Rest and Recovery: critical components to any successful training programme

The correct application of rest and recovery within a fitness regime is receiving increasing attention. Many experts believe that this component requires as much time, forward planning, care and attention as the physical exercise itself. Some experts believe that by reducing the intensity and duration of training and allowing sufficient recovery time, training becomes more effective and a significant improvement in results is often observed. Put simply ‘more is less’ and ‘less is more’.

Adaptation to exercise

To begin to understand the integral role of rest and recovery we should look at how we become fitter and stronger: the principle of adaptation. This states that when we undergo the stress of physical exercise, our body adapts and becomes more efficient. Once you adapt to a given stress, you require additional stress to continue to make progress. However, there are limits too how much stress the body can tolerate. Doing too much to quickly can result in injury but doing too little, too slowly you will not improve.

Over training syndrome

This may occur when rest and recovery is not factored into a weekly fitness regime. It is where the body is over trained and overloaded to the extent that it experiences incomplete adaptation. Decline in performance caused by incomplete adaptation is one of the most obvious signs of over training. Over training syndrome is often associated with other additional signs that can have a significant impact on an individuals wellbeing and health. These include:

-       Altered sleep patterns

-       Loss of appetite

-       Fatigue not relieved by rest

-       Persistent muscle soreness

-       Irritability and moodiness

-       Headaches

-       Decreased immunity

-       Depression

-       Loss of enthusiasm for sport

-       Increased incidence of injuries

-       A compulsive need to exercise

-       Gastrointestinal abnormalities

It is pertinent to be aware that when over trained, even a long period of recovery may not be enough to return performance to the original level. This is obviously to be avoided and being able to recognise the signs is important. However, one does also not want to be overly cautious to the extent that their fitness levels do not improve.

Desert Exhaustion

The law of reversibility:

-       No increase in fitness will occur if loading is too far apart or stays the same.

-       Over training or incomplete adaptation occurs when training loads are too great or too close.

How do we strike the right balance? In addition, how do we learn to continue to manage this balance with enthusiasm week in and week out, with the long-term view of keeping the exercise up?

Rule of recovery

When you get off the bike, walk of the track or get out of the pool after a work out, you are weaker not stronger. How much weaker depends on the amount and intensity of the exercise completed. It is key to understand that it is at this point, when you are not exercising and are in recovery, that the body adapts and the real training effect takes place. With sufficient recovery, performance rises above the pre-training level and the body adjusts to super-compensate in preparation to handle the next training stimulus better than before.

This knowledge encourages the question: how do I make the most of my recovery?



Rest: defined as a combination of sleep and time spent not training. How you sleep and spend this time is critical.

Recovery: refers to techniques and actions taken to maximize your body’s repair. This is multifactorial and encompasses repair of the musculoskeletal system, chemical and hormonal balance, nervous system repair and our psychological health.

According to Trent Stellingwerff, the research leader at the Canadian Sport Institute, “The simplest definition is the act or process of returning towards normal. It can happen in terms of seconds – like the recovery between intervals on the track – hours or days. It can be weeks or months.”

The science of recovery – energy pathways

Skeletal muscle performance, be it sprinting on the running track or a long cycle ride requires a constant supply of energy. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP), frequently referred to as the energy currency of the cell, provides the immediate source of energy for skeletal muscle contraction for these types of exercise scenarios. ATP does not exist in large stores in skeletal muscle, it is rapidly regenerated in response to physical exertion.

There are three main energy pathways available to regenerate ATP: the phosphagen system, glycolysis and mitochondrial respiration. Peak performance of these energy systems can be compromised following challenging exercise. Optimal recovery entails restoring the capacity of each energy system to function once again at maximum levels.

The science of recovery – physiological functions   

Muscle recovery occurs during and primarily after exercise and is characterized by continued removal of metabolic end products (lactate and hydrogen ions), restoration of intramuscular pH (acid/base balance) and regaining of muscle membrane potential. Other physiological functions of recovery include: the return of ventilation, blood circulation and body temperature to pre-exercise levels and restoration of energy stores of blood glucose and muscle glycogen (stored glucose).

Active vs. passive recovery

There is compelling research evidence to indicate that low intensity exercise, or ‘active recovery’ is superior to passive recovery. There are three forms of active recovery:

  1. Between interval bouts.
  2. During the cool-down phase immediately after a hard effort or workout.
  3. The day following a competition or strenuous exercise.

The theory is that low intensity activity assists blood circulation, this serves to promote resynthesis of glycogen stores and the removal of lactic acid from the muscle, which significantly accelerates muscle recovery.

Research scientists found that active recovery immediately after the event encourages recovery. After hard intervals, one group rested completely while a second group exercised at 30% intensity between intervals. The active group showed reduced muscle lactate levels and a higher power output throughout the workout. Researchers found that by adding low intensity exercise to the rest period following competition, positive effects on psychological recovery by improving relaxation where displayed.



With the plethora of different sporting activities, training programmes and levels of intensity, there is also variation within the literature on how to rest and recover. There are no specific guidelines on this subject and experts are in agreement that more research is necessary to establish a clear answer regarding the best way to recover from intense exercise.   

