A Key to Improvement: The Recovery Day
Physical senses do not always accurately reflect what is happening to your body on the cellular level. This explains why many athletes share a common misperception of exercise: the idea that it builds your body up. This attitude may be common partly because the body releases endorphins (essentially natural pleasure-inducing opiates) during and typically at the end of heavy exertion. In reality, muscle cells are actually torn apart by exercise, but the body releases endorphins as a natural incentive and to protect the individual from the resulting pain of this tearing. The building up actually occurs in the recovery phase of exercise, when the body assimilates vitamins, minerals, and amino acids and other nutrients obtained from your diet in order to replenish cells and improve the strength or endurance of your body. This highlights the importance of a healthy diet and helps to explain why basic training cadets are rarely placed on "diets": exercise requires replenishment.
When I ran for the Cross Country team at North Georgia College and State University, we started our running in the classroom, where we were taught the principle of hard workouts followed by vital recovery days. The figure below is identical to what was drawn by athletic training coaches at my college to illustrate this point to the athletes. The line indicates the body's level of physical shape or fitness. The long horizontal line indicates the body's base fitness level before starting a workout regimen. Each A represents a workout, each B represents the body's condition after the workout, and each C represents the condition that the body improves to through recovery.
See how the general path of the line is upward? This represents a positive relationship, but it is important to recognize that the positive relationship is only between physical shape and an exercise regimen accompanied by recovery. The body is amazingly elastic and can put up with a great deal of punishment, but over time, continued heavy workouts without breaks will break the body's performance level. As the chart indicates, a workout results in the immediate degradation of the body followed by the eventual improvement if recovery methods are implemented properly.
Every method of exercise and sport follows this formula. In fact, athletes that use performance-enhancing drugs to gain an unfair competitive advantage are following the theory of exercise and then recovery, and using banned substances to shorten the time it takes the body to recover and increase the amount of improvement gained from a single cycle.
How, then, should an individual tailor a workout routine in order to avoid over-training? Since I learned the principle from running, I will utilize running examples, but it can apply to any form of exercise. Runners should build up miles slowly instead of jumping into a hard routine. Runners should also find at least one day per week where they either do nothing at all, run slowly for a short period of time, or rest by doing an alternative form of exercise such as biking or swimming (without too much effort). Active recovery involves using an alternative form of exercise, while inactive recovery means exactly what it says. Adding massages or ice baths to recovery days also helps to remove the buildup of painful lactic acids and improve nagging pains.
I have seen a few fellow runners in my career fail to rest properly. How can you know if you are not resting sufficiently? The signs are relatively easy to spot. First, you may notice your body becoming more tired than usual. Your performance may stagnate, refuse to improve, and even worsen over time (I have had this happen to me personally). You may also begin to sustain small injuries repeatedly. It is important to pay attention to the condition of your body. If something does not feel right, rest can only benefit you.
Athletic performance is just as vitally linked to the condition and attitude of the mind as it is to the body. Depression may worsen athletic recovery, as may a perpetually bad attitude. Some other tips for keeping your workouts out of the over-training rut include changing shoes frequently (and alternating pairs on a day-to-day basis if you maintain more than one pair of shoes), alternating terrain, and mixing up training cycles to change the pattern and make your body adjust. Routines are not a bad thing, but you must watch closely to ensure that your body is responding properly to training. Above all else, remember to stretch adequately and make SLOW changes when modifying a workout, or you will risk injury and over-training.