In sports, optimal performance is only achievable if athletes recover after competition. Recovery and intense exercise must also be balanced with everyday life. Additionally, sufficient physiological and psychological recovery protects against overtraining. However, it is just a small step from regular daily practice to a high frequency of demanding events, which complicates the process of recovery for athletes. Teams of the American basketball and ice hockey leagues play 82 games during the regular season; players travel thousands of miles per month. Reaching the playoffs adds more games and travel to the already demanding schedules. One game per night in a city is daily business for athletes like LeBron James or Corey Perry. For example, the Miami Heat played basketball games in Portland, Salt Lake City, and Los Angeles, on three consecutive nights. In the National Hockey League (NHL), the Anaheim Ducks played six hockey games in a row in different cities within 11 days in November during the 2011–2012 season. Thus, the questions arise, how much recovery time is necessary between games and what kind of consequences result if there is not enough time to rest?
Athletes need recovery to perform better. If the time of recovery is too short or disturbed by certain several circumstances, underrecovery may occur. Underrecovery is defined as the imbalance of recovery periods and daily life demands of a person. These demands can be intensive practice, competitions, and all stressors linked to the sport and everyday life of an athlete. For example, distance from family because of extensive travel can be an important stressor disturbing adequate recovery before and after games. Additionally, mistakes in the training structure can overstrain the athlete and increase the need for recovery. Examples of these mistakes include monotonous training programs, too long training sessions, ignoring training principles, or training periodization (not including rest days or periods of lower intensity).
Recovery processes depend on previous activities and the type and duration of stress. The interrelation between recovery and stress can be illustrated by a scissors model. Within the scissors model, it is postulated that stress and recovery change independently from each other, meaning that reducing stress may not necessarily result in an enhanced recovery. Adequate recovery, however, reduces the experienced level of stress. When external factors prevent adequate recovery, the imbalance between stress and recovery may increase. Conversely, per the scissors model, athletes need to follow increased efforts with a longer period of recovery. Thus, it is important that athletes, and especially coaches, are aware of the importance of recovery and its relation to stress and performance.
The recovery process is gradual and cumulative. The total recovery time depends on the previous activities and the type and duration of stress. In general, if practice is completed in a high-training volume phase, recovery usually takes longer than if practice is completed in a taper phase. Recovery finishes when a psychophysical state of restored efficiency and homeostatic balance is reached.
Mostly, the process of recovery is linked with a change, reduction, or a break from activity, but the process needs to be applied individually. A sauna may be a favorite recovery strategy for one athlete but would not be a strategy to be deployed by an athlete who feels stressed by sitting in a small room with high temperature. The recovery process can be reached passively, actively, or proactively. Passive strategies comprise a cease from activity, such as rest, massage, sauna, and hot or cold baths. These strategies initiate physiological reactions through external stimuli (e.g., heat, cold, pressure) affecting blood flow, breathing, or muscle tone. Active and proactive strategies are self-initiated processes by the athlete to reestablish psychological and physiological resources. Active strategies include activities implemented immediately after practice and competition, such as cool-down activities like stretching or slow running. Proactive strategies comprise additional self-initiated activities independent of practice. For example, relaxation techniques (muscle relaxation training) optimize recovery by supporting metabolism mechanisms for dealing with blood lactate. Other activities can be described as proactive regeneration. If an ice hockey player experiences housework (e.g., ironing) as a regenerative action, it could be used for recovering from an intense exercise. This example illustrates how individualized recovery can be implemented. Thus, proactive recovery also contains time with friends (social recovery) and can compensate for less time of physiological regeneration.
Although it sounds very easy to refill empty energy stores, from a practical point of view, there are many determinants affecting the quality of recovery. Coaches must be aware of situational and environmental conditions like heat, noise, or sleep, reducing the quality of rest. Eight hours of sleep at night during a training camp could be enough, for example. But if the athlete has to share the room with a snoring roommate, in an uncomfortable bed, the athlete may feel absolutely exhausted the next day. Disturbances and irritations during rest could prevent fulfilling psychological and physiological needs, affecting athletes’ performance. Furthermore, while travel time is a break from exercise and competition, the stress associated with travel does not provide adequate regeneration. These circumstances could have negative consequences if a state of underrecovery stays at a high level for a longer period. However, short underrecovery episodes could be compensated. For example, if an athlete goes out to party, he may lack sleep before next morning’s practice. Although the amount of sleep would not be enough for an optimal regeneration, the positive energy of the social night with friends may compensate for the feeling of tiredness. However, problems arise if the imbalance of demands and regeneration is maintained over a long period of time and results in a state of chronic underrecovery.
