The truth about recovery workouts

Posted on December 11, 2017

(Last Updated On: December 11, 2017)

This was somewhat discussed in

Recovery modalities: What’s worthwhile? Along with some massage discussion.

There we spent more time on massage; here we’ll spend more time on recovery workouts.

  • Light lifting between harder lifts
  • Jogging the day after an intense run
  • Riding the bike the day after a demanding squat session
  • Stretching / foam rolling

Various rationales are given for these activities. Some version of

“We want to increase blood flow to help the muscles recover.”

is always part of the logic.

As the first link hit on, there is no evidence for this from studies. As a quick update to that post,


Notable quotes, bolding particularly relevant for this post:

“The current consensus appears to be that cryotherapy has a negligible impact on alleviating discomfort but may hinder the skeletal muscle repair and recovery process.

Likewise, NSAIDs may also hinder the repair and recovery, but can alleviate some of the discomfort.

Support for alternative modalities such as massage or light exercise on DOMS-associated pain remains largely inconclusive, but they potentially exert a mild analgesic effect without hindering repair and recovery.”

The point of this post is not icing, however, this is relevant: the point of icing is to diminish blood flow, correct? How can icing and recovery workouts -point is to increase blood flow; both commonly recommended together- both be beneficial???

“Most pertinent, changes in circulatory dynamics and muscle metabolism as a result of post-exercise cooling (Vaile et al., 2011; Ihsan et al., 2013) seemingly contrast the blood flow needs required for muscle protein synthesis and training adaptation to occur.”

“Further, such reports give strength to the argument that physiological rationale for post-exercise cooling is limited and that any ergogenic influences reflect a perceptual or placebo effect.”

Placebo effects are not desirable here. If you believe you’re more recovered than you are, you can push yourself too much, increasing the probability of injury.

There is A LOT of anecdotal belief for recovery work. From here we’ll focus on recovery workouts, though all the above is worth keeping in mind once we come back to rationales for these beliefs.


The heart is already elevated after intense training

Increased Morning Heart Rate in Runners: A Valid Sign of Overtraining?

One often notices their morning heart rate is elevated after hard training sessions, or phases. (Most commonly discovered by runners, the most heart rate obsessed.) This has been a well appreciated sign for decades, scientifically and anecdotally.

This even happens during sleep!

Physiological Changes in Male Competitive Cyclists after Two Weeks of Intensified Training

The overwhelming tenet of recovery workouts is to elevate heart rate. “To get the blood pumping.” Heart rate is already increased when we’ve been training hard!

Cardiac output has two variables-

  • amount of blood we produce per pump
    • Stroke Volume
  • how fast we perform these pumps
    • Heart Rate

If you need to meet the demand of increased activity, you either pump more blood each heart contraction, pump faster, or both.

Therefore, when we’re doing a recovery workout we’re trying to do either or both of these, yet either or both is already happening. Why? The body either needs more blood to be pumped, or the heart has gotten weak enough per contraction it finds the need to increase heart rate to meet blood demand.

-> As we get in-shape, our resting heart rate goes down because the heart gets stronger. Stronger heart = bigger stroke volume. However, once that stroke volume can’t meet demand, we start increasing heart rate as well.

Our body needs more blood so it’s already doing it. Or our heart has gotten weaker from so much training it finds the need to pump faster. (OR our nervous system is so on overdrive, we can’t relax.) In any case, why would we need a recovery workout? Why would we need to either try and pump more blood or stress a weakened heart? Again, a heart weakened because of too much work. We’re doing something the body is already doing for us, or adding more work to a heart that needs a break.

“But such and such coach has their athletes do it”

This was some years ago so I could be off on the details, but Charlie Francis had a famous sprinting forum. If you don’t know him, he is the best sprint coach of all-time. (RIP.) Virtually all the fastest people ever used his methods, if not him directly.

