Monthly Archives: March 2012

Recovery: Athlete vs. Average Joe

A question that continually comes up when working with clients who are from the general public is:

How come “insert pro-athlete” had the same issue that I have but they got better a lot faster?

The body’s ability to deal with the stresses being imposed upon it is amazing; however, it is important to consider that no two people will tolerate the same stress in the same way. One of the biggest issues that face those in the general public when it comes to recovery from training/exercise or healing from an injury is that they have to not only deal with the stress of their training/treatment/therapy but they also have a huge amount of life stress – work, family, financial, etc – constantly robbing some of their stress resistance and decreasing their adaptive reserve.

This of course is not to say that professional athletes do not deal with outside stressors in their lives, however, their main job when coming back from injury or recovering from training during the offseason is to GET BETTER (although some athletes do choose to waste their time partying, drinking, staying up late, eating a poor diet, etc).

Professional athletes can show up, get treatment or train, go home and recover and then, if need be, come back and get more treatment or train. Often, professional athletes are in much better shape than the Average Joe and can tolerate greater volumes of therapy and treatment because their higher level of fitness allows them to resist a greater amount of stress. I have been working with a few Olympic athletes over the past several weeks and I am always amazed at how quickly their body responds to soft tissue therapy with regard to decreasing tone, tension, and tenderness (it takes longer to achieve the same results with a general population client who is less fit).

How Important Is Life Stress Really?

A 2010 study by Slivka and colleagues evaluated 21 days of intense training on markers of overtraining in eight elite cyclists. The training had increases of volume and intensity over the 21 day cycle and the researchers looked at testosterone, cortisol, salivary IgA, time trial performance, heart rate response and a profile of mood states. Interestingly, even though the subjects were symptomatic for markers of overtraining there was no decline in 1-hour time trial performance.

So wait….the subjects were pushed into an overtrained (probably overreached would be a more appropriate term) state but performance didn’t suffer?

A similar study was conducted eight years earlier in 2002 by Halson and colleagues, again looking at eight cyclists over a six week training program – 2 weeks of normal training, 2 weeks of intensified training (which looked like a brutal two weeks!), and 2 weeks of recovery training. What the researchers found in this study was that the subjects had decreased power output during a max cycle ergometer test, increases in their time trial performance, a decrease in max heart rate, and an increase in ratings of perceived exertion (RPE). Interestingly, the subjects were showing signs of overtraining after only one week of the intensified training phase (I told you it was brutal!).

So what happened? Two studies. Very similar in design. Both show the athletes to be overtrained. In one study there was no decrease in overall performance and in the other the subjects performance went down the drain.

What happened was LIFE! What I failed to tell you about the first study I mentioned was that in the study they controlled the subjects’ life stressors. They did so by taking them out to the mountains in Western America where they would be removed from their everyday lives to train for 21 days. They had their sleeping arrangements and meals planned for them as well. Basically, the athletes woke up, trained, and recovered. Thus, even when overtrained a little bit, their body’s were able to adapt and still perform at a high level because their stress resistance was low. In the second study, these individuals were asked to go about their normal daily lives and were given training journals to complete. They woke up, trained, went to work, had to deal with the stress of their jobs, didn’t have their meals planned out for them, and didn’t have their sleep as regulated as those in the other study. Thus, when overtrained a little bit, their bodies broke down and weren’t able to keep up. Their stress resistance was compromised by non-training stressors.

As strength coaches, massage therapists, physical therapists, chiropractors, nutritionists, and other medical professionals, it is important to take into consideration the stresses that our clients/patients are under that take place outside of the four walls of our gym or treatment room. While we have control of particular stressors when we apply an intervention to a client/patient – exercise, manual therapy, dietary changes –  if we can get a better understanding of the other things going on in that individual’s life it may cause us to alter our intervention slightly to ensure that we aren’t the additional stress that “breaks the camel’s back”.


Slivka DR, Walther SH, Cuddy JS, Ruby BC. Effects of 21 days of intensified training on markers of overtraining. J Strength Cond Res 2010; 24(10): 2604-2612.

Halson SL, Bridge MW, Meeusen R, Busschaert B, Gleeson M, Jones DA, Jeukendrup AE, Time course of performance changes and fatigue markers during intensified training in trained cyclists. J Applied Physiol 2002; 93: 947-956.