Recovery is one of those fitness terms that gets thrown around a lot but is not often explained. We assume we know what it means – give the body time to rest and heal – but do we know how to do it effectively?
Because, I took a day off from the gym can be seen as recovery but did you actually recover during that day?
What happened that allowed you to get back to your best self?
From the outside, lets define recovery – the act or process of becoming healthy after an illness or injury.
Notice how it doesn’t say “post-workout” or “only after your sessions. One of the biggest misses in training is not understanding the spectrum of recovery available to us and how to best utilize it to our advantage.
So, let’s delve into the three types of fitness recovery: Immediate Post-Workout Recovery, Short-Term Recovery, and Long-Term Recovery.
These recovery strategies can help with strength gains as well as overall health and fitness. From being built into a training plan assuming a person is not injured to implemented afterwards, all options are available. If a person is aiming to recover from an injury, illness, or surgery, then care from a professional such as a doctor, nurse practitioner, or physical therapist is most appropriate.
Immediate Post-Workout Recovery
Immediate post-workout recovery is also known as the cool-down phase. It gets skipped by professionals and gym goers A LOT, probably because it’s not sexy or exciting when compared to things like strength training, agility work, and cardiovascular conditioning.
It’s also neglected because people don’t understand or haven’t bought into its benefits. But just five to ten minutes of cool-down time will enhance the benefits of any kind of training session.
An effective cool-down achieves two main goals: Rehydration and Downregulation of the Central Nervous System.
Hydration is key because every person loses some water during a workout via sweat. When the body is dehydrated, you can suffer from muscle cramps, fatigue, headache, and even fainting.
Water is also essential for regulating body temperature, maintaining blood pressure, and carrying nutrients throughout the body. To ensure proper post-workout hydration, weigh yourself before and after the training session.
Pro Tip: For every pound lost while training, drink 16 ounces of water.
Depending on the temperature and humidity, your size and weight, hydration state prior to beginning exercise, and the duration and intensity of the training session, post-workout fluid requirements can vary.
The easiest way to know if you are well hydrated is to monitor your urine. Light yellow or clear means you’re good to go, while darker urine is a sign you’re dehydrated.
Keep in mind that if exercise lasts longer than an hour, sports drinks with electrolytes are recommended in place of plain water to replace sodium lost through sweat.
Downregulation of the CNS
The second element of immediate post-workout recovery is downregulation of the central nervous system. The cool-down phase gives the body and the mind a chance to calm by dimming from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest”.
Walking out of the gym charged up on adrenaline can take an unnecessary toll on your body. Lowering both heart rate and respiratory rate as well as decreasing circulating blood cortisol levels is key prior to leaving the gym.
Simple deep breathing exercises are proven to aid in this downregulation or “relaxation response”.
Try This Drill – After the training session is complete, lie down on your back, preferably with your feet elevated. Set a timer for five minutes and breathe deeply in and out through the nose. Don’t try too hard; just relax and allow the body to settle down.
A great way to calm the mind during this time is to repeat a positive affirmation or mantra in your head, listen to relaxing music or white noise, picture in your mind a relaxing scene or image, or simply count the breaths.
Short-term recovery refers to recovery between training sessions, and its main goal is to reduce soreness, fatigue, or discomfort that may preclude a person from training again the following day. It consists of four main components – Nutrition, Hydration, Circulation, and Sleep.
Nutrition and hydration go hand in hand and are all about what you put into your body in the hours outside of training. Nourishing yourself with a whole-food based diet that includes adequate amounts of protein, fats, and carbohydrates as well as essential vitamins and minerals and plenty of water is imperative to overall fitness and health.
You might as well not train at all if you do not eat a healthy, balanced diet. When I use the term “whole-food”, I am simply talking about limiting processed foods in favor of fresh vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats.
After a workout, you need to eat a nutritious meal high in protein and carbohydrates. It can be helpful to have that meal already prepared, so that all you have to do when you’re finished with the training session is eat.
Last night’s leftovers (chicken and rice, steak and potatoes, etc.) are a perfect easy post-workout meal. A protein shake is a good option immediately after exercising if you don’t have the ability to eat a full meal, but you should eat real food when you can.
Keep in mind that one good meal a day – for example what you eat right after you exercise – is not enough. No matter what time of day you train, every meal should be nutrient-dense, whole-food based, and include some form of protein. Food is the fuel that helps us grow strong and live long!
During exercise, blood circulation in the muscles is at its peak. It slows significantly once the training session is complete, and that slowing can lead to fatigue, soreness, and even swelling.
You can stimulate circulation with soft tissue work such as massage after a training session. If you don’t have access to a personal massage therapist, foam rolling is an excellent substitute.
Donning compression sleeves in the hours after a strenuous workout is a newer technique that can also aid in recovery by increasing circulation, flushing out lactate, and reducing inflammation in muscles.
