Building fitness is a two-step process: Work out, then recover. Tear things down, then give them time and resources to rebuild, better than before.
The first step is probably obvious. But the second step, not so much. Many people simply trust in the recovery superpowers of a foam roller and a day spent lounging on the couch. But there’s more to recovery than poking and prodding your muscles — and certainly more than doing nothing at all. A lot more.
“Recovery isn’t an afterthought,” says strength-and-conditioning coach Joel Jamieson, CSCS, go-to trainer for Navy SEALs and pro athletes, creator of the Morpheus recovery system and BioForce coaching certification, and the designer of the LT Method, Life Time’s personal-training program.
Exercise without giving thought to what you’ll do afterward, he says, and “you’ll shortchange the results of all the hard work you put in. It’s as important or more important than the training itself.”
Maximizing your recovery will ensure you’re optimizing the benefits of your fitness efforts.
Good Stress Gone Bad
Stress gets a bad rap. But the right type of stress — and the right amount of it — is essential for health, well-being, and survival. On a physiological level, this is because your autonomic nervous system, which controls your body’s many involuntary functions, operates best in a dynamic balance between its two major branches:
- The parasympathetic rest-and-digest system calms you down, slows your heart rate, and repairs and rebuilds damaged tissues.
- The sympathetic fight-or-flight system revs you up, prepares you for intense physical action, raises blood sugar, and breaks down tissues.
Moving between these two opposing systems, the autonomic nervous system keeps you alive: “Day to day, it keeps your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and digestion going,” explains Jamieson.
Ideally, you want to spend most of your time in a parasympathetic state — resting, digesting, and repairing — with occasional spikes of sympathetic stress: running, lifting, pushing yourself mentally and physically. And that’s just what a good workout provides.
“During exercise, you’re causing muscle and other tissues to break down,” says exercise physiologist Pat Davidson, PhD. When you take time off between workouts to fuel the body with rest and good food, he says, “a workout signals your body to supercompensate by growing and getting stronger.”
Fail to work out hard enough or often enough and your body stops adapting. Over time, you’ll lose strength, endurance, and fitness.
Conversely, when you work out too hard, too long, and too often, your tissues break down faster than your body can repair them. You get sore, overworked, and, potentially, injured. That’s the condition we associate with “feeling stressed”: Your heart rate skyrockets, sleep is difficult, and digestion and mood are compromised.
“You don’t want to get stuck in a chronic sympathetic state, or you’ll never recover,” warns Jamieson.
Ignore these symptoms for too long and you risk throwing your system into an extreme and unhealthy parasympathetic state known as overtraining. True overtraining is rare (it typically occurs only in very dedicated long-distance athletes) and takes many months to develop — but when it does, the symptoms are severe: extreme fatigue, injury, and depression.
Instead of a racing heart, now, no matter how fast you run or how hard you lift, your heart rate stays low, and athletic performance plummets. “You’ll feel fatigue, lack of motivation, increased hunger, decreased sex drive,” says Jamieson.
Sympathetic and parasympathetic states need each other to maintain balance — and to shift easily from one state to the other.
Key Factors to Recovery
There are three key factors to successful training: intensity, duration, and frequency of workouts. There are also three key factors to recovery: nutrition, sleep, and stress management. In fact, these recovery elements are the foundation of your health in general. Drop the ball on any of them, and you’ll sabotage not just your progress in the gym but your overall health and well-being as well.
Food and exercise are not enemies: Food isn’t antifitness, and exercise isn’t antifood. Food is the fuel your body needs to support workouts and recover from previous ones; it is also a source of pleasure, human connection, and basic survival.
“Many people use exercise as punishment for not eating properly,” says physical therapist John Rusin, DPT. Or they train so they can eat more.
To use exercise to offset eating, often with the intention of weight loss or management, is a common misstep and reflects a dangerous misunderstanding of how the two interplay. A damaging cycle of overeating and overexercising can result.
“Exercise and nutrition should be coordinated with one another to get you closer to your goals,” Rusin says. That means making sure you’re consuming enough carbs, fats, and protein to maintain your energy during your workouts and fuel recovery afterward.
Of these three macronutrients, protein is the hardest one to get right. Experts recommend eating 0.5 to 0.6 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day to improve endurance. To build muscle and strength (by supporting tissue repair between hard sessions), aim for 0.6 to 0.9 grams per pound of body weight per day.
Getting enough carbs and fat is easier because they are more widely available in a variety of foods; they also tend to be more palatable and easier to digest. Recommendations for exact amounts vary widely and are less universal than protein requirements. You can play with ratios of carbs to fats, but be careful not to cut any macronutrient out completely.
