When you train or compete you put your body under significant stress. You have, hopefully, provided your body with the kind of stimulus that forces it to adapt, i.e. improve. And if you have, your body is going to need to recover.
Recovery is where your next performance, in training or competition, begins and it should begin at the end of your last performance. The cool down phase brings your heart rate down, keeps your blood circulating and assists in processing the waste products accumulated in your bloodstream as a consequence of your training effort. It may also be a time when your coach recaps what has been done in training and sets goals for future performance.
Most writing on recovery focuses on restoring and replenishing: re-hydrate and refuel to get the energy systems ready for the next performance. But performance is more than energy systems and muscle contraction; it involves decision-making under pressure and the ability to respond to competitors and conditions.
Good recovery can prepare you for your next performance by enhancing all the gains made in a training session, not just cardiovascular and muscular improvement, but skill acquisition and consolidation. Good recovery means a good night’s sleep. While you sleep your muscles and energy systems repair and adapt, and your brain, while offline, does some of its most important learning.
Dr. Kelly Starrett, functional fitness guru and “father” of CrossFit says that his book Becoming a Supple Leopard, the Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance, was born from the notion that “a leopard has its full physical capacity available to attack or defend with full power at any moment.”
While Starrett is referring to the leopard’s physical prowess, I am going to assume for the moment, that you already have muscular and powerful limbs, and draw your attention to the leopard as a superb predator, strong, fast, agile, versatile: it can stalk its target with stealth and patience or wait in ambush and strike as the target moves towards it. How does a leopard decide tactics? Simple: as a cub it learned what to do, when. First from its mother – there is evidence of a mother making two kills of different beasts in different locations then fetching her cub to each and allowing it to feed. The cub learns what tastes good and where it could be found; it learns from a staggering assortment of stimuli, how prey behave and how to make a kill; it watches and practices. And it sleeps. Leopards do a lot of quality sleeping.
We learn procedural motor skills (i.e. tasks that involve various cognitive and motor skills that are performed unconsciously once learned) in certain memory stages. (The cognitive processes are sensory perception, thought, reasoning, judgment, memory, imagination, intuition. Motor means purposeful muscle movement.)
First we acquire the skill through training, with our performance improving over the session. After training, performance continues to improve while we are sleeping. This is the sleep-dependent learning process. It seems that large motor learning patterns are initially learned in small “sub-sequences” that are processed by the brain as a single unit i.e. “chunking”. The “chunks” are processed while you sleep into a single, very rich, memory. A process of simplification without losing important details.
Learning a procedural motor skill involves brain “plasticity” i.e. the brain changes in response to experience. Neuroimaging studies have shown that the patterns of brain activity during task training are “replayed” during sleep. But it’s not just a matter of learning and consolidating by “replaying” patterns while sleeping. When the brain goes “offline” during sleep, a kind of “sampling” of a wide range of the brain’s internal representations (i.e. memories) takes place – the new information is compared with all the brain’s existing knowledge and integrated appropriately, then “co-activated” repeatedly. When we awaken, we have truly learned something – the skill becomes part of who we are.
While a lot does happen overnight, it is with the accumulated practice of training and recovery, including quality sleep, that, like a leopard, we have the capacity to attack or defend with all our power at any moment.