Balance of recovery and adaptation for sports performance

Balance of recovery and adaptation for sports performance

Dr Nicky Keay

There has been much recent discussion about the optimal balance of recovery strategies to enable effective return to training, and adaptive processes which occur as the result of training to improve sporting performance.

I have been reading the scientific reports[i] to try and gain an understanding of this balance between recovery and adaptation. However, my investigations were put into conext after attending two fascinating meetings last week where insightful talks were given by Dr Hannah Macleod Olympic gold medallist and presentations at the King’s Sport and Exercise Medicine Conference.

The scientific principle behind exercise training, of any sort, is that improvement in exercise performance follows from the cycle of overload exercise, followed by recovery phase during which adaptive changes occur in musculoskeltal, cardiovascular, metabolic and neurological systems to improve exercise performance capacity. If sufficient recovery is not taken before next training session, then rather than a progressive stepwise upward improvemnet in performance capacity, a downward progression occurs. In order to avoid this overreaching and overtraining scenario, rather to improve performance, a training cycle as described by Dr Macleod often consists of 3 weeks “on”, followed by “rest” week, together with well structured napping.

Theoretically, if the amount of recovery needed could be shortened, then more training could be done and thus potentially more adaptive advantages gained. However, by shortening recovery time with various strategies, this might actually curtail and reduce the very adaptive changes being sought. Considering recovery and adaptive response of skeletal muscle to exercise, there are recent apparently contradictory reports[ii] on the benfits of ice baths[iii]. To ice bath or not to? Certainly for soft tissue injuries RICE[iv] (rest, ice, compression, elevation) regime is well established. Does the same apply for skeletal muscle recovery and adaptation post exercise? The most recent study[v] on 9 non-elite athletic males revealed that post resitance exercise there was no difference in the inflammatory markers or cellular stress markers in skeletal muscle whether recovery was either active or with cold water immersion. Nevertheless a previous report study[vi] 2015 by the same group had reported attenuated gains in muscle mass and strength with cold water immersion recovery during 3 months of resistance tarining in 24 non-elite athletic males. The main issue seems to be that it all depends on the part of the long term training cycle and the type of sport in which the athlete is involved. For example, during pre-season training, where long term adaptations are being sought, then an ice bath might potentially attenuate adaptive responses gained from strength tarining. On the other hand, in the acute clinical setting, post match in a multi-day competition, an ice bath may be of benefit during the course of this competition. Certainly Dr Macleod described having a compressive ice system on the team bus post match during the Rio olympics where 8 matches were played over 14 days. So short term recovery, especially from any impact injuries, was far more important than considerations of longer term performance in resistance training post Olympics. Not to mention the psychological benefical effect to athletes with reduced perception of fatigue and muscle soreness and as described by Dr Macleod, as an athlete the feeling of being in control of all factors possible.

Finally I would also suggest that just as there is variation between individuals in the positive adaptive responses to exercise, probably genetically determined, there may also be individual variation in the extent and benefits of recovery strategies. For example, in the clinical setting, in certain individuals an over-response of the inflammatory pathways can actually cause harm, such as in autoimmune disease. Another point is that I have restricted this blog to discuss cellular responses of skeletal muscle to resistance exercise and competition. Clearly there are other mecahnisms involved in exercise training adaptations such as the neuroendocrine system, together with other types of exercise training  and other recovery strategies.

In conclusion, just as training is periodised, it would appear that recovery[i] strategies should also be periodised in conjunction with the phase of the training/competition cycle and type of sport. Apart from scientific rationale, psychological aspects for athletes also have to be considered.


“Science in Elite Sport” talk by Dr Hannah Macleod at University o Roehampton 6/12/16

“Assessing the field of play” King’s Sport and exercise Medicne Conference, Guy’s Hospital 5/12/16


[i]   Shona Halson, Ice baths for recovery- black, white or somewhere in between?, June 16, 2016.

[i] Asker Jeukendrup, Rapid recovery versus long term adaptation,, June 15, 2016.

[ii] Asker Jeukendrup, Cold water therapy and bad journalism,, October 6, 2016.

[iii] Alex Hutchinson, Do post-work out ice bath help with recovery of sore muscles? Globe and Mail, Novemner 18, 2016

[iv] R. Meeusen, P .Lievens, The use of cryotherapy in sports injuries, Sports Medicine, November 1986, vol 3, issue 6, pp 398-414

[v] J.M. Peake et al, The effects of cold water immersion and active recovery on inflammation and cell stress responses in human skeletal muscle after resistance exercise, Journal of Physiology, 13 November 2016

[vi] L.A.Roberts, J.M. Peake et al, Post-exercise cold water immersion attenuates acute anabolic signalling and long-term adaptaions in muscle to strength training, Journal of Physiology, 13 August 2013



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