Up until this point in our series, we’ve focused on creating and maintaining an effective exercise program. In Part I, we covered how to get into the right mindset and establish a habitual pattern of working out. In Part II, we focused on how to move your body effectively to prevent injury. Then, in Part III, we learned how to add weight to those movements to build strength. As we moved on to Parts IV and V, we explored different forms of cardio with a special focus on cycling. And, last week, in Part VI, we learned how to safely ramp up the intensity of our exercise.
Now, in this final installment, we’re looking at the key to keeping your exercise program working for you: recovery.
Recovery is when the magic happens!
Whether your exercise goals are for health, aesthetics or athletics, the means to those ends all come from changing your body composition. That’s why our workouts focus on losing fat and building muscle. But true transformation in our bodies doesn’t actually occur while we’re training. It happens during recovery.
The reality is that exercise hurts our bodies. And recovery heals them. When we work out, we push our bodies to the point of cellular breakdown with the intention of building them back up stronger and more efficient. With every strenuous bike ride, weight training session or bout of high-intensity interval training, we give rise to this process.
That’s why allowing our bodies the time and support to recover is crucial to the effectiveness of our exercise programs.
How does the recovery process work?
When we work out, we feel sore — it’s a natural part of the process to build muscle and make changes in our body composition.
Muscle hypertrophy (growth) occurs when muscle fibers sustain damage through exercise. The body repairs damaged fibers by fusing them, which increases muscle mass.
So, what happens to the fat? It’s a pet peeve of mine when people erroneously say they need to “convert fat to muscle.” That’s not how it works. Fat doesn’t turn into muscle!
Increasing muscle mass helps you lose fat because more muscle requires more energy. And one of the ways you get energy is by burning fat. When fat is “burned” or broken down for energy, there are two major byproducts: carbon dioxide and water. You exhale the carbon dioxide and release the fluid through urine and sweat.
During this muscle-building and fat-burning process, we understandably feel tired and weak, as our body focuses on repairing and rebuilding itself. Most of the soreness we feel comes from the inflammation produced as a result of the cellular changes.
As uncomfortable as it is, our body’s inflammatory response is an important part of the healing process. Although we can do things to help support and expedite recovery, which I share below, it’s important not to stifle it by loading up on ibuprofen or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, also known as NSAIDs, which may clear the inflammation but can hinder healing and, subsequently, the effectiveness of your workouts.
That said, post-exercise inflammation is only good for you to a point. That’s why it’s necessary to adequately recover between workouts. Otherwise, you’ll continually break down muscle and create inflammation without allowing the rebuild — making exercise counterproductive. This phenomenon is called Overtraining Syndrome, which negatively affects your health and fitness level, and can lead to injuries. Falling victim to OTS can be avoided by following the recovery guidance below.
Prioritize recovery at all stages of training
Recovery isn’t just about getting enough sleep! It needs to be an integrated part of your overall training program. From days off to resting between sets and cooling down at the end of workouts, recovery is as important between workouts as it is during and immediately following exercise.
And timing matters. Steer clear of overtraining by spacing out and limiting the length of your intense exercise sessions, as we covered in last week’s article on high-intensity training.
Ready to start recovering? Below, I outline strategies to optimize recovery.
Optimize recovery with these strategies
Get your sleep: There’s a reason sleep takes up nearly one-third of our lives. It’s during sleep that the body spends the most time renewing and repairing itself. But it’s not just any stage of sleep that does the most good. Deep or slow-wave sleep stage, research has shown, is when we produce growth hormone to stimulate tissue growth and muscle repair as well as adenosine triphosphate, our body’s primary energy-carrying molecule.
There are steps we can take to enhance the quality of our sleep and ensure we get the deep sleep we need. First, create an environment conducive to rest. Sleep is improved by a cooler room temperature, darkness and noise control, research has shown. It can also help to invest in a comfortable mattress and pillow. And to help you fall asleep and stay asleep, use this pre-bedtime six-minute routine based on programs I use with my pro athlete clients.
Fuel with the right foods: Food is fuel for your body and mind, so it plays a vital role in recovery. For more on this, I asked my friend, Angie Asche, a registered dietician who works in professional sports and owns Eleat Sports Nutrition, to share her insights.
Asche said it helps to view nutrition for recovery as “the 3 Rs: repair, refuel and replenish.” She said, “Repair represents protein because protein is essential for repairing muscle tissue. A general guideline would be to consume at least 20 to 25 grams within an hour after your workout.” That equals a 3-ounce chicken breast (24 grams of protein), one 7-ounce container of 2% Greek yogurt (20 grams) or one scoop whey or plant-based protein powder (grams of protein varies depending on brand).
