When it comes to getting stronger, faster, leaner, and healthier, maintaining a disciplined exercise program is just one part of the equation. The 2 other key components are nutrition and recovery. Interestingly, some people find it easy to maintain a clean and balanced diet, and absolutely love training–so they never have a problem getting themselves to the gym.
Instead, getting themselves out of the gym may be the more challenging part. For fitness fanatics like this, “rest” really is a four-letter word.
Overtraining means training too much. It also means training without giving your body sufficient time to rest and recover. So, lest we believe that “more” is always better, consider its potential risks:
– Increased likelihood of injury
– Impaired sleep and mood
– Joint pain and extreme muscle soreness
– Altered digestion and appetite
– Chronic exhaustion and fatigue
– In women, irregular periods
Extreme cases of overtraining can even lead to serious complications including rhabdomyolysis (severe breakdown of skeletal muscle tissue) and hyperthermia (overheating, especially if training in hot weather).
But adequate rest isn’t just necessary to help you avoid the above-mentioned complications. The recovery period is actually where and when you get stronger, leaner, healthier.
Your muscles, for instance, don’t get stronger during your training session. Instead, the muscle fibers repair, regenerate, and grow stronger while you’re resting. Similar concept goes for cardiovascular endurance and fat loss.
In other words, physical changes are made possible by training, but they happen during recovery.
That said: is there a way to minimize our recovery period so that we’re still getting what out of it what we need while still being able to get back to training as soon as possible?
Turns out there may be several.
It doesn’t matter if you’re brand new to fitness or if you’re a seasoned competitor. These 10 tips can help accelerate your recovery time so that your body will be (safely) ready to hit it hard during your next training session:
1. Be sure you’re following a well-designed training program.
Do a little research to ensure that the program you’re following is safe and effective, plus one that is appropriate for your current physical capacity. Following a program by rote without understanding if it’s designed to give different muscle groups appropriate challenge and rest can set you up for injury, which will keep you out of the gym much longer than you’d like. Consider consulting with a personal trainer, coach, or knowledgeable and trusted peer for guidance.
2. Make your in-training nutrition match your needs.
How (and if) you eat during a workout depends on the type of workout you’re doing, and can really influence how well you recover after. If you’re training session is less than an hour long and/or if you’re focusing mostly on strength-training, then you probably don’t need to supplement with anything other than water. In fact, too many mid-workout carbs may disrupt your body’s use of stored fat for fuel. On the other hand, if you’re doing a long training session that’s heavy on endurance training, a mid-workout sports drink (with protein, carbs, and electrolytes) may be necessary.
3. Never skip your cool down.
The end of your workout is prime-time to refuel (see tip #4) and mobilize. Both passive and dynamic stretching is generally safe to do after a workout because your connective tissues are adequately warm. Post workout, commit to 5-10 minutes of soft tissue mobilization and stretching, including foam rolling, self-myofascial release with a lacrosse ball, or passive stretching of key muscles. If you are doing a passive stretch, be sure to hold the position for at least 90 seconds. Any less and you won’t get past tissue “creep” (think of a rubber band returning to its normal length after being stretched) nor effect any meaningful change in tissue length or flexibility. Post work-out cool down and mobility can also help your heart rate safely return to normal and minimize delayed onset muscle soreness.
4. Eat a post-workout meal within 30 minutes.
To jump-start your recovery and replenish muscle glycogen stores (energy that’s used during training), consuming protein, electrolytes, and potentially some carbohydrates within that 30-minute post-workout window is key. Miss that window and it could take your body much longer to replace the glycogen. Post-workout nutrition also helps regulate your hormone and insulin responses to training (key for fat loss) and may help minimize muscle soreness.
5. Make good nutrition choices every day.
You can’t get out of your body what you don’t put into it. To maximize cellular repair, muscle strengthening, and fat loss, eat quality protein, fats, and carbohydrates. Avoid anything processed or things that promote inflammation and wildly fluctuating blood sugar levels (including grains, candy, crackers, etc.). Know and avoid the foods which don’t sit well with you and may disrupt your digestion (like dairy and legumes). Eat enough food to support lean body mass–no more, and no less. Feel free to consult with a personal coach or nutritionist for some individual guidance.
6. Drink lots and lots (and lots) of water.
Adequate hydration is absolutely key for a good recovery period. Connective tissue is more pliable and basic physiological functions work more efficiently when a person is well-hydrated. The average person needs about half their body weight in fluid ounces of water per day. People who work out, live in hot climates, and/or have a physically demanding job likely need even more. Drink water in between meals as much as you can to avoid disrupting your digestion, and always make a cold glass of water the first thing you drink the morning to replenish any fluids you’ve lost overnight.
7. Experiment with natural supplements.
No, we’re not talking about black market steroids or crazy expensive pills that probably have more side effects than benefits. Instead, certain natural supplements–including apple cider vinegar and magnesium–have been shown to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness and inflammation. These 2 supplements in particular also offer several other health benefits, too. Try this: mix 1-2 tablespoons of organic raw apple cider vinegar in cold water and drink as an energizing morning tonic (add a splash of lemon juice to taste). At night, mix 1-2 teaspoons of magnesium citrate powder in water and drink (this will also help you sleep). You can also increase your magnesium intake by soaking in an Epsom salt bath.
8. Try intermittent compression or massage.
Many serious athletes use intermittent pneumatic compression (from companies like NormaTec) to accelerate recovery. How does it work? Intermittent compression is believed to speed healing by improving perfusion of oxygenated blood and by stimulating lymphatic drainage of intracellular fluids. If price is a barrier, consider wearing compression clothing, as these can also provide beneficial effects. Scheduling a massage can be a worthwhile treat, as well–it reduces swelling and soreness and reduces stress. Managing stress–both emotional and physical–is a huge component to adequate recovery and can help you stay more focused during your training sessions.
Sleep is the pinnacle of recovery, a time during which hormone regulation, cellular repair, metabolism, and other factors reset and ramp up. You likely need anywhere from 7-9 hours per night.
To improve sleep quality,
1) go to bed and wake up around the same time every day
2) minimize alcohol intake
3) power down TVs, cellphones, and laptops at least 1 hour before bed (to avoid over-stimulation and blue light emissions)
4) sleep in a pitch dark room (invest in some blackout curtains–they’re worth it).
10. Schedule 1 or 2 active recovery days every week.
Recovery isn’t just about sitting on your couch and drinking water. Doing some low-level activity on a scheduled rest day–such as walking, easy hiking, yoga, or swimming–is perfect for stimulating health circulation, preventing muscle and joint stiffness, and further promoting stress management. For those people who have a tendency to overtrain, it’s also a great way to temper the temptation to workout too soon.