Rest … or Else

Neil Gresham, renowned coach and Rock and Ice columnist, outlines the most essential (and neglected) component of any training program—recovery.

By Neil Gresham | February 4th, 2011

The crux issue in training for any sport is how to balance the amount of hard training with an appropriate amount of recovery. Too much rest means that you’re not training enough to reach your peak level, but too little will also inhibit performance as a result of excessive fatigue. To maximize the value of a training program, it is vital to understand the numerous processes involved in recovery and also to realize where you sit on the recovery ladder. Many mid-grade climbers comment that they could never climb hard for four or five days in a row like the top guys do, but the whole point is that the pros have pushed their bodies to adapt to this level of training. It takes years to develop the recovery rate of a 5.14 climber and you will never get close to this level if it takes you two or three rest days to recover after every hard climbing day. Our goal is gradually and progressively to expose our bodies to more frequent bursts of training, while constantly monitoring progress in order to stave off the threat of over-training.

The first step is to gain a greater understanding of the processes involved in recovery. With bouldering or any form of climbing that involves hard moves, the muscles are traumatized or moderately strained with every session, and they must then repair afterwards with the assistance of dietary protein (a process known as hypertrophy). Endurance sessions deplete muscular glycogen stores, which must be replenished with the assistance of dietary carbohydrates. Additionally, you need to replenish the enzymes within the muscles that produce energy (namely ATP), top-up the various hormones that hard training depletes, and allow the nervous system to fully recover. Remember, the goal is not just to allow these systems to return to their original pre-training status, but to progress to a new and higher level of performance capability, a process known as super-compensation.


Three key stages are associated with the recovery process:

Functional over-reaching

Many climbers fear training unless they are fully recovered, but a necessary component of a tough but effective training program is to lump sessions together to lead to a certain amount of cumulative fatigue. This is known as functional over-reaching. The climber embarks upon the last few sessions feeling well past his or her best, but the crucial point is that energy levels quickly return and the climber super-compensates by building in a decent period of rest (for example, two or three days).

Non-functional over-reaching

This is simply the above process taken a stage too far. The amount of recovery required at the end of a block is so great that it negates the purpose of the latter part of that block. For example, it’s better to take 2 or 3 rest days after a couple of rounds of 2 days-on, 1-off, than to carry on doing 2-on-1-off for three weeks and then need a week to recover.


This is non-functional over-reaching taken to a critical stage where a very large amount of rest (e.g.: at least three weeks) would be needed to pay off the deficit. The most obvious sign of over-training is a consistent deterioration of performance, which is often made worse when the climber deludes himself into believing that he needs to train his way out of the slump rather than rest. Other signs to watch out for are irritability, insomnia and a general lack of energy. The usual consequences of this downward spiral are burn-out and injury.

As climbers we must tread very carefully. Remember that climbing involves both strength and endurance (although the extent of each depends on whether you’re into bouldering, sport or trad). The recovery requirements are critically different for endurance training than they are for strength. With strength work, the goal is always to recover fully and to train at the point of peak super-compensation. There is little point in the strength athlete entering the state of functional over-reaching, or, put simply, if you’re not fully recovered, then don’t train! With endurance training, on the other hand, you need to rack up the sessions in order to dip in and out of the functionally over-reached training state. So how do we make sense of these contrasting requirements?


Recovering from strength training

Boulderers may be pleased to know that if your only training goal is to improve strength and power, then the issues of training structure are relatively straightforward. With strength sessions, the aim is simply to train again at the exact point of peak super-compensation, and to do this we should consider facts about the recovery process. Numerous studies have shown that after strength training, the rate of protein synthesis within a muscle starts to increase dramatically after approximately four hours. With well-trained athletes, it peaks approximately 24 hours after the session and dies off in 36 hours. However, those who are less trained may require slightly longer recovery times. It’s also important to note that other forms of training—namely, endurance sessions—may disrupt this process and lengthen the required amount of recovery. Studies have also found variation in the recovery rate between individuals who are at a similar level within a sport, so never take this figure of 36 hours as a set rule.

A simple strength-training plan based on the 36-hour scheme is to conduct a high-intensity workout (such as a bouldering session) on, for example, Friday evening, and then an equivalent session on Sunday morning. This will then allow another hard strength session to be conducted on Monday evening, and so on. The overall effect is that you can pack slightly more sessions into the same time frame, while still optimizing recovery. It is vital, however, not to enter the block of strength sessions with any cumulative fatigue (for example, from a hard previous endurance session) or this will be carried through and sabotage the subsequent strength sessions. A block of strength sessions (a “block” is typically a period of between two and eight weeks where the same routine is repeated) based on the 36-hour scheme should always follow a decent rest; for example: two full days, or alternatively a light recovery session on easy routes and then a rest day.