James King a personal trainer for Men’s health recommends a specific amount of rest time between sessions. This in relation to the type of exercise performed:

-       Recovery for building strength and power: 2-3 days between the same exercise movements. Improvement in this area depends on the efficiency of the neural (nerve) pathways that control the specific movement. Therefore practicing a specific movement again and again serves to reinforce the neural pathways responsible for maximal muscle contractions. Two to three days allows the nervous system to fully recover.

-       Recovery for muscular endurance: 1 day or active recovery. Endurance exercise depletes glycogen stores in the muscles and it takes 24 hours to fully restore these stores. If you experience muscular soreness at this time try some active recovery in the form of low to medium intensity cardiovascular exercise at 50-70% maximum effort.

-       Recovery for reducing body fat: 2 days between resistance sessions and 1 day or active recovery after high intensity interval training (HIIT). In the 48 hours between resistance sessions, HIIT or low intensity cardiovascular exercises at a longer duration can be completed. HIIT should be followed by a rest day or active recovery.

-       Ensure you have a minimum of 48 hours off a week from any form of training. 

Specific strategies

Dedicating additional time to the four categories of sleep, hydration, nutrition and being able to recognise the signs of over training is essential.


Inadequate levels of sleep can result in subtle changes in hormone levels related to stress, mood, mental health and muscle recovery. Research indicates that sleep deprivation can result in increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, decreased tissue repair due to decreased activity of human growth hormone and decreased glycogen synthesis. Research results have also revealed a link between sleep deprivation and decreased aerobic endurance and increased ratings of perceived exertion.

Experts at Stanford University have continued to study the impact of sleep on athletic performance since 2002. Their results revealed that swimmers who scheduled in more sleep time started setting personal bests. In addition, the men’s basketball team showed improvements in reaction time, free throws and sprint times following an increase in sleep.

The team at Stanford university offer some useful tips in creating a good routine regarding sleep. These include:

-       Avoiding caffeine, eating, UV light (computer/television screens) and loud noises close to bedtime.

-       Making sure you sleep deeply: do not go to bed hungry or thirsty and equally reduce hydration 2 hours before going to bed.

-       Most people require different amounts of sleep, ranging from 6-9 hours. Generally 7-8 is the best, especially during hard training.

-        Hours slept before midnight are proven to be more effective than those slept after.

-       Research suggests that it is easier to change a bedtime than a wake time and recommend moving back the bedtime gradually over a few days to increase sleep duration.

-       Maintain a consistent schedule, going to sleep and waking up at the same times.



It is important to pay attention to hydration levels during recovery times and not just around a training session. Water is the best way to hydrate, sports drinks are only required when undertaking strenuous training. I recently attended a talk from marathon runner Mara Yamauchi; Britain’s second fastest female marathon runner in history. Her advice regarding hydration was simple and effective:

-       Keep hydrated throughout the day by taking sips of water. The simplest way to check hydration is to look at your urine. If it clear to pale yellow you are hydrated. The darker the colour the less hydrated you are.

-       Ensuring you have rehydrated following a training session will aid your performance in the next training session.

-       Make sure you have rehydrated before your post exercise meal, after this it may not feel comfortable to hydrate.



This is an extensive and very personal topic. Balanced meals in moderation are proven to be effective in aiding recovery and increasing performance. During her talk Mara added to this by advising that variety was key. She went on to recommend eating foods from different cuisines and encouraged choosing varied forms of our staple diet.

Another essential tip that is echoed in the literature and reiterated by Mara is the value of eating in the ‘refueling window’ 20 minutes post exercise. This could be your post exercise meal or a snack, such as fruit or an energy bar. In doing this you are helping prepare your body to perform in the next training session.


Recognising signs of over training 

The most accurate and sensitive way to test for overtraining is the ability to recognise the psychological signs and changes in mental state. This is characterized by an increase in negative feelings, such as depression, anger, fatigue and irritability and decreased positive feeling for the sport. Keeping a training diary is useful stratedy that can help you notice a descending trend and reduced enthusiasm.

Further considerations

Recovery is influenced by many factors. More complex issues concern your individual lifestyle and include work and family stress. If you have addressed the previous influences on recovery, then looking at life style issues may explain a cause of any deterioration. If you are in a period of heavy work or family stress then reduce the number of training sessions and both the intensity and duration of the sessions.



If you are aiming to keep the exercise up, training is a long-term process of loading and recovery. This needs to be kept interesting. Cross training encourages us to engage in our exercise plan, adds variety and is an important tool to be utilized in recovery. The law of specificity states:

-       Specific training loads produce specific response and adaptations.

-       General training prepares athletes for specific training.

-       The greater the volume of general training, the greater the capacity for specific training.

Therefore, the addition of cross training into a program serves to compliment a specific training goal. With the correct application cross training can also be used as a form of active recovery.


We are all individual. I am reminded of this everyday in practice and it is echoed within my blogs. We respond differently to fitness activities and bring unique capabilities, capacities and responses to training. A number of important factors should be considered here. Such as: genetic differences determining heart and lung size, physique and characteristics of muscle fiber, past or current illness or injury, age, and length of time an athlete has been training. This has a critical impact when planning our recovery.


Final thought

With the knowledge of the value of rest and recovery and the strategies employed to maximize it, we can improve our performance and safe guard ourselves against over training syndrome. This helps to retain balance and the ability to keep the exercise going, avoiding the down time that comes with exhaustion, lack of motivation and injury.