“‘Refuel’ represents carbohydrates, one of the energy sources used during workouts. So, after an intense workout, you’ll want to refuel that energy source by consuming a sufficient amount of carbohydrates, around 1 to 1.5 grams per kilogram body weight.”
And, finally, Asche said “replenish” reflects the need to replenish fluids, which we cover below.
Replenish fluids: A human adult body is comprised of up to 60% water. While exercising, we lose fluid through our sweat. That’s why it’s critical that we drink water during and after training sessions.
We can efficiently combine our after-exercise hydration needs with our nutrition needs through one source, Asche suggested. “Smoothies are a great way to get all three needs met (carbohydrates, fluids, and protein) all in one,” she said, “especially for those individuals who struggle with having no appetite post-workout or are unable to sit down for a full meal for several hours.”
Leverage your breathing: There is no question that the act of breathing is important for giving your body the oxygen it needs to get you through your workouts. And, as mentioned above, your exhales expel the waste byproduct produced through fat burning.
But breathing is also the key to accessing your parasympathetic nervous system, the aspect of your autonomic nervous system tasked with recovery and restoration. In as little as 90 seconds of deep breathing, you elicit a “relaxation response,” which taps your parasympathetic nervous system, lowering your heart rate, decreasing your blood pressure and inhibiting stress hormone production.
After your training sessions, take just a couple of minutes to cool down and focus on deep breathing as a signal to your body that it’s time to start the recovery process.
Actively recover: Recovery days don’t have to mean days off. Although it’s important to take at least one day off per week from strenuous exercise, you can still practice active recovery in between days of intense exercise. Remember the daily walking habit we established during Part I of the series? Consider having one day a week where you skip your workout but lengthen your walk time. Or take a leisurely bike ride. Practice gentle yoga or tai chi.
Stretch a little daily: How many times do you finish the “work” part of your workout, towel off, grab your water and hit the road? Too many people skip the cool down. As mentioned above, just a little time spent breathing goes a long way toward recovery. The same applies to doing a few cooldown stretches.
Too many people don’t want to invest more time in their workouts with a cooldown, but the truth is that you only need to stretch for a few minutes after each workout to get the feel-good, circulation-boosting, flexibility-improving benefits. In fact, stretching longer isn’t always better, which you can learn about here.
Foam rolling for muscle health: I’m a big fan of foam rolling as a post-exercise recovery strategy. Although there is some conflicting data on whether foam rolling’s efficacy comes from impacting fascia, muscle or both, research has shown that it works to reduce muscle soreness, increase range of motion and enhance muscle strength and function. I highly recommend you use it as a regular recovery strategy after workouts.
Massage out tension and toxins: Working in professional sports, my clients have the luxury of access to team massage therapists to assist with recovery. But not all of us have the time or money for regular weekly massages. However, by investing the cost of a few massages into the purchase of a self-massage gun that offers percussive therapy, you can save both time and money over the long run and enjoy the tension- and toxin-releasing benefits of massage at home.
I use a handheld massage gun both in my work in pro sports and personally as an effective recovery device. If you have access to one, I recommend using it daily before and after training sessions to target the areas you experience the most tension.
Take the plunge in ice water: Although some pro athletes have sworn by its recovery properties for many years, cold water immersion therapy, also known as cryotherapy, has recently gained mainstream popularity. Pictures abound on social media, showing people bravely submerging themselves in tubs of ice water. But be warned, not only is it extremely uncomfortable, its recovery benefits remain unproven. In fact, there is research suggesting that icing after exercise suppresses inflammation, which, in turn, hinders muscle regeneration and growth.
Make your recovery work for you
Thankfully, exercise scientists have put a great deal of time and energy into researching recovery, so there are many tried-and-true strategies. However, with some modalities, like cryotherapy, research is emerging.
As long as you’re optimizing your sleep and nutrition, drinking enough fluids, taking days off from intense exercise, using rest periods in your workouts and adequately cooling down after training sessions, it’s up to you to decide what other strategies work best for you.
And that brings us back to the importance of the mind-body connection we covered in Part I. Listen to your body. If you’ve been following along through all the articles in this series, you’ve empowered yourself with the knowledge and tools to reboot your workout program in order to give your body exactly what it needs to be healthy and perform optimally.