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Recovery: A Sometimes Neglected Aspect of Training

03/13/2018, 3:15pm CDT
By Sam Callan, USA Fencing Senior Manager of Coaching and Referee Education

Training is an important part of getting better. The time spent on the strip with your coach or in the weight room doing conditioning is critical to improving as a fencer. Coaches will take lots of time planning the lesson for that day; your trainer will spend time putting together the workout for that day to make you stronger and quicker.

However, how much time went into planning how you are going to recover from that training (or competition) and being prepared for the next day’s training or competition?

Let’s start with trying to define “recovery” in the context of sport training. Bishop, et al. (2007) defined recovery as “… the ability to meet or exceed performance in a particular activity.” There is a saying that training is the stimulus for improvement, but recovery is when those gains are truly made.

Physiologically, when you train you are really breaking down muscle. It is the time between training sessions that allows the muscle to adapt and become bigger and/or stronger. So, this recovery period is critical for improvement. We can also fatigue our nervous systems during training, and the nervous system needs some time to recover as well. If we do not recovery properly, the next training session may be compromised. If we go long enough without recovering, or with poor recovery, we can end up with poor performance in training and competition.

Recovery does not have to mean the fencer has no fatigue at all, but that it is manageable. Designing a training program can be thought of in terms of managing fatigue. For instance, if Wednesday afternoon’s fencing lesson is compromised by Tuesday evening’s workout in the weight room, we need to determine if the weight room session was too much for that athlete or if the athlete did not properly recover. If the athlete had completed that workout previously with no issues, then it might be that the athlete did not properly recover after the workout.

Recovery occurs in three settings (Bishop, et al., 2007):

  1. Very short-term recovery such as in fencing where you might lunge and then recover to perform another lunge.
  2. Short-term recovery such as when you take breaks in between sets when lifting weights or running repeated sprints.
  3. Longer-term recovery such as when you schedule successive workouts or competitions such as a lesson on Monday and a conditioning session on Tuesday.

We are going to focus on the long-term recovery as defined above. Recovery strategies for the body (and possibly the mind) include:

  • Sleep
  • Nutrition
  • Hydration
  • Cryotherapy
  • Massage


We have previously addressed sleep and its benefits here. If you are not sleeping well, your recovery is going to be impacted negatively. You may find yourself physically dragging and mentally not as sharp not a good combination going into a fencing bout.

Nutrition and Hydration

Nutrition and hydration are important and easily controlled ways to recover. Consume carbohydrate to replenish muscle energy (specifically glycogen) stores and eat sufficient protein to repair and build tissue. Hydrate well before and during competition. A good sign that you are properly hydrated is to have urine that is pale yellow to clear.


Cryotherapy is the use of extreme cold in surgery or other medical treatment, with one form being ice baths. For those not familiar with the concept of the ice bath, you submerge yourself in a tub of cold water (the recommended temperature is about 50 degrees Fahrenheit). This is likely colder than the water out of your tub faucet. A fencer would likely want to submerge his or her body from the waist down in the water since the lower body takes the brunt of the load.

The idea behind the ice bath is that the cold reduces inflammation, but is inflammation always a bad thing? There is a school of thought that the inflammation from training or exercise initiates desired adaptations in the body that we want such as more protein synthesis in the muscle to repair and/or build the muscle.  According to this school of thought, ice baths impair this process and would impede the adaptations that are desired.

As a result, it might be that ice baths should be used at specific times in a training program. For instance, when you are training prior to the season and want to optimize the gains from training, it might be smart to skip the ice bath. But if you are in season, and less focused on improving conditioning and wanting to recover from competition, then an ice bath might make sense. It might also be useful in between competition days at a tournament.

If nothing else, enduring a session sitting in very cold water might just increase your mental toughness!

A popular form of cryotherapy currently is whole body cryotherapy (WBC) that involves standing in a tank of refrigerated air cooled by liquid nitrogen down to -200 (yes that is a minus sign) degrees Fahrenheit for two to four minutes. (For Star Wars fans, Han Solo might come to mind) The data on this therapy is not encouraging and at this time we could not recommend its use.


Massage is another commonly used recovery technique. Let me be the first to say that I love massage. However, the mechanisms by which massage helps in recovery are still being researched. Athletes often report feeling better after massage, but in studies where objective measures of muscle recovery are measured, the data is not conclusive. However, this is an area where the mental recovery might be a consideration. One thought on massage is that by lying quietly on the massage table, you are not doing anything else that might fatigue you. Massage is one method of recovery that, while the science might not be able to determine why it works, I am pro-massage all the way!

Wrap Up

One of the challenges in assessing a recovery method is what to measure. Some physiological measures such as certain enzymes in the blood are easy to measure whereas “feeling” recovered is far more subjective. This is an area where the placebo effect can be strong. If you think it helps you recover, then who is to say that it does not when there is some subjectivity there.

If you want to try a recovery modality, first assess your situation, what your needs are, and what you have access to. When trying a new mode of recovery, keep records and be honest with yourself.  It is probably safer to try any new method during training and not during a competition. Keep in mind the two most important recovery methods are good sleep and proper nutrition. Getting those in order should take priority over more “exotic” measures and should help you be at your best on the strip.



Recovery from Training: A Brief Review by Bishop, et al. (2007)

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