Workout recovery is a popular topic these days, and no wonder. We know now that our true gains in speed and strength come when our bodies repair the damage that we do during training. Entire books have been written on the subject. Rest and good nutrition are the cornerstone of any good recovery plan – we know that much for sure. But when it comes to specific recommendations, it’s easy to get buried in information. In a quest for optimum recovery many people tend to focus on more elaborate and expensive rituals and gadgets. The most important pieces of recovery are actually pretty straightforward. Are you doing it right?
How You’re Screwing Up Your Post-Workout Recovery
1. You Skimp on Sleep
We all know that sleep is important, but do you actually get enough? If you’ve read Good to Go, by Christie Aschwanden, you already know that there is no other factor as critical to optimum recovery as sleep. This is the prime time that your body repairs itself and hormones are reset. If you are not getting at least 6 hours of sleep each night, it’s time to make some changes to truly move the needle on recovery. Here are a few tips to get started.
-Go to bed and wake up at the same times every day. Take this seriously. Don’t let yourself get distracted by Netflix or Facebook and wind up awake past midnight half the time. Set an alarm if you need to to remind yourself to quit goofing around and get your butt in bed.
-Turn off your screens 2 hours before bed. Not only can this help you with the bedtime distraction issue, some studies have shown that the blue light emitted by screens can disrupt the hormones signals that tell your brain it’s time to shut down. -Try to avoid large meals 2 to 3 hours before bedtime. Laying down with a full gut can cause discomfort and indigestion that isn’t great for shut eye (1).
2. Your Life Stress is Out of Control
Training is obviously a form of physical stress. You tear muscle down, you rebuild it. However, your body reacts to mental stress as well. When you are stressed out your blood pressure, cortisol and breathing rate all increase. Combine both forms of stress and you have a recipe for burn-out and diminished performance gains (2).
Find ways to organize your life that reduce your stress level. Say no to events and activities that you aren’t in love with. Choose realistic athletic goals that actually fit within the limits of your available time to train. Take a walk outside, pet your dog, talk with friends.
Do what it takes to relax and take care of yourself.
3. You Completely Ignore the Magic Refueling Window
OK, so it’s not exactly magic, but it is actually important. We all know that body-builders have been downing protein post-workout for decades now. Science backs up the notion of taking in 20 – 40 grams of protein to maximize recovery. Ideally you’ll pair that protein with carbohydrate at a 3:1- 4:1 ratio. Yes, what you eat before your workout may still be floating around in the ol’ bloodstream, so if you just pounded a steak you might not need as much.
4. You Aren’t Rehydrating
Depending on your body you may lose, on average, anywhere between 27-47 ounces of fluid per hour. It can sometimes be difficult to replace all of your fluid losses while performing intense activities, but regularly getting too far behind on hydration can lead to a host of issues. Even mild dehydration can result in headache and fatigue (4).
How much you need to drink will depend on your sweat rate. You can determine this by weighing yourself before and after your workout (here’s a more detailed description) or for a more accurate test that also determines your electrolyte loss rates (independent of sweat rate) you can have a sweat test done at a lab.
5. You Go Hard Every Day
For some of us, it’s easier to stick to a routine if we exercise every day or close to it. Build up too much fatigue in the body, though, and you run the risk of decreased fitness and even injury. Be sure to follow a plan that includes days of low intensity movement such as casual swimming or walking and mobility work. Most people prefer a plan that includes rest days.
What Isn’t on the List
Are you surprised by what ISN’T on the list? No ice, stretching or compression? If these things feel good to you and help you relax then go for it. Science just does not overwhelmingly back any of them up. Some even suggest that ice and other anti-inflammatories could potentially reduce muscle adaptation. Inflammation is a sign that your body is targeting damage for repair. Anti-inflammatories may interfere with that process (6).
Stretching seems like a no-brainer, but studies have for the most part shown little to no difference in rates of recovery or injury prevention between people who stretch before/after workouts and those who don’t. (7) (This is not the same as stretches prescribed by a physical therapist or doctor which address a specific problem. Always listen to the doc.)
Compression garments are certainly useful to people with certain medical conditions, but as a recovery tool, science is a bit ambivalent. Some research has shown a boost in strength recovery post workout (8) so while they may be worth a try, they are not likely to be a make or break your performance gains. Again though, if it feels good to you and helps you relax, that in and of itself can be a benefit.
The takeaway? Chill out, eat and drink well and go to bed. Good life advice in general, so take it seriously. Make sure to get the most out of your hard work. Be smart about recovery and reap the fitness rewards.