Remember, the basic rules of nutrition apply: Eat a wide variety of vegetables and fruits; avoid or limit processed foods, sugary drinks, and other treats; and eat enough to fuel your workouts and feel good throughout the day. If your mood, energy, and performance in the gym are tanking, try increasing your intake. (If any of these problems persists despite a well-rounded diet and recovery plan, consult a health professional.)
Tracking your food intake for a few days can help you determine whether to make adjustments to feel and function at your best.
Finally, aim for a steady intake of water throughout the day, whether you’re working out or not.
Sleep regenerates the body and brain, but many exercisers don’t appreciate its role in recovery — and they often skimp on sleep to squeeze in more workouts. Over time, that’s a mistake.
In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control reported that at least one in three Americans is chronically sleep deprived, a condition associated with heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, stroke, and frequent mental distress.
For active people, a little extra sleep can boost physical performance. In a 2014 study of college basketball players, increasing nightly sleep from 6.5 to 8.5 hours for about six weeks dramatically improved players’ shooting accuracy and sprint speed.
“All roads lead to sleep,” says Davidson, so get enough shuteye. For most people, seven hours may be the sweet spot, but a few people need less. And some — adolescents, in particular — need much more.
Stress Management: Rebalance
Stress is a near-constant fact of life, the result of a taxing job or relationship, financial challenges, and so much more. Managing it may be the trickiest aspect of recovery.
Short of making sweeping life changes, the most effective approach is to be mindful of your daily stress levels and adjust your workouts accordingly. Go hard when life stress is low; go easier when stressors are at their peak.
Practices such as meditation, visualization, journaling, deep breathing, and yoga can help you reframe your response to stress and restore your nervous system to the parasympathetic rest-and-digest state.
The three major facets of recovery are inextricably linked: Life stress begets poor sleep, which in turn begets poor eating habits and worse sleep. “Binge eating is a good sign you’re stressed,” says Davidson. “If you polish off a bag of chips without thinking, it’s often your body’s way of trying to blunt the stress response.”
During stressful times, try not to let more than one of these factors spiral out of control. If you have a tense workday, don’t compound the problem by grousing about it late into the night over nachos and beer. Balance a stressful day with a good night’s sleep; balance a restless night with good nutrition the following day.
So how does exercise fit into all of this? And how do you know how hard to push on any given day?
The first step is to have a plan. If your goal is markedly improved fitness — more strength, muscle, and athleticism, and less fat — you can’t just wing it. Create a schedule allowing for some day-to-day flexibility and stick with it.
Whatever the activity, says Jamieson, aim for a mix of three to six workouts at different intensity levels each week:
- High-Intensity Session: A workout with an exertion level above 90 percent of your maximum effort. Think of high intensity as anything at a 9 or 10 on a 1-to-10 scale of difficulty. You might shoot for two high-intensity sessions per week. “That’s what most people can realistically recover from,” says Jamieson.
- Medium-Intensity Session: A workout at a 7 or 8 on the difficulty scale, during which your heart rate stays in a challenging but comfortable 70 to 80 percent of maximum. Medium-intensity workouts are still tough; you’re just not pushing yourself as close to your absolute limit. Most people can handle one or two of these workouts weekly on top of their high-intensity sessions.
- Recovery Session: The easiest workout that can still be considered a workout. “Most people think ‘recovery’ means a lot of foam rolling,” says Jamieson. But an effective recovery workout still involves exertion: 30 to 40 minutes of a combination of mobility work, low-intensity cardio, easy intervals, brief strength work, and a few breathing exercises. (For details, see “Recover Like a Pro.”)
“You’ll get some blood flowing, bring the heart rate up, and encourage your body to drop into that parasympathetic state,” he explains. Afterward, you’ll be sweating and feel energized, but you won’t feel like you’ve worked yourself to the limit. You can add one or two recovery sessions per week.
Try to schedule high-intensity days as far apart as possible, and plan recovery days, or days of complete rest, directly after high-intensity days.
Weekly Workout Plans
|3 to 4 Days||High||Rest||Medium||Rest||High||Recovery or Rest||Rest|
|4 to 5 Days||High||Medium or Recovery||Rest||High||Recovery or Rest||Medium||Rest|
|4 to 6 Days||Medium||High||Recovery or Rest||Medium||High||Recovery of Rest||Rest|
This basic template — two hard workouts per week with easier sessions sprinkled throughout the week — will help you avoid injury, burnout, and boredom.
