How to Get Your Athletes to Buy in to Recovery

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For athletes, "going hard" is usually pretty easy. Whether it's a heavy lift or tough conditioning session, most athletes will face difficult challenges head-on and attack them with gusto. So then why is it so hard to get athletes to "go easy" on recovery days?

Athletes are competitive, and they love going all-out. Just take a glance at some popular training hashtags—like #NoTime2Sleep, #NoDaysOff, and #NoPainNoGain—and you'll get the idea.

But while the importance of mental toughness and psychological motivation cannot be overstressed, these hashtags reflect an attitude of "sweat equity"—a belief that good things come only from constantly working as hard as possible—that we as coaches know to be not entirely true.

@@Is hard work important in sports and training? Absolutely. Can you work exponentially harder every day and expect to get better? Absolutely not.@@

Coaches, especially strength and conditioning coaches, know the importance of recovery on athletic performance. What you break down in the weight room or on the field/court/etc., you build back up during periods of rest and recovery. Most athletes seem to understand the importance of a day off with no activity at all now and then, but the idea of training for the purposes of recovery can be difficult to grasp. Foam rolling, deep breathing exercises, aerobic capacity work, stretching and myofascial release, yoga—all of these protocols are effective at facilitating recovery, and yet require the athlete to actively participate in a low-intensity activity which can seem unimportant when it doesn't require sweat. 

So how can we get our athletes to "buy in" to recovery and regeneration-focused sessions? 

 

All About the Benjamins

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Since physiology can be difficult to understand, here's an easy analogy to help your athletes get the basics of recovery.

Your body is like a bank, and you've got a certain number of dollars in your bank at a given time. The dollars represent your body's capacity to expend energy, and you can spend them on whatever you want—but you've only got so many dollars in the bank, and once they're gone, you can't spend any more.

Every time you place stress on your body, you're spending your body's energy currency. It's important to remember that this stress can be physical (strength training session, a bad night of sleep, poor nutrition habits), mental (midterms, finals), or emotional (relationships, family)—no matter the source, it all takes the same physical toll on your body. There is a cost to stress, and that cost depends on the magnitude of the stress.

So your body pays for every workout you do. And a tough workout, let's say a Max Strength training session, costs more than an easy workout. Some sessions are simply more expensive, more taxing to your body's resources, than others. Other factors, like a bad night of sleep (less than 7-9 hours), will cost you, as will neglecting to eat before training. But you only have a finite amount of money in your bank, so you've got to spend that currency wisely—otherwise, you'll go broke.

And when you go broke, that's when overreaching, overtraining, illness, irritability, and even injury can happen.

So you have to put money INTO the bank periodically, in order to take money out. You can't spend money you don't have on an expensive workout and not expect to go broke!

 

Recovery: Your Body's Savings Account

 Recovery properly from a training session is like depositing money into the bank.

Recovery properly from a training session is like depositing money into the bank.

When you practice good recovery habits, it's like putting money back into your bank account. A stretching and foam rolling session, stringing several nights of good sleep in a row, and practicing good nutrition habits all put money into your body's savings account, for you to spend later on. 

This is what makes periodic unload (or deload) weeks in your program SO important—not only for replenishing your body's savings account, but also for continuing to see training progress down the road. In this way, you earn interest on your savings, which gives you MORE money to spend on expensive training in the future.

Because when it comes to training—and here's the part when "sweat equity" thinking really breaks down—it's always about quality. While quantity is important (you won't increase your strength unless you lift heavier loads or higher volumes, for example), it's the quality of each training session that makes a physiological impact. And to have a high-quality session, you've got to be intentional and strategic about what you want to accomplish.

 

Strategic + Intentional Spending

Sometimes a workout isn't supposed to be hard. Sometimes what you need to accomplish strategically during a training session isn't "expensive" on the body. It all depends on the intention of the session.

If your next session is intended to facilitate a full recovery for a workout later in the week, you can strategically spend your body's resources on a less-taxing, less-expensive session (like a 45-minute walk). Other sessions might require a bit more currency to complete, like a hypertrophy workout or high-volume conditioning session. What being strategic does—and in our analogy we'd call this being smart with your money—is ensure you're allocating enough resources so that when it's time to go hard, you've got enough in the bank to go really hard.

In this way, recovery actually enables you to train HARDER in your more expensive training session—making them even more effective at producing training adaptations.

 

How to Help Your Athletes Get It

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Coaches, it our job to understand the intention behind each and every workout so can communicate it to our athletes. And since every workout should be part of a greater long-term plan for athletic development, we must be able to help athletes understand when to go hard (spend a lot) and when to go easy (save up for later).

This can be as simple as telling your athletes whether an upcoming workout will be "expensive" or not. If you know you've got a heavy squat day planned for Monday, let them know the week before to "save up" for Monday's expenditures. If you've got a recovery session planned, like an aerobic capacity conditioning workout, let your athletes know that by NOT going as hard as possible they are "saving up" their body's resources for a harder workout, earning the right to spend more currency on something more expensive.

Athletes sometimes need help learning how to regulate their competitive drive. By framing each workout in context for your athletes, you'll help them understand not only how to self-regulate, but also the importance of long-term goals over short-term gratification. Because while it may be satisfying to end each workout in a puddle of sweat, at the end of the day, athletes need to have their eyes on the longer-term prize: achieving better athletic performance when it matters most.

And hey, as a bonus, they might end up learning something about financial planning in the process!


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Christye Estes, CSCS, is one of the regular contributors to the Volt blog. She is an NSCA-certified strength coach and a Sport Performance Specialist at Volt.
Learn more about Christye and read her other posts | @CoachChristye