Recovery: playing the long game

As we embark on the training season, I want to provide you with the seeds that you will hopefully plant, water, and nurture. These seeds are the foundation of a proper training formula.

One of those seeds is RECOVERY.  Below, I discuss some big-picture concepts of recovery. My goal is that you take these points and incorporate them into you day-to-day, week-to-week, and month-to-month training habits.

As we train for a season or career of endurance performance, we need to play the long game. This means that we make short-term sacrifices for long-term gains. When we apply this to RECOVERY, an important concept emerges: acute or rapid recovery is different from long term adaptation.

Short term recovery refers to strategies we implement to feel better after a training session (reduce soreness, decrease acute inflammation, etc).  Long term adaptation refers to the improvements in the muscle and cardiovascular system that will ultimately result in improvements in performance. Often both this short-term and long term process is referred to as “recovery”. Often we talk about recovery but sometimes we mean rapid recovery in the hours after exercise and sometimes we mean the longer term effects. The two are linked, but they are not the same!

I want to focus on the differences between short- and long-term recovery.

Especially the last few years it has become clear that what may be good for acute recovery, may not necessarily be good for long term adaptation. Here are a few examples:

Studies have suggested that antioxidants may reduce muscle soreness and help with recovery short term, but high doses have also been linked to reduced training benefits long term. (High doses of antioxidants may interfere with the signalling that is needed to stimulate training adaptation.)

Similarly, reducing inflammation with non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen may help in short term recovery and might help with reducing soreness. However, it may also impair long term adaptation.

The same has been said for ice baths. These may help at least perception of recovery short term, but may reduce training adaptation long term.

There are many more examples and in general,removing the signals of stress (which may help short term recovery), will also reduce the signals needed to adapt.

So when developing a recovery strategy, it is always important to keep the main goal in mind: Is it being able to perform again several hours later, or are the main goals further away. In competitions with several rounds and only a few hours or days between rounds, you would want to optimise all short term recovery strategies. At the beginning of a season in preparation for competition, acute recovery is not always the highest priority and it may be better to choose a strategy that enhances the adaptation to training.

So what seems a simple term (recovery), is actually a little more complex. Most important is that we don’t just list a number of recovery foods and methods that are used in all conditions. Rather it is important to state the goals and develop strategies accordingly.

The article above is a mixture of my thoughts incorporated with an article from Asker Jukendrup.