Recovering from endurance training

Endurance training means racking up blocks of sessions, with recovery periods that are insufficient in the short term, and with strategically positioned blocks of longer rest to pay off the accumulating recovery debt. With low-intensity endurance sessions (i.e.: multiple laps on very easy routes), you can fit more sessions into a given period compared to high-intensity endurance sessions (i.e.: power endurance training, or single-lap intervals on harder routes). An example here would be that an intermediate-level climber (5.11a – 5.12d) could do as many as five low-intensity endurance sessions in a week but perhaps only four high-intensity endurance sessions. Remember that low-intensity endurance sessions are all about maximizing volume (at the expense of intensity, or move difficulty), whereas high-intensity endurance sessions require maintaining a degree of quality, which will be compromised by insuficient recoveries.


Recovering from both

“Concurrent recovery,” recovering from both strength and endurance training, is the most complicated issue. Knowing the amount of recovery time needed becomes easier if you follow a program using blocks prioritized either towards strength or endurance. In endurance-prioritized phases, the ratio of endurance sessions to strength sessions might be 2 or 3 to 1 (and vice versa for strength phases). Endurance phases must allow sufficient recovery before strength sessions or high-intensity endurance sessions. A good method is to train strength (or high-intensity endurance) after a rest day (or two) and then follow the session with several consecutive days of low-intensity endurance training.

Strength phases allow many options, but here are two good ones. The first is to follow the 36-hour scheme outlined above, and to end each block (or week) with an endurance session, followed by at least two days of rest. For many, this plan won’t be practical as it can be difficult to fit morning sessions into a weekly routine. A more workable option for strength phases might be to train 2 days on, 1-off, 2-on, 2-off. The key here is to do a short (but high-quality) strength session on the first day, followed by another strength session, then a rest day, and then a strength session followed by an endurance session. This sequence will support the overall priority of strength within a week, while ticking all the boxes for recovery, provided you are disciplined about the length of the first strength session. Another option if the short-strength-session approach doesn’t work for you is to do a session that is prioritized towards fingers on the first day, and then a session that is more for the arms and core on the second day.

Light recovery sessions help fit endurance and strength training into a concurrent program, especially for those who are not as highly trained. For example, a strength session can be followed by a light day of easy routes, then a rest day, and so on.

Above all else, remember that recovery is a non-precise science. The need to listen to your body overrides everything. Owen Anderson, a researcher at Peak Performance magazine, advises that one of the key guiding principles of recovery is not to do hard “quality sessions” (i.e. strength or power endurance) when your energy levels are low and your muscles are aching. If a quality session is planned, then train light stamina instead, or save the quality session until the following day.

Keep notes of your progress and monitor how recovered you feel for each session. Use this feedback to guide you when making future programs. And of course, equally important is to do everything in your power to speed up the recovery process.


Optimizing Recovery

In order to fulfill your potential in any sport you must space your training sessions as close together as you dare. Do everything in your power to try to get the best possible recovery.

Below I’ve listed four ways to speed up your recovery—two that will be beneficial to everyone and two that may only appeal to elite climbers.

1. Recovery Nutrition.

Nutrition is the single most important factor influencing the recovery process, but climbers commonly leave the crag or gym and wait several hours before eating a meal. Worse still is to go drinking with your buddies and grab takeaway afterwards at midnight. The body is in a mildly traumatized state after a training session and needs the correct nutrients to kick-start the recovery process. Treat it well and it will reward you with maximum training gains. Treat it badly and the results are likely to be burnout and injury.

The crucial tip is to consume a moderate amount of carbohydrate and protein immediately after training. The most convenient way is in the form of a recovery drink, which contains a mix of carbs and protein in an approximate ratio of 4:1. An alternative would be to eat a small sandwich with fish, chicken or a protein-rich filling.

Ideally, you would consume 300 to 400 calories of carbohydrate as soon as the session is finished and then another 300 to 400 calories of carbs within the following two hours. Muscle cells are most receptive to taking on carbohydrate during the 2-hour period after a workout is over (known as the “glycogen window”). Refueling like this increases the likelihood that muscle fuel stores will be replenished in time for subsequent workouts.

