Athlete Stress and Recovery

STRESS! It is something we all encounter on a daily basis and it is impossible to avoid. In fact, in order to be successful, we need to encounter stress and deal with it appropriately. Failure to do so can be highly detrimental to performance in sport and in life. If we fail to deal with stress appropriately in the long term, we may suffer health consequences from chronic stress.

Stress is required for ADAPTATION to take place. If you want to improve your fitness, you have to stress physiological systems. Most importantly, physical adaptations do not take place during the training itself, but afterwards as the body works to normalise itself and be better prepared for the next (anticipated) effort.

When I think of recovery and communicating with athletes on this issue, I think of both the physical AND emotional stress they are under and the strategies they can use to reduce these stressors. It gets a bit more complicated when you consider that at times in the year you WANT your athletes to be under physical stress, and an incomplete recovery is often desirable to induce adaptation.
General adaptation syndrome was a response termed by Hans Seyle in the 1930s and is still highly relevant today. The model explains our response to stress in 3 stages:

1. Alarm reaction – this is our bodies initial reaction to a stressor when homeostasis is disrupted. During this phase our bodies ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in which essentially prepares us for the stressor.

2. Resistance phase – the body reacts to the stressor which it is exposed to. As an example, if there is a shortage of food, the person may experience a loss of desire to exercise in order to conserve energy.

3. Exhaustion stage – if the stressor continues our ability to adapt is reduced and the result may be chronic fatigue, illness etc. Or over-training in an athlete.

This theory is still highly relevant and is the basis of recovery principles for athletes. If we don’t push them hard enough, then there is no ‘alarm’ phase – homeostasis is not disrupted and adaptation cannot take place. However, if we do not plan sufficient rest, they will likely fall into the ‘exhaustion’ phase which in exercise physiology is termed over-reaching and can be followed by overtraining.

Over-reaching is a necessary goal of training during some periods of the year and is characterized by a highly demanding 3-6 week training block where either volume OR intensity is increased each week. I usually put a couple of over-reaching phases into my off-season program for more experienced athletes. Usually I will see the athletes performance go down as the weeks progress, below the level of fitness they started with. By the end of the block, they are totally baked! However, following an appropriate regeneration period, the athlete bounces back and we get what most conditioning coaches consider the holy grail of training which is SUPERCOMPENSATION. It is a bit unpredictable at times and highly individual. The benefits of training (e.g. an improvement in fitness) may be measured in the weeks and months that follow.


Over-training can occur when the athlete is in the exhaustion phase too long, and does not have appropriate recovery periods. The athlete may present some of these symptoms:
• Decline in exercise performance
• Persistent fatigue, muscle soreness
• Reduced heart rate variability
• Increased susceptibility to illness
• Mood changes
• Difficulty with sleep

Over training is different from over reaching in that the athlete does not bounce back following a regeneration period – I have heard of cases where the athlete took years to recover. From experience, I have seen over training occur more in endurance athletes whose training volumes are too high. I have not encountered a definitive case of over-training in 20 years of alpine coaching. I have seen coaches push the athlete well beyond what I thought was possible and still they recover. It may not have been OPTIMAL training, but it was not OVER TRAINING.


Stress is regulated through the autonomic nervous system. In response to a stressor (e.g. competition) the body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode – the sympathetic nervous system causes a host of physiological responses to occur, including increased heart rate, increased blood flow to muscles and lungs, and decreased blood flow to the digestive system. Our arousal level is increased so we are better able to deal with the stressor that is presented. The parasympathetic nervous system promotes a ‘rest and digest’ response. That is, heart rate is reduced and heart rate variability increases. In terms of the athlete, when they are in a parasympathetic state, they will feel relaxed and sleep and recover more effectively.

