By: Clare Hallas
Fitter, Stronger, Leaner, Faster. Harder, Heavier, Bigger, Higher. These are the thoughts in our heads and the words that we speak every day. They drive us towards greater athletic performance and we use them to drive others towards healthier lifestyles. But what about Stop, Rest, Sleep, Eat, Recover?
If you’re in love with the feeling of fitness, the chances are that your relationship with recovery is not as solid as your relationship with exercise. But if you want to enjoy the fitness you’ve earned in years to come, the research leaves no doubt about it: we must embrace recovery and make it a regular feature of our lives.
Have you ever been told at some point, by someone, “You’re overtraining. When did you last have a day off?” To which you might have answered, “Not for weeks”. If you’re anything like me, that might have made you feel a little proud. After all, it’s recognition of hard work, right? Actually, it should serve as a warning that you’re out of balance and as a useful reminder that any type of extreme behaviour will reap negative consequences.
Most athletes know that getting enough rest after exercise is essential to high-level performance, but many of us still over train and feel guilty when we take a day off. Your body repairs and strengthens itself in the time between workouts, and continuous training can actually weaken the strongest athletes. Rest is physically necessary so that your muscles can repair, rebuild and strengthen, after the damage (stress) caused by training. Here’s the clincher: it’s during recovery that the real training effect takes place.
Without sufficient time to repair and replenish, the body will continue to breakdown from intensive exercise, which often leads to overtraining syndrome. Overtraining can cause you to feel sick, run down and depressed. It can also decrease sports performance and increase risk of injury.
High-level athletes (yes, that’s what we are) need to realise that the greater the training intensity and effort, the greater the need for planned recovery. A good recovery will help your muscles and connective tissues to repair faster allowing you to train harder and more effectively in your next session. Therfore recovery will not only prevent the dangerous and difficult to reverse over-training syndrome, it will also help athletes reach higher levels of fitness.
There are as many methods of recovery as there are athletes, including both immediate (short-term) recovery from a particularly intense training session or event, as well as long-term recovery that should be included annually. Following are some of the most common methods recommended by the experts.
Get sufficient high quality sleep
All the experts agree: adequate sleep is the most effective recovery tool.
Sleep is where the physical and psychological restoration occurs through hormonal secretion and it is critical in ensuring maximum recovery. The quantity and quality of sleep is also very important as in deeper sleep phases the body heals quicker. It is important to note that sleep disturbance is often a sign of overtraining so if you are constantly waking up in the middle of the night then it could be from overdoing it.
Cooling down simply means slowing down (not stopping completely) after exercise. Continuing to move around at a very low intensity for 5 to 10 minutes after a workout helps remove lactic acid from your muscles and may reduce muscles stiffness.
You lose a lot of fluid during exercise and ideally, you should be replacing it during exercise, but filling up after exercise is an easy way to boost your recovery. Water supports every metabolic function and nutrient transfer in the body and having plenty of water will improve every bodily function. Adequate fluid replacement is even more important for endurance athletes who lose large amounts of water during hours of sweating.
After depleting your energy stores with exercise, you need to refuel if you expect your body to recover, repair tissues, get stronger and be ready for the next challenge. This is even more important if you are performing endurance exercise day after day or trying to build muscle. Ideally, you should try to eat within 60 minutes of the end of your workout and make sure you include some high-quality protein and complex carbohydrate.
Rest and relax
Time is one of the best ways to recover (or heal) from just about any illness or injury and this also works after a hard workout. Your body has an amazing capacity to take care of itself if you allow it some time. Resting after a hard workout allows the repair and recovery process to happen at a natural pace. Sometimes doing nothing is the best thing you can do for yourself.
Unwind your mind
Some studies have shown that athletes who are aggressive, tense, and act in a compulsive manner do not recover as well and therefore have a higher risk of injury than those who are more relaxed, so being able to unwind after a workout is essential. This could involve anything from dinner with friends, a walk on the beach, listening to music or doing some form of meditation.
Have a massage
Massage feels good and improves circulation while allowing you to fully relax. Massage reduces the severity of muscle soreness, enhances relaxation and has shown positive effects on recovery from a psychological perspective. You can also try self-massage and use a foam roller to loosen up tight muscles.
Listen to your body and eliminate self-talk
It’s simple, really. If you want to recover quickly then just listen to your body. If you are feeling tired, sore or notice decreased performance you may need more recovery time or a break from training altogether. If you are feeling strong the day after a hard workout, then don't force yourself to go slow. If you pay attention, in most cases, your body will let you know what it needs, when it needs it. The problem for many of us is that we don't listen to those warnings or we dismiss them with our own self-talk ("I can't be tired, I didn't lift/run/ride/jump my best yesterday" or "No one else needs two rest days after that workout; they'll think I'm a wimp if I go slow today.").
Change your training program regularly
Your body thrives on variation so don’t just train the same over and over again. By altering your training you can avoid reaching a plateau that’s tough to get past, and it will also help you to avoid overtraining.
Clare comes from a marketing background and currently works for Les Mills Asia Pacific as a National Trainer and Presenter in BODYATTACK®, BODYSTEP® and CXWORX®. She also teaches BODYPUMP® and RPM™ and is based in Melbourne.