Most people have a list of things in life that they have come to regret. Maybe it was something you said, maybe it was something you did, or maybe it was a combination of the two plus a healthy amount of alcohol. My biggest regret of the past year is how I’ve been handling recovery. That’s a lie. My biggest training regret is how I’ve been handling recovery. I’ve done some pretty stupid things in the past year.
Recently my training volume and intensity has increased drastically. As someone who does not handle the stress of training in an ideal way, I’ve been doing everything I can to improve my recovery capabilities. After making sure my sleep and diet were ideal, I started making an effort to take contrast showers after every training session, use the sauna on a regular basis, experiment with my new e-stim, and ice my achy bits every day. Sounds like a good plan you say? Not really. In my short sightedness I made recovery my primary goal, and lost sight of the real prize. Adaptation.
It wasn’t until attending a seminar put on by Dr. Mike Israetel and Dr. James Hoffmann that I realized the strong relationship between adaptation and recovery. While recovery and adaptation are similar in some ways, they are really drastically different when it comes to determining your long term success. Where it gets a little tricky is the way that recovery and adaptation interact with each other, and how this interaction can either make or break your training efforts.
In order to understand recovery and adaptation, you must first be familiar with the General Adaption Syndrome created by Dr. Hans Seyle. This is basically an explanation for how an organism (a person) responds to individual stressors. The syndrome includes three stages; the alarm stage, the resistance stage, and the exhaustion stage. Each stage is unique in it’s function and physiological reactions that occur within it.
In the alarm stage the body reacts to a novel form of stress by identifying it as a threat. A variety of hormones and biochemical messengers are released and the body goes into a state of survival mode. Energy substrates and metabolic resources are redirected from their normal functioning to that of maintaining cellular integrity and preventing further damage from the newfound stress. The important thing to note here is that the body reaches the alarm stage in the presence of a novel stress. For example, an athlete who squats 500 pounds isn’t going to send his body into the alarm stage by simply getting under 225. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that load is the only factor for inducing the alarm stage. Sure, that athlete squatting anything over 500 will certainly lead to the body going into this stage. However, as those who have trained for some time know, load isn’t the only way to place stress on the body. Volume can be used to create a novel stress, as well as accumulated fatigue, time under tension, and a variety of other training techniques.
The body returns to homeostasis quite rapidly after the removal of stress, typically within 6 to 48 hours. After this the body enters the resistance stage. Quite like the name implies, the resistance stage involves the body producing the necessary metabolic and structural elements in order to overcome the stress from the previous stage. Quite simply, the alarm stage is the stimulus for adaptation, while the resistance stage is where the adaptation actually occurs.
The previous two stages are critical for producing adaptation in the body. However, the third and final stage is actually counterproductive for producing adaptation. This is the exhaustion stage, and can be identified as overtraining. This is when the stress has become too potent for too long and the body can no longer recover. A variety of physiological changes occur during this stage, but in summary they do not lead to adaptation and actually lead to a decrease in performance over time.
So now we know how the body reacts to stress and the processes through which adaptation occur. So how is recovery different? Remember how adaptation is the process through which the body adapts to stress and builds a resistance to it? Well once the adaptation process is complete the body now has the ability to handle a slightly higher level of stress. Just like how the 500 pound squatter has already adapted to that load and would need a slightly higher load to cause adaptation. This person’s baseline is 500 pounds, and squatting 505 would cause them to go through the stages of adaptation and raise their baseline to a new level of 505.
Recovery on the other hand is different. Recovery is purely about coming back to that baseline level, but does not include the physiological adaptations to push past it and create a new baseline. This affects your training and potential adaptation in multiple ways. The first, and most ideal way, is to allow for the adaptation to occur. Say you’re towards the end of a brutal training cycle. The volume is pretty high on your lifts and halfway through the week you are questioning the ability of your legs to lift you out of bed in the morning. Your knees ache, your back feels like someone has been beating you with a baseball bat, and your desire to train has dropped pretty low. You know there are only three more days until the deload but you would trade your first born child for it to start today. All you need is to improve your recovery for the next few days, so a contrast shower, some ibuprofen, and an ice pack in some ideal locations may be just what the doctor ordered so you can push through and allow for adaptation to occur.
Deload weeks and proper programming and periodization are also built in ways to ensure that recovery leads to adaptation. Progressively increasing volume for 3-6 weeks and then backing off with a properly timed deload can allow the body to recover enough for adaptation to occur. However, remember that in this structure adaptation is the primary goal. If recovery was the primary goal we could deload more frequently, but the stress would be much less and may not actually be enough to allow for adaptation.
The previous examples show how recovery can actually lead to adaptation if used properly. However, more often than not recovery methods can actually prevent adaptation in the long run. If recovery methods such as contrast showers, ice, heat therapy, and ibuprofen are chronically used they can actually blunt the stress response and limit long term adaptation. This occurs because the body undergoes the physiological changes necessary to bring it back to the baseline recovery level. However, as stated before, we don’t simply want to return to the baseline level. We want the body to move past the baseline level a little bit after each training session which spurs adaptation. Over time this baseline level will increase, making your body more capable of handling a greater load or larger work capacity.
The above chart outlines this phenomenon quite well. As you can see the acute response (a training session) actually lowers the immediate performance level of the athlete. However, as they recover they return to baseline levels of performance. If recovery methods are used too often when they aren’t needed and recovery is the priority, the process will end when the athlete is recovered. However, if recovery methods are not overused to blunt the stress response the athlete will enter the supercompensation stage, also known as adaptation.
Remember, when training adaptation is the priority, not recovery. Making recovery your primary goal is like going to college to do the work but not actually graduating. You’re going to put in a lot of time and effort, but not actually get the result you were seeking. Train your body to adapt to stress, not just be able to recover from it.
Hoffman, J. (2012). NSCA's guide to program design. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.