Chronic emotional stress can have a profound effect on the autonomic nervous system. The athlete’s arousal level should be dominated by a parasympathetic nervous system response when not training. Athletes who are constantly in a sympathetic arousal state do not recover very well from training. Most typically, I see this in athletes who are under emotional stress and have not found balance in their lives. They may be constantly stressed out about competition and results, about school, work, family, their health or relationships with others. Most important, constant emotional stress affects sleep which affects recovery. So, when I think of designing a recovery program for my athletes, the physical and emotional aspects of their lives must be considered. There are many ways in which you can plan recovery training for a more ‘parasympathetic’ response. Here are some examples of methods I use:

-Warm bath
-Listening to relaxing music; learn a musical instrument
-Deep breathing
-Spending time with people who are ‘energy gainers’ – good friends, family.

Ultimately, your athletes will feel less stressed if they feel well prepared, have had sufficient time to recover, and don’t feel overwhelmed by school and other commitments.

An important aspect of coaching is to monitor your athletes for signs of fatigue and/or emotional stress. I have used many highly sophisticated tools over the years (the Normatec ‘Space boots’, heart rate variability measurements; accellerometry). However, I still find a simple athlete questionnaire to be most effective (e.g. Hooper Mackinnon Questionnaire). When monitoring your athletes be sure to cover the following:

• Mental state (irritability, stress level, training enjoyment, sleep)
• Physical state (muscle soreness, fatigue, body weight, resting heart rate).

What strategies can the coach employ to promote recovery following training?

Given the information super-highway now available on the internet, there is a lot of information out there on recovery techniques and how/when to use them. I think it is very important to use an evidence based approach and so I lean towards methods which have been shown in peer-reviewed research to be effective over time. I also tend to recommend strategies which incur little or no cost or equipment as this is a barrier to most athletes. Here are the tried and tested methods:

1. SLEEP. It should not come as a surprise to you that consistently getting enough quality sleep is absolutely essential to recover. Everyone is individual in how much they need, although the average person needs ~8 hrs. Athletes often need more than this while some people seemed to do fine on 6-7 hrs. It is pretty easy to track your athlete’s sleep – if they fall asleep within 30 mins of getting into bed and sleep through the night with minimal disturbance, their sleep is likely sufficient. If you would like to learn more about sleep, recovery and human performance CLICK HERE AND DOWNLOAD THE PDF FROM DR. CHARLES SAMUELS

2. NUTRITION. During training, muscle glycogen and blood glucose are depleted. Failure to eat carbohydrate at regular intervals can result in lower than desirable stores of glycogen and poor performance. A goal of training is to cause damage to tissues. With the correct recovery period muscles can then adapt and become stronger and bigger. Proteins are found in every cell of the body and are needed to promote growth and repair of damaged cells and tissue. Without sufficient protein intake the recovery process may be delayed and adaptations may be sub-optimal. Here are some rules of thumb I follow with my athletes:
a. Eat 4-6 times per day (each feeding should contain a quality protein serving)
b. Lighter, easily digested meal 1-2 hrs before training
c. High GI carbs during training (if >1 hr) and after training
d. Carbs and protein should be taken within 30 mins of finishing a training session. This is when uptake to the muscle is optimal.
e. The brain can only use glucose for fuel and so maintaining blood glucose levels is crucial during training sessions. This is where higher glycemic index (more sugary) snacks are appropriate.
Nutrition is a huge part of recovery and adaptation and impossible to cover fully in this article.  CLICK ON THIS LINK AND YOU WILL FIND A VARIETY OF ARTICLES WRITTEN BY EXPERTS FROM THE CANADIAN SPORTS INSTITUTE
3. HYDRATION. Poor hydration can have a dramatic effect on sports performance. Effects may be both cognitive (e.g. slowing of decision making) and physical (early fatiguability). An average person is composed of around 60% water, while highly trained athletes are up to 70% water. In winter sports, we are faced with additional challenges. Cold dry air must be warmed and humidified before it can be taken into the lungs – this causes water loss. A person’s drive to drink, especially cold water, will likely be reduced. Add high altitude to the equation and it is very easy to become dehydrated. Here are some tips I give my athletes:
a. Aim to pee light lemon colour. Urination should be every few hours. Aim to drink most of your fluids by early evening to prevent waking up during the night.
b. Be prepared with fluids. Start packs allow you to keep sipping fluids every run.
c. Water is fine for shorter training sessions in normal temps.
d. Use an electrolyte beverage (e.g. Gatorade) if training for longer sesisons and / or in cold/ heat/high elevations.
e. Have a flask and bring teas to the hill with you. Add Gatorade and you have a palatable recovery drink.
4. PLAN REST DAYS AND RECOVERY WEEKS: As I talked about earlier, if you have your foot on the gas too long, your body does not have the opportunity to recover. Planning of recovery needs to occur throughout the training cycle – during microcycles (a training week); mesocycles (every 3-6 weeks) and macrocycles (the training year.)  Often you will try to employ recovery techniques to promote a faster rebound. I rarely prescribe passive recovery (complete rest).

