Pinpointed recovery

31. October 2018

The speed with which the various systems in the body fully recover after training or a competition differs greatly from person to person and depends, among other things, on the length and intensity of your exertion, the degree to which you push your physical performance capability (or even exceed it), and whether you are a beginner or advanced athlete, young or old. 

The period of recovery ranges from a few hours (relaxed training) up to several weeks or even months (Ironman, marathon). The following factors influence the recovery capacity and recovery time: 

Before training

  • Objectives, motivation
  • Recovery status after previous hard training 
  • Nutritional status not only regarding the glycogen stores in the muscles, but also all the essential nutrients such as minerals, vitamins, trace elements, phytochemicals, amino acids, and high-quality fats.
  • Ability to concentrate on training and the upcoming competition without additional stress from your professional or personal life
  • Targeted training over months without any disruptions due to injuries, illness, or other difficulties 

During training

  • Intensity and scope of the training
  • Temperature and humidity (weather)
  • Movement technique
  • Training terrain (ground conditions, gradients)
  • Training time (early morning, late evening)
  • Drinking and eating habits 
  • Individual meaning/importance of the training or competition

After training

  • Active and passive regeneration measures (e.g. winding down, whirlpool bath, cold baths, massage)
  • Quality and quantity of sleep
  • Drinking and eating habits 

Beginners generally require significantly more regeneration time, whereas experienced athletes can start training again quicker. Therefore, only experienced athletes should combine training units on the same day. Relaxed units can be combined with intensive ones, for example, by doing a relaxed run to wind down after a maximum strength training unit. Not only the intensity but also the duration should be kept to a minimum. Doing an excessively long endurance unit when your muscles are already tired worsens your running or movement technique and considerably increases the strain on the passive structures such as ligaments, cartilage, and tendons. 

The reverse applies: doing a long endurance training unit before a strength training unit renders it ineffective because you will not have enough energy left to fully load the muscles. Amateur athletes should therefore do standalone training units at sufficient intervals to be on the safe side. Or do circuit training for a combined endurance/strength training unit. 

Understand the reactions of your body!

Although modern sport watches now collect a wide range of data during each training unit and use sophisticated algorithms to give the wearer approximate regeneration recommendations that can be quite valuable pointers, a certain degree of training experience and body awareness is essential when choosing the optimal individual recovery time. 

Not starting too early with the next training unit requires a good body feeling, courage, knowledge, experience, and the certainty that you will become better during the breaks (supercompensation). The more sensitively you try to tune into your body during training, the more pronounced the development of a meaningful body feeling. The patience it takes to initially build up your basic endurance over the months, which forms the foundation of every top performance and is required for integrating the necessary intensive units, is a key component of success and the corner stone for a balanced recovery state. 

After a hard training unit or competition, ask yourself the following questions before you start training again: 

  • Am I one hundred percent healthy?
  • Am I in a good mood, full of enthusiasm and optimistic?
  • Am I full of energy when I get up and motivated to do the next training unit?
  • Do I feel like I’m not under any pressure to train and do I find training fun?
  • Can I plan my training in a calm and relaxed manner?
  • Can I clearly see my goals ahead of me? 

If you have positive answers to these questions, you can rest assured that you have recovered. Nobody knows exactly whether it will take an individual hours, weeks, or even months to recover and it depends on the interplay between the factors above. If you answered some of the questions with no, then you should ask yourself how you can sensibly organise your upcoming training in such a way that it no longer drains you but builds you up. The basic rule that applies here: while there are hardly any athletes who spend too much time recovering, there are countless who often start training too intensively too early. And after an injury-related sports break, many come back stronger than they were before the injury.

Autumn time = recovery time

Besides the direct recovery after a specific sporting stimulus, there is also the necessary recovery time at the end of a challenging season in which not only the physical, but also mental batteries need to be recharged.

For the classic endurance athletes in our latitudes, this phase normally takes place in the autumn. During this phase, it’s not just about physically recovering after a gruelling training period, but also about versatility, finding new motivation, recharging the mental batteries, and learning new and unfamiliar forms of movement. Only in this way can you start training for the new season with renewed vigour and fresh motivation. Therefore, the guiding principle for around four to six weeks is: try out a lot of new things, unwind and relax, you can do sports if need be but make it as versatile as possible and don’t do it at high levels of intensity. Equally important: pursue other hobbies that usually take a back seat to your everyday training. 

The most important recovery phases after physical exertion 

From four minutes to two months

4-6 minutes: The muscular store of creatine phosphate is fully replenished
30 minutes: The heart and respiratory rate, blood pressure, and lactic acid levels in the blood return to normal. 
90 minutes: The body starts to rebuild destroyed muscle protein. The metabolic processes switch from catabolism (breaking down) to anabolism (building up).
6-24 hours: During the first six hours, the first reserves are replenished (carbohydrates, protein) to restore the fluid and electrolyte balance (e.g. magnesium and iron). The ratio of solid and liquid blood components (haematocrit) returns to normal
24 hours: The carbohydrate reserves in the liver are replenished.
2-7 days: The carbohydrate reserves in the stressed and, under certain circumstances, (partially) destroyed muscles are replenished.
3-5 days: The fat reserves in your muscles are replenished.
3-10 days: The damaged muscle fibres are restored.
7-14 days: The energy supply systems in the cells are restored. You gradually regain your full muscular aerobic capacity.
7-21 days: Mental recovery.
4-8 weeks: The regeneration period after a marathon or an Ironman is complete.

The specified times are average values; they vary and are dependent on the duration and intensity of the load as well as the individual performance capability. It is important to quickly replenish your fluid reserves immediately after training and to eat foods rich in carbohydrates and protein in the days that follow. (Sources: Kuno Hottenrott, Regeneration aus sportmethodischer Sicht, (Regeneration from a sports methodological perspective), Georg Neumann, Regeneration aus sportmedizinischer Sicht. (Regeneration from sports medicine perspective.)

How much should you eat after training?

More doesn’t bring much more

A balanced diet will usually supply you with enough carbohydrates, proteins, and fats to cover your long-term needs. As a guideline, after intensive loads in which the carbohydrate stores have been heavily depleted the following applies: consume 1.0-1.2 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight immediately after the exertion. If you weigh 70 kilograms, then this amounts to 70-85 grams. After an intense strength training unit, a protein intake of around 20-25 grams will achieve the maximum effect on protein synthesis and muscle development. More protein will not have any further effect and must be dispelled from the body. If the focus is not on muscle development, then lower amounts ranging from 10-20 grams are also sufficient. According to the above, you therefore need about 70-85 grams of carbohydrates and about 10-20 grams of protein to ensure optimal regeneration. And don’t forget: in addition to fuelling your energy level you need to think about drinks! Fluid deficits should be quickly counterbalanced after the load.