Recovery Day Toolbox for Speed and Power Athletes

This article is guest blogged by Eric Broadbent, a certified USA Track and Field Level 2 Coach, Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), holds USTFCCCA Track & Field Technical Certification, and a USA Weightlifting Sport Performance Coach

After those high intensity workouts where our Nervous System is fried and our body needs a little recovery what are we to do? As a coach we have a lot of different options to choose from depending on our sport and the athlete. Often times coaches automatically prescribe some form of low to moderate intensity running. While I am a fan of these tempo sessions and do find them to be beneficial for speed/power athletes that have a need for aerobic endurance in their sport, I do think there are other ways to improve upon or maintain their aerobic endurance and work capacity that should be considered.

The number one focus of a speed and power athlete is to be fast and explosive. The coach must never lose sight if this with the training. On the recovery days when work is not directly done to improve on speed or explosive power emphasis needs to be on just that, recovery. An emphasis should be made on not fatiguing and pounding the body too much on these low intensity days. If you are having the athlete do nothing but running then how good are there legs actually going to feel on the days where you want them to run fast? Here is a list and explanation of different tools and ideas that you should consider when planning out recovery days.

Longer Warm-ups: I am a big fan of using warm-ups as part of the workout. As a coach and an athlete, my warm-ups could take anywhere from 20-45 minutes in length. A natural progression for me with the warm-up might consist of a 10-15’ general warm-up consisting of various skips and other movements in multiple planes of motion. From there we will do some static and dynamic stretching for 10’. Then 10’ of sprint drills followed by 10’ of hurdle mobility. You can get creative with what you do here but make sure it is specific to your sport and addresses the needs of the athlete. Don’t make it long for the sake of being long.

Foam Rolling Exercises

Foam Rolling Series: I prefer my athletes to foam roll on lower intensity days because often these are the days where they are the most sore. I like to plan out the exact areas that they will rollout because most of the time when I ask an athlete to rollout on there own, they either don’t know what areas to hit or just rollout their hamstrings and quads for a few minutes and call it a day. I prefer to add this in to the warm-up because if it is done after the workout then that just delays the amount of time before they can refuel their bodies with something to eat.

Extra Mobility Work: If you have an athlete that needs to improve upon their flexibility, this may be the best day to add in some extra stretching and mobility work. You don’t need to go crazy with the stretching here but a little extra might help. This type of work could also be in the form of a squat walk series that puts the athlete in greater ranges of motion than they are use to. Also keep in mind that on strength days if they are hitting nice deep(and safe) ranges of motion, then this is also going to address some mobility issues that may exist.

Extensive Tempo: This is what I commonly see coaches add in to the training on recovery days. These runs are usually done at a pace of 60-80% and recovery is pretty short. I personally like to stay between 65-75% depending on the day and keep volume capped at 2400 meters for my long sprinters. Most of the time they wouldn’t even be over 1600 meters in total volume though. Emphasis should always be kept on running with good mechanics. Don’t allow your athletes to get sloppy with their posture and form here. Keep in mind that extensive tempo could be in the form of 50m buildups with a walk back recovery focusing on technique and posture. It could also take the form of a pool, bike, or row workout. This is another way to cut down on the pounding especially if you have an injured athlete.

General Strength Circuits: I am a huge fan of doing bodyweight exercises for my athletes. Usually these are in the form of alternating between upper, lower, and core exercises. You could also have some core specific circuits in here as well. These can be done for time or for reps. If you have an athlete go through 15 exercises for 12 reps each with no rest then they will probably be pretty gassed at the end with a similar training affect as the tempo runs minus the pounding of the lower body.

Bodybuilding Circuits: Weight room circuit training can feel very similar to the general strength circuits only you have more of an external load to work with. These type of circuits have been said to help release more hormones which can lead to greater recovery. The key here is to make sure your athletes aren’t going too heavy or too light. Typically when the athlete finishes the set, they should have been able to complete a few more reps and shouldn’t feel like they are straining too much. At the same time, make sure your athlete isn’t swinging around a 5 lb. plate wasting time. These circuits can be done for time or for rep counts as well. If you don’t have access to a weight room or don’t want to drag your team in there on a recovery day, you can always use a barbell or some weight plates and make up your own circuit to do somewhere else.

