Active Recovery, Athlete Monitoring, and Optimized Training
Saturday, March 15, 2014 at 10:50PM
Aaron in coaching, recovery

Read time: 10-12 min

Recovery is a vital component of training and performance. In fact, it is necessary to improve performance. At the least, adequate recovery is necessary to prevent injury, stagnation, and overtraining.

This article will examine how the practices of active recovery and athlete monitoring can enhance recovery and maximize performance outcomes.

Recovery refers to the restoration of physical, psychological, and cognitive qualities after a bout of stress. To understand the role of recovery in the training process, we must first look at how the body responds to stress.

General Adaptation Syndrome

Hans Selye proposed the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) as a model of the stress response.[4] The GAS model plots resistance to stress, which can be interpreted as levels of performance or well-being, in response to a stressor and includes three phases (Figure 1).

Figure 1. General Adaptation Syndrome (Myers, 2007, p. 398).

The GAS model begins with the alarm phase when a stressor is introduced, and there is an initial decrement in performance or well-being. The body recognizes this disturbance to homeostasis and mobilizes a stress response.

This slew of physiological responses—the “fight-or-flight” response—buffers against the initial shock of the stressor and allows slight recovery of performance and well-being.

The resistance phase follows, and the body continues with an increasingly specific response to the stressor. The body’s response becomes more effective at neutralizing the stressor, and performance and overall well-being continue to return toward baseline.

If the stressor is removed in time, then the resistance phase will establish a higher baseline of performance or well-being (i.e. supercompensation). The body has adapted to become more resilient to the specific stressor. The same stressor will have less absolute and relative effect on the body in the future.

However, if present stressors are too great in number, magnitude, or duration, then a third phase known as “exhaustion” will occur. The stage of exhaustion reflects the body’s finite capacity to deal with stress.[4] In other words, exhaustion occurs if present stressors exceed the body’s resistive capacity.

Better recovery capacity (i.e. ability to recognize and respond to stress) will tend to limit initial shock, can buffer more amounts of stress, and facilitates a more rapid return to baseline.[2]

Some of the dramatic effects of exhaustion include injury or overtraining, which can take weeks, months, or longer to overcome. In some cases, these effects may be career-ending. A coordinated effort to prevent the stage of exhaustion should be undertaken by all parties involved.

The Nature of Stressors

The GAS model portrays the magnitude of the stressor, the process of recovery, and the individual’s recovery capacity. It naturally fits different scales of these variables. For example, Figure 1 could represent an athlete recovering between sets of squats or plays, workouts or matches, or seasons.

Greater magnitudes of stress will produce a greater initial decrement. In addition, greater amounts—number, magnitude, and/or duration—of stress will impose a larger debit against one’s recovery capacity.

Stressors are accumulative and include factors from biological, psychological, and social domains. Regardless of type, stressors can have physical and mental effects, and the significance of a stressor (i.e. its contribution to total stress) can fluctuate.

For example, stress from an upcoming exam may increase as the exam nears. Conversely, the effect of that stressor may diminish with proper study habits. Or, another stressor, such as the unexpected death of a family member, may take prominence.

However, all present stressors simultaneously tax the body’s finite recovery capacity. In addition to the additive effect of all present stressors, individuals must prioritize individual stressors and address each accordingly.

Additionally, combinations of some stressors may magnify their total effect. For example, a competition and an exam scheduled during the same week may produce greater total stress than if each were scheduled further apart.

Lastly, there may certain types of stress that an individual is more or less able to handle. For example, an individual with poor time management skills may experience greater stress if he or she has multiple commitments; whereas, that individual might handle emotional stress effectively.

Balancing Stress and Recovery

The basic goal of training is to balance total recovery—sleep, nutrition, rest, and recovery interventions—with total stress to produce positive adaptation and enhance performance.

Coaches should consider the influence of all factors, including those outside of training, when planning and implementing training plans. Examples of such factors are illustrated in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Factors (stressors) affecting performance. Adapted from Stone, Stone, & Sands, 2007, p. 203.

