Is Over-Recovery Something to Be Worried About?

Turns out recovering too much can be just as costly as training too much.

After your workout, you can drink a specially-formulated smoothie with customized protein powder, downed with a handful of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory supplements. You can foam roll, use a percussive massage device, and put on the compression boots. Later, you can head to a cryotherapy chamber, visit your massage therapist, or get a bit of acupuncture work on a tight muscle. Because recovery is important – right? Yes and no. Though the body needs to recover after a hard workout or race, it’s likely some athletes might have a skewed balance between training load and recovery. Running coach Vern Gambetta recently identified this as “Over-Recovery Syndrome,” in which an athlete focuses on recovery so much, they lose sight of the more-important training stimuli:

“I am fearful that today we have a generation of over-recovered and undertrained athletes, so overly mindful of training load that they are not doing enough to stimulate adaptation and prevent injury,” Gambetta writes in his post on the over-recovered athlete. “Remember after the work the rest is easy, but first you must do the work!”

The over-recovery phenomenon is pervasive in triathlon, says coach Matt Dixon. “There has become an over-trendy emphasis on the ’tools and gadgets’ of recovery and an obsession of avoiding fatigue,” says Dixon. “Recovery is central to performance – but as a gateway to facilitate really hard work and ensure it is effective.”

Coach Ryan Bolton agrees. “In the past, athletes often neglected recovery. Now, I’m seeing more and more athletes focusing on recovery more than the actual training. For the compensatory effect of training to work, it’s very important to overload an athlete with work first. Recovery is hugely important, but only after a proper workload.”

A solid training plan should follow the principles of progression and overload, with rest and recovery cycled in. As Gambetta notes, “Sometimes TUF, or Training Under Fatigue, is acceptable and necessary” in order to achieve adaptations in the sport. Holding back for fear of becoming overtrained may have the opposite effect – an undertrained athlete who may not be able to handle the demands of higher performance.

“For training to work well, an athlete must first overload the system and then recover,” says Bolton. “ To maintain a good balance of work and recovery, an athlete must set up a proper training plan that balances the two. Every athlete recovers at a slightly different rate and it’s important for athletes to understand their specific needs of overload and recovery. This takes time and experience, but is also a critical component of being a good athlete and must be learned.”

That’s not to say that athletes should do away with recovery altogether – but it does mean some recalibration might be needed in response to training loads. Dixon says key signs an athlete may be falling prey to Over-Recovery Syndrome are skipping training at the first sign of fatigue, reducing training to use a gadget or recovery tool, and perhaps most importantly, seeing acute fatigue as a sign they have gone wrong.

“Look for consistent performance predictability over many weeks in the key sessions that are designed to move the performance needle,” says Dixon of avoiding over-recovery. “These sessions can remain incredibly challenging — but the athlete can get ‘up’ for them and perform. That is effective training.”