Medicine Ball Circuits: Using strictly a medicine ball and your body weight as the load, you can get pretty creative and do some very tough and functional circuits with these. Typically these are done for time or rep count and have a similar training affect as general strength circuits.

Jump Circuits: These are not to be confused with plyometrics, although I see a lot of coaches do this type of work and call it plyos. I prefer to do jump circuits in the grass or sand as it cuts down on some of the pounding and controls the intensity a bit more. Usually I do them for time but they could certainly be done for rep counts. Emphasis for these should be on posture and proper foot contacts with this type of work. Rest should be incomplete for these circuits and a variety of different exercises should be used.

General Endurance Circuits: These hellish circuits are great for building or maintaining work capacity. This type of work usually takes the form of general strength exercises, sprint drills, and running all done continuously. You could use other tools as well. The great thing with these circuits is that you get a lot of bang for your buck. You can work on general strength and focus on good posture and running mechanics in a fatigued state while cutting down on some of the pounding and improper form you see with something like repeat 400’s. If you ask an athlete how they feel afterwards, they will tell you that these circuits are no joke. These circuits can last anywhere from 3-12 minutes in length and can be done a few times in one session.

Scrambles: This type of training is very similar to the general endurance work but it is a little more specific in prescription. Scrambles usually consist of a general strength exercises followed by a “sprint off.” The sprint off is done in a fatigued state so actual percentages of max velocity are often only around 80% or less, so the coach doesn’t need to worry about CNS fatigue for this one. The way I have used scrambles is by taking a general strength circuit containing 10-15 exercises and have the athlete perform the first exercise for 20-30” followed by an immediate sprint off. The athlete will then have the remaining time in that minute to walk back to the start before starting the second exercise and continuing through with sprints after each time interval.

I am sure there are a many other tools out there that you as a coach or athlete might be using. The key thing to remember is to make sure it is still a recovery day and fits in to the context of your training plan. Anyone can train hard but having the knowledge and discipline to allow yourself or your athletes to recover can often be the missing ingredient. What are your favorite recovery modalities to use with your athletes?

About the Author

Eric Broadbent is a certified USA Track and Field Level 2 Coach, Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), holds USTFCCCA Track & Field Technical Certification, and a USA Weightlifting Sport Performance Coach.  He also has over 6 years of coaching experience including coaching at North Carolina State and West Chester University.  As an athlete, he won the USATF 2012 Indoor Heptathlon and was an Olympic Trials Qualifier.  That same year he represented the US in the Pan American Cup and took 2nd place.  As a national level competitor he also had top 6 finishes at the 2009 and 2010 Indoor Combined Events Championship and finished 10th at the 2011 Outdoor National Championships.

  • Thanks for sharing. I like the article, with a few exceptions…

    1) I think almost any jumping exercises will tax the CNS system too much. Even if you are in sand or soft grass, jumping requires a lot of force production and landing is also strenuous. If you tone down the intensity of it so much that it isn’t taxing the system, then what’s the point? You should do tempo’s which are more specific to the event and help reinforce correct running technique and posture.

    2) Your general description of bodybuilding exercises is troublesome and could mislead a lot of people. I often hear track coaches talk about this, and wonder what they all specifically mean. You definitely do not want to be doing hypertrophy training on your legs(and I would say even your arms) on off days! The goal of bodybuilding exercises is solely to break down the muscle to grow the muscle larger, and that is not what you want most sprinters to be doing! True bodybuilding causes the most soreness and is NOT recovery work. If you have something else in mind then please be more specific and use another term, as this is very misleading.

    3) Just to add to the medicine ball section. Most elite coaches will tell you that they do medicine ball circuits as much for the diagnoses of movement and functionality as the actual training effect it provides the athlete. As with tempo running, which you point out, the coach should make sure to watch the athlete closely to observe and correct poor movement patterns and diagnose postural functional deficiencies to work on. (One further caution… medicine ball throws can also have very high CNS demands, depending on how you do them)

