We all know that if improvements are to be made to performance or general health and fitness goals, commitment to training is vital. However, rest and recovery are critical components of any successful training program also - I'm going to strongly suggest here it is at least 50% of the equation! Yet rest and recovery are the least planned and underutilized ways to enhance performance.
The opportunity for muscle growth begins when exercise finishes. Muscles do not grow in the gym or during activity. When we exercise our muscles are broken down and microtears occur (process known as catabolism). When exercise stops the recovery process begins, however, without a prioritized post work out recovery regime, recovery will not occur efficiently and “gains” will not be made - indeed decline in many areas may occur which would lead to fatigue, frustration and failure on many levels.
You may not be aware there is a difference between rest and recovery or how to properly implement them both.
Most easily defined as a combination of sleep and time spent not training, rest is the easiest to understand and implement. How you sleep and spend this time is very critical.
Recovery, however, refers to techniques and actions taken to maximize your body’s repair. These include hydration, nutrition, posture, heat, ice, stretching, self-myofascial release, stress management, and compression. Recovery is multifaceted and encompasses more than just muscle repair. We have different systems that need to recover. These include hormonal, neurological, and structural.
Our structural system includes muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones. Muscles recover the quickest because they receive direct blood flow. Tendons, ligaments, and bones receive indirect blood flow and therefore can take longer to recover and be more susceptible to overtraining stress.
Below we break down the subcomponents of rest and recovery to provide you with better insight on how to improve performance and overall quality of life. A healthy and happy athlete not only performs better, but is more resilient (injury, colds etc.). Whereas one that has a strong training regimen but does not adequately rest and recover will be injury prone and experience fatigue, lowering your immune response and making you more susceptible to illness. The answer is simple - Train hard is great, but train smart is essential.
Sleep is the most important time to recover. Adequate levels of sleep help to provide mental health, hormonal balance, and muscular recovery. You need to get enough sleep, which is between seven to ten hours for most with eight hours being the standard recommended amount. Everyone has individual needs based on their lifestyle, workouts, and genetic makeup.
Research has shown that going to bed early is proven to be more effective than going to bed late.
Sleep in the most natural setting possible, with minimal to no artificial lights.
Wakeup with the sun if possible.
Fresh air and cooler temperatures help to improve the quality of sleep.
Some individuals may have to make sacrifices and changes in daily routines in order to achieve this, by perhaps cutting time watching TV for example.
Remaining hydrated is key to remain healthy, stay energized, enhance recovery and perform at an optimum level. Many athletes often pay close attention to hydration during competition, however, frequently fail to pay attention during training and recovery, which can sometimes have just as much of an impact. Water has many functions within the body, from being part of muscle contraction process, to allowing the heart to pump blood more easily, whilst also improving skin tone, hair quality and flushing toxins created by exercise out of the body.
There are many ways to understand hydration levels such as studying osmolality (measure of solutes) of urine, or using dip sticks, however, the simplest way is to look at the color of the urine. If it is a clear, yellowy color you are hydrated, but if it becomes a darker yellow, brown, or black, dehydration has set in and water must be consumed. Some tips;
Try to consume at least 2 litres of water per day.
Drinking sports drinks can aid recovery and performance both pre and post workout, as they contain various ingredients such as electrolytes which aid muscular function, however these only need to be consumed in or around any session.
Keep an eye on urine color to determine your own hydration levels easily.
In this day and age everyone knows that what you eat can affect your body, food has the ability to either help or hinder your body.
Food is fuel, when we exercise we burn fuel, this therefore means that once we have finished exercising, re-fuelling must take place in order to allow muscles to recover. Research has shown that the correct fuelling both pre and post working can reap benefits. Ensuring that energy levels are optimized and restored by consuming complex carbohydrates, such as oats, potatoes, and rice, whilst also ensuring that muscles have a adequate supply of protein for repair can make the difference between taking a week to recover or two days.
Recent academic literature suggests the use of various supplements to aid recovery alongside a balanced diet. Some examples include; Omega 3, found to reduce muscle soreness after exercise, green tea promotes weight loss, antioxidants, such as black currents, reduce inflammation and fatigue and whey protein shakes can help to ingest protein quantities rapidly after exercise.
It can be difficult to make the correct nutritional choices with a busy lifestyle, but what is key is that you are enjoying the food you are eating, it is important to not let nutrition over rule your life. Here are some tips to help achieve a clean diet;
Plan and cook meals in advance, for example, shop for and cook all meals during one day of the week.
Eat clean foods that aren’t processed and consume a balanced diet.
Consume complex carbohydrates (rice, potatoes, pasta) and lean proteins (chicken, turkey) at a ratio of 2:1 both pre and post workouts.
Use some nutritional supplements alongside a balanced diet and enjoy food!
This is one of the least focused on areas in North American culture. We on average spend more time sitting than any other country in the world, and as a general trend have bad posture. This is not a restful position; sitting or standing with bad posture is harmful. It can lead to back or neck pain, specifically for those with desk jobs.
Find a chair that is ergonomically correct or, I'd suggest use a stability ball instead!
If you struggle to sit upright use a foam roller or ball in your back to give you a tactile cue and help force good posture.
Don’t lean to one side or on an object for support while standing.
Hang (from a bar/door frame) and sit in a resting squat position for at least 10 mins each day.
Stretching is important as it allows our muscles to remain flexible and helps to remove tightness. It is important to include stretching in workouts, with dynamic stretches before and static after. Stretching helps to remove muscular tension and can therefore reduce muscle soreness after workouts. Try to find areas of tightness within your muscles and work on them, vary the stretches used and keep at it. Stretching can also aid posture, this can happen by loosening the tight muscle groups which are pulling your posture out of alignment, for example, cyclists gluteal muscles. Some tips;
Stretch before and after exercise.
Plan the routine to ensure it doesn’t get skipped.
Engage is a 10-15 minute ROMWOD (Range of Motion Workout of the Day)
6. Massage, Self Myofascial Release (SMR) and Fascial Stretch Therapy (FST)
Massage can be a good way to improve recovery times after exercise, although it may not be an option used regularly as it can be costly, however, after especially hard sessions it can be wise. Various research suggests that receiving a post workout massage can have many benefits, some of the main benefits include;
Increased blood flow, therefore increased nutrient delivery and toxin removal.
Decreased inflammation of the muscles.
Increased mitochondria (powerhouse of the cell) activity.
Reduced muscle tightness.
SMR also has many benefits and can be more popular as it is much less costly. You may have heard it as trigger point release or active release techniques, however they all mean the same thing. It involves using a foam roller (or tennis, golf, cricket balls etc.) to remove adhesions (may be known as knots) within the fascia (connective tissue) of the muscle, which are caused by stress within the muscles. The adhesions prevent muscles from working properly so must be removed. Use of a foam roller or similar, can remove them and allow the muscle to work more freely, other benefits include; prevention of injury, removing knots and tightness, and increased flexibility.
FST is also a sophisticated option, the benefits of which can be seen in our previous post here.
7. Heat, Ice and Compression
Use these techniques for recovering from injuries or a very stressful training or racing experience such as a road marathon or the Triathlon.
Spending some additional time focusing on rest and recovery can pay dividends beyond additional training time. It’s essentially legal performance enhancement, yet people don’t take advantage of it because it takes time. Recovery is key, both to ensure training can effectively resume day after day, and to allow full benefits of training to be gained. Applying the 7 elements above will enhance the recovery process and ensure that performance and life goals can be achieved.
One final tip, making small individual changes to routines by gradually adding in new techniques, keeping the process realistic and easy to follow will eventually create the perfect recovery routine.