7 Strategies to Improve Recovery and Adapt from Hard Training

Recovery and adaptation at the physiological level (muscles, cells, endocrine system, etc) is critical for every athlete, especially when determining the differences between an elite lifter versus a very good one. One’s ability to recover (reestablishment of the initial state) and adapt (progress from the initial state) can be highly influenced by many factors, some of which have been highly validated while others not so much.

I had the opportunity to attend Dr. James Hoffmann’s, Professor of Exercise Physiology at Temple University and Renaissance Periodization team member) lecture called, Recovery Adaptive Strategies (RA). RA covered the recovery and adaptation process for more active and elite athletes, specifically in regards to power and strength sports, in which we explored evidence based (meaning, there has been studies to show it does significantly have a positive effect on recovery and adaptation) non-nutritional strategies to increase recovery and adaptation

It is important to note that while there are many means to recovery that are seen today, we will only discuss the current strategies that have been backed by clinical research specific to recovery and adaptation in athletes. Some popular methods today have been ruled out based upon:

  1. They do not apply to the population (as many articles on recovery were done for the recovery from injury, not adaptation from hard training).
  2. Some methods may not have enough studies done to show conclusive and significant positive effects.
  3. While some of the methods may have conflicting evidence for and against, therefore only concerned with non-conflicting methods.

Why Are Recovery and Adaptation Important?

While this may seem like a no-brainer, we still need to address the process and mechanism involved in the process to fully understand why or why not a strategy could be beneficial at promoting recovery and adaptation.

The Fitness Fatigue Paradigm

The below paradigm is similar to the General Adaptation Syndrome, (GAS) by Dr. Hans Selye, representing the fundamental process of adaptation.

  1. We train to become stronger, faster, and increase certain physiological attributes, which in turn creates fatigue at the physiological level (ALARM).
  2. As we train, we accumulate fatigue which can temporarily mask the improved fitness attributes that we have trained (RESISTANCE).
  3. We must at some point remove and alleviate fatigue so that we are able to unmask the new fitness (strength, power, other physiological attributes) that have been developed in order to fully express them. If not, exhaustion will set in, which can increase peripheral and central fatigue leading to hindered fitness. (EXHAUSTION vs ADAPTATION)

[Many athletes find soft tissue work can be really helpful for recovery — check out the best foam roller for your needs!]

What Can Cause Fatigue

Below are five key factors that can lead to fatigue at the physiological level, however this list could be expanded more on a case by case level.

  1. Increased training volume is often found to have the largest impact of fatigue primarily due to substrate depletion, microtraumas at the tissue level, and alterations of the hormonal and endocrine levels).
  2. Low glycogen stores both intra-and inter-muscular can lead to decreased recovery, decreased performance, blunted anabolism, and ultimately muscle atrophy (loss).
  3. Hard and intense training periods can lead to increased cortisol, decreased testosterone, increased sympathetic activity (paired with decreased parasympathetic).

Increased sympathetic activity is often referred to as the “fight or flight” mechanism, such as: elevated heart rate, increased secretion of catecholamines (adrenaline), etc. While beneficial for training, increase activity during non-training hours can blunt neurotransmitter secretions, decrease the rate of motor neuron activation, and fatigue the neuromuscular system as a whole. Additionally, this will decrease the force-velocity expression (less speed and acceleration development, lower force outputs) as well as minimize intra and inter-muscular coordination and technique.

It is important to note that the goal of hard training is often to bring about such changes temporality, only then to allow for adaptation to occur. In the event athletes and coaches fail to recognize and plan for the alleviation of the fatigue mechanism, more long-term and lasting detrimental effect can occur.

Quick Note on Under-Achieving

In the event an athlete does not generate some fatigue on a regular basis (and then allow for the recovery and adaptation), he/she may very well be underachieving, as hard training needs to warrant recovery time and adaptation (meaning, they very well may not be training hard enough to facilitate adaptation and growth).

How to Recover and Adapt Better

The below seven non-nutritional based strategies (by passive and active recovery means) each have been shown to impact one’s ability to recover and adapt. While nutrition has a very strong impact on maximal recovery and adaptation, this article is only concerned with non-nutritional based strategies.

It is important to note that some mechanisms are not listed below (ice baths, etc) due to their conflicting evidence for and against them. Many of that conflicted evidence supports that while they may promote recovery (alleviating fatigue), they may also have a small yet significant negative effect on adaptation (blunt some of the processes that drive adaptation at the physiological level). Chronic use of some of those methods could lead to diminished long-term results.

Therefore, the below list are actionable, beneficial recovery and adaptation means that athletes can and should do on a regular basis to recover faster, adapt better, and promote long-term success.

Passive Recovery

Below are four passive recovery means athletes and coaches can do to recovery and adapt better.