As you progress, don’t alter your total training load (the amount of work you do) by more than 25 percent in any week. “If you’re a runner and you’ve averaged 12 miles per week for the last month, don’t run more than 15 miles, or less than nine miles, the following week,” says Davidson. Lifters can add up the number of weekly “work sets” (sets performed to fatigue, not including warm-up sets) over the previous month and avoid upping or lowering that number by more than 25 percent week
This requires some record keeping, but it will be well worth the return on investment in terms of consistency, resiliency, and longevity of training.|
Measuring Your Recovery
Even if you’re eating well, sleeping consistently, training on a schedule, and progressing steadily toward your goals, there will still be times when your recovery is compromised. Illnesses, work challenges, vacations, and other stressors will crop up. Luckily, tracking signs of recovery — or lack thereof — will help you identify when life circumstances throw training off course. Here’s what to look for.
Keep track of soreness, sleep quality, motivation, mood, workout performance, and other subjective factors. (If you’re craving particular foods, especially processed or sugary foods, more than normal, note that, too.) Rate each factor daily on a 1-to-10 scale: 1 to indicate extreme soreness, poor sleep quality, low motivation, bad mood, and poor workout performance; 10 to note no soreness, great sleep, high motivation, good mood, and strong performance. Keep track of these variations over time.
Notice an abrupt downward trend lasting more than a day or two? This tells you that your recovery is compromised, so stick to a recovery workout, or rest completely, for a day or two before returning to full intensity.
Resting Heart Rate
A more objective indication of your recovery state is your resting heart rate (RHR). Measure your pulse for 60 seconds immediately upon waking and before getting out of bed. The lower it is, the more rested and recovered you are. If it spikes by 10 percent or more, cut your workout volume in half by limiting intensity or duration.
The most direct way to measure the state of your nervous system is by tracking heart-rate variability (HRV), the changes in the amount of time between heartbeats. Until recently, HRV was calculated only with clunky equipment in a doctor’s office; now, you can do it yourself using any one of several inexpensive smartphone apps, all of which also measure RHR.
A higher HRV (more variation in your resting heart rate over a span of 60 seconds) indicates that your nervous system is healthy and responding, moment to moment, to your body’s needs.
A lower HRV (a metronome-like pulse that varies only slightly in the time between beats) suggests that your nervous system is stuck on one setting: usually a revved-up, sympathetic state, unable to respond to your body’s needs.
Though it requires some practice, HRV monitoring is a valuable and effective recovery tool. Day to day, you can see levels rising or falling in response to workout intensity, diet, sleep quality, and life stress. Over time, if your workout program is effective and you become fitter, you can see your HRV gradually rising.
For hard-charging exercisers, HRV tracking can be especially useful, providing an objective daily measure of their bodies’ readiness for hard exercise. “If a client tells me he doesn’t think he’s working hard enough, I’ll say, ‘We can work harder when your HRV goes up.’ That gives him incentive to eat better, sleep more, and take recovery seriously,” says trainer and exercise physiologist Mike T. Nelson, PhD.
HRV tracking must be consistent. Currently, data on what makes a healthy universal HRV score is scarce, so most apps don’t measure your scores against a preset number. You’ll need to track your numbers for four to seven days to establish a baseline for comparison, and then HRV tracking is effective only if you measure it consistently.
When HRV is in your normal range, says Nelson, proceed as planned. Ten percent down? Cut workout volume in half. If it’s much lower than that, skip your workout and get to bed an hour earlier.
Whether or not you choose to go the high-tech route, understand that recovery is addition by subtraction — as much about what you take away from your life as what you add.|
Once you understand the basics of recovery, consider adding one or more of these modalities to the end of a workout, after an athletic event, or whenever you need to de-stress.
Foam Rolling: Roll over your sore spots to relieve tension and stimulate blood flow. Breathe deeply: If you’re wincing and panting, you’re rolling too hard. (Learn more at “On a Roll.”)
Static Stretching: Static stretches are best following a workout to cool down and unwind, or during the day as desired, after a dynamic warm-up. Breathe deeply, easing yourself into each stretch on the exhale for 30 seconds to two minutes. (For stretching ideas, visit “Smart Stretching.”)
Cold Therapy: You can use the chill to increase circulation by immersing yourself in an ice bath, taking a cold shower, or slipping into a cryotherapy tank cooled with liquid nitrogen. (Learn more at “Expert Answers: Cold Conditioning for Athletes.”)
Massage: A professional massage can help ease muscle tension, improve circulation, reduce inflammation, and provide comfort through touch. (Learn more at “Mmm, Massage: Surprising Ways Massage Heals the Body and Mind.”)
Yoga: The one-two combo of deep breathing with body-awareness-building postures (asanas) is a powerful relaxing, focusing, and mind-clearing tool.
Meditation: Meditate solo or choose from a variety of guided classes, online and in person, to lower heart rate, improve focus, and alleviate stress. (For tips on beginning a daily practice, check out “Beyond Meditation.”)
This originally appeared as “Some Recovery Required” in the July/August 2019 print issue of Experience Life.