At the time the forum was investigating why the Jamaicans were so dominant. All explanations were on the table. One of which was noticing one Jamaican group did their workouts early in the morning, to where the sun wasn’t even up yet. Before deciphering why this might be helpful somebody chimed in “Ah, X coach only does that so his athletes think twice before going out the night before.”

It’s hard to fully separate the mind from performance, but many coaches do all types of nonsense for non-training reasons. For that coach, it wasn’t early morning workouts were inherently better than afternoon. It was the context. (Where in a way, you can make an argument it is then for training reasons.) If that coach had a group of athletes who didn’t drink, or dance, or lived in Utah where nothing is open past 6pm, it wouldn’t have mattered.

When I was in college we had a lifting and jogging workout the day after a game, along with film study. It was terrible. You were either hungover, felt like crap from the game, worn out because you were three months in with hardly a single Saturday or Sunday off, or all the above.

But it was a way to have an eye on your players even the day after a game. A way where players needed to at least contemplate how hard and late you went out the night before.

It wasn’t a coincidence then on Monday, where you had to have at least one full day off in the NCAA at the time, our team made that study hall day. Not technically breaching any NCAA rules. By Monday the coaches were on to the next opponent so they didn’t want to wait til then to go over the last game, but we couldn’t go over film on Sunday, lift / jog Monday, and practice the rest of the week.

Nobody would tell you those lifting and jogging workouts did ANYTHING but make one feel dread, but that’s part of the reason they were done! Not because it made you recover faster, rather it was another way to control the athlete’s mind and schedule. A way to keep an eye on the athlete every day of the week. And it worked better for the coaches.

-> Our meal cards were also tracked to make sure we showed up to the cafeteria on a regular basis, for “recovery nutrition.” Go back to that recovery study mentioned at the beginning. You won’t find much evidence for recovery nutrition either.


Being an athlete doesn’t require much work

Beyond being brand new to an activity, easy workouts, easy practices, easy training sessions, whatever you want to call it, easy does not lead to improvement. Practice needs to be hard, strength workouts need to be heavy, sprint workouts need to be fast. There has to be some challenge, physical or mental.

But you can’t go hard every day, and you don’t want your athlete screwing off in their spare time, so what do you do? Have easy days, and come up with some bogus physiological rationale for why you want to control an athlete like they actually have a 9-5 job. Because 15-25 year olds are going to get into some trouble if they’re left to themselves days at a time.

Sports, especially from the player perspective, rarely require a lot of work. Professional or not. Intense work? 100%. A lot of it? Not for most. In America at least, hard work almost always gets (nonsensically) equated with a lot of weekly hours. In this definition, athletes do not work hard.

You can’t practice eight hours a day, at least not intensely. It’s not like professional marathon runners hit the pavement for eight hours at a time.

Teams barely ever practice more than two to three hours because humans can’t do it. Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, on non-game days, are done with their shooting work in twenty minutes. Two of the best offensive players in NBA history. And shooting isn’t that hard of an activity!

~225 shots per day for them

Floyd Mayweather, if he’s getting ready for a fight, would train four to five hours a day. And that’s for a sport requiring an unusual necessity of skill. (Meaning you could practice it more than most. For instance, you can’t practice all out sprinting or lifting very much.)

If we consider a 40 hour work week standard, you’re going to be hard pressed to find an athlete working on their sport more hours than that. They’re out there, quarterbacks, hard core triathletes, some taking care of their body to an unusual extreme, but they’re not the average. If nothing else, you’re not even able to spend 40 hours a week on a sport until you’re done with college. There may be periods where you do, training camp for instance, or needing to watch extra film on an opponent, but that’s easily offset by nearly half the year being the off-season.

This is Lebron James between NBA Finals games:


I count,

  • 30 minutes bike
  • 90 minutes practice
  • 60 minutes stretching
    • He might not even be doing anything for this. Another person could be stretching him.

