Help Your Athletes Recover!
Managing your athlete’s recovery when returning to the weight room
With the gyms beginning to open up again, we will likely see an influx of new members and people starving for some fitness. Something akin to “New Year’s Resolution,” but perhaps on an even larger scale. This will be a tremendous opportunity to take advantage of the increased demand for coaching, as people will be more discerning and selective about whom they choose to guide them. While this is a benefit to your business, it does bring with it some challenges, namely – “how do I make sure I don’t prescribe too much, too fast?” In order to get your new clients the best results you can, you have to make sure that they are capable of recovering from the training. You can only benefit from what you can recover from.
The recovery capacity of a lifter has some significant individual variability. It is paramount that your intake of a new client assesses these individual differences. This could be an article on its own, but some important considerations should be made to the following criteria:
- Biological age
- As we age, our hormonal profile changes and the ability to recover from training tends to decrease.
- The modality matters, as aerobic fitness tends to last longer into life than muscular fitness
- Training age
- Familiarity with strength training and previous athletic background would dictate the level of general fitness of the individual, lending to higher recovery capacity
- Injury history
- Whether dealing with previous injuries, chronic aches and pains, or current injuries, attention should be paid to pain triggers
- Typically, any injury would limit the ability of the lifter to recover, or tolerate volume within a specific domain
- In general, women can tolerate more volume than men within a given absolute intensity. Women also tend to benefit from more frequency than men.
- Body size
- In general, the larger the lifter, the lower the recovery capacity. This tends to be correlated with the body size’s impact on general fitness and maximal strength levels
- Training history
- The more training you’ve been exposed to, typically the more you’ll be able to recover from. There can be exceptions here, as some beginners who have a high level of general fitness will be able to tolerate quite a bit of volume due to inefficiency of their movement patters.
- Occupation and family status
- It’s important to know what your client’s stress levels are outside the weight room. Stress is cumulative, so the more stress outside the gym, the less they will be able to tolerate within it.
- Absolute strength levels
- The stronger a lifter, the less they will be able to tolerate in terms of loading. An easy way to conceptualize this is a set of 10 reps at 50% load. For someone who with a max lift of 400lbs, this will be 2000lbs, whereas someone with a max of 100lbs will be performing only 500lbs. Quite a large difference!
Once you have a general assessment of the client, you should have a good gauge of where they should be on the spectrum of recovery capacity. This will help you decide on the initial training prescription. But, what next? As a strength coach, you’re trying to get the most out of each lifter, so the focus needs to be on allowing them to perform and recover from the most amount of work possible. When returning to the weight room after a long layoff, this may be a large part of the training focus.
For most people, the discussion of recovery quickly turns to – “what kind of foam roller is best?” “Should I buy this percussion gun to massage after training?” or “what are your thoughts on ice baths?” It’s unfortunate that this is the case, as no passive modality will be as effective as something that the lifter does for themselves. Thinking of it in tangible terms, these passive modalities, and those similar are like chucking pebbles into the ocean. We’re looking to throw boulders into a pond. Big rocks = big recovery gains.
Sleep is when we recover physically and cognitively. It is how our body dissipates the stress of our day. It is when adaptation occurs. Poor sleep is linked to literally every single disease or disorder, from high blood pressure and diabetes to mental health conditions and cancer. We need sleep! The goal with sleep should be to aim for 7-9hrs per night and a consistent sleep schedule, waking up and going to bed at a similar time each day. This allows our natural circadian rhythm to remain intact. Proper sleep hygiene, such as turning off all screens 30-60 minutes prior to sleep, lowering the temperature of the room, removing all electronics from the room, blacking out the curtains etc. can go a long way to improving the depth and quality of our sleep.
This should be a no brainer – feed your body the building blocks it needs to grow big and strong. Now, body composition goal notwithstanding, some general guidelines of nutrition should be adhered to.
- Prioritizing single ingredient whole foods.
- Eating every 3-4hrs with a protein source at every meal.
- Having a serving of fruits and/or vegetables at each meal.
- Eating an adequate amount of protein (0.8-1.2g/lb bodyweight) and calories.
- Limiting refined sugar and processed foods.
If you’re able to adhere to these guidelines, your nutrition should be bulletproof. Could your approach be more refined? Yes, but remember, we are looking for big rocks, not pebbles. The research is quite clear that diets equated for total calories and protein are equally as effective. The ratio of carbohydrates to fats only comes into play when we are dealing with higher level performance and for most people returning to the gym, the goal is adherence. Consistency is the key and complexity only confuses.
While we cannot change our lifter’s occupation, or their family lives, we can provide them with tools to manage stress. Stress is cumulative and as they say, “It’s all in the cortisol.” Good stress, bad stress, it doesn’t matter and all contributes to the allostatic load. That is, how far away from homeostasis can the individual get and continue to adapt. Tools like journaling, gratitude practice, goal setting, visualization, meditation and perhaps the easiest and most underutilized tool, nasal breathing, all allow the athlete to remain calmer, be more mindful and manage their stress to a larger degree. Stress management can be simplified down to – how do I get my client to remain more parasympathetic (restful) rather than sympathetic (aroused) more often.
Many people in the strength world scoff at the idea that lifters should perform aerobic work. Yes, aerobic fitness and maximal strength are competing adaptions, but they are complimentary energy systems. All substrate recovery distills down to the aerobic system. Aerobic metabolism replenishes the energy stores used for anaerobic work. So, in simple terms, the more generally fit a lifter is, the better their recovery will be both inside and out of the weight room. This allows them to perform and recover from more work and in turn get even stronger! Why wouldn’t you want this? It should be noted that all training must be recovered from, so choosing low impact modalities like walking should be introduced first, then can be progressed as needed. Another simple way to progress fitness is to modulate rest intervals during training, or performing assistance work in a circuit. It doesn’t have to be complicated.
This one is quite cut and dry – if you want your athlete to be able to recover from training, prescribe them training they can recover from. No amount of passive modalities, sleep, nutrition, or aerobic fitness will make up for a training program that too intense and demanding for the individual. You can’t BCAA and foam roll your way out of overtraining. This is especially important when returning to the weight room after a layoff. Most will want to push hard right out of the gate and end up burnt out or injured. As a coach, it is your job to start slow and progress as tolerated.
Training should always be sustainable. Steady progress over time will yield the best results – like compounding interest. When returning after a long layoff, we need to be sure to assess the athlete in front of us according to their current level of fitness. We should educate them on the importance of the big rocks: sleep, nutrition and stress management. We must work to provide them with training that improves their aerobic fitness and is appropriate for their level of progression. This is not fancy and it isn’t going to be exciting, but in order to get buy in from the client, they need to know that you’re invested into helping them create their best self. This can only be done through education and an emphasis on sustainable progress over time. Rather than selling them stretch sessions, supplements, or fancy self-myofascial release gadgets, give them the tools they need to help themselves and empower them to take control of their own recovery.