Recovery Days and Recovery Weeks (from strength training)
You need to train smarter – by improving your awareness of just one thing.
Recovery. That’s it! Sounds simple and yet it’s so powerful. The key to the concept of recovery is this – the training adaptation you seek from training is only half produced by training itself.
Without recovery, you only have fatigue, a disrupted homeostasis. Only when recovery from each training session is achieved do you see the peak of the training effect!
Assessing recovery from training can be simple – if you cannot exceed the load or reps on the same exercise performed in the same sequence as last time you did that workout (ie. all things being equal) – you haven’t recovered.
There are also more complex interpretations involving what I call cumulative fatigue, where out of the blue a few weeks later you may pay the price for over-doing it today, but I don’t want to complicate the discussion with this.
Recovery in strength training covers three areas : 1) days between workouts; 2) recovery weeks between stages within a program; and 3) recovery weeks between programs.
Days between workouts: since the popularization of split routines many perceive that because they are working a different body part in subsequent days they will be okay, that they don’t need a day off. This may work fine for about two days in a row for most, but for the average person, three days in a row is too much. Why is this so, despite training of totally different muscle groups?
The muscles groups may be unrelated, but the energy production is central to the whole body – so the central nervous system (whose importance in training is finally being recognized) supplies the whole body and can perhaps become depleted. The reproduction of fuel in the muscle cell is influenced in a central manner, not just by different muscle groups. And the immune system, the body’s tool to combat the fatigue induced by training, is taxed centrally irrespective of which muscle group is being training.
Whilst frequency of training is influenced by volume, intensity, and individual recovery ability, I say very clearly – only those using low volume training or who possess superior recovery systems/circumstances should even contemplate training more than 3 days in a row!
And remember – it is not a matter of what can be tolerated – but rather what is optimal, what gives the best results. More is rarely better in training – in fact my preferred motto in training is – if in doubt, don’t do it.
These days between workouts are what I call recovery days. You can use them to rest up, or you can participate in activities aimed at accelerating recovery, including massage, stretching, contrast baths etc. One of the first questions I ask when I see most programs that I feel can be improved is- where are the recovery days!
Recovery weeks between stages within a program: realistically it can take a few months to see significant adaptations. Between workouts I still want to see incremental and continual changes, and it is these that add up to a greater difference over a few months. So do you train continuously for say three to four months? I bet you have tried to! And I know what probably happened! Within a certain number of weeks you seem to go backwards, or even drop out of your program. And then the three to four months of continuity required to see the bigger changes never happens. Sounds familiar? I certainly hear this all the time when performing trouble-shooting analysis of client’s historical training patterns. So we are going to fix it here and now. You should never again suffer this fate!
What I want you to do is this – take a recovery week after every 3 or 4 weeks of training. I know – your internal psycho-babble is having a fit! ‘Take a recovery week off!!! No, I can’t! I will lose it all!!’ Well, let me say this – if you don’t do this, most of you are going to lose it all anyway!
Once you get over the emotional attachment issue of not training for a week, you will find the incredible benefits of doing what most athletes have done since Milo picked up the calf in the stadium in about 6th century BC – get incredible results!
If you want to get further into it, a recovery week between stages can be a ‘full’ or a ‘half’ recovery week. A full recovery week/microcycle would involve no specific training eg. no strength training, but may involve non-specific alternative activity provided it was light in volume and intensity eg. blading, cycling etc.
A half recovery week or microcycle involves a significant reduction in training volume, spread out throughout the week/microcycle or condensed to one half, allowing a full recovery in the other half. Intensity may also be reduced in the half-recovery week.
Examples of these work/rest week/microcycle ratios appear in the table below. Ignoring this concept is a guarantee to overtraining and injury. If you feel your recovery levels are lower than ideal, use a shorter work period eg. 3:1, 4:1 etc. Then decide whether to use a full or half recovery week in the recovery week. I feel that most reading this would do themselves a significant benefit from trying out the first or second option in the table below.
Recovery weeks between programs: when you plan a program (assuming there is a plan!) is there any light at the end of the tunnel? Do you have a predetermined range of number of weeks for the program? Well now you do – because I am going to say very clearly – for most people, twelve weeks of continuous training is all you should do. No more. If you achieve the continuity in training that is possible by application of the above principles, you will achieve an incredible amount in these 12 weeks. In fact, I can say with safety that if you have never used the above methods, the next 12 weeks could by your most productive ever!
Then what happens after this 12 or so weeks? You take a full recovery week. That’s right – a full recovery week! Go away from the gym or whatever has been your dominant training mode – and use this time wisely. Catch up on other aspects of life that may have been on the back burner during the last 12 weeks. Or catch up on some other types of (non-structured!) training that you will benefit from being exposed to, even if only from an enjoyment perspective.
This strategy is aimed to negate the more complex cumulative fatigue I touched upon earlier. Going through the 12 week program you will be driven by the knowledge of the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, the knowledge that after the 12 week program you will be getting a well earned rest. And during the recovery week you will experience a re-activation of that burning desire to get into training and make a difference in your life! The drive that may have dropped off in the last few weeks of the previous program.
So after reading this you are going to ask yourself the following questions :
* has my training in the past lost quality or direction some weeks into the program?
* if so, what do I perceive my recovery ability really is, taking into account my lifestyle, age, health, employment, finances, relationships etc?
And then you are going to take the following action:
* review your frequency of training, perhaps avoiding for the most part 3 consecutive days of training the same modality
* using your perceptions of your recovery ability and the table provided, determine what training week to recovery week ratio might be worth investigating
* take a full recovery week after the successfully adhered to next 12 week training program!
Planned recovery days and weeks – not ones you take when you lose interest or get sick, that invariably turn into months with the subsequent loss of all you have trained for! Planned recovery days and weeks are aimed to prevent overtraining – to ensure that you achieve adherence to training and therefore experience continual gains. Isn’t this after all the goal of your training – continual gains?
About the Author:
Ian King has established himself as a world leader in the field of athletic preparation. He has prepared athletes for every winter and summer Olympic Games since 1988. His articles have been published in America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. Ian also frequently lectures around the world on the topics of strength training and conditioning.
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