Exercise & Recovery: Getting it Right


Sufficient rest and recovery is an important element of exercise and training that can ensure that your clients reap the desired adaptations from their training programmes. This brief article outlines how to monitor fatigue, assess recovery needs and the best recovery techniques to put in place.

Regular, progressive, and challenging training is essential for clients to make improvements in their fitness and strength, with rest and recovery being an often-overlooked element of an exercise programme.

There is a general perception that when a person is at the gym training that is when they get faster and stronger but, actually, it is the opposite: it is a person’s ability to recover from the stresses of training that allows them to go back and do it again.

Fitness gains are not necessarily about doing more training within a session, but accumulating the ongoing effect of training. Essentially, if clients want to get a long-term response or chronic adaptation over time, they need to be able to repeat that acute dose or session, and that is where factoring in recovery is crucial.

What is the Role of Recovery?

Exercise-related adaptations and improvements occur when the body is resting and recovering. However, if there is insufficient recovery, a client runs the risk of becoming over-trained and excessively fatigued, which can affect the body’s ability to improve over time.

If a client is not adequately recovered their technique may change, which can make them more likely to get injured, and there can also be an increase in mood disturbance whereby they are tired and irritable. The client does not always have to exercise excessively, either. They can under-recover, so if they are not sleeping well for instance, they could potentially have reduced recovery and an increased risk of becoming over-trained.

How can you to Recognise & Prevent Fatigue?

In order to prevent over-training, it is important for exercise professionals to recognise fatigue in a client, and adjust the intensity of a session accordingly, as well as the amount of recovery prescribed. It is about developing good observational skills, and looking for changes that tell you that person is tired, which is usually to do with their technique, attitude or motivation.

It is recommended to implement a simple system to assess how a client is feeling at the start of a session. For example:

  • The exercise professional could get the client to rate, on a scale of one to five, how they feel.
  • There is also the system used by Canadian Olympic speed skaters, who use smiley faces in their log books to depict how they feel.
  • Clients could fill out a wellness survey at the start of a session covering key questions like their mood, sleep quality, energy levels, any sickness symptoms and muscle soreness, to gauge their recovery status. This can aid exercise professional to make an educated decision on the loading tolerance of the client on that day, so clients can make appropriate adjustments to their programme.

Allocating Rest Days

The traditional concept of six days on and one day off has its origins with the Romans. Roman soldiers used to be given six days of work and then one day to unload physically and mentally, including hydrotherapies at the Roman baths.

With an eye to the modern working week, exercise professionals are best to focus on which day of the week a client feels most tired, then target that as a day to unload, so the client can recharge.

How many rest days should be incorporated into a training programme ultimately comes down to:

  • The individual client and their training goals;
  • Baseline fitness;
  • The frequency, duration and intensity of their training; as well as 
  • The broader context of their lives, for instance, whether they have a physically demanding job, or any lifestyle stresses such as insomnia.

If a client is only training three times a week and having every second day off then that should be enough to recover – in contrast, if they are training daily or twice a day, the exercise professional want to look at adding some rest in.

Look at Creating a Balanced Programme

Factoring in sufficient recovery is not necessarily about blocking out exercise-free days; it is more about the overall balance and variety of a client’s programme.

General consensus, and research, suggests that exercisers leave 48 hours between targeting the same body part. It is also important to consider different training intensities. For example, the classic ‘light’ session the day after a ‘hard’ session.

Rest or unloading days can still involve physical activity, although it should be less strenuous, involving activities such as yoga, Pilates, or a light walk, swim or cycle. Interestingly, research indicates that active (as opposed to passive) recovery is advantageous, helping to promote blood lactate clearance.

A lot of the issues surrounding muscle stiffness and soreness are to do with mobility, and sitting on the sofa does not promote mobility! (Moving from one side of the sofa to the other does not count).

Key Recovery Areas

The recovery process centres around several key areas. The type of training done will induce a different type of fatigue, and the type of recovery needed is specific to the type of fatigue a person has:

  • Metabolic (energy stores): This is induced by training that lasts an hour or more, or from several sessions a day. Appropriate pre- and post-training hydration and nutrition is important here. Substrate recovery is about the timed ingestion of carbs, protein and fluids.
  • Psychological: Both training that requires intense focus or pressure and other lifestyle stresses can cause psychological fatigue. Recovery can include positive suggestions, creative visualisation and diaphragmatic breathing to help clients switch off from the mental arousal within their day.
  • Peripheral fatigue (muscles): Peripheral nervous system fatigue can occur when a client does a lot of repetitions or after running a long distance. The effect is reduced localised force production, with recovery strategies including massage, or a post-training shower with jets focused on the fatigued muscles.
  • Central fatigue (brain and nerves): Central fatigue can be induced by a high-intensity or high-pressured training session involving rapid reactions and fast decision making. Recovery involves maintaining normal blood glucose levels and unwinding after training.

Outlining Some Recovery Techniques

  1. Hydrotherapies:
    1. These include cold water immersion and contrast water therapies, with contrast showers being the most practical option in a gym context.
    2. Research suggests they result in reduced ratings of fatigue and a faster return to baseline for some variables.
    3. Other research suggests getting clients to alternate between warm and cold showers, spending a minute in each for three sets.
  2. Sleep:
    1. Most of a person’s physical and psychological recovery occurs during sleep, and there is a lot of repair processes that happen, such as the release of growth hormones and testosterone.
    2. There are numerous sleep hygiene strategies exercise professionals can suggest, from regular bed and wake times, to using blackout curtains and reducing technology use in the lead-up to bedtime.
  3. Compression Garments:
    1. In a German study, compression clothing was found to aid the recovery of maximal strength and power, reduce muscle swelling and pain and assist blood lactate removal.
    2. Compression garments assist in reducing some of the inflammatory or muscle damage markers seen within the blood following training, but they need to be worn for an extended period of time.
  4. Foam Rolling:
    1. According to a Journal of Athletic Training study, foam rolling helps to alleviate delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and reduces decrements in dynamic performance measures.
    2. It can be a useful tool to help clients prepare for their next session.

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