Although often overlooked, rest is a crucial aspect of any training program. It takes years to develop the recovery rate of a professional climber and most of us will probably never get to this level if it takes three or more days to recover after every hard-climbing session. Let’s be honest, having to work professionally and often lacking in adequate sleep and nutrition makes it very difficult to optimise the recovery process. Still, the goal is to gradually and progressively expose our bodies to more frequent bursts of training, while constantly monitoring progress in order to avoid overtraining.
The first step is to gain a greater understanding of the processes involved in recovery. With any form of high intensity exercise, the muscles are traumatised with every session, and they must then repair afterwards with the assistance of dietary protein (a process known as hypertrophy). Endurance sessions deplete muscular glycogen stores, which must be replenished with the assistance of dietary carbohydrates. Additionally, you need to replenish the enzymes within the muscles that produce energy, top-up the various hormones that strenuous training depletes, and allow the nervous system to fully recover. Remember all you go-getters, not only returning to the original pretraining status but also progressing to a higher level of performance ability, known as super-compensation, is important.
So how much rest is enough? This really depends on the intensity and amount of training done. Experts typically recommend resting anywhere from 24 to 72 hours. Listening to your body and knowing your limits is what matters here. For example, doing a dozen of routes well below your ability level will probably require a day of resting. But, if you climb eight routes that are at your limit, it may take even three days to fully recover.
In general, there are three major recovery periods that the body goes through to achieve supercompensation. The first recovery period extends from 10 seconds to 30 minutes after a workout. This is roughly the amount of time typically spent resting between routes during a cragging day or in the rope climbing gym. The second stage is the fuel recovery period, which takes place 30 minutes to 24 hours after exercise, with most of the refuelling taking place in the first 16 hours. That average 16-hour break between consecutive climbing days will allow the body to recover to only about 80 percent of its pretraining capacity. Finally, during the Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) period strength is attained. During strenuous exercise muscle fibres are microscopically damaged and as a result, the amount of DOMS that you experience is equal to the amount of damage your muscles have experienced. If the DOMS is only minor, it can fade within 48 hours. However, if you suffer from greater soreness, it’s possible that it will take four or more days for your muscle fibres to repair themselves. Listen to your body and make sure to give it enough time to properly mend itself before training again. In addition, taking the occasional extended rest period is also very important. This means breaking up your climbing routine with stretches of recovery training or active resting (e.g., running, skipping rope, swimming, biking), and don’t be afraid to take a week off. Remember, it’s during rest periods that strength gains are realised, not during your training sessions.
Other important aspects
Nutrition is the single most important factor influencing the recovery process, but climbers commonly leave the crag or gym and wait several hours before eating a meal. Worse still is to go drinking with your buddies and grab takeaway afterwards at midnight. The body is in a mildly traumatized state after a training session and needs the correct nutrients to kick-start the recovery process. Treat it well and it will reward you with maximum training gains. Treat it badly and the results are likely to be burnout and injury. The crucial tip is to consume a moderate amount of carbohydrate and protein immediately after training. The most convenient way is in the form of a recovery drink, which contains a mix of carbs and protein in an approximate ratio of 4:1. An alternative would be to eat a small sandwich with fish, egg or a protein-rich filling. The latest studies have found that the rate of protein synthesis is almost as strong after pure endurance sessions as it is after strength sessions, so the idea that you need only carbs immediately after endurance work has become outdated.
Many elite athletes believe that taking a plunge into an ice-water bath after training will reduce muscle soreness and improve their recovery. However, scientific evidence to support this masochistic practice is far from conclusive. Some athletes also use contrast water therapy (alternating between cold water and warmer water) to achieve a similar effect. By constricting blood vessels, the ice bath is thought to flush out lactic acid, decrease metabolic activity and reduce muscle swelling. Then, with re-warming, the increased blood flow speeds circulation, which aids the healing process. There is no precise protocol for either therapy, but for pure cold-water therapy, most coaches recommend a water temperature between 54 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit (12-15 Celsius) immersion times of 5 to 10 minutes, or a maximum of 20 minutes. Don’t over-do it as cold water can make muscles tense and stiff. Dress in warm clothes and take a warm drink straight afterwards. For contrast water therapy, the most common method is one minute in a cold tub or shower at 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 Celsius) and two minutes in a hot tub at about 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius), repeated about three times.
For elite athletes, electrostimulation devices are worth considering for improving recovery after intensive training. They emit an electrical wave that varies in duration and intensity being transmitted to the selected muscles through two or more electrodes. The electrical impulse causes the targeted muscles to contract without the brain being utilised, which does not cause significant nervous fatigue. Electrostimulation assists recovery by increasing intra-muscular blood flow. This in turn helps flush lactic acid and restore glycogen levels. The process occurs without increasing heart rate or arterial pressure. It also creates an analgesic and endorphin effect, which lowers anxiety levels and further relaxes muscles by reducing spasms. This technology is nothing new and has been a component of electroacupuncture for many years. However, these machines have advanced considerably in the last decade, as have the strategies for using them. Even though nowhere near the elite level sport enthusiast I am, for sure, electroacupuncture is my favourite’s way for muscular relaxation apart from deep tissue massage. Still, electrostimulation should not be regarded as superior recovery strategy to quality nutrition and a good night’s sleep. Rather it is another measure that may help athletes to gain that extra edge. As a guideline, Compex-Sport recommends a 20-minute “active recovery program” with stimulation at very low frequencies (from 9 to 1 Hz) that decrease progressively every two minutes.
Sleep is another important aspect of rest and recovery when it comes to sports performance. Athletes who are sleep deprived are at risk of losing aerobic endurance and may experience subtle changes in hormone levels, which can lead to higher levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) as well as a decrease in human growth hormone, which is active during tissue repair. Above all else, remember that recovery is a non-precise science. The need to listen to your body overrides everything.