You probably already know that exercise is good for you, but have you ever stopped to ask yourself why? The short answer is that exercise hurts your body, prompting a reaction. When you go for a run, lift weights, or play football, any discomfort is like a clarion call to the body, telling it that it needs to be better equipped to deal with the situation. The response – it becomes stronger, bigger, or more efficient – is why we exercise.
This process is natural and normal, but it’s easy to disrupt it with too much exercise. We constantly walk a tight rope between adequate stimulation leading to progression, and a lack of recovery which can lead to overtraining.
The perils of overtraining are numerous. Not only can it undo all the hard work you put in down the gym, but it can also leave you a husk of the man you were: lethargic, unable to sleep, iritable and without sex drive. What’s more, the disruption it causes to your body’s systems can actually lead to weight gain – ironic, but definitely not funny.
I find it useful in both my own training and that of my clients to plan for recovery as seriously as I plan the workouts. Below are ten steps you can take to facilitate speedy and complete recovery from your exercise efforts.
1. Structured Rest
Factoring in deliberate rest days is essential to any intense training program. Remember: more is not always better, and you don’t get stronger in the gym, you get stronger whilst you rest. I suggest incorporating a ‘down’ week every 8-12 weeks of intense exercise to allow your body to properly recover. This could be an entire week away from exercise or a time to temporarily reduce weight, intensity or volume. Believe me, your body will thank you for it.
On the flip side, it’s important that you don’t take too much rest, as your body will decondition and you’ll end up with that dreaded muscle ache that lasts for days after each workout section. Everyone is different, but a good rule of thumb is three hour-long workouts a week.
Make sure you get good quality sleep, as running a constant sleep debt can impair both workout intensity and recovery.
Take steps to enhance the quality of your sleep where possible. Investing in a good mattress and pillow often pays dividends. You may also want to take into consideration room temperature, lighting and noise control to create the perfect environment for tranquil sleep.
3. Avoid alcohol
Alcohol intake harms muscle recovery. With each and every ‘cheeky’ or ‘swift’ pint you sneak down the pub, you ply your system with toxins. The body has to deal with these as a priority, which means it can’t direct as much attention as you would like to helping your muscles heal and grow. As boring as it sounds, staying off the booze will help you recover quicker.
After a workout it is very important to replace the fluids lost during exercise. Aim to consume at least two litres of water per day – more if you have been sweating due to vigorous exercise.
Stretching before and after a workout can help facilitate muscle recovery by reducing lactic acid and improving circulation. Yoga and Pilates can also be great disciples to help with this – however, be aware that due to the new stimulus they may actually temporarily impair recovery. Consider introducing these new activities during a scheduled ‘down’ period.
6. Ice Baths
Many professional athletes take regular ice baths for recovery benefits. I’ve tried them and they definitely worked for me. Be warned, though: ice baths are far from pleasant.
You may also want to try water contrast therapy, which involves alternating between hot and cold water to repeatedly constrict and dilate blood vessels, helping to rid the system of waste products. Use a warm shower for one minute followed by a 30 second blast of cold water and repeat.
7. Proper nutrition
Exercise progress is as much concerned with eating the right things as it is with what you do in the gym. Ensure that you are eating enough calories to recover and that you have your macronutrients balanced properly. For example, not enough protein in your diet can lead to loss of muscle mass, whilst too few carbohydrates can lead to poor performance and fatigue.
Avoid heavily restricted diet programs, they are often unsustainable and do not facilitate healthy amounts of vigorous activity.
8. Get a Massage
A good sports massage therapist will be able to help you relieve tension in your muscles, flush toxins from your body and put you in an all around relaxed state. Typically, I aim to have a sports massage once a week.
9. Mind Power
Positive self talk can help stimulate your sub-conscious to aid in your performance and recovery. Personally, each night I ask my body to rejuvenate every cell in my body and allow me to wake fully rested and ready to hit the next morning running. I find great benefit in this practice – but I also appreciate that it’s not for everyone!
All in all, the most important factor leading to full and thorough recovery is listening to you body. It’ll usually be pretty clear in its desire for what you need, whether that be time off, water, food or a more rewarding frame of mind to approach your exercise regime with. In fitness circles we call this instinctive training: our bodies are naturally very highly attuned to our needs. If we learn to answers those needs well, we stand to get more out of our workouts and ultimately our lives.