What is Recovery?
Recovery, while seemingly simple, is one of the most misunderstood parts of the training puzzle. If you don’t really know what “recovery” means and aren’t using specific methods to address it you are leaving a lot of potential gains on the table.
“If you are putting in the work in the gym and are putting in the recovery work outside the gym the results will come.” I tell clients that simple phrase multiple times every day. Not because they don’t get it, but because it is so easy to forget that the rest of your life has as much to do with your results as what you actually did in the gym.
So, if you are putting in the work in the gym but aren’t getting results something is missing, recovery. In this blog I’ll explain how to make sure you are taking care of that aspect of training.
What is recovery and why is it so important?
Before I get into recovery you need to understand some basic principles of physiology and stress (as everything is a stressor, even recovery) and how your body deals with it.
The Autonomic Nervous System
Your body’s primary control system is its autonomic nervous system, which has two sub-systems:
- Sympathetic – responsible for “fight or flight” activity
- Parasympathetic – responsible for “rest and digest” activity
These sub-systems coexist in a push-pull relationship to regulate everything from heart rate to digestion to breathing. Don’t think of them so much as a gas and brake pedal because they don’t fight each other. Rather, consider them in terms of a continuum, working in unison to varying degrees. The relationship between these two sub-systems can be measured to establish a very reliable metric on your current physiological state, called heart rate variability (HRV). You can read more on this topic here.
The picture below shows the recovery continuum with the far left representing complete parasympathetic tone (rest and recovery) and far right representing complete sympathetic tone (fight or flight).
How and why recovery occurs
Everything is a stressor, everything. Your body is in a constant state of change, adapting to whatever stimulus you provide it. Whether you sit on the couch for 24 hours or run a marathon you are telling your body what it needs to be prepared to handle. This ever-changing process is called allostasis.
Short and long term recovery
So, how does allostasis work? To give you an example, let’s assume you just ran a marathon.
After you finish your race your body will have two responses due to the significant stress of the race: a short-term response and a long-term response. The short-term response is characterized by flooding the body with hormones and redistributing blood flow and energy to the appropriate system and local area within the body. This will occur during the 24 hours directly after the event.
Once the short-term response has ended the long-term adaptation component kicks in around 24-48 hours after the event. Your body releases enzymes or other signaling hormones that start a cascade of responses within the body and create a more permanent adaptation so that the body is better able to deal with the stressor next time it occurs. An important concept to note is the magnitude of the signaling response is directly proportional to the load of the stressor.
In other words, the total load controls how intense the stress response is. This is why the body stops adapting when same stressor is placed on the body repeatedly (such as doing the same workout plan every week).
Too much of a good thing
While the adaptation process I outlined above can lead to the improvements we are looking for, the problem is that most of us tend to spend way too much time in the stress process I outlined above and never allow full recovery.
Why does this happen? Well, you stay in a “fight or flight” sympathetic state because of your busy life, schedule, jobs, bills, kids, training schedule, bad bosses, the economy, etc.
So, why does that matter? The problem with always being sympathetically dominant is that the body adapts to better handle that stress. Remember allostasis? Unlike adapting to a workout, these adaptations are not good for longevity, performance, or health. In fact, this imbalance causes serious problems over a long enough period of time.
Most of the most devastating and common diseases in America (heart disease, type-2 diabetes and cancers) are primarily caused by chronically overstressing the body. When you are under constant stress your body produces excessive cortisol, adrenaline, and other hormones (sympathetic hormones) that inhibit non-critical functions such as reproduction, digestion, cell repair, and immune function. This usually leads to the following negative side effects, among other things:
- Poor blood sugar management and insulin resistance
- Depression, sleep disruption, and carbohydrate craving
- Decreased thyroid conversion and a reduced metabolism
- Altered sex hormone activity
- Amino acid loss from skeletal muscle
By continually being stressed out we inhibit our body’s ability to react strongly to a stressor, which we want, by never allowing it to go into “recovery” mode.
This illustrates the importance of measuring your physiological state (HRV) to get an accurate snapshot of how effectively you are actually recovering and how strong the adaptation stimulus you are inducing actually is. Subjective measures, while important (read below), don’t really cut it for most people.
