When designing a training program, how much emphasis do you place on the workout parameters (load, frequency, reps, sets, volume, etc.) vs. your recovery between workouts? You may have heard that recovery is important, but you’re not quite sure how important or what that even means. In truth, recovery after a workout is just as important as the workout itself. Without adequate recovery, you won’t achieve the intended outcome of your training.
Workouts are merely a stimulus. They represent a stress applied to the body with the intention of creating adaptation. The actual change, or adaptation, takes place AFTER the workout during your recovery period. Recovery quality will determine whether your training is successful in attaining your goals. If your workouts are too intense, too close together, or include too much volume without adequate recovery, the stress will be more than your body can handle. In essence, you will be creating negative stress that compounds and breaks your body down rather than providing an impetus for positive adaptation and growth. It’s time to let go of the “no pain, no gain” mentality and give recovery the attention it deserves.
Recovery vs. Rest
Recovery and rest are distinctly different. While rest is an important part of recovery, rest alone does not constitute optimal recovery. Although we do not want to create further high stress during the recovery period, movement and activity are actually crucial to expedite the recovery process and improve adaptation. Complete rest creates stagnation. Waste products in the muscles that were just worked are not properly cleared and factors that promote muscle repair and growth are not delivered. Gentle movement increases blood flow, boosting both waste clearance and delivery of growth factors.
How Much Recovery is Best?
Surprise, surprise there is no one-size-fits-all rule for recovery. The amount of recovery someone needs depends on training factors including the intensity, volume, and frequency of training. It also depends on individual characteristics such as physical fitness, training age (how long you’ve been doing this type of training), overall health, stress levels, biological age, etc. Additionally, the quality of recovery strongly influences its efficiency – more on this later.
The best way to determine how much recovery you need is through a combination of listening to your body and paying attention to measurable physical parameters that can offer a window into your physical preparedness. In the “no pain, no gain” ethos we’ve all been force-fed at some point, the message is to keep pushing regardless of how your body feels. It can be challenging to overcome this mentality and learn to tune into your physical sensations. Practice feeling into your body and learn to let the messages it sends you guide your training and recovery.
The Body Knows Best
If you still feel tired, stiff, and sore from your last training session there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll benefit from more recovery time before your next workout. ALWAYS feeling stiff, sore, tired, and experiencing declining athletic performance are sure signs of chronic overtraining without adequate and effective recovery. If you find that every time you train, you’re sore and fatigued for more than two days after, something about your training needs to change. Decrease the intensity, volume, or both to a level of stress that your body is able to recover from and adapt to over time. Long-term overtraining with poor recovery will ultimately lead to illness or injury as your body breaks down over time.
Using Biometric Data
Two of the best metrics to track as it relates to workout recovery are resting heart rate (RHR) and heart rate variability (HRV). Using a wearable device to track your heart rate over time will give you a baseline average for how fast your heart beats at rest, your RHR. If your RHR is higher than normal (even by 4-5 BPM) there’s a chance you may need more time to recover.
HRV is a measure of the variability in the length of time between heart beats. HRV, like RHR, varies greatly between individuals. The best way to use HRV is to use a device to track yours over time so that you can recognize trends. HRV gradually trending up over time may indicate improving fitness levels, while long-term trends down indicate a reduction in fitness. If your HRV is abnormally high or low based on your long-term trends, that’s a sign your body may need more recovery time.
Recommended Recovery Tools and Activities
Here is a list of tools and activities that can be helpful for recovery in no particular order:
Walking is an excellent recovery activity as it increases circulation/blood flow and creates gentle movement that will prevent muscle stiffness and speed adaptation.
Similar to walking, just make sure the hike is not too long and doesn’t involve large changes in elevation.
Low intensity active mobility work is an excellent recovery activity. Follow this link to download a free e-book with my favorite daily mobility routine.
Play Casual Physical Games or Sports
The possibilities here are endless. Some options: play catch at the park with a frisbee or ball, kick a soccer ball, play Kan-Jam, play cornhole, run around with your dog, play Spikeball, etc.
This one comes with the caveat that its suitability as a recovery activity is highly dependent on your fitness level and how much/how regularly you run. For those who run frequently and are well adapted to running, a light jog might be an excellent recovery activity. If you rarely run or are new to running, jogging may be too high a load for a recovery activity. In that case, stick to walking.
Easy Bike Rides
Emphasis on easy. Remember, the goal is just to get moving and create some blood flow. It shouldn’t feel like a workout, so if you live in an area with lots of hills this may not be the best option.
Breathwork is an excellent way to boost recovery. In order for your body to recover well, your nervous system needs to be in rest mode. Physiologically, that equates to higher parasympathetic nervous system activation. Check out my previous posts on the autonomic nervous system, how we breathe, and box breathing to learn more.
I’m not talking about the type of deep tissue massage that makes you feel like crying. A gentle relaxing massage can calm your nervous system, improve circulation, and help to relax muscles that are tight or sore.
Acupuncture is another great option to shift your nervous system to more parasympathetic activation. It can also improve circulation and promote muscle relaxation.
