Training Principles: Recovery

Training Principles: Recovery

By Sarah Seads, BA Kinesiology

Training doesn't make us stronger. We need recovery for that.

The body is an amazing, adaptive machine. Overload it with a new stimulus and it will respond with adaptive mechanisms and rebuild itself to handle the new load. Wowza. 

Want to get stronger? Lift more.
Want to run faster? Run faster.
Want to run further? Run longer.
Want to improve range of motion? Reach further.


Yes and no.

You can push your body all that you want but training only breaks the body down. In order to rebuild to new levels your body needs recovery. 

It is during recovery that the body rebuilds stronger. While you sleep, between breakthrough efforts, in the valleys between the peaks and pretty much anytime other than when you are actually training. 

Yet, most athletes consistently undervalue the power of recovery. They tend to focus on the pain rather than the gain. The secret to progression, personal bests and PR's however, is finding the balance between training and recovery. The faster you recover, the sooner you can overload the system through training again. 

So how much recovery do we need? What is the magic formula?

That depends.

Too little recovery and the body will not have time to fully adapt to the training stimulus. Plateaus in performance, fatigue, soreness, injuries and systemic over-training symptoms will soon follow. Too much recovery, on the other hand will result in a reversal of the training effect, de-conditioning, stagnation and decreases in performance.

There are many variables that effect how much recovery an individual needs at any given time. It is not just the length and intensity of the training session that determine how much time we need to rebuild, regenerate and adapt. Genetics, emotional well-being, nutrition, sleep quality, illness, injury and all forms of stress (positive and negative) all effect our body's ability to adapt. The higher the level of total stress, the more time the body will need to adapt and realize a training effect. Quantifying the accumulative stresses that we place on the body (emotional, physical, mental etc) is critical for creating a personalized and effective recovery program. 

There are a few principles and guidelines you can use to get started on creating your own training and recovery program. Start with these safe 'rules' and then begin watching, listening and tracking how your body responds. You will find out how much recovery your body needs in response to different types, volumes and intensities of stress through trial, error and observation. You are an experiment of one. Be wise and be patient. Here are some guidelines to get you started:

  • Less is more. It is always better to be conservative with your training load than to push too much too soon and suffer the negative effects. Patience is required and slowing down will likely result in reaching your goals sooner in the end.

  • 10% 'rule'. This is a very conservative approach to building your training program by adding no more than 10%(ish) each week. Consider the volume (time or mileage per session/week), intensity (speed, incline, resistance, heart rate, power) and type (changing surfaces, shoes, sports, techniques) when adding to your training program each week.

  • Annual Recovery. Taking time throughout the year, after peaks in your training, is important to allow the body to catch up from the load and do the things it needs to do to adapt. Known as the 'Transition Period' in periodized training plans, this time should be focused on restoration and recovery, rather than reaching for new heights. Avoid the temptation of an extended 'off-season', however, as long periods of inactivity will result in de-conditioning and actually increasing stress on the body during a return to training. Work with a coach to learn more about creating an optimal transition phase into your plan.

  • Monthly Recovery. All athletes incorporate recovery into their mesocycles and so should you. It doesn't matter if you are training for the Olympics or to run your first 5k, the body will benefit from regular decreases in training load. Decreasing the total load of training by 25-50% every fourth week is a safe place to start. You may need more or less than this, however. 

  • Weekly Recovery. Look at your week and ensure there are peaks and valleys in your training. A safe guideline is to alternate hard:easy days into your week. Take your life into consideration when labeling days as 'hard or easy'. Remember to quantify all of the stresses in your life including work and life stress. Give your body 48 hours between the most intensive training sessions in your week. Not only will your body adapt more fully, but you will be able to work harder at the next session, thereby increasing the training effect that much more. If you are too fatigued from your last workout to reach your training intensity targets, it really defeats the purpose. Recover fully so that you can train hard!

  • Daily Recovery. Most professional athletes put their feet up for the other 16-20 hours a day that they aren't training. They get frequent passive therapies such as massage, they take naps and lay around as much as the can. You are not a professional athlete and I am guessing you can't lay around all day. But you can plan in little pockets of recovery to help your body adapt. Make a list of all of the things that replenish and re-balance your body. Try to do more of those on a daily or weekly basis. Every minute will add up.

Modalities to encourage recovery:

  • Sleep. The more the better. Get whatever you can. And then try and get some more.

  • Active recovery. Gentle, low intensity movement to increase circulation. Walks, light spins, yoga.

  • Passive therapy. Manual therapy including massage and self massage, acupuncture, chiropractic etc all help the body restore itself.

  • Contrasting hot/cold – 5 mins alternating between each and help through increasing circulation without adding mechanical stress. Use hot/cold packs to encourage circulation in specific areas. I love my wood sauna for recovery days. Oh ya.

  • Feel good things. What makes you happy? What decreases your stress? What feels therapeutic to you? Do more of those things every day and every week. A sense of well-being can only help to decrease your stress and improve your recovery/adaptation.

The magic formula for finding the perfect training-stress combination is an elusive, dynamic, ever changing balance that varies from person to person, year to year, month to month, week to week and even day to day. It is a delicate cocktail, a fine line and a lifelong study requiring patience, persistence and curiosity. Ultimately it means listening to your body, respecting it's wishes and responding to it's needs, regardless of what your training schedule says or what YOU want to do.

Recovery IS training. Sometimes we need to be reminded of that;)

Happy Recovery!

Sarah Seads is a Kinesiologist and Fitness Trainer based in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Her company Equilibrium Lifestyle Management, or ELM, offers group 'Fitness Adventures' and Personalized Training programs to assist clients in reaching for their fitness dreams and goals. FMI go to