What part of your fitness routine deserves the most attention? What could you be doing better to get more gains from your workouts? Stronger? Faster? Quicker? Fitter? Leaner?
Are you doing the things needed during your recovery days to allow your body to get the benefits from your workout? Heck, are you even taking multiple recovery days per week?
The goal of exercise is very simple: challenge the body to do something that requires it to make a change so the next time you do it, it is easier.
The body is always looking to adapt and make changes if it perceives something as difficult such as a workout. It does not like to struggle. Therefore, when you challenge the body and make it work harder than it is used to, your body looks to make the changes it needs so the next time you present it with the same challenge, it feels easier.
Examples of this are challenging your body to do as many pull ups as you can do in 1
minute, holding a plank as long as possible with perfect form, running up stadium stairs as quickly as possible, balancing on one leg with your eyes closed.
When we present appropriate "challenges" for our muscles, joints, nervous system, connective tissue, etc, we send a signal to the body that it needs to make specific changes to meet those challenges the next time around.
There are specific signals that tell the body that change is needed:
1. Burning muscles
2. Repeated bouts of breathlessness
3. Fatigue (muscular, connective tissue, balance, nervous system, etc)
4. Heat (sweating is a signal that your body is working hard and change may be needed)
5. Lifting a heavier weight than your body is used to
All of these things send messages to become stronger, to generate more mitochondria (which provide our cells with energy), and to recruit muscle fibers quicker. If your workouts are not sending these signals to your body that force it to adapt and change, you are literally spinning your wheels and may never see benefits from your workout.
Even worse than that?
You may be sending these signals to your body to adapt and change. But you may not be giving your body enough time or the nutrients it needs to actually make the changes you are asking of it.
Expert triathlete, trainer and biohacking guru Ben Greenfield defines recovery as "your body's ability to meet or exceed performance in a particular activity." If your goal with training and exercise is to become faster, stronger or even burn more body fat, recovery is your best friend.
Research out of McMaster University in Canada has shown that causing significant breakdown of muscle tissue during weight lifting (a term they call "in-roading") can take up to 2 weeks to fully repair. This means that the individual may not be ready for that workout again until 2 weeks has passed and the body has had sufficient time to repair damaged muscle tissue, thereby becoming stronger.
On the flips side, if we work out without allowing adequate recovery, we could actually
be damaging our muscles, fatiguing our nervous system and driving up inflammation.
If we can speed up our rate of recovery and get our cells, muscles, connective tissue and nervous system to bounce back as quickly as possible, we can "meet or exceed performance in a particular activity." At best, this allows us to train harder, more frequently or more intensely if you so desire. At worst, it allows us to train happier or simply feel better when we step out of bed every morning.
As Greenfield says, "Every time your body bounces back efficiently, you establish a new 'ceiling' of performance capabilities." And because of all the metabolic processes that are used during recovery such as increased fat-burning hormones and lean muscle building processes, you are training your metabolism to become a lean, mean, fat-oxidizing machine.
This may seem overwhelming, but following the two basic steps below will ensure you are on the right track:
Step 1: present your body with the appropriate stimulus so that it needs to change.
Step 2: allow for adequate recovery so the body can make these changes.
I listed some of the stimuli above but by doing things your body finds challenging at an intensity in which it causes muscle burn, breathlessness, sweating, etc, you are doing great.
Now on to Step 2:
How To Maximize Your Recovery (not an exhaustive list, but what I consider especially important):
1. Sleep before midnight is twice as important as sleep after midnight. Didn't grandma always used to say that nothing good happens after midnight? She was right. Almost all of our repair and fat oxidizing hormones are released before
midnight. That means that if you are not soundly asleep by 10pm or so, you are missing out. Shoot for 7-9 hours of deep, high quality sleep with 3-4 of them occurring before midnight.