Oh, and when was the last time part of your work day consisted of a three hour nap??? I don’t think the non-athletes are going to say sitting in an ice tub or getting a massage is work! Even if you want to include the icing, add another 30 minutes. Big deal. We’re at a few hours of work for the entire day, during the most important time of year. Hard Knocked Life Not.

-> One can make the argument the kind of work an athlete does can end up being harder on the mind than many 9-5 jobs. I’d be in favor of entertaining that side of the argument. But the point remains from an hours-in-your-profession standpoint, athletes are nothing special, having more free time than most.

To be fair, many athletes voluntarily partake in recovery efforts. My experience here -both as an athlete and working with them- is guilt takes over. It’s hard to hit the gym hard for a couple hours, constantly hear everybody “HARD WORK PAYS OFF”, then say to your athletes or yourself, “Alright, don’t need to do much for a couple days now.” You feel like you need to do something.

Only Seinfeld can market nothing

Another reason recovery efforts are done- there is quite the industry around them.

  • Supplements
  • Massage therapists
  • Accupuncture
  • EMG
  • Wearables
  • Apps
  • Books
  • Athlete development facilities

Marketing, advertising, has an influence. It doesn’t take much thought to think how much is marketed, and bought, which has limited or no value.

“But so and so has great results using recovery efforts”

That’s not surprising. Again, if having your athletes jog the day after a game lessens how much they drink the night before, they may very well be better recovered. But not because of the running. Rather because they didn’t drink as much.

-> I’d also argue athletes might not be the biggest binge drinkers if they didn’t feel like they had such little free time. You often feel like you need to compress a month of fun into a night.

Coordinating massage for all your athletes? Providing EMG devices for them? Doing the massage yourself? Your athletes are likely to buy into you more.

Keeping an eye on your athletes every day? Or an athlete is willing to come in every day to work on something? All in all, that’s a more disciplined group. They’re probably more attentive to everything, practice, technique, sleep.

There is a middle ground. Where we can get these correlative benefits of recovery work, without engaging in useless, and sometimes financially expensive, modalities. Because,

Nobody is saying sit around all day

That’s not good for general health, which means it’s not good for recovery. There are some sports where the weekly workload is not very high. For optimal health, one wants to be working at nearly a jogging intensity for at least three and half hours per week. If you’re in a sport that’s not attaining that through practice, then sure, some extra jogging on off days can be beneficial.

One of the main theories behind why exercise is so healthy is due to decreasing inflammation. If you’re doing some heavy lifting for only a couple hours per week -time between sets doesn’t count!- some “recovery workouts” could help decrease systemic inflammation, making your recovery better. Not due to increased recovery, but increased health. The better all around health one is in, the better their…all around health will be. Somebody who smokes a pack of day isn’t going to recover as well between workouts as somebody who doesn’t.

But there is difference between trying to increase and avoiding impeding the speed of recovery. More often than not, the trick is avoiding stress. Not endlessly hunting for low stressors which hopefully are so low they only add good stress. If that’s your goal, go for a walk. Find solace in knowing there is no better recovery modality than walking in a forest on a sunny day.

One thing I do find worthwhile is what I call habit days, or corrective days. If you’re somebody prone to stiffening up at the hamstrings, sure, some extra, relaxed, hamstring stretching on off days is fine and smart to do. If you’re somebody who has a habit of sitting a certain way which makes you kyphotic, hey, some work avoiding that makes sense.

Team wise, after a hard day, you could do a morning stretching session, followed by a team walk / light jog, finishing up with film or technique study.

If you’re dealing with young athletes and you want to decrease their drinking, all you’re really looking for is an excuse to get them up in the morning. There are innumerable team building exercises you can do without actually having them exercise.

With non-professional athletes it’s also crucial to remember the sport is not their only stress. Life stress is going to be an enormous, often THE, factor you have to mitigate.

A big test in the classroom can increase the odds of injury as much as training camp

Sometimes telling a person “do nothing” is the best option.


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