Check out our Fitness Truths feature in the Telegraph: 7 strategies for better recovery
People will often talk about the concept of over-training, a state which could be defined as a physical, behavioural, and emotional condition that occurs when the volume and intensity of an individual's exercise exceeds their recovery capacity. In other words, it is a place where we have pushed our physical boundaries to the extreme and exercise is now resulting in negative adaptations. Symptoms include physical and mental fatigue, prolonged muscle soreness, suppressed immune system, and irritability amongst others.
But whilst it is true that over-training is a very real issue, the reality is that it is not something that many of us are ever likely to experience, as most of us simply do not push ourselves to the absolute extremes physically. Many of us are capable of far more than we realize and are exercising well within our genetic potential. I am not suggesting that it is not possible to do too much, of course it is, but what we are talking about here is very unlikely to be over-training, but rather under-recovering. The net affect is the same, but it is an important distinction.
There is a direct correlation between how well you recover and how hard you can train repeatedly and we should only exercise intensely to the degree to which we can recover. It is not the training that you are doing that is too much, more the recovery strategies that your are employing that are not enough. So what can we do if we want to push the training envelope and what strategies can we employ that will allow us to train hard, for longer, more frequently?
Here are seven areas that can make a significant difference:
1. Daily monitoring
The best way to measure how you are recovering is by asking yourself how you feel on a given day. Do I feel ready to train? Am I motivated to go to the gym? Or am I looking for any reason to get out of going? This might seem simple, and it is true that getting to know yourself better comes with experience, which is of course subjective, but in the end, who else is better placed than you are to tell you how physically and mentally ready you are to train?
You can also use more objective markers, such as morning heart rate or temperature, grip strength, or even more advanced strategies such as Heart Rate Variability (HRV), all of which can be hugely valuable if used correctly and take the ‘human element’ out of it. I personally use HRV, because it is very simple to use, and I find it to be accurate in that it does tend to my mirror my energy levels. On my ‘green days’ I push hard, on my amber days I exercise moderately, and on my ‘red days’, I back off and have a recovery or rest day.
Whatever you use, you need to get in tune with you mood and energy levels, and you need to learn when to push yourself and when to back off – it will yield much better results in the long run.
Pre-recovery is the broad term for all of the things that you do day-to-day outside of your workouts, before you even get to the gym. It is something that many of us do not think about, probably in part because it might be the least sexy bit of advice that you will ever receive when it comes to exercise and nutrition, but also because what it actually means is that if you want to push the exercise boundaries, you need to do the basics, consistently.
It can be distracting when considering pre and post workout shakes and other fancy supplements, but nothing will trump doing the lifestyle basics of eating, drinking and sleeping well. At the risk of deviating into an altogether too softly-softly model of fitness, we need to nourish the system holistically. Call it comprehensive, or a 360 approach if you prefer, but we need to respect that this is important if we want to push ourselves. You need to be able to pay back what you take out.
This includes eating and drinking enough of the right things, getting restful sleep, limiting stress, meditating, playing with the kids, or whatever else it is that helps you wind down and regenerate. I like the umbrella analogy. The wider and more solid our umbrella, which represents us systemically, the more wind, rain and hale, which represents our multiple stressors, we you can withstand before we get wet. The lifestyle basics will build our umbrella, allowing us to withstand more stressors, more often. If you umbrella is broad and strong, let it rain. If not, build it before you get too exposed.
I appreciate that this is somewhat tedious and that we have all been here before, but the triad of nutrition, hydration and sleep will always the biggest factors in our ability to recover. The food that we nourish our bodies with is vitally important, both the quality and quantity of. This can extend to more involved nutritional strategies for the more advanced exercisers amongst us, which might include targeted pre and post workout nutrition, or specific nutrient timing approaches, but at the outset, it will always come down to the basics, done consistently.
It is useful to think of nutrition in four stages. Initially we should focus on eating a natural and balanced diet, ensuring that it gets adequate macro and micronutrients, protein, fibre, some quality fats and enough carbohydrates. Once we have a decent baseline, we can then start being more specific with specific calorie requirements and macronutrient splits. Beyond this, once we have the right foods, in the right amounts, we can look at more advanced strategies, including things such as nutrient timing, intermittent fasting, carb cycling and other more involved approaches.