The post-training consumption of carbohydrate also stimulates protein synthesis (for muscle repair) and inhibits protein breakdown. Put simply, you need both carbs and protein to build muscle, and if you don’t eat them in time, then protein will be poached for energy instead of being used for strength building. Carbs also boost the production and release of insulin, a crucial anabolic (muscle-building) hormone that also plays a role in suppressing the breakdown of protein.

Some climbers might convince themselves that the post-work-out snack represents unwanted additional calories and undermines weight management. If you’re going to eat, they reason, then surely it makes sense to save your calorie-quota for a tasty meal? The answer is to reduce portion size on the main meal so that the calorie books balance. Additionally, any dietician will tell you that eating a large meal late in the evening gives it less time to be metabolized before you go to sleep, so this strategy of eating lightly, twice after training, makes sense across the board.

The latest studies have found that the rate of protein synthesis is almost as strong after pure endurance sessions as it is after strength sessions, so the idea that you need only carbs immediately after endurance work has become outdated.

This type of post-exercise nutrition is most important after sessions involving elements of both strength and endurance, and in particular after a separate strength and endurance session have been conducted on the same day. In these cases, scale up the quantities of both carbs and protein by a further 50 percent (approximately). Elite-level climbers should be particularly scrupulous here. It is also crucial to follow combined strength and endurance days (or sessions) with lighter training the following day, and to consider the full range of techniques for improving recovery.

2. Lifestyle

The bulk of recovery takes place while you are asleep. The anabolic curve climbs dramatically during the hours of sleep and plummets as soon as we get up. Sleep and lifestyle patterns play a crucial role in recovery, so try for a minimum of eight hours sleep. Pay close attention to your job-related workload and your stress levels during periods of heavy training. If you can’t control these aspects of your schedule then heavy training may need to be postponed.

3. Hydrotherapy

Many elite athletes believe that taking a plunge into an ice-water bath after training will reduce muscle soreness and improve their recovery—a marvel when you consider that the scientific evidence to support this masochistic practice is far from conclusive. Some athletes also use contrast water therapy (alternating between cold water and warmer water) to achieve a similar effect. By constricting blood vessels the ice bath is thought to flush out lactic acid, decrease metabolic activity and reduce muscle swelling. Then, with re-warming, the increased blood flow speeds circulation, which aids the healing process. There is no precise protocol for either therapy, but for pure cold-water therapy, most coaches recommend a water temperature between 54 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit (ice is thought to be unnecessary) and immersion times of 5 to 10 minutes, or a maximum of 20 minutes. Don’t over-do it as cold water can make muscles tense and stiff. Dress in warm clothes and take a warm drink straight afterwards. For contrast water therapy, the most common method is one minute in a cold tub or shower (50 degrees) and two minutes in a hot tub (about 100 degrees), repeated about three times.

4. Electrostimulation

For elite athletes, electrostimulation devices are worth considering for improving recovery after intensive training. These machines emit an electrical wave that varies in duration and intensity, and transmits to the selected muscles through two or more electrodes. The electrical impulse causes the targeted muscles to contract without the central nervous system (or brain) being utilized, and hence without causing significant nervous fatigue. Electrostimulation assists recovery by increasing intra-muscular blood flow, which in turn helps flush lactic acid and restore glycogen levels. The process occurs without increasing heart rate or arterial pressure. It also creates an analgesic and endorphinic effect, which lowers anxiety levels and further relaxes muscles by reducing spasms. This technology is nothing new and has been a component of electroacupuncture for many years. However, these machines have advanced considerably in the last decade, as have the strategies for using them.

Electrostimulation should not be regarded as superior recovery strategy to quality nutrition and a good night’s sleep. Rather it is another measure that may help elites to gain that extra edge. There is not the space here to go into detail and it is vital to read the manufacturer’s instructions before attempting to use a machine. As a guideline, Compex-Sport recommends a 20-minute “active recovery program” with stimulation at very low frequencies (from 9 to 1 Hz) that decrease progressively every two minutes.


Active Recovery

Active recovery is commonly regarded as more effective than passive recovery, so a light jog, some easy cross training, or perhaps even some very easy climbing the day after training hard will probably be better for you than just sitting around. Only in the cases of the most severe or chronic fatigue will full rest be the best option.

To conclude, in order to get the best possible recovery process, it is vital to plan your training carefully, as well as to consider all the tips given in this article for speeding up the process. Above all else, you must let your body be the guide. If you don’t go into the next week of training feeling fresh, optimistic and energized then you may be verging on over-training. It is better to err on the side of caution and to recover too well than to risk the burn out or injury so often a consequence of poor and insufficient recovery.

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