Even if you’ve only been in this fitness game for a month or two, you’ve probably already learned how important recovery is. In fact, most diet and exercise advice is more about recovery than anything else.
It makes sense why there is so much emphasis on recovery. After all, recovery is the gatekeeper to whatever goals you have. You could have the best exercise program, the best trainer, and the best equipment, but without decent recovery you’re efforts will be all for not. No recovery equals no progress.
Despite all of the pills, powders and shakes or all of the diet tricks, recovery does not need to be a complicated or expensive process. To a certain degree, we don’t even have to do anything at all.
Recovery is a natural and automatic response to stress. Even if you have a fast food diet and watch TV all day, you’re still going to recover. We don’t need to make recovery happen any more than we need to make the sun rise. When we take special action towards recovery, all we are doing is speeding up a natural process that’s going to happen on its own.
So the real question is, do the recovery tricks really help you, or are you just wasting your time and money? The first thing to recognize is there are a large number of factors that can influence your recovery. Age, workout duration, workout intensity, stress levels, genetics and a whole host of other factors can come into play. It’s not like we all recover at the same rate. Plus we might recover well from a weekend 5K one week and then struggle to get back on our feet the next. Because of all of the factors involved, our rate of recovery can sometimes seem like a random and chaotic process.
In light of this, recovery can sometimes be more art than science. It requires a bit of intuition and a reaction to both what’s happening internally as well as externally. What may help one person recover well might not work at all for you. There is no set formula that will work all of the time or for every one.
That being said, there are some general principles that are worth keeping in mind. The first and by far the most important component of your recovery is sleep. Every aspect of a healthy lifestyle, from diet to mental fortitude is built upon a foundation of consistent quality sleep. If you’re sleep habits are terrible, don’t even bother trying to maximize your diet or exercise strategy. You’ll fall up short every time without decent sleep.
The secrets to getting great sleep are not secrets at all. Get to bed earlier, keep your bedding clean and comfortable, and try to keep the time you wake up fairly consistent. Sometimes waking up at 6:00am one morning and 10:30am the next can make you feel even more drained than if you constantly wake up at around 7:00am each day.
Other people may debate that diet is the most important aspect of recovery. While it’s certainly important, I’ve been able to recover alright with a less than stellar diet, but never without decent sleep.
Unfortunately, diet is also where a lot of products and false hopes lie (pun intended). The classic example is in the world of post workout nutrition. There is a general notion that everyone needs to gulp down a massive protein shake or have some special ratio of protein or carbohydrates. If this is not done then recovery from a workout may be highly compromised or maybe even impossible. I’ve even seen some people refuse to exercise because they are out of protein powder.
This belief is fueled by the idea that there is a certain window of time after a workout when the tissues of the body are in some sort of super sensitive state that allows them to suck up vital nutrients like a vacuum. While this window of sensitivity does exist, it’s not certain whether it really means you must eat a can of tuna before leaving the gym.
For one thing, we must consider the need to recover with optimal speed. Taking advantage of that post workout window doesn’t make you recover any better; it just makes you recover faster. That’s great if you need to recharge your batteries for another activity in the near future. However if you’re not planning on working out again for a couple of days then I wouldn’t sweat it. Remember that recovery can take more than just a few hours. The lunch I just ate is helping me continue my recovery from my bike race 2 days ago and tonight’s dinner will be part of my recovery from this morning’s workout.
And then we have the actual workout to consider. I’ve seen some folks spend so much time yapping on their cell phone and reading magazines in the gym it would be a stretch to consider they have much need for recovery. Yet they still feel the need to take their special recovery juice.
Finally we need to consider if weight loss is one of the goals from the exercise. Consuming extra calories post workout will certainly be putting back some, if not all, of what you worked so hard to burn off.
When I have folks ask me what they should consume after a workout I usually tell them to not eat anything if they are looking to shed fat.
Some people, like me, can get super hungry an hour or so after a workout. If that’s the case, I recommend timing your workout or meals so that you are eating a regular meal after the workout. That way you’re still eating afterward but the calories are not in addition to what you would normally consume.
The last part of recovery we must consider is the practice of taking time off of a stressful diet or exercise routine. Most folks use the practice of rest days or cheat days to give themselves a break and recharge their motivation.
Once again, this sort of thing can be more art than science. Sometimes you may find you can do some sort of workout 6-7 days a week. Other times, 3-4 times might be pushing it. I encourage everyone to have at least one day a week that’s a chill day from exercise. Play around with what day works best for you and maybe add another day or two in there depending on how you feel. Irritability, loss of motivation, loss of performance and general fatigue are all signs that a bit more rest may be needed.
Sometimes a dieter can go so crazy on a cheat day that they spend the rest of the week making up for the damage. By the time the next cheat day rolls around they have only had 2-3 days of progress. Plus, there can be a huge roller coaster of emotions that follow along. They spend a couple of days with the guilt and anxiety of needing to undo the damage and then by the end of the week they can’t wait until their next cheat day because “being good” is driving them crazy with cravings.
This is why I’m a big fan of finding a daily dietary style that has just the right amount of give and take. Each day I have a bit of sweet, but nothing big. By ironing out the details of moderation, I stay lean, I have no guilt, zero cravings, and self-control isn’t even an issue. I’ll write more about the art of diet-free healthy eating in my next few articles.