Too much stress, or insufficient recovery, will result in no adaptation or decreased abilities. Insufficient training will produce little or no adaptation. Results from both cases will range from poorer performance to minimal improvement.[1]

The GAS model and the Stress-Fatigue-Recovery-Adaptation (SFRA) model underlie the above training goal. These models are fundamental paradigms of sports performance training.[5]

These models explain the athlete's response to training variables (i.e. volume, specificity, and overload). Proper manipulation of these variables will produce a favorable training response and positive adaptation.

The GAS and SFRA models, along with a third principle, the Fitness-Fatigue model, provide a framework for mediating training-induced adaptations into the realization of improved competition fitness, preparedness, and performance.[5]

Integrating Active Recovery

Higher competitive levels increase the athlete's responsibility to manage and balance stressors and recovery. Such responsibility include greater dedication to training and competitive demands, in addition to minimizing outside stressors.

The athlete can devote some of his or her limited time and energy toward recovery via planned recovery sessions. During these sessions, the athlete performs active recovery, meaning he or she partakes in activities intended to be restorative in nature.

Such activities are a form of eustress (i.e. positive stress) and include a variety of modalities intended to promote tissue healing, reduce soreness and fatigue, improve autonomic balance, etc.

The athlete should take recovery seriously but should not become obsessive. Over-participation in active recovery methods can make active recovery a source of distress (i.e. negative stress). Likewise, too much recovery can disrupt the stress-recovery balance.

Table 1 provides a list of active recovery modalities with assigned point values used to limit the potential for these activities to become distressful. Athletes are allowed to accumulate a maximum of 30 total points per recovery session. They are limited to a maximum of 100 total points per week.

Table 1. Active recovery modalities.

Modality Duration Pointsa
Deep Breathing 5 – 10 min 10
Foam Roll 10 – 15 min 10
Stretching 10 min 10
Ice Plunge 10 min 15
Meditation 10 – 20 min 15
Nap 20 – 30 min 15
Sauna ≤ 20 min total 15
Stationary Bike 15 min 15
Aqua Jogging 10 – 15 min 20
Kick Board 10 – 15 min 20
Massage 45 – 60 min 30
Contrast (Hot bath/Ice bath)* 30 – 40 min total 30
Contrast (Sauna/Ice bath)* 40 – 60 min total 30
Nap 1 – 2 hr 30

a ≤ 30 points per session; ≤ 100 points per week
Maintain heart rate at 100 – 120 beats per minute
* Begin with hot and end with cold; alternate rounds (5 – 10 min hot, 3 – 5 min cold) until total time is accumulated

Research quantifying the contribution of specific modalities to overall recovery is scarce. This point system is arbitrary and based generally upon three factors: 1) duration of the modality; 3) energy/effort required to perform the modality; 3) informal athlete reports on perceived effects.

A good rule of thumb is to accumulate weekly points proportional to weekly training loads. For example, if the average relative intensity for the week is 80%, then accumulate roughly 80 recovery points. A week of maximum effort should be met with 100 recovery points.

However, the relationship between training dose (i.e. quantities of volume and workload) and training response/performance is not always linear. In fact, the effects of accumulated fatigue—or recovery—may take days or longer to onset and may not correlate directly to current training loads.[3, 6]

Hellard and colleagues [3] demonstrate these preceding points in their study of Olympic swimmers (full text).

Athlete Monitoring

Principles of Monitoring

Athlete monitoring can reveal relationships and longitudinal trends in the training dose-response dynamic. Monitoring allows athletes, coaches, and sport scientists to assess the training process, its intended results, and outcomes.

Data records can reveal which combinations of exercise selection, volume, and intensity are generally most effective. Athlete monitoring can also provide a better understanding of individual training responses.

Athlete monitoring can provide understanding of training responses within the context of the GAS, SFRA, and Fitness-Fatigue models.[1, 5] This information can be used to balance stress and recovery more accurately and effectively.

Coaches can use accumulated information when constructing the training plan. Ongoing monitoring also provides the opportunity to make real-time adjustments to the training plan.[5]

For example, low measures of athlete readiness may indicate the need to reduce session or microcycle intensity or for more recovery. Conversely, high athlete readiness may warrant increased intensity.

In other cases, unexpected measures of high fatigue or anxiety may indicate the presence of outside stressors. Furthermore, an extended occurrence of poor recovery markers may alert coaches that the athlete is approaching an over-trained state.

