The Role of Recovery in Performance

By Donna Fishter
May 2012

Consider the rubber band. It is working at a high level when it is stretched to capacity and holding on tight. But what if it’s stretched to far? What if it is stretched beyond its capacity? We all know that stretching a rubber band to far will be counterproductive as in all probability it is going to break.

Consider the athlete? He or she is pushed to capacity, working for extended periods of time at high levels, and the result is production on the field. But when is an athlete pushed to far? Does he or she need rest? The following is a quick glimpse into understanding the role of recovery in performance.

“Without appropriate recovery, the body is unable to respond to stress consistently and predictably. Insufficient recovery compromises training quality and undermines performance.” [Weatherly-White, Hunt, and Neville 2012, 38]

The reason recovery has a history of not being emphasized is because it is difficult to quantify and is subjective in nature. The training stress and output of an athlete is much easier to quantify. Coaches can track distance run, time lapsed in a drill, tackles made, and amount of weight lifted, to name just a few. In high level sports environments (where budgets allow) other tools used to quantify output are: heart rate monitors, GPS tracking systems, and video/motion analysis. But whether you have these high-end devices or just a stopwatch, all your tracking is training stress and output, not recovery.

The body strives to maintain a state of homeostasis. When put under stress, the body is going to automatically respond and move back toward homeostasis. Below is a graphic showing the three stages in training stress and adaptation response.

Training Stress / Adaptation Response

[Weatherly-White, Hunt, and Neville 2012, 38]

In Phase 1, the athlete is put under stress and eventually becomes fatigued having reduced performance levels. The baseline performance (i.e. fitness level) is where the athlete is performing at his or her best. Following the grey dotted line, after the body is fatigued, it goes into phase 2 to overcome the stress and begin recovery back towards homeostasis. Performance (fitness level) rises back up to the athlete’s baseline performance and then the body moves into phase 3, which is the adaptive rebound. In this phase the body is adapting to the training stress and over time the athlete’s baseline performance will increase as the body is continually put through this cycle. The green dotted line in the following graphic shows the increase of baseline performance as the athlete moves through sequences of training and recovery.

Positive Adaptation with Optimal Recovery

[Weatherly-White, Hunt, and Neville 2012, 39]

The red dotted line in the below graphic shows how inadequate recovery in athletes will over the long haul decrease their baseline performance.

Negative Adaptation with Inadequate Recovery

[Weatherly-White, Hunt, and Neville 2012, 39]

Observing the symptoms of reduced recovery in an athlete is the only way parents and coaches can make sure an athlete is receiving optimal recovery. Commit the following symptoms to memory for indication your athlete needs recovery time. (Note: an athlete may exhibit one or more of the following).

Elevated Resting Heart Rate
Low Energy Level
Negative mood state
Increased incidence of upper respiratory infections
Chronic muscle soreness
Poor appetite
Compromised sleep
Headache, diarrhea, nausea

We like to think that our athletes are indestructible and can push through anything. But the human body has been designed to consistently perform only after optimal recovery. Keep in mind recovery strategies could be different depending on the time of year for an athlete. A college athlete, for example, is going to be “in-season” where optimal recovery is necessary before each game. In the “off-season” there may be a few weeks an athlete is pushed hard and then she moves into a week of optimal recovery. Another example is our youth soccer players who are part of Central Florida Soccer Academy. These young players may be involved in several tournaments for a few months and could need an extended recovery time before training hard again.

Year-round, constant intensity is counter-productive and can be detrimental to an athlete’s career. Work hard in training AND work hard in recovery. Both are important to an athlete’s longevity.

Next blog will be part 2 of this series: “Role of Nutrition in Performance”

Source: Matthew Weatherly-White, Jeff Hunt, and Dr. Vern Neville, “The Science of Recovery,” Soccer Journal (Jan-Feb 2012): 38-40.

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