How many hours a week do you spend exercising? And how many hours do you spend on specific recovery activities? If you’re like most, the answer to the second question is probably zero. Or maybe you throw in a few half-assed hamstring stretches every now and then for good measure.
If you want to improve your sports performance, there are three things you need to get right—nutrition, progressive overload, and recovery. You can think of these like the legs of a tripod. Knock one out and the whole thing falls. This post is all about the recovery leg.
Exercise Is a Stressor: Get the Dose Right
Not all stressors are bad for us. Certain stressors applied in small amounts result in a beneficial adaptation (e.g., you become stronger, healthier, or more resilient). But if the same stressor is applied in high doses, it becomes destructive. The opposing response to a stressor is known as hormesis. You can also think of it as ‘the dose makes the poison’.
Exercise and sun exposure are good examples of stressors that have a ‘sweet spot’.
Small doses of sun exposure stimulate the skin to produce more melanin and tan. Spend too much time sun baking and you get burnt. Literally. The same goes for exercise. Workout too much and your body breaks down or you get sick. Get the dose right and you get stronger, faster, or more ninja-like.
The point of exercise is to stimulate an adaptive response like improving your endurance to run a marathon or building muscle. To achieve your goals, you need to apply enough of the exercise stimulus to push the body to adapt, then let it recover. This helps to keep you in the hermetic zone or sweet spot:
The best way to apply the right dose of exercise is to program rest and recovery into our training program. We need to stop thinking about rest and recovery as an afterthought. If we want to get better, it has to be a priority.
So, what’s the difference between rest and recovery?
Rest Versus Recovery
Rest is pretty straightforward. It includes the time you spend sleeping and not working out. Rest days don’t have to be an excuse to binge watch your favourite TV series and wear an ass-groove in your couch (but fill your boots if that’s your thing). Just keep the heart rate low and take a day off working out.
Recovery is a structured approach to maximise your body’s ability to repair and return various systems—like your nervous and muscular systems—to normal. Think foam rolling, mobility, hydration, nutrition, destressing, etc.
What Happens During Rest and Recovery?
Training without proper rest and recovery is like sitting out in the sun with a sunburn. You’re doing more damage before the body has had a chance to recover and adapt by tanning. This can interrupt a host of important processes that occur during your downtime. Some of the common ones include:
- Muscle fibres rebuild: when we workout we damage muscle fibres. During recovery, they’re repaired and increase in thickness and number to create muscle hypertrophy (growth). This also results in an increase in strength.
- Fluid balance: we lose fluids through sweat when exercising and replenish them during recovery. Our bodies need to maintain sufficient fluids to deliver nutrients to vital organs of the body.
- Protein synthesis: commonly occurs after resistance training during your recovery time. Protein synthesis is the process that drives muscle growth.
- Energy stores: when you eat after your workouts you replenish energy stores in the form of muscle glycogen.
The recovery process will vary depending on if you’ve hit the weights or run 20 km. It’ll also vary depending on experience. For example, you can handle more volume if you’ve been doing a specific activity for some time. But skip on rest and recovery and eventually your results will stall or even backslide. This can lead to a condition called overtraining syndrome (OTS).
When the stress of exercise exceeds your body’s ability to recover, your results may stall and the risk of overtraining increases. OTS can lead to a host of problems including recurring illness, loss of sleep, moodiness, decreased physical performance, and overuse injuries.
If you end up injured or sick, you’re going to be out for days to weeks. A better approach is to allow enough recovery time. You’ll reduce the chances of overtraining and keep your body healthy.
How to Build Rest and Recovery Into Your Training
This will depend on your activities and experience level. For instance, if you’re lifting weights allow for 48 hours between workouts that hit the same body part. If you’re an experienced runner, you might be fine with back-to-back workouts.
There’s no one-size fits all when it comes to recovery, but here are some general recommendations:
- Days off: take at least one full day off exercising a week.
- Do daily maintenance on your body: most of us have tight muscles or niggling injuries. Identify your problem areas and build a mobility routine. Keep it simple and spend 10-15 minutes a day working through issues.
- Take your sleep seriously: this is huge. Go to bed earlier! Get between 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Your body gets to work on patching you up and making you stronger during this time.
- Hydrate: drink plenty of water. Water is essential for health, energy, and performance. If you’re exercising for more than two hours, consume an electrolyte drink.
- Consider deload weeks: this is a structured break usually used by weightlifters, but can be applied to endurance training. At the end of a training phase (say every 4-8 weeks), you drop the load/volume down by 50% and do easy workouts. You can also take a week off the gym and do active recovery, if you’re feeling really taxed.
- Posture: this is often overlooked, but leads to a huge amount of neck and back pain. If you’re sitting all day, get your desk set up correctly. Move regularly. Or get a standing desk, if possible.
- Refuel: learn about proper nutrition to support your workouts. Make sure you’re eating the right amounts of carbs, fat, and protein to support your goals.
- Heat, ice, and compression: use these methods when injured or after a really stressful workout.
Don’t just consume information. If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you find this post useful. You’ve now got two choices: 1) close the screen and think ‘that’s nice’ and move on with your day. Or 2) pick one aspect of recovery and build it into your program. Start out with an easy change. And as Nike says, just do it! Decision creates action. Action creates results.
I Need Your Help
I’ve also got a huge favour to ask of you. No, I don’t want your money. But will happily accept it! I’m trying to get this blog off the ground and I can’t do it without your help. Simply sharing this post on social media (you’re so close to the share buttons—look down below) or emailing it to a friend makes a HUGE difference in my life. In return, I promise we can be best mates and you can reach out anytime. Seriously. If you need help with any health, fitness, or Jedi Knight goals you can contact me here.
You can also share some love by adding a comment below. Let me know what your favourite recovery methods are.
Subscribe to My Blog
If you liked this post, you’ll love my weekly email. Short. Punchy. Packed full of gems of wisdom on life, fitness, and beyond! Enter your email below to subscribe. In addition to one weekly email (learn more), you’ll get instant access to download two FREE e-books: the Battle-Tested Body Transformation Guide and Quick and Clean Recipes.