The Practice of Monitoring

Athlete monitoring begins with the coach-athlete relationship. The coach must observe and interpret verbal and non-verbal cues that may inform on athlete readiness, motivation, and fatigue. Effective communication helps the coach understand factors outside of training.

Additional practices of athlete monitoring will depend on available personnel, equipment, and other resources. However, many practices are easy to implement, do not interfere with the training process, and can improve training and performance outcomes.

One important practice is for athletes and coaches to meet periodically to set, review, and revise goals. Goal setting should include short, intermediate, and long-term goals. In addition, specific types of goals should be established (e.g. performance, outcome, and process oriented goals).

Additional necessary practices include keeping training logs and tracking performance markers. Training logs can include other information such as current injuries, notable stressors or events, length and quality of sleep, and recovery practices to better understand the athlete's training response.

Psychological questionnaires are a supplemental practice that is easy to implement. These surveys assess subjective measures—mood states, ratings of perceived exertion, etc.—related to recovery, readiness, and fatigue.

More sophisticated monitoring can measure physiologic, biochemical, and biomechanical variables. Such analysis may require specialized equipment and trained personnel; access to such testing will depend on cost, time, and/or space constraints.

Examples of commonly measured physiologic and biochemical markers include resting heart rate, heart rate variability, serum cortisol, and testosterone-cortisol ratio. Such variables correlate to fatigue, readiness, and recovery status.

Biomechanical analysis, including barbell trajectory, barbell velocity, and other kinematic and kinetic variables, can reveal fatigue-induced changes in technique. Biomechanical analysis can also track changes in technique over time.

Practitioners should recognize that the value of any monitoring practice is limited by the ability to analyze and interpret measured data.[5] Monitoring should be purposeful and contribute to the planning and execution of the training plan, rather than being aimless and for the sake of monitoring itself.

Removing Barriers to Monitoring

Smart phones, tablets, and personal computers provide the opportunity to deliver consumer-level options to carry out some of the above measurements. In many cases, such options are free or low-cost compared to professional versions.

These options may be more suitable for individual coaches, athletes, and institutions with limited resources.

In addition to similar functionality as professional versions, consumer-based options offer greater ease-of-use. Although, some consumer versions may possess less measurement power, validity, and reliability compared to professional options.

However, with continual improvements in processing power, development of better software, and improved hardware compatibility, personal electronics are a potential platform for a high-quality, all-in-one athlete monitoring device.


Coaches must appreciate and understand the implications of the GAS, SFRA, and Fitness-Fatigue models on sports performance training. Failure to apply these principles will limit performance outcomes.

Likewise, athletes are duly responsible for apportioning the time, efforts, and resources necessary to sustain or reach their desired level of competition.

In order for positive adaptation to occur, stress and recovery must be balanced. Otherwise, stagnation, injury, or overtraining will occur. The use of active recovery can help with this balancing act.

In addition, athlete monitoring can be used to understand an athlete's training response, to fine-tune the training process, and to maximize training and performance outcomes.

Stay tuned for an upcoming article where I will highlight three resources for coaches or athletes to develop and implement their own athlete monitoring process.


[1] Bompa, T. & Haff, G. G. (2009). Periodization: Theory and methodology of training (5th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

[2] de Geus, E. J., Van Doornen, L. J., & Orlebeke, J. F. (1993). Regular exercise and aerobic fitness in relation to psychological make-up and physiological stress reactivity. Psychosomatic Medicine, 55(4), 347-363.

[3] Hellard, P., Avalos, M., Millet, G., Lacoste, L., Barale, F., & Chatard, J. C. (2005). Modeling the residual effects and threshold saturation of training: A case study of Olympic swimmers. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 19(1), 67-75.

[4] Selye, H. (1950). Stress and the general adaptation syndrome. British Medical Journal, 1(4667), 1383-1392.

[5] Stone, M. H., Stone, M., & Sands, B. (2007). Principles and practice of resistance training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

[6] Viru, A. A. & Viru, M. (2001). Biochemical monitoring of sports training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Article originally appeared on Five Rings Athletics - Excellence through Sport (
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