Recovery: The Forgotten Ingredient in the Recipe for Success - Part 1

Recovery is vital to improving your endurance performance. This can come in many forms including resting, exercise at a light intensity, a reduction in training load, or behaviours post-exercise. The mindset of many endurance athletes is that more is better. Many of us train for 4, 8, 12 and even 24 hour endurance events and get in the mindset that we have to smash our bodies to succeed at these distances. Are they correct? Well yes, but progressively...

The thing with the human body is that it takes time to improve. Exercise is a stressor which brings about a stimulus to which our bodies adapt to.

High performance training for track and field, Bowerman & Freeman 1991

High performance training for track and field, Bowerman & Freeman 1991

The above picture shows the relationship between exercise stress and adaptation through appropriate recovery time. If we exercise again too soon without adequate recovery, our body's ability to adapt is inhibited and performance drops. Wait too long between sessions and you essentially lose the performance improvement you gained through training. Timing it appropriately results in super-compensation and performance improvement.

Often in endurance sport we see athletes working too hard and not allowing adequate recovery to adapt. Simply put, exercise stimulates the production of enzymes responsible for creating little organelles inside our muscles (mitochondria, for example, which are solely responsible for aerobic energy production) which allow us to take up and utilise more oxygen. These enzymes cannot be transformed into mitochondria on the spot, and require adequate time without stress (ie exercise) to build these structures. The simplest analogy I can think of is watering a flower. In order for a flower to grow and flourish, it requires water (stimulus) and time. Providing heaps and heaps of water every day will not make it grow any quicker, and will, in fact, hinder its ability to grow. The flower needs an appropriate amount of stimulus, accompanied by an optimal amount of time to reach its potential. The same is true for training. Providing more stimulus through exercise will not create aerobic adaptations any quicker if our body does not have the capability or time to adapt and grow new organelles. It will, however, cause sub-optimal adaptations, excess muscle breakdown, and long-lasting fatigue through overtraining.


Overtraining is defined as the inability to adapt to cumulative fatigue due to inadequate recovery. Basically, if you train more than your body can handle, you will likely move into the overtraining zone.

Some of the symptoms that may indicate you are beginning to experience overtraining include:

  • Persistent fatigue

  • Performance decrement

  • Mood disturbances

  • Hormonal alterations

  • Illness susceptibility (particularly upper respiratory tract infections)

  • Loss of motivation, apathy, loss of vigour

  • Anxiety

  • Disturbed sleep

  • Difficulty concentrating, restlessness

The common problem with overtraining, particularly in endurance athletes, is that we see an apparently unexplained decrement in performance. We naturally assume that this is because we aren't training enough, when, in fact, we are simply not recovering from the fatigue we have accumulated through training. We increase our training load which forces us further into the overtraining zone which can take weeks and months to recovery fully from.

The cycle of overtraining

The cycle of overtraining


So How Long is Long Enough?

How adapt is your body currently? The easiest and most effective way to ensure optimal recovery is to follow a periodised training program. A periodised program works progressively towards a goal in a safe and appropriate way. The overarching principles of a periodised program are SPORTIF:

Specificity: train relevantly to you sport - eg if you are a marathon runner you are better off running than completing a boxing session.

Progressive Overload: Increase weekly load (load = frequency x intensity x time) NO MORE than 10% per week. Traditionally, every 4th week should show a reduction in training load of 25% to allow for recovery and to experience supercompensation and improved performance. Intensity should be maintained in this unloading cycle, with the 25% load reduction coming from reducing time or frequency.

Reversibility: Use it or lose it. Completing no training for 1,2,3 weeks will result in losing many of the adaptations and fitness you have achieved through training.

Time: Duration of a training session.

Intensity: The difficulty of each session. Put simply, give each session a rating of 1-10, with 1 being no effort at all, 5 being moderate effort, and 10 being maximal effort.

Frequency: Number of sessions per week.

A Practical Example...

Let's say an athlete currently trains 5 times per week for 60 minutes each session at a moderate intensity of 6/10. Remember the formula for load is frequency x intensity x time. This athlete would therefore have a weekly load of 1,800 (5x6x60). Next week, we want to provide a stimulus to grow by creating an appropriate amount of fatigue. We want to increase weekly load by no more than 10%. In order to do this, we play around with the frequency, intensity, and time variables. A simple way we can do this in week 2 for this athlete is to continue training 5x per week, maintain a 6/10 intensity, but increase the duration of each session to 66 minutes. Now this athlete's weekly load is 1,980 (5x6x66) which is a 10% increase from 1,800. The next week we increase 1,980 by 10% again, and the fourth week we drop the load by 25% in order to recover from lingering fatigue and adapt to the previous 3 weeks of stimulus. Remember to keep the intensity of the 4th week the same.

Week 1: 5 sessions at 6/10 intensity for 60 minutes = 1,800
Week 2: 5 sessions at 6/10 intensity for 66 minutes = 1,980 (+10%)
Week 3: 5 sessions at 6/10 intensity for 72 minutes = 2,160 (+9.1%)
Week 4: 5 sessions at 6/10 intensity for 54 minutes = 1,620 (-25% while keeping intensity the same)
Week 5: 5 sessions at 6/10 intensity for 79 minutes = 2,370 (+9.7% of Week 3)

The Traditional 4-step model of Periodisation

The Traditional 4-step model of Periodisation

The take home message? Be progressive in your overload approach according to your current training status and history. An athlete who has competed in Ironman for 10 years will have a larger initial training load compared to a first time 5km athlete. Once you have your training base, overload your body by no more than 10% per week and accompany it with regular weeks of reduced loading. Some people find success unloading every third week, some every six, I prescribe every fourth. Do whatever works for you but if you want to optimise your training adaptation ensure there is structured recovery in your program.

In Part 2 of this article (released next week) we will discuss the recovery behaviours and methods athletes can use to accelerate the recovery time required between sessions. These will include topics such as nutrition post-exercise, active and passive recovery, ice and contrast baths, compression, massage, and self-myofascial release.

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Written by Luke McIlroy – Director of Sport Science at METS Performance Consulting