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Rapid recovery versus long term adaptation

The question “What is recovery?” seems too obvious to answer. Surely everyone understands what we mean by recovery? Everyone also has an understanding of the foods that are good for recovery. These are foods with protein, no? Maybe with carbohydrate as well.

Recover versus adaptation: sport science and exercise nutrition

What is recovery?

When I ask athletes and coaches what recovery is I get different answers. Recovery is a broad term that refers to restoration of performance capacity. After a workout you are fatigued and performance capacity is down. In the hours and days after the workout you “recover” and performance capacity returns to normal (and can even become better). The time course depends on many factors including how hard the workout was (intensity and duration as well as environmental factors such as altitude and heat). This blog will address the first of 3 questions I want to discuss in future blogs:

  • What exactly do we mean by recovery?

  • What nutritional methods do we have to improve rapid recovery?

  • Is there a role for protein in rapid recovery (hours after exercise)?

Types of recovery

I want to make the point that acute or rapid recovery is different from long term adaptation. Long term adaptation refers to the improvements in the muscle and cardiovascular system that will ultimately result in improvements in performance. Often both this short-term and long term process is referred to as “recovery”. Often we talk about recovery but sometimes we mean rapid recovery in the hours after exercise and sometimes we mean the longer term effects. The two are linked, but they are not the same!

Is acute recovery good for long term adaptation?

Especially over the last few years it has become clear that what may be good for acute recovery, may not necessarily be good for long term adaptation. Here are a few examples:

  • Studies have suggested that antioxidants may reduce muscle soreness and help with recovery short term, but high doses have also been linked to reduced training benefits long term. (High doses of antioxidants may interfere with the signalling that is needed to stimulate training adaptation.)

  • Similarly, reducing inflammation with non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen may help in short term recovery and might help with reducing soreness. However, it may also impair long term adaptation.

  • The same has been said for ice baths. These may help at least perception of recovery short term, but may reduce training adaptation long term.

There are many more examples and in general, removing the signals of stress (which may help short term recovery), will also reduce the signals needed to adapt. So when developing a recovery strategy, it is always important to keep the main goal in mind: Is it being able to perform again several hours later, or are the main goals further away. In competitions with several rounds and only a few hours or days between rounds, you would want to optimise all short term recovery strategies. At the beginning of a season in preparation for competition, acute recovery is not always the highest priority and it may be better to choose a strategy that enhances the adaptation to training.

Removing the signals of stress (which may help short term recovery), will also reduce the signals needed to adapt

So what seems a simple term (recovery), is actually a little more complex. Most important is that we don’t just list a number of recovery foods and methods that are used in all conditions. Rather it is important to state the goals and develop strategies accordingly.


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