Did you know that your gains happen outside of the gym, when you are resting? That’s right.
Exercise is just the initial push, a necessary stimulus that forces the body to go through physiological adaptations (getting stronger, building muscle, becoming leaner). For those adaptations to occur, the body requires time to clean up the mess created by your workout session (think of all the by-products left behind) and to repair broken down tissue that was (purposefully) damaged during exercise.
So what happens if we don’t give time for the body to recover?
Well, first you will not see the results you were expecting. And second, you may get yourself injured.
Without proper rest, the body doesn’t have the means to restore balance which can be dangerous.
You see, exercise acts as an stressor shifting the body into Sympathetic Mode (aka fight or flight). In this mode, our internal environment is bathed in adrenaline-like hormones, raising the hear rate and breathing, shifting blood flow to muscles and releasing energy from our energy stores.
But this is a temporary state. When we finish our workout, the body will then shift gears, getting into Parasympathetic Mode (aka rest and digest). At this stage, muscles begin to relax, blood flow is redistributed to internal organs, heart rate and breathing returns to normal, and processes like digestion can be resumed.
In a cellular level, the body starts the clean-up process, removing exercise by-products and buffering acid that was left behind. Blood flow will also bring more oxygen, glucose and minerals that are necessary for replenishing depleted energy stores.
Later, when you are sound asleep, specific hormones are released promoting tissue growth and repair, and energy is completely restored.
Now that you know how important rest is, let’s see what you can do to give mother nature a hand.
How to Improve Recovery
- Cool down
After a workout session, it is important to guide the body through a cool down process. This helps returning heart rate and breathing to normal levels, and redirecting blood flow back to internal organs (preventing blood to be pooled in the lower limbs). It also promotes the initial removal of by-products and starts buffering of acids which preventing muscle soreness.
Good ways to cool down are: light exercise such as a gentle walk, stretching and using a foam roller to massage muscles, all of which can prevent the formation of knots (tight spots on muscles).
Also, keep in mind that all of those modalities can be performed later in the day if it is not possible to do immediately after your training session.
During a moderate to intense exercise session, the body loses a considerable amount of fluids. If you tend to sweat profusely, it may even temporarily reduce your weight (not fat loss, just water). That’s why it is important to drink plenty of fluids after exercise.
Keep in mind that rehydrating the body helps eliminating exercise by-products because the extra water temporarily increases blood volume, forcing the kidneys to filter the blood, flushing out toxins in the process.
- Proper Nutrition
After exercise, your body is starved. If you had a good training session, chances are you have used most of your energy (stored in the muscles and liver) which needs to be replenished.
Your post exercise meal is one of the most important because your body will be like a sponge ready to absorb everything you consume.
A post-workout meal should contain carbohydrates (for energy) and protein (for muscle repair). Examples are sweet potato and chicken, eggs on toast, protein shake with banana.
- Relaxation Techniques
Remember that to send the body into recovery, we must shift into Parasympathetic Mode. But if you are under considerable amount of stress, your body is trapped in the Sympathetic Mode.
That’s when relaxation techniques can be beneficial. Techniques like meditation, deep breathing, and mindfulness can help calm down the mind, leading the body into a more favourable state.
- Contrast Showers
Contrast Showers, alternating between hot and cold, are commonly used by athletes to accelerate recovery. This protocol forces blood to flow from muscles to internal organs, creating a pump effect that can flush toxins and by products out of the body relatively quickly.
- Proper Sleep
Sleep is one of the most under-utilised forms of recovery. During sleep, specially deep sleep, the body releases growth hormone which is responsible for tissue repair and muscle growth.
In addition, proper sleep helps control appetite, boost immune system and keep stress hormones (cortisol) at bay.
Aim for a minimum of 8 hours of uninterrupted shut eye.
Massage reduces muscle tension, aids in recovering normal length of muscles, and prevent the formation of knots (tight spots on muscles). It also promotes general relaxation taking the body into parasympathetic mode.
- Other ways to relax and recover
Taking a hot bath with Epsom salts can help with muscle relaxation, reduce inflammation, and improve sleep.
Magnesium supplements tend to promote muscle relaxation, improve muscle function, maintain electrolyte balance (preventing muscle cramps) and reduce general fatigue.
Compression garments are tight clothing that are designed to improve recovery. They are usually used by athletes to enhance performance and accelerate recovery time.
Want to create your own recovery protocol? Then, you will love this BONUS recovery chart.