2. Provide food at the right times to signal repair. Research from McMaster University and Wash U in St. Louis found that muscle synthesis increases by about 50% during the four hours after a workout and this repair process peaks at about 24 hours after a workout in which muscle synthesis increases by over 100%. This process takes about 36 hours until completion for a moderate-intensity stimulus. This means that the hours right after a workout are an essential time to provide the body with the nutrients it needs to recover and repair muscle and connective tissue (see below)
3. Take hot cold contrast showers. the contrast of hot (signalling inflammation) and cold (vasoconstriction) can increase blood flow to all parts of the body. This allows the
body to remove "metabolic waste products" that cause fatigue and soreness. It also allows for fresh blood flow to bring in the nutrients you are eating that facilitate repair and recovery. To do this, simply turn your shower on as hot as you can stand it until you are heated up, then turn it on as cold as possible for 2 or more minutes. Alternate this for 10-20 minutes.
4. Take multiple days of rest if your body needs it. If you are indeed pushing hard enough, then your body will probably require multiple days rest to maximize muscle building and repair. Listen to your body. There is no shame in taking days off. It just means that you pushed your body super hard and your body needs extra time to repair and come back even stronger and fitter than before. During these days it would be a great idea to do some extra foam rolling.
Nutrients That Maximize Recovery:
1. Vitamin C (citrus, strawberries, pineapple, kiwi, bell pepper): Vitamin C is needed for connective tissue synthesis, it reduces the body's stress response to exercise which allows for faster recovery and it is a potent antioxidant which keeps inflammation in check.
2. Collagen Peptides (bone broth, collagen hydrolysate powder, grassfed gelatin, gelatinous parts of an animal--skin, collagen, joints): provides the building blocks to regenerate collagen and connective tissue for stronger joints and healthy fascia.
3. Whey Protein (as a grassfed powder or BCAA powder, whey is also the liquid that settles on top of yogurt): provides the building blocks to repair muscle allowing the body to more quickly build strong, lean muscle tissue.
4. Flavanoids, antioxidants (blue, red, orange, yellow, green and purple fruits and veggies): needed to control inflammation and assist with the repair and optimize recovery.
5. Water!! Hydrated tissue is healthy tissue.
Fasting and Recovery:
Consuming your food in a 6-8 hour window, especially during a bout of recovery, will free to body from the energy drain that digestion and absorption of food requires and instead allows the body to focus more energy on repair and recovery.
An example would be a hard workout (muscle burning, breathlessness, etc) at 6pm. I would follow this immediately with a shake of collagen peptides, grassfed whey protein and lemon water (vitamin C and flavanoids) and then eat a meal within an hour after the workout once I am home and showered. This meal will be nutrient rich and full of a blend of all macronutrients (fats: avocado, butter, olive oil; carbs: sweet potato, broccoli, strawberries; protein: grassfed filet or eggs) to give my body the nutrients, vitamins and minerals it needs for repair.
Then, following this meal (in which I would NOT have a glass of wine, since alcohol reduces the body's production of repair and fat burning hormones), I would keep a 16-19 hour fasting window.
This means that if I end my post-workout dinner at 8pm, then I would not eat again until 12pm-3pm the following day.
I would, however, make sure to stay extremely well-hydrated during my fasting window by drinking filtered water, plain tea, plain coffee.
Then at 12pm-3pm, have another nutrient-rich meal such as was consumed during your post-workout dinner.
A Few Ways to Assess Your Body Has Recovered:
1. Resting Heart Rate: When you know what your average resting heart rate is (in beats per minute, lying in bed, first thing in the morning) then any increase from this greater than 5% can indicate that you are not fully recovered.
2. Sleep: Trouble falling asleep, not giving your body enough sleep or waking up without feeling rested can all be signals that your body is still inflamed and not fully recovered from your workout.
3. Muscle Soreness: This is due to microscopic tearing of the muscle that is a signal that the muscles need to heal, repair and adapt. This is a normal reaction to exercise but if you always feel sore, this is a sign of inadequate recovery processes.
4. Energy Level: If you have low motivation to workout that cannot be tied to a stressful day at work, inadequate sleep or inadequate hydration, this can be a sign your body is telling you it needs more recovery.
Now get out there, push hard and recovery easy for as long as needed to be able to push hard again!