  • Hey Coach,
    Thanks for the feedback. I agree with you in that certain jump exercises can be considered too intense and may not be the best option for everyone but I am not proposing that they do any true plyometrics. Most of the time these exercises are done for 20-30 seconds at a time with incomplete rest. They become limited in intensity because of the fatigue that sets in so naturally the intensity is dropped. The athletes know this going in or figure it out very quickly after the first few exercises and then they know not to go bananas to start therefor controlling the intensity from the get go. I think these circuits are great for the preparing the body to do more plyometric type exercises because they aren’t as taxing on the body as ploys but you are still working on similar aspects that you will be teaching down the road with ploys such as proper foot contacts, body positions, and general posture. Another benefit of this type of work is that it can improve general leg stiffness and protect the body from shin splints down the road if implemented the right way. You mention doing tempo’s as they are more specific but if this type of work were to be done for a jumper early on the general prep phase then the jumping exercises would be more specific and in my opinion a better option to prepare the body for their event. Lastly, I think these circuits are great for younger athletes who have no business doing plyometrics.
    With regards to the body building circuits, I agree with you in that the name of them is misleading and it could cause some confusion. I prefer to call them weight lifting circuits and associate them more as a cross breed between true hypertrophy work and muscular endurance lifting work. The athlete might experience some soreness through the first session with this type of work but that is generally the only time they will experience it. I also only like to do this work during the general prep and phase out during specific prep. Additionally, the athlete isn’t going to failure or even close to failure for any lifts like you would see with hypertrophy work. I don’t think experiencing some hypertrophy is necessarily a bad thing especially since your strength work that you are concurrently doing is going to add some size to the athlete as well. The key is to make sure it is functional strength and to monitor how the athlete responds to the various strength exercises.
    The medicine ball circuits that I do are also mainly fatigued controlled intensity as well because of the high rep or timed nature of the exercises. We do a separate multi throws series that I use for power development and I love having my athletes throw medicine balls! I think its a great tool.

    • Hi Eric,

      Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. I really appreciate your response and thoroughness! I didn’t have any hopes of hearing back from the author, so this is great.

      As to your points… Thanks for clarifying. I definitely understand and see the benefit of doing these types of things in the GPP phase. I also incorporate jumping circuits and hypertrophy work during the GPP and even a little bit into my next cycle, depending on how much time I have with the athlete before season. I guess I was just thinking about during the year, or in the thick of intense training. With that being said, I still set them up during that phase as my harder days, and probably give a bit more rest and less volume than you would so the intensity is a bit higher. In summary, those two types of workouts that I mentioned I see more as GPP than recovery work, because from my own experience as an athlete, even when in shape, they produced a significant amount of soreness and wouldn’t want to do after or before an intense full speed session. All the others I would, and do, use.

      To your next question… How strong/big/functional is ____ enough…etc? Well… I would honestly attribute the difference sizes of most track athletes as much to their natural somatotype as to their training. Muna Lee is never going to be big, neither is Allyson Felix or Kirani James or the Borlee brothers, and they clearly do well without the bulk. I spoke to hypertrophy, more in terms of the excessive soreness it produces which limit the ability to sprint at high velocities, than to the muscle the athlete is trying to put on. And, of course at some levels, and especially in the GPP you, you might want to put some meat on a kid.

      Thanks again for the article and the response. I can get nit-picky with details and semantics…too many philosophy classes in school, and seeing too many people who look up things on the internet and just start mashing stuff together and over train and hurt themselves. In this information age discernment and wisdom are rarely cultivated.

  • Coach,

    “How big is big enough?”…”How strong is strong enough?”…”How functional is functional enough?”…these are all legitimate questions to ask based on one’s training age, but should we expect the Mens’ 100 meter final in Rio to be run by a bunch of Muna Lee look-a-likes?

  • Coach,
    Similar to yourself, I think poorly timed DOMS or stiffness is undesirable and should be limited to GPP. I do think a well designed program will, over time, steer an athlete to towards the requisite physique found in the sprint events. I like Eric’s article in that it encourages coaches and athletes to be productive on their low intensity days. You bring up an excellent point about coaches mashing things together in an inappropriate way. The concept of general strength on recovery days seems to popping up more and more. The high school indoor track season is now upon us which, for most, means 10-14 days to train before your first meet. When I hear of kids sprinting and lifting lower body on one day then coming back the very next day with some general strength work that involves the legs, the line between workout and recovery gets a little blurred in my eyes.