5. METABOLIC RECOVERY: Otherwise termed a ‘flush’. These sessions should be employed following repeated high intensity training (e.g. ski full length courses multiple times). The athlete should do sustained low intensity work for 15-20 mins. This promotes the oxidation of the by-products of anaerobic work (e.g. hydrogen ion) by increasing oxygen delivery without causing additional fatigue. I ask my athletes to look for variety in how they achieve this – sitting on a spin bike after each session is not a great form of mental recovery for many athletes (although some love it). Try other forms of aerobic exercise including swimming, jog / hike, a light game or snow shoeing. I prefer unloaded methods (e.g. swimming).
The best way to ensure metabolic recovery is to attain a high level of aerobic fitness in the off-season. An athlete who has good aerobic fitness will recover much faster than an athlete who is weak in this area. This is the rationale for including a lot of targeted aerobic training in the summer/fall months – they will be more resilient during the competitive season.

6. COLD WATER IMMERSION: This form of recovery would be useful if you are anticipating muscle soreness. Research has shown that the optimal temp is around 10-15C (not an ice bath!) and the athlete should stay in there for 6-10 mins. This is quite accessible as anyone can run a cold bath at home!

7. SOFT TISSUE RECOVERY: Mobility is most important to athletes as it corresponds to athletic movement. The primary difference between mobility and flexibility is neuromuscular control.  And different sports require different levels of mobility.

If you goal is recovery, then static stretching is NOT the answer. Stretching is unlikely to reduce muscle soreness and may actually interfere with adaptation processes following training. Static stretching may help improve flexibility. However, dynamic stretching can have a greater impact on mobility (this is most important to athletes.)

Self-myofascial release (e.g. various rolling techniques) have gained great popularity in recent years. I incorporate various methods of rolling for recovery following workouts as they have a positive impact on mobility and may reduce the impact of muscle soreness. I am also a strong believer in sports massage as a form a tissue recovery. Different types of massage perform different functions. If you are looking for myofascial release, the massage therapist will likely have you in tears as they attempt to reduce fascial adhesions. A lighter more global massage helps to move fluids around the body.

8. WORKOUT! Many people think I’m crazy when I prescribe a hard and heavy workout for recovery and preparation for competition. However, done in the correct way an intense workout can bring you back to life. The goal of lifting during recovery and prep phases is to potentiate all available muscle fibers (e.g. slow and fast twitch). This requires the body to be under heavy load (e.g. intensity is high) so all available motor units (fast and slow) are recruited. The key thing to success with this type of workout is to pay close attention to frequency, intensity and volume. I would only prescribe these types of workouts to more experienced athletes who are well past the growth spurt and have trained at this intensity before.
Frequency: every 3-6 days per muscle group. If you delay longer than this, you may find yourself sore for training or competition.
Intensity: Warm up to 2-4RM.
Volume: 2 sets, 4-6 exercises.
Younger athletes should do strength sessions 2-3 times per week in the competitive season but work in a higher repetition range (6-12R) for whole body movements and generally following training when they don’t expect to ski the next day. Core/hip and upper body work can be done before a ski training day.
De-training is a huge issue for athletes during the competitive season. If we are constantly in a cycle of recovery (e.g. the classic ‘spin and stretch’), then it is likely that factors such as strength and endurance are suffering which means as the season progresses, your fitness will suffer. Regular maintenance training can not only increase energy levels, but can also reduce de-training effects.

All for now,


AndrewLambert signature