We are designed to survive in an energy-poor environment populated by predators. Every tissue in our body is designed to be economical, not to waste any resources, but at the same time to give us what we need to be able to do the things we need to in order to survive.

Every tissue will adapt to load provided it is given the right environment to recover. If it isn’t, failure can occur.

Any good training programme these days will have elements of periodisation. Load is progressively increased, and then follows a period of lower load to allow recovery and adaptation. Load is then increased further, and the recovery and adaption cycle is repeated.

It is the nature of competitive sport that the season builds to a peak, a pinnacle event, or a final series play-off. A good preparation normally means that you reach these times in your best possible shape, but then success normally means that your body’s most intense physiological load occurs during competition.

The higher the metabolic cost of an activity, the more important the recovery - and this applies both in season and in the off-season.

Recovery can include both active recovery and passive recovery. The most important aspect of recovery is good quality sleep. Sleep is when we switch from catabolic/arousal/survival hormones, to the anabolic/repair/growth and recovery hormones. Training gains and recovery can be assisted by optimal hydration, and nutritional decision making. Good nutrition will mean that you have energy to get the best out of yourself in training and competition, and that you recovery optimally. Nutrition can also have an impact on quality of sleep.

Different aspects of our physiology can be overloaded and recover at different rates. Dehydration can occur quickly, but hydration can also recover quickly. Energy stores (if nothing was put in the mouth) would be depleted next, but will recover next if appropriate food is consumed in a timely manner. Muscles can fail if enough load is applied in a one-off session, and they repair at a rate that depends on the degree of damage – from hours to days (trauma takes longer). Skin breaks down and recovers at a similar rate – blisters can take days. Bone remodels a little more slowly, but like most other tissues, if it is allowed to adapt, it becomes stronger in response to load. Tendons take longer to fail, and are frustratingly slow to recover.

But there are three related systems that we often overlook in this day and age – the neurological (including autonomic), the endocrine, and the psychological. These systems are very precious and they are designed to help us survive. Survival is a very primitive imperative, and these systems will cut corners, cheat and steal energy when they have to, to help us survive. We weren’t designed to keep walking back into the sabre tooth tigers cave though – we are supposed to fight to get out, find somewhere safe, lick our wounds and sleep it off.

When these systems start to get overloaded, some interesting things happen. Despite training harder and harder, our results start to drop off – we get measurably slower, or weaker, depending on our event. If we push ourselves to train harder things get even worse. We start to get other signs of overload – muscle aches, changes in our resting heart rate, recurrent infections, injuries that don’t recover, poor quality sleep, and still feeling tired when we wake up. We lose the zip and zing that puts the skip in our step – we can become depressed or anxious as well.

To be competitive, to be the best, we need to push the envelope and people justify this by saying things like “If you’re not on the edge, you are taking up too much space”. The problem with living on the edge is that you can’t tell where it is until you cross it. 20/20 hindsight will let you see the line between the leading edge and the bleeding edge, but by then it is too late.

The off-season is important because it gives us time to pull back from the edge. We still need to maintain basic levels of hydration, nutrition, sleep hygiene, fitness, strength and flexibility, because it is much easier to retain your fitness than to regain it - but the off-season is a time for recovery and restoration for all of these systems.

So this year, remember, all things in moderation including moderation – spend time with family and friends, and catch up with the things that you have had to put off in order to reach your in-season goals.

Best wishes for the festive season

By Dr Chris Hanna on