Sauna, Steam, or Hot Tub
There is mixed evidence for efficacy here. Some studies show positive impacts on recovery, while others show the opposite. If you find them helpful, go for it. Keep in mind that too much heat can increase stress levels and delay recovery, so practice a less-is-more approach.
While ice baths have been shown to produce a whole host of positive physiological and neurological benefits, recent evidence is indicating that they may not be the best post-workout recovery tool. Ice baths post-workout may reduce muscle growth and strength gains. Thus, ice baths are better utilized pre-workout or toward the end of your recovery period (not the day of training).
Using bodyweight or extremely light loads (think 10-20% of your 1RM) for workouts in a rep range that is far below the threshold of fatigue can be beneficial for recovery. Again, this serves the purpose of increasing blood flow and has the added benefit of being able to target the movement to the muscles that need it most.
Meditation has wide-reaching benefits for physical and emotional well-being. As a recovery tool, meditation will increase parasympathetic nervous system activation and reduce stress levels. Check out my previous post on meditation for some tips to help you get started.
Tired of Feeling Stiff?
Download this free e-book to learn a simple daily mobility routine for stronger joints, less stiffness, increased mobility, and better athletic performance!
How to Recover More Efficiently
There are a number of ways that you can improve your workout recovery efficiency. The good news is that most of them have a positive impact on your overall health independent of exercise. Please keep in mind that every individual is different and my recommendations are general by nature. Do not take any supplements or drastically change your nutrition habits without first consulting with a medical professional.
Hydration Hydration Hydration
Hydration is one of the most important factors in overall health and exercise recovery. Most of us do not drink enough water, so don’t overlook the potential impact of better hydration habits. Water is key in hydration, but proper absorption and utilization of water also requires electrolytes. Electrolyte supplementation can be helpful before or after intense workouts to restore electrolyte balance.
Nutrition is a complex topic and every body responds differently. Accordingly, I will not make any specific recommendations here. Just know that ensuring that you are consuming enough protein as part of a balanced diet is crucial for athletic performance, workout recovery, and muscle growth. If you’re not sure how your current diet stacks up, do some research and consider working with a dietician.
Avoid Alcohol and Tobacco
This should go without saying, but alcohol and tobacco products are both straight up poison for your body. They are bad for your health overall and can seriously impair your body’s ability to recover from all types of stress – including a workout.
An appropriate amount of high quality sleep is absolutely essential for all aspects of physical and mental health. Workout recovery is no exception. This is a huge topic and something that I have personally struggled with, so I do plan to write a full post on it at some point. One of my favorite resources that has helped me immensely is this podcast episode by Andrew Huberman.
There are countless supplements on the market that claim to boost workout gains and improve recovery. Two of the most well-supported by research (and the only ones that I personally use) are Creatine Monohydrate and Whey Protein. Again, please consult with a medical professional before taking any new supplements.
Reduce Stress Levels
Chronically high stress prevents your body from ever fully entering the rest/relax parasympathetic state necessary for effective recovery. There are lots of strategies available for stress reduction. Try out some breathwork (like box breathing), meditation, widening your visual field, spending time in nature, or even blocking time on your schedule to just do nothing.
Optimize Your Training Load
I touched on this earlier, but if your training load is too high it will stress your body to the point that it will not be able to adapt positively. Make sure that your training is challenging, but not so difficult that it breaks you down. This can be a tough balance for a lot of people. If you’re having a hard time, consider working with a personal trainer or physical therapist to guide your training.
Address Any Underlying Health Conditions
If you have any health conditions that you’ve been choosing to ignore, they could be negatively impacting your ability to recover from workouts. Get those things taken care of now so that the work you’re putting in has a better chance of paying off. If you’re not sure where you stand, set up an appointment for a physical and get some comprehensive bloodwork done. That’s the best way to find out where you stand and how you can improve.
To sum things up, properly programmed workouts should place your body under just enough stress that it creates a positive adaptation. After this stress is applied, you must optimize conditions for your body to recover so that it can produce the desired changes. It is during the recovery that the gains from your training are actually realized, the workout itself is simply the stimulus. You now have plenty of new tools to help you optimize your workout recovery. I’m confident that you’ll see more progress if you implement these strategies.
Hit me up if you have questions or want to discuss your workout programming and recovery.
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Health Advice Disclaimer
This article provides examples that are applicable to many, but not all people. They are based on typical presentations seen in my personal clinical practice. This information represents common findings in the population discussed, but can in no way take the place of professional evaluation and treatment by a licensed medical practitioner. It is impossible to provide 100% accurate diagnosis or prognosis without a thorough physical examination and likewise the advice given for management or prevention of any injury cannot be deemed fully accurate in the absence of this examination.
If you are currently experiencing any pain or injury, seek professional evaluation before undertaking this or any exercise program. Ensure that you are medically cleared for exercise before undertaking any exercise program. Significant injury risk may occur if you do not seek proper evaluation. No guarantees of specific outcome are expressly made or implied in this article.