Atheletic performance is as much about the rest, repair and regeneration of muscles as it is about the actual atheletic endevour. Muscles build strength and tone in the recovery period after exercise. During the exercise, when muscles are exerted to a higher work load than normal, the fibres are damaged and torn. The body responses to this by building more fibres and therefore more strength in the muscle. The same goes for tendons, ligaments and bone. If the tissue sustains micro damage from increased forces, the body repairs the tissue and strengthens it so it can sustain those same forces next time without damage. The body adapts to the demands of the environment in an incredible way!
Fitness for performance is therefore a balance between exercise and rest. Exercise with too little rest leads to injury from over use. Exercise with too much rest allows the body to start to break down some of the strength built as the body will adapt to a lowered damand quicker than the increased demand. When we develop a training program we often only think of the exercises but the time between training is most important! It's all about the recovery!
How long should the rest between training be?
To work out how long the rest period should be, you need to consider the following:
More intense exercise will take longer to recover from. Intensity is measured by energy used per unit of time. So an exercise that requires lots of energy for short bursts of time such as a show jumping round or a dog agility course could be the same intensity as an endurance ride or hike with your dog. We can estimate the energy expenditure of our animals by their breathing rate. If you're hacking or walking your dog they might have an increased breathing rate some of the time such as going up hill or if you increase the pace. Or if you do a short burst of higher intensity exercise they might have an increased breathing rate the whole time. In daily life, this is quite subjective but you can catagorise your training intensity by taking note of their breathing rate as normal, moderate increase and high increase and for how long during your exercise session.
The current fitness of your animal will determine how efficient the body is at repair. Not only does exercise adapt the musculoskeltal system to the workload but the cardiovascular system too. With regular exercise the blood supply to tissue increases, which then aids the recovery of tissue by supplying nutriants and removing toxins needed during healing. The age of the animal can also effect the current fitness as repair can take longer in the older animal.
The type of exercise will also effect the length of time between exercise sessions. Cross training is by far the most effective way to increase performance. By varying the exercise type, the demands on the body are different therefore allowing some areas longer to recover while you train a different area. This is most commonly seen in weight lifters when they train upper body, core and legs on different days. For horses this could be jumping one day, flatwork, hacking or ground work another. With dogs this could be a long hike, a short run/Canicross, agility or physio prescribed exercises. When we only do the same type of exercise with our animals, this can leads to repetative strain injury.
So how can we reduce the recovery time needed to increase performance fitness?
So if the balance is between rest and exercise, the biggest factor in progression is the rest period. By reducing the rest period you can train more and compete more whilst keeping the risk of injury to a minimum. The best way to reduce the recovery time is to provide the optimum conditions for repair.
Correct nutrition to provide all the nutrients and minerals needed for repair. It is essential to provide a well balance diet that includes: all the essential vitamins and minerals required, protein for muscle repair, fibre for gut health (you can't expect them to perform their best with an unsettled gut!), carbohydrates and fat for energy. To further provide optimum conditions, timing post workout feeds to provide the neccessary sugar and electrolytes needed after exercise.
Increasing blood flow by gentle walking and stretching. After exercise there is a build up of lactic acid from anaerobic respiration and toxins from the micro damage to muscles. This causes the muscles to become stiff and painful, increasing recovery time. Static stretches are useful for increasing flexibilty in the muscles that are being worked but dynamic stretches are best for increasing blood flow. These can be done through baited stretches by following a treat to create a stretch through the neck and spine. Shake paw or leg stretches can be done a few times without holding the stretch or simply allowing them to "walk it off".
Massage of the muscles, by you as an owner, can be done my rubbing through the muscle, using massage mits or balls or with vibration devices such as Equilibrium massage products. This should be done under the instruction of your animal physiotherapist and never over done as this can cause muscle injury!
Physiotherapy for a cool down or post event treatment combined with the use of Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Therapy (PEMF) to optimise cell conditions for repair and increase blood flow. The use of Red light Phototherapy will also provide pain relief and aid muscle healing during the recovery period. These techniques have an effect on the cellular environment and can help the body transition through the healing and inflammatory process in the most efficient and effective way.
Thermotherapy by using a combination of hot and cold applications can help the blood flow increase and decrease to allow the body to supply nutrient and remove toxins while reducing damage that maybe caused by the inflammtion that comes with the micro damage to muscles. Cold therapy for 10 minutes post event then allowing the body to warm again naturally before later applying a gentle heat for 20-30 minutes. For the best directions on how to do this safely, follow instruction from your animal physiotherapist.
So when prepairing for their next event or thinking about your training after an intense exercise session, prepare for recovery as well. Planning recovery as much as you plan for exercise is the key to optimising performance and progression.