You’ve consistently shown up in class for workouts and you are always feeling beat up or maybe it seems your results have stalled, plateaued or possibly declined? When some people see this happening they resolve to workout out harder, longer or more often, thinking they aren’t putting in enough at the gym. But maybe it’s what you are doing outside of the gym that is dampening your performance.
First off, what exactly happens when you exercise? You make small tears in your muscles and basically cause slight damage to your body. Because of this stimulus your body seeks to adapt by rebuilding muscles and tissue stronger to help you cope with future stresses. While tearing your tissues down sounds counter productive, this is the natural process to get bigger, stronger, and faster. Issues arise when you don’t allow your body time to make repairs or give it the resources it needs. By falling into a state of overtraining and under recovering, you can actually find yourself getting weaker, gaining weight or possibly getting injured. Scheduling recovery, deload time and rest days into your exercise program is just as important as the other components (and some would say more so!)
Just as everyone responds uniquely to exercise, finding the ideal combination of recovery techniques is just as individualized. However, there are some practices that can benefit many people. These include:
Getting enough sleep can be hard for those with children and unpredictable schedules but it’s important to prioritize as this is when your body is able to put in the most work rectifying damage from the hours you are awake. During sleep your body releases human growth hormone to lend to growth and repair, your body relaxes, blood flow increases to muscles, and it gives your brain and body energy to support daytime performance.
If you aren’t able to increase the quantity of sleep you are getting, at the minimum focus on getting the most quality sleep possible. This could include darkening your bedroom, adding a white noise machine, and adjusting the room temperature so it is optimal for your personal sleeping preferences. You should also consider avoiding screen time (from phones, tablets, and televisions) an hour before bedtime and getting everything for the morning ready before you go to sleep. This way your brain can shut off and not worry about all the things you have to do before you leave the house the following day.
Staying Hydrated and Avoiding Alcohol
Most people know that drinking water throughout the day is important, it’s especially so when you are recovering from a strenuous workout or preparing for an upcoming workout. Everyone is different and daily water requirements vary but the key is to reach for plain, non sweetened, decaffeinated beverages throughout your day to ensure your systems have an adequate amount of fluids to keep everything running smooth.
Alcohol hinders recovery by averting focus from repairing muscles to breaking down and metabolizing alcohol. Not to mention consuming alcohol usually comes with added sugar and calorie consumption from the drinks and potentially poor food choices depending on how much you are indulging. (I think we are all guilty of having an after hours binge session after a night of drinking…) Some studies have shown that as little as one drink can hinder your sleep and recovery so use alcohol sparingly and for special occasions if you are looking to improve your physical performance.
Properly Fueling Your Body
Nutrition plays a big part in giving your body the components it needs to rebuild muscles and tissues. Getting protein into your system after a workout is essential as these lay the foundation for muscle building. You may find ingesting a small
amount of carbohydrates just before your workout increases your stamina, allowing you to workout at a higher intensity or for longer. Post workout meals should help replace lost calories and electrolytes and give your body access to quick energy while it’s in a higher metabolic state.
What you consume through the day will make a huge difference in how you perform in the gym and the physical changes you get. Whenever possible reach for whole foods (fruits, vegetables, meat, nuts) and avoid or strictly limit highly processed food and snacks as these are nutritionally void. It’s been said you can’t outtrain a bad diet; if you haven’t seen results you were hoping for, it may be time to take a closer look at what you are putting in your mouth. If you aren’t sure where to start, simply ask a coach and we will happily point out some great resources.
Stretch, Foam Roll
After your workout, even before you leave the gym, you can also aid in faster recovery. While you are warm and your muscles loose from working out is when you should do your stretching, foam rolling and mobility work. Even if you only have time for 5 minutes you will be amazed at the difference you start to feel if you stay disciplined. Coaches can suggest movements to give you a starting point.
Scheduled Rest/ Recovery Days
Walking, swimming, yoga, or general low impact movements should be a part of your exercise regimen. These provide your body active rest and your mind a break from the structure and intensity of your workouts. The days you feel most sore and worn down from a workout may be when this active recovery is the most important; keeping your muscles moving and blood flowing can help your body repair. Just remember to view these as “off” days, you aren’t trying for new records or PR’s, just for quality movement.
You can accomplish a lot with a foam roller and a lacrosse ball. However, for those hard to reach and stubbornly tight muscles sometimes recruiting the help of a professional is just what you need to start feeling better in the gym. While getting pushed and pulled on while you are sore from working out sounds like a terrible idea, this can help alleviate tight and sore muscles and help get blood flowing to where you need it most. If you are especially sore you might ask your masseuse to start light and have them increase pressure as you become accommodated. Regular massage can also help alleviate chronic muscle tightness and help you achieve new range of motion and mobility, resulting in better form and technique in the gym and decreased chances of injury.
Ice and Salt Baths, Sauna, Water Contrast Therapy
For those looking to step up their recovery regimen you might turn to things like ice and salt baths, sauna, and water contrast therapy. These all have their own benefits and results can vary from person to person. Each is relatively easy and cheap so it’s worth it to try them all to see what works best for you.
Ice and Salt Baths
Ice baths are not pleasant. The basic idea behind this technique is to reduce inflammation in your body by plunging yourself in ice cold water. College and professional athletes often turn to this technique and it does seem to help reduce pain from inflamed muscles, however, it’s very important to limit your exposure to the water and make sure you aren’t spending too much time on ice. (Recent research has actually shown water contrast therapy to be more beneficial than ice baths, which is good because this is easier to accomplish and not nearly as uncomfortable.)
The ritual of a hot bath offers benefits such as reduced stress, softer skin and improved mood. Some people claim a bath with epsom salts (also called magnesium sulphate) can offer relief from sore muscles as well by reducing swelling and improving circulation. While the science behind epsom salt baths seems more rooted in old wives’ tales and tradition, sometimes taking time to give yourself a good soak and allow your body and mind to relax is a great recovery tool (from both the gym and life in general!)
The idea behind sauna is that your entire body is heated and therefore muscles can relax and loosen. This release can increase blood flow and enhance the availability of oxygen to your muscles. As you sweat your body releases free radicals and toxins that result from high impact and cardio muscular stress. Sitting in a sauna after your workout aids in this detoxification and allows you to continue this process, contributing to faster recovery time. Additional studies have nodded at improved heart and lung health as sauna mimics the circulatory and exertion benefits of exercise.
Water Contrast Therapy
The basic idea behind this technique is to dilate and constrict blood vessels by varying between hot and cold water. This can be achieved in the shower (1 minute “hot” water followed by :30 as cold as you can stand, repeated over the course of 10-15 minutes) or by going between an ice bath or pool and a hot tub. (Or sauna and cold shower, for example). This is said to help rid your system of waste products. It will also definitely wake you up!
Whatever you choose for your recovery cocktail, keep in mind something that works now might now always work for you, or a combination of the above may produce the best results. Start with dialing in your sleep and nutrition and take scheduled “active recovery” days. Gradually try a little of everything until you find your winning combination that helps you recover and keeps you feeling great every single time you step foot into the gym. As always, turn to coaches as your first resource and starting place if you have any questions or need help!