch up and utilize good nutrition, rest is required and the best form of free recovery therapy is sleep. Now how can you possibly find a better deal to go with training than the command to sleep and eat?
My little catch phrase is “fresh is best”. Working out does create new levels of energy, but that does not mean at the expense of sleep. Rest is a part of recovery. Just as you do not train the same muscles hard every day, you must give the whole body a chance for recovery through adequate sleep. The amount needed for each person varies, but on the average 7-8 hours a night is enough. Slightly more may be necessary for competing athletes and younger kids.
It doesn't have to get too technical with whether it’s REM sleep or non-REM sleep. All that matters is that kids are getting as much sleep as possible as young as possible.
Although it is impossible to get the same amount of sleep every night because of things that occur in our lives that upset our schedules, the thing that is most important is the concept of consecutive nights rest. It is not uncommon that the night before a big game, many competitive athletes are able to only sleep 3-4 hours, yet their performance is not affected one way or the other. If during the days prior to competition they have rested well, then the body can deal with one irregular night’s sleep. Consecutive nights of sleeplessness will have a negative impact on training as will consecutive nights of good rest will enhance your training.
Active recovery can come in different forms:
•During a tough workout between sets where the goal is to lower your heart rate. Light jogging or even speed walking between fast sprints, for example. With strength, this could look like body weight exercises between max effort barbell lifts.
•After a complete workout. This is also known as a cool-down. Foam rolling with a foam roller is a good go-to.
•Scheduled active recovery days between intense exercise days. This looks like light cardio or doing low-intensity movements. Mobility work where the athletes are focusing on range of motion is popular. This is where bands can play a crucial role. Body weight exercises are a safe bet, as long as you’re not doing absurdly high reps.
This last one can even allow for a casual competition or a play day for your kids. There were times we resorted to playing angle ball or capture the flag on days when the kids needed a mental escape from the daily grind. Do a quality warm-up then go have some fun. Even if this is more appropriate during the off-season, keep it in consideration.
Recovery has many other forms. Not everything is available everywhere or to everybody, but there are different ways to utilize a principle, like icing. For example, there is cryotherapy. A relatively expensive, equipment-dependent tool yet effective recovery method. If you can't afford it or it is not available, the old school ice bath or simply a bag of ice works wonders.
Other modalities include:
•Trigger point therapy
Similar to nutrition, I understand you may not be able to control what your athletes do when they aren’t with you and you may only have the luxury of doing the main program elements in your allotted time. When you believe a recovery day fits in your program schedule, make it happen. For the rest, be intentional about educating them. It always comes back to that. Teach them and encourage them so that they are empowered with the knowledge and can take ownership of their recovery off-site.
I hope this series has equipped you to put together a program that works for your kids. In the coming weeks, we will continue to touch on different drills and principles you can implement.