1. Sleep

Most athletes need 6-8 hours of consistent sleep (consistent sleep throughout the night, but also on consistent sleeping patterns night to night). In the event that is not possible, napping should be implemented to allow for maximal recovery. It is important to note that over-sleeping, referred to as “Sleep Insomnia” often occurs when someone sleeps too long, which upon waking they are left in a REM-cycle state of mind, feeling drowsy with slower mental cognition, indicating too much sleep.

2. Napping

Napping can be a highly beneficial means to recover. Taking 20-30 minute naps can help increase recovery and mental cognition, however any longer than 30 minutes could result in sleep insomnia. It is important to note, that while napping can be helpful at getting quality sleep, it does not replace sound sleep patterns. Therefore, lifestyle modification to allow for sleep medications should be taken in the event sleeping for 6-8 hours is not happening on a consistent basis.

3. Stress Management

This broad category encapsulates work, life, and relationship stressors that can affect sleeping, nutrition, and training status (as well as have a correlated negative impact on hormonal, endocrine, and psychological responses). Therapy, relaxation techniques, and social support are all beneficial at alleviating fatigue and stress to allow for recovery and adaptation.

4. Compassionate Touch

This encompasses both non-sexual (massage and other manual therapies) and sexual contact means. While there is some evidence to support the physiological benefit, stronger evidence has been shown on the psychological significance, therefore indicating that there can be a correlation between compassionate touch and recovery and adaptation.

Active Recovery

Below are four passive recovery means athletes and coaches can do to recovery and adapt better.

5. Light Days

Lighter training days (different than active recovery days, see below) can improve recovery time more than a straight rest day. These days are defined by systematic decreases in training volume and intensity. Coaches and athletes can program these on a weekly basis (or multiple times per week) to allow for increased frequency of technique driven lifts (weightlifting, gymnastics, etc) yet still allow for recovery and adaptation.

6. Active Rest Days

Athletes and coaches can perform more general fitness movements in a less-structured training environment at lower intensities to increase blood flow, alleviate psychological stress, and increase the recovery and adaptation process. It is important to note, that while there may not be any definitive guidelines on active rest days, coaches and athletes should stay away from strenuous heart rate driven modalities, activities that they are not accustomed to (new stimulus creates new stress/fatigue), and long-duration active rest days (make them shorter than usual training days).

7. Tapering

Tapering is a form of recovery and adaptation used specifically prior to competition to allow for an athlete to alleviate fatigue and increase peak fitness at a predetermined time/event. For more on tapering specific practices, take a look at my previous article, “How to Mentally and Physically Prepare for Your Next PR Attempt”.

Jen Kates of Meru Wellness had this to say after reading the above:

I agree with Mike about the importance of stress management. Many underestimate the impact that stress has on our overall training and recovery. Training itself is a stressor, so we should make every effort to help mitigate it’s effects by incorporating various techniques for relaxation. I work with my clients to incorporate box breathing and other various breathing techniques to help reduce stress — I find that this also helps increase their overall ability to focus, especially during their training bouts.

Houston based yoga instructor Lindsay McClelland had this to add:

I definitely agree with Mike that recovery is a huge component to successful training. I would definitely add yoga to two out of the seven strategies he reviews in the article — stress and active recovery. To give you a little background, I started practicing yoga in 2008 as a collegiate swimmer at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. What brought me to yoga was a desire to regain flexibility I’d lost through adding volume (both in the weightroom and the pool). What I found was that yoga offered benefits beyond increasing my flexibility, although it did that, too. After college, I stopped swimming and started marathon running. The high-impact and intensity of marathon training made yoga critical for recovery and injury prevention. The benefits I experienced through combining my yoga practice with the vigor of marathon training led me to pursue my yoga teacher training certification in 2015.

I often teach yoga to athletes and my biggest advice is to introduce the practice as a regular part of your routine. A yoga class is a great active recovery activity because it both stretches and strengthens the body. Additionally, a regular yoga practice will give you a greater sense of body awareness which will help in all aspects of your training. Getting into your body and out of your mind for 60-minutes is great stress relief, and I’ve found that the final few moments in class during savasana (corpse pose) are the most crucial. Most athletes have trouble winding down, so this opportunity to rest and let their mind turn off can be extremely revitalizing. If a 60-minute studio class isn’t possible, I recommend adding a few yoga poses after a workout or as a pre-bedtime routine.

Final Words

Dr. Hoffmann prefaced the entire lecture by saying, “You cannot overcome bad planning, stupid coaching, and lack of talent!” While the above strategies can be effective at increasing recovery and adaptation, coaches and athletes need to be careful not to neglect sound coaching and programming.


Dr. Hoffmann, J. (2017, February 4). Recovery Adaptive Strategies. Lecture presented at Juggernaut Performance Summit in Long Island Marriott , New York.

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Featured Image: @linnjonasson on Instagram