Finding The Right Balance Between The Workout-To-Recovery Ratio

When you begin a new workout routine you always need to remember to pace yourself with the workouts. The most common mistake I see in the fitness world is people coming in to a workout routine at full blast and doing way too much too soon. You will also have to remember that there has to be a ‘little pain for a little gain’ in strength gain when starting new workouts. Be patient in the beginning and take it by stride. Body at rest.. stays at rest. Bodies in motion, stay in motion! Simple as that… In my experience training on the U.S. National Rowing Team from 2002-2006 I trained hard everyday for 3-5 hours with almost no time off. The mentality was that more is better. More weights, more racing, more physical testing on the rowing machines, more time practicing and training. I found that when I moved home from Princeton, N.J. to train during the winter months that I actually gained more strength and confidence by training less. It was finding that right balance between practices and training regiments. In 2003 I trained on my own in Long Beach with no coaching for 3 months and went back to New Jersey to race in the speed orders and finished 6th overall in the single after coming in 12th earlier in the year. Ultimately at the time I realized that I was being over-trained and actually getting slower under the supervision of the National Team Coaches. Coming in 6th overall in the U.S. led me to believe that I had the concentration and determination to train on my own and pick Ted Nash as my coach in Philadelphia under the prestigious Penn A.C. rowing program. I felt that a balance between the two National Team programs was the best fit for me at the time. Finding the balance of workout times and exertion is key to getting the most out of your workouts over an extended amount of time!

The best training program manages the F.I.T.T. Principal most efficiently. This principal is a set of rules that must be adhered to in order to benefit from any form of fitness training program. These rules relate to the Frequency, Intensity, Type and Time (FITT) of exercise…Frequency, Intensity, Time, and Type of Exercise; how well you adjust to it depends on individual responses to the physiological and psychological stress applied to the plan. Getting this wrong can have serious consequences for your training and racing. Fatigue needs to be kept in check in order to stay on the positive side of adaptation.

**FREQUENCY (Most Important)

Following any form of fitness training, the body goes through a process of rebuild and repair to replenish its energy reserves consumed by the exercise. The frequency of exercise is a fine balance between providing just enough stress for the body to adapt to and allowing enough time for healing and adaptation to occur…

Cardio-Respiratory Training
The guidelines for cardio-respiratory training (also called aerobic conditioning) is a minimum of three sessions per week and ideally five or six sessions per week. Experts suggest that little or no benefit is attained over and above this amount.  Of course athletes often fall outside the suggested guidelines but even elite performers must give themselves time to rest.

Resistance Training
The frequency of resistance training is dependent upon the particular individual and format of the program.  For example, a program that works every body part every session should be completed 3-4 days a week with a day’s rest between sessions. On the other hand, a program that focuses on just one or two  body parts per session, in theory you could be completed as frequently as six days per week.  Many bodybuilders follow such a routine. Remember though, each time you complete a strenuous strength training session (regardless of the body part) you are taxing your body as a whole – including all the physiological systems and major organs.


The second rule in the FITT principle relates to intensity.  It defines the amount of effort that should be invested in a training program or any one session. Like the first FITT principle – frequency – there must be a balance between finding enough intensity to overload the body (so it can adapt) but not so much that it causes over-training. Heart rate can be used to measure the intensity of cardio-respiratory training.  Workload is used to define the intensity of resistance training.

Cardio-Respiratory Training
Heart rate is the primary measure of intensity in aerobic endurance training.  Ideally before you start an aerobic training program a target heart rate zone should first be determined. The target heart rate zone is a function of both your fitness level and age.  Here’s a quick method for determining your target heart rate…

Heart Rate & Maximum Heart Rate
Heart rate is measured as beats per minute (bpm). Heart rate can be monitored and measured by taking your pulse at the wrist, arm or neck. An approximation of maximum heart rate (MHR) can also be calculated as follows: MHR  =  220  –  age.

Target Heart Rate
For beginners a target heart rate zone of 50-70 percent of their maximum of heart rate is a good place to start.  So if, for example, you are 40 years old that gives you a predicted maximum heart rate of 180 (220 – 40).  Multiply 180 by 50% and 70% and your reach a target zone of 90bpm – 126bpm. For fitter, more advanced individuals, a target heart rate zone of 70-85 percent of their maximum of heart rate may be more appropriate.  Staying with the example above, that 40 year old now has a heart rate zone of 126bpm – 153bpm. There are limitations with heart rate and the heart rate reserve method, while no means flawless, may be a more accurate way to determine exercise intensity. For resistance training, workload is the primary measure of intensity.  Workload can have three components:  The amount of weight lifted during an exercise and the number of repetitions completed for a particular exercise. The length of time to complete all exercises in a set or total training session. So, you can increase workload by lifting heavier weights.  Or you could increase the number of repetitions with the same weight.  Finally, you could lift the same weight for the same number of repetitions but decrease the rest time between sets. However, only increase the intnesity using one of the above parameters.  Do not increase weight and decrease rest time in the same session for example.


The third component in the FITT principle dictates what type or kind of exercise you should choose to achieve the appropriate training response.

