Some Tips on Optimizing the Recovery Process
By Doug Huestis
Head Coach Bay Masters

Most Masters swimmers are justifiably proud of what they have been able to accomplish in their sport given the myriad of difficulties in juggling family, social, and business commitments; and still be able to achieve their 'swimming goals'. Given all these factors -- each with their attendant demands -- the driven, goal oriented masters swimmer will occasionally try to cram too much on an already full plate. This can lead to overtraining, or at least the symptoms of overtraining.

Overtraining is not always brought on by the amount, duration and/or intensity of one's training regimen -- though that is a major contributing factor. The influence or impact of what one does away from the pool can sometimes be a more critical factor in how well your body is able to deal with the training you subject yourself to.

It is helpful to think of the process of "getting into shape" as built upon two foundations: 1) the actual work (the swim practices, the lifting one may do to augment one's power in the water); and 2) what happens between those work bouts -- the recovery process. Or as I like to think of it: 'the proper facilitation of preparing the body for more work'.


It is important to know what is actually going on within the body as you slug through those seemingly endless yards during a practice, or pump out yet another 'rep' in the weight room.

Your body uses the foodstuffs you eat; the fats, carbohydrates, and proteins and breaks them down into fatty acids, glucose, and amino acids. These in turn are used to manufacture Adenosine TriPhosphate (ATP), which is the ultimate energy source for your muscles. The breakdown of ATP and the resultant release of energy is the 'fuel' muscle cells use to contract. Of course, you need not know the how or why that this happens because it will happen anyway.

But knowing more effective ways to more efficiently recover from each practice can be useful in two ways: 1) your practices become more effective in helping you reach ever higher levels of 'fitness', and 2) you may be able to avoid some of the hazards of overtraining.

In reality "training" is nothing more than subjecting your body to demands that it has trouble accomplishing at that point in time. The hope is that the next time around your body will have compensated for the 'shortfall', and thus be able to more effectively deal with those physical demands.


So aside from the depletion of the energy sources derived from the foods we eat what else causes a 'reduced state' in our muscles?

For one we lose water during exercise, even during a swim practice! Try weighing yourself before and after practice -- the weight loss is due to water that is 'lost' due to sweating (yes, even in the water), and in addition for every gram of muscle glycogen that is 'burned' there are four grams of water that are eliminated in the process. Thus it is important to replenish water during and after practices as even a 2 percent reduction of body stores of water can cause diminished athletic performance and compromise the recovery process.

For optimal restoration the best method is to consume water in the form of 'sports' or 'electrolyte' drinks. This is because they usually contain glucose and sodium -- both of which help in the absorption of water and maintenance of proper blood volume. Look for replacement drinks that also contain the electrolyte's chloride, potassium, and magnesium, as well as the above mentioned glucose. These are extremely important for proper muscle function and recovery.

Be aware that 'thirst' is not always the most reliable indicator of your body's need for water -- by the time you become really thirsty you may be 2-3 percent dehydrated. So be sure to drink some water or sport beverage before every practice as well as 4 to 6 ounces every fifteen minutes during practices. As a rule of thumb: for every pound 'lost' you should replenish with about 16 ounces of fluids.


After practices most swimmers are not only 'pleasantly exhausted', but their appetite is usually dampened. This is of critical importance because during the 30 to 45 minutes after each practice one has an opportunity to take advantage of the natural response of the body to vigorous exercise in such a way to help eliminate one of the more significant symptoms of overtraining.

The body's stores of muscle glycogen, the storage form of glucose, can be nearly depleted during long, exhaustive swim practices. These stores then have to be replenished by the food we eat. But two important factors can make a difference in effectiveness and magnitude of that replenishment.

First, is the timing: By eating within that 30 to 45 minute window of opportunity you take advantage of your body's insulin response. The hormone insulin is involved with the transportation of glucose from your blood into your muscle cells. Insulin also helps stimulate the enzyme glycogen synthetase, which is responsible for converting glucose into glycogen for storage. Research has shown that after exercise muscle cells are most sensitive to the affects of insulin. Provided there is an adequate supply of carbohydrates available at that time the body is able to replenish glycogen stores at a rate two to three times faster than normal!

So, the second factor would be to ingest carbohydrates as soon as possible after practice. Of, course there are many brands of 'carbohydrate' sports beverages on the market that will do the job. But another method is to eat "high glycemic index" carbohydrates that will raise your blood sugar levels quickly. High glycemic index foods (with pure glucose having a 100% index rating) cause your pancreas to secrete greater amounts of insulin that, in turn, causes enhanced storage of muscle glycogen.