Differences Between Underrecovery and Overtraining
Underrecovery and overtraining syndromes seem to describe the same state of an athlete of being tired and unable to perform on a high level after periods of inadequate recovery and intense practice. At first sight, it appears that both syndromes are characterized by the same symptoms and causes. However, on closer examination, it is obvious that underrecovery and overtraining syndrome are different. On one hand, there is the state of underrecovery caused by imbalance of various demands and regeneration. Too much physical (intense exercise, density of competitions) and psychological (conflicts, traveling, disturbed recovery) stress and inadequate recovery (breaks, social recovery) over a long period of time lead to a feeling of exhaustion. The accumulation of fatigue develops over time into an underrecovery syndrome.
On the other hand, the overtraining syndrome describes the result of the imbalance between too much practice, competitions, or nontraining stress factors, and a lack of recovery. Mistakes in training structure additionally cause tiredness and reduce mental freshness. Thus, underrecovery is a precondition for overtraining. Originally, muscle fatigue is the goal of intense practice in order to achieve training effects. This kind of overreaching, also named short-term overtraining, is a regular part of athletic training. Nevertheless, when overreaching is too profound or is extended for too long, short-term overtraining turns into long-term overtraining. The problem arises when recovery needs are neglected by the coach or athletes and chronic overreaching occurs over a long period of time (at least for three weeks). Missing periods for refilling energy stores can cause athletes’ performance to drop or plateau. Athletes may train even harder in the attempt to improve, but this can lead to a deeper state of underrecovery. Accordingly, a feeling of staleness can be the consequence of longterm overtraining; staleness describes the state in which the athlete has difficulties in maintaining standard training regimens because of physical feelings (e.g., stiffness, tiredness) or decreased motivation. Other consequences include feelings of depression, general apathy, emotional instability, restlessness, disturbed sleep, and an increased vulnerability to injuries.
Consequences and Prevention of Underrecovery
Short periods of underrecovery can be compensated by the athletes’ use of other recovery strategies like relaxation techniques. However, chronic underrecovery leads to short-term and long-term consequences. Short-term consequences include the feeling of tiredness and exhaustion, lethargy, less motivation, and development of negative cognitions toward upcoming activities, which negatively influences future performance. Less concentration and body tension during practice can also increase the risk of injuries. Additionally, in contrast to the overtraining syndrome, underrecovery also impacts daily routines. A reduced level of energy will be noticed during daily activities and can reinforce long-term consequences, including feelings of depression, emotional instability, weight loss, increased resting heart rate, hormonal changes, disturbed sleep, and increased vulnerability to injuries and respiratory diseases. Underrecovery may also lead to burnout—the psychological, physical, and emotional withdrawal from a formerly enjoyable or motivating activity. Burnout is an exhaustive psychophysiological response to massive chronic stress and often requires a long break from activity to recover. If an athlete reaches the state of chronic underrecovery, small periods of regeneration or spontaneous interventions are ineffective, requiring a longer rest period (from several weeks to months) and professional help by doctors or psychologists.
To prevent the extreme state of exhaustion, coaches and athletes need to incorporate sufficient and high-quality periods of regeneration into training regimens, ensuring that recovery periods are long enough, with minimal disturbances. A good athlete–coach relationship has a preventive effect. The athlete can talk about private stressors (e.g., problems with relevant others, financial problems), disturbances during recovery periods (e.g., a snoring roommate), or problems during practice. Discussion can reduce interpersonal stress with the coach. Additionally, a well-structured training and competition schedule is an important step to prevent monotonous training. Adequate time management and planning of breaks and travel could reduce stress level. Furthermore, it is important that athletes are aware of their preferred recovery strategies, being able to use at least two or three.
Recovery helps refill athletes’ energy stores and refresh the mental state for challenges. Too often, however, the recovery element is overlooked as an essential aspect of any training regimen and periodization of a season. Insufficient time between competitions, long distances between tournaments, intense physical demands, and the load of daily hassles can cause athletes to insufficiently regenerate. Underrecovery dramatically impacts the performances and health of athletes. Consequently, athletes and especially coaches need to be aware of the danger of disregarding necessary recovery periods. By maintaining the optimal balance between overreaching, recovery, and stress management, positive training effects arise and the competitiveness of athletes will be preserved.
- Kellmann, M. (Ed.). (2002). Enhancing recovery: Preventing underperformance in athletes. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Kellmann, M. (2010). Preventing overtraining in athletes in high-intensity sports and stress/recovery monitoring. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 20(Suppl. 2), 95–102.
- Kellmann, M., & Kallus, K. W. (2001). The RecoveryStress Questionnaire for Athletes: User manual. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Kenttä, G., & Hassmén, P. (2002). Underrecovery and overtraining: A conceptual model. In M. Kellmann (Ed.), Enhancing recovery: Preventing underperformance in athletes (pp. 57–79). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.