Cardio-Respiratory Training
Using the FITT principle, the best type of exercise to tax or improve the cardiovascular system should be continuous in nature and make use of large muscle groups.  Examples include running, walking, swimming, dancing, cycling, aerobics classes, circuit training, cycling etc.

Resistance Training
This is fairly obvious too.  The best form of exercise to stress the neuromuscular system is resistance training.  But resistance training does not neccessarily mean lifting weights.  Resistance bands could be used as an alternative or perhaps a circuit training session that only incorporates bodyweight exercises.


The final component in the FITT principle of training is time – or how long you should be exercising for.  Is longer better?

Cardio Respiratory Training
Individuals with lower fitness levels should aim to maintain their heart rate within the target heart rate zone for a minimum of 20-30 minutes. This can increase to as much as 45-60 minutes as fitness levels increase. Beyond the 45-60 minute mark there are diminished returns.  For all that extra effort, the associated benefits are minimal. This also applies to many athletes.  Beyond a certain point they run the risk of overtraining and injury.  There are exceptions however – typically the ultra-long distance endurance athletes. In terms of the duration of the program as a whole, research suggests a minimum of 6 weeks is required to see noticeable improvement and as much as a year or more before a peak in fitness is reached.

Resistance Training
The common consensus for the duration of resistance training session is no longer than 45-60 minutes.  Again, intensity has a say and particularly grueling strength sessions may last as little as 20 – 30 minutes. Perhaps the most important principle of training (that ironically doesn’t have it’s own letter in the FITT principle) is rest.  Exercising too frequently and too intensely hinders the body’s ability to recover and adapt.  As a rule of thumb, the harder you train, the more recovery you should allow for.  Unfortunately many athletes don’t have that luxury!

In a article written in Rowing News Magazine in Oct. 2008 it discusses the balance of finding your right work-to-recovery ratio.

Training-induced fatigue reduces the capacity of the neuromuscular and metabolic systems to function properly. Neuromuscular fatigue involves the central nervous system; activity alternated between exciting and inhibiting nerve cells. Good performance’s are produced by a controlled, excited state of the nerve impulses. When fatigue develops, nerve cells go into a state of inhibition, which makes muscles weaker and causes them to work slower than normal. Prolonged training in this condition without rest leads to further exhaustion of the nerve cells. Balancing the demands of training with individual levels of tolerance is key to continued progress and critical to avoiding over-training syndrome. Over-training happens unexpectedly; you start to see good results, get excited, and overextend yourself by increasing intensity and duration more than you should. Short-term over-training, also known as overreaching, can be reversed by a more prolonged period of regeneration. Daily fatigue should not be confused with a failure to adapt, and will subside after a few days of light activity, rest, and a carbohydrate-rich diet. Failure to adapt is signaled by a sense of staleness for more than two weeks and an overall feeling of heaviness in the muscles. Sympathetic over-training refers to an over-stressing of the athlete’s emotional state while parasympathetic over-training results from an increase in the central nervous system’s inhibition processes. Symptoms include an increase in illness, muscle tension, elevation of resting heart rate, depression, and frustration or a decrease in will power, concentration, performance, appetite, or quality of sleep. If you suspect that you or a member of your crew is experiencing early symptoms of over-training take two to three days off followed by three to four days of easy cross-training. Prevention is key; try balancing your stress and recovery levels on a daily basis. Daily stress factors include the hours of training, intensity of training, amount of competition, intensity of competition, and stress from travel, home, life, work, or school. To help with recovery, get more than seven hours sleep a night, nap, get a massage, eat fresh, low-fat foods rich in carbohydrates and protein, try meditating or yoga, and stay hydrated. A high level of stress combined with a low level of recovery will lead to over-training. In contrast, too much recovery without enough stress leads to boredom and a decrease in fitness. The secret to peak performance is finding the right balance between the two.’ 🙂


Your diet plays a huge role in your muscle building program.  It helps regulate hormone levels, provides energy, and provides the raw building blocks that are used to create new tissue. Here are some dietary recommendations that will limit the chance of over-training:

*Do not skip breakfast.  This is one of the most important meals of the day.  Skipping breakfast is very catabolic, and can promote muscle loss.

*Never let yourself get hungry.  If you’re trying to build muscle mass, you have to constantly feed your body quality foods so that it never has the chance catabolize muscle tissue.

*Unless you are trying to build muscle and lose fat, make sure you have eaten prior to your training session and are not hungry.

*Have the largest meal of the day within an hour after your workout. Do this every single workout!

*Consider taking proven supplements like Juice Plus Complete and Juice Plus Capsules ( increase performance and fight free radicals.

*Eat every 2-3 hours to ensure that your body remains in an anabolic state.

*Keep glycogen levels at full capacity to inhibit muscle tissue breakdown. 

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Jack Nunn

Jack Nunn is the head trainer and owner of Roworx. Jack is a former national team rower who has competed in more than 100 triathlons, including 9 full Ironmans. He has created a system of rowing that prepares the whole body for both competition and fitness longevity.

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