Nutrition is a contentious issue that divides opinion like nothing else, and ultimately it will be about finding the right balance for your individual requirements, but the basic principles are universal, and it is hugely important to take the time to do so if you want to exercise intensely and recover appropriately.
A bit like nutrition, we have heard it all before when it comes to the importance of hydration, but it keeps being highlighted for very good reason – hydration is key.
I am not going to labor the point and regurgitate some stats about how the body is three quarters water and how hydration can affect nutrient transportation, detoxification, cognitive function and just about any other function in the body, but instead I will simply reiterate that staying adequately it is important, for all of us.
Exactly how much we need to drink is open to debate, and like anything, you can over do it, but for most of us it is more than we currently drink. A useful guideline might be to drink a litre of water per 25kg of bodyweight, so if you weight 75kg that’s broadly 2-3 litres per day. If this is more than you are used to, it is probably wise to step your intake up slowly.
Sleep might be the most underrated ‘supplement’ available. Adequate sleep, especially long term, will be perhaps the biggest determining factor when it comes to recovery. It is where we do most of both our physical and psychological regeneration, which cannot be made up for with anything else if it is missed.
Poor sleep will negatively impact just about anything you can think of, including mood, energy levels, insulin sensitivity, and appetite amongst other things. As anyone who has had young children will testify, poor sleep equals food cravings, namely sugar, and little or no appetite for gym training. Prolonged poor or disrupted sleep might just about be the worst thing for us, regardless of our exercise goals.
The jury seems to be out on exactly how much we actually do need, and it will be hugely individual, but everyone agrees that we need enough. A recommendation of 7-9hours a night seems a sensible one, and is one that works for me personally. Some of us can do less, some need more, but if your sleep is disrupted for too long, recovery will significantly impaired and you will need likely need to tweak your exercise programme accordingly.
The bottom line, is that if you are serious about your training, you need to be serious about your sleep.
6. Periodized programming
One of the most ignored aspects of recovery is properly structured exercise programming. This is especially true outside of elite athletic performance circles, where most of us, some with our personal trainers, are just ‘doing a bunch of exercises and training hard’, which is great, but this is highly unlikely to yield results in the long term.
Those of us who do not follow a structured programme are asking for trouble in the long run. We simply end up doing more of the things that we enjoy, or are good at, doing none of the things that we find difficult, or less enjoyable, which are usually the things that we need to do more of, which is a quick ticket to injury and time away from exercise. If you always to the same things, be it strength training, running, or interval training, you will neglect other aspects of fitness, which over time will catch up with you. You need to periodize
It might be as simple as factoring a lighter training week every third or forth week, or having hard days and active recovery days throughout each week, which will help you recover. Whatever it looks like for you and your individual circumstances, you need to plan in periods of hard work with periods of recovery, and you need to mix your training up in a structured way. This is called periodization and will ensure that you don’t push yourself too hard, too often. It will also ensure that you manage your energy levels according to your set of individual circumstances, meaning that you will get more from your training. All of which means better results.
7. Mobility and soft tissue work
Regular mobility training and soft tissue work are as important as intense exercise, assuming that you want to stay injury of course. I appreciate that for many of us who would prefer to spend our time exerting ourselves more intensely that this might seem like a bit of a nuisance, but neglect your stretching and mobility or soft tissue work at you peril – trust me, I’ve been there.
It is true that some of us need more mobility work than others, and that we do not all have the same specific requirements, but we all need to work to ensure that we keep muscles and joints in good working order. The type and how much mobility work that we do will be very individual, but a simple guideline is to do one fifteen minute stretching and mobility session every week for each decade you have been alive. So if you are in your thirties, you need to do three fifteen-minute sessions per week. It may seem obvious given this recommendation that it becomes more important as we get older and naturally and bit less mobile.
When it comes to soft tissue work, foam rollers, soft balls and other forms of self-myofascial relief (SMR) have become hugely popular, and rightly so, given that when used correctly they do a good job of helping to keep muscles healthy. That said, it is probably fair to say that no foam roller will do that job that a skilled manual therapist will do. If you have access to a good soft tissue therapist, make the most of it, if you do not, get good with the foam roller and use it as regularly as can. I prefer pre-workout and on rest or recovery days, but just get it done when you can, it will be worth it.