Some high glycemic index foods would be bananas, raisins, baked potatoes, bagels, and carbonated (but not 'diet') soda. If you swim in the morning a good breakfast choice would be corn flakes with sliced bananas and some sugar on it. And, of course, milk. Not only because it would be an awfully dry meal without it, but because if you combine carbohydrates with some protein in the same meal, you further increase the rate of glycogen synthesis.
n the remaining time till your next swim practice you should eat an "athletic diet" that should have approximately 60-65 percent of total calories from carbohydrate sources, 20-25 percent from fat, and around 15 percent from protein. To ensure proper glycogen replenishment you should shoot for 3 to 5 grams of carbohydrate for every pound of your body weight. The above stated "athletic diet" is one that not only gives the best chances for full glycogen restoration -- the primary fuel source for aerobic endeavors -- it also has stood up to years of scientific study and analysis as being the best overall diet.


Many years ago when I was doing a lot more total training (swimming, biking, running, as well as lifting), I used to record my morning pulse rate and body weight daily so as to have an 'early warning system' for potential overtraining. If my morning pulse (taken for a full minute while lying in bed) would start to 'creep up' and my body weight would start to drift downward I would back off in my training until they both stabilized again.

Admittedly not terribly sophisticated -- but even back then I realized that one's body gave telltale signals when it was being subjected to stresses that it was having difficulty dealing with. Now a days there are a whole raft of very discrete physiological and biochemical tests that one, assuming one has the accessibility and money, can utilize to do a better job of pinpointing 'failing adaptation'. If one is able to run comparative tests of oxygen consumption, blood lactate values, muscle enzyme (creatine phosphokinase or CPK being the best 'marker'), or urea and 3-methylhistidine levels you can be very exacting in determining if you are overtrained or not.

However, this is usually outside the realm of most Masters swimmers. Luckily for those of us without the services of a research laboratory and the necessary technicians to run all those tests it is possible to monitor one's own responses to the training load with a fairly high degree of accuracy. All it requires is the systematic monitoring and recording of ones' heart rate and some 'math skills'.

The heart rate monitoring exam was first developed by a Finnish exercise physiologist, Heikki Rusko, to help their National Cross-Country Ski Team monitor potential overtraining. He called it the “orthostatic test” for overtraining.

Quite simply all you need to do is lie quietly for 10 minutes (or in bed, in morning before you arise); be sure to take your pulse right before standing (i.e., ‘resting heart rate’). After 10 minutes, you simply stand up and check your heart rate 15 seconds after standing, and then again during the period 90 to120 seconds after rising.

Having a heart rate monitor works best for this test; but one can simply manually count the number of heart beats between 12 and 18 seconds after standing (then multiply by 10 to obtain your ‘beats per minute’ – BPM). For the second standing BPM count the number of beats from 90 to 120 seconds after standing and multiply by 2. If using a monitor take your pulse check before rising, at exactly at 15 seconds after standing, and again at 90 seconds and 120 seconds. Average these last two checks for your third pulse check.

The results from the Finnish Study indicated that when one IS NOT on the verge of overtraining the three pulse checks are remarkably constant day to day. Of course, there will be differences between the three pulse rates, for example the ‘resting heart rate’ may be 60 BPM, the check at 15 seconds might be 78 BPM, and the check at 90 to 120 seconds could be 66 BPM.

In contrast, in the ‘soon-to-be-overtrained’ athlete the standing pulse rates will start to increase. Most telling will be a jump in the 90 to 120 second pulse rate --- according to Rusko, if this rate is up by 10 beats per minute or more, the likelihood of overtraining is high.

Luckily, the finding of his research indicates that the standing pulse tends to creep up over a three to four week period; thus giving a sort of ‘early warning signal’ that one needs to cut back on workload and/or facilitate more effective recovery.

While this should not be the only system of feedback you use to monitor your adaptation to your training load, it will give you insight into how to proceed. For you hard charging athletes out there remember: “The trick is to push right to the edge; not over it.”

Doug Huestis coaches Bay Masters (BAY) in San Francisco. He has served as a member on the USMS Sports Medicine Committee, where he authored numerous articles on ‘Swimming Physiology and Training.’ He holds a Masters degree in Exercise Physiology, and was Head Masters Coach for The Olympic Club (1990-1997) where his swimmers broke over 225 Masters National and World Records and won 4 USMS National Championships and 2 FINA Masters World Championships.

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