Sleep is perhaps the most underrated recovery tool. You are probably aware that you need eight hours of sleep per night, but did you know most adults don’t get the recommended amount?
Many people deprioritize sleep due to family, work, or social obligations. But adequate sleep is just as essential for health as a nutritious diet and regular exercise, if not even more so.
During sleep, you are quite literally recovering from your day. Muscles rebuild, toxins and plaques are removed from the brain, and your mind processes and responds to emotions and events you experienced that day.
To improve sleep quality, consider a bedtime ritual. Try turning off screens (including your phone) thirty minutes prior to bedtime, and winding down by having a cup of tea, reading, stretching, or meditating.
Adjust the temperature and lighting in your bedroom to suit you. Consider your mattress, sheets, and pillows. Create a cozy and inviting environment.
If eight hours of sleep seems decadent or unattainable, reframe how you think about rest. Perhaps you can prioritize rest the same way you prioritize productivity; make it a component of your training because without it results are much more difficult to achieve.
Long-term recovery practices are habits or routines – in other words a lifestyle – that protect you from physical and mental burnout. I promote these practices to everyone, whether or not they are an athlete or fitness buff.
The four long-term recovery practices include: Rest Days, Mindful Movement, Sleep, and Stress Management.
Rest days can be a hard sell to many athletes and fitness lovers. After all, what about the mantra “no days off”?
It is my belief that everyone needs a day off once in a while. But more importantly if you’re serious about maintaining optimal fitness and overall health, don’t think of a recovery day as a day off where you do nothing or throw your training mentality out the window.
Think of it as a day on – an intentional day in your training routine that includes nutrition, adequate hydration, and meaningful movement – maybe something like walking, swimming, or yoga.
It should feel restful and rejuvenating, but not lazy. A day off on the other hand might consist of spending a day on the boat drinking beer, going out to a big dinner party, or lying on the couch watching three football games in a row.
Some people call them cheat days, and while they are certainly not forbidden, they differ from intentional recovery. I believe there is a distinction between taking a rest or recovery day from intense training and a “day off”.
While the latter will serve you best when taken few and far between, the former should be programmed regularly as an integral part of your training regimen.
Mindful, or perhaps better described as meaningful, movement denotes moving your body outside of the gym. Walking is my favorite prescription for mindful movement, and I encourage everyone to do it.
It’s low impact and proven to be beneficial for physical and mental health. But other forms of movement work, too. Some examples include dancing, swimming, biking, hiking, surfing, paddleboarding, yoga, and pilates.
The key behind meaningful movement is that it is enjoyable, low to moderate in intensity, and doesn’t cause discomfort or pain. While giving the body a break from high intensity work like running, jumping, and weightlifting, you are still allowing and encouraging it to move.
Unless you have a broken neck or pelvis, lying in bed just doesn’t make sense! Obviously that’s an oversimplification, but the fact is movement is almost always better than being sedentary.
And on days when you are not training, movement will help with blood flow that aids in muscle nourishment and recovery. Meaningful movement doesn’t mean that you are never allowed to sit still.
I am certainly a fan of watching movies and well-timed naps! Just don’t think of the days outside of the gym as days where you don’t use your body at all.
Finally, managing stress is a critical part of long-term recovery and prevention of burnout. Life is hard. Work is hard. Training is hard. We need to give ourselves a little “easy”.
Stress management looks different for everyone, but its goal is constant – to allow you to enjoy life. Taking time for things that are not hard work allows your mind to relax and makes you better prepared to deal with the more taxing demands of life, including training.
If you’ve ever trained while going through a challenging life situation like financial troubles or divorce, then you’ve experienced the toll that mental stress can have on the physical body.
The body and mind are inextricably connected. So it only follows that when the mind is fresh, clear, and relaxed that the body can perform at its best.
For some, management of stress might be recreation like a game of golf with friends or game night. For some it may be self-care like a spa day or a bubble bath.
For others it may be reading, journaling, creating art, or meditating. For still others it may be counseling or more specialized treatment. The take home message is do what you need to do to remain well-balanced and resilient. Your body will thank you.
To recover means “to regain a normal condition or state of health”. One of my long-time friends who is both a substance abuse counselor and a fellow yoga teacher says wisely “we’re all recovering from something”.
When we recover from a training session, we need to replace lost fluids and bring the nervous system back into its resting state. We need to replenish used energy and nutrients with food, and then allow for muscle rebuilding with increased blood flow and sleep.
And in the long-term we need to train our bodies to adapt to ever-changing conditions, demands, and stressors by allowing for rest, enhancing the mind-body connection, and honoring our mental health.
Recovery is not an afterthought or an optional part of a training regimen. It is not just for people who like yoga or people who want an excuse to take days off.
Recovery done right will augment the benefits of any training program, whether that’s strength training, athletic training, or endurance training. And recovery done consistently will enhance the overall quality of your life.