An important aspect of recovery is self-awareness. Training yourself to be aware of how you are feeling, and how your actions outside the gym are affecting your performance and body composition will make demystifying the training process much easier.
One of the biggest mistakes I see coaches and trainees make is thinking that training occurs in a vacuum and if they are putting the work in at the gym they should get results regardless of what they do outside the gym. Not surprisingly, these people often train harder and harder in search of the results they aren’t getting until the get hurt, frustrated, or both.
While most everyone is aware of the importance of nutrition few are aware of the other the elements of an effective recovery plan (such as sleep, stretching, breathing, state of mind).
To compound things most people do not have a good subjective measure of what a difficult workout or what being recovered feels like. Their daily baseline of what “stressed” or “recovered” is extremely skewed because they spend most of their time somewhere in the middle, never really making much in the way of gains, but never feeling too bad either (until cancer, heart disease, or something else “appears out of nowhere”).
Don’t Live in the Middle
Remember in first section where I described the autonomic nervous system as a continuum?
The person I described above is stuck in constant sympathetic tone; slightly to the right of middle on the continuum above. There is no problem with spending some time in this zone, but when it becomes chronic the side effects start to creep in.
To be specific, a slight right shift isn’t quite overtraining (sympathetic kind), but enough stress is applied daily to keep them constantly shifted to the right and vulnerable to all kinds of negative health consequences not to mention poor results in the gym
Most trainees spend their lives somewhere in this right shifted zone due to their chronically busy and stressful lifestyles and don’t ever fully recover from a training block or ever really challenge their system to adapt to a large stimulus. So, how could they possibly have an effective subjective perspective on their state of being? I’ll answer that. They can’t.
The “applying not enough but too much stress” syndrome is applies to much more than just recovery, but that is beyond the scope of today’s post (more on that topic later).
When you are chronically stuck in what I call “medium intensity junk-land” you cannot fully activate your sympathetic nervous system because you are in a chronic state of semi-fatigue inhibiting your ability to perform to your full potential.
So, what do you do? Take some stimulants and charge ahead? I wouldn’t recommend it.
Instead, you should focus on restoring balance to your autonomic nervous system via general recovery work (hyperlink to general recovery methods). By doing so you will increase your capability to create a larger and more effective sympathetic response when you need it, and recover faster from a period of intense training. The longer your body spends in sympathetic junk-land the more blunted your body’s response to stress becomes. Thus, going to the gym and crushing it will only make the situation worse.
(Clarification: I’m not talking about normal overreaching, for a healthy, trained individual, but a sustained chronic right shift on the continuum).
HRV and Recovery
So, how do you know where you fall on the recovery spectrum?
As I mentioned earlier in the article HRV is a great tool. Designing training programs that incorporate rest or deload periods is a good idea as well.
I know what you are thinking: “I’m not a serious athlete, I don’t need that”. If that’s what you are thinking you are actually the person who needs it the most. Your average high-level athlete, coach, or fitness enthusiast has intuitively developed a system for monitoring his or her own body through a process of trial and error.
For example, after a few months of using HRV I was able to guess my HRV “score”, or physiological state, within a ridiculous degree of accuracy. While I am no high level athlete, I have been training and playing sports continuously for my entire life and I would venture to say that I can guess accurately because I have spent years figuring out how to listen to my body.
I am not saying that HRV is not extremely useful for everyone (because it is), but that those that need it the most will most likely be the ones who resist using it. I am certain that if I had used HRV as a young athlete I might have been able to avoid three or four surgeries and countless more overuse injuries that were part of my learning curve.
The point is recovery methods and knowing your physiological state is highly under-rated. HRV and intelligent programming can and should be used to help you develop a much more accurate sense of self-awareness so that you can more accurately monitor your own body to achieve better results and avoid negatives such as injury and illness.
It’s all Connected
So, what does all that mean and what do you need to know?
First, start using HRV; no matter who you are. There are several good options on the market that cost lest than a month’s worth of Starbucks.
Second, read more about recovery (part 2 and 3 are coming in the next week) and program design basics so you can start designing better programs.