RECOVER LIKE AN ATHLETE
GET BETTER, NOT INJURED
We could do well to learn from how professional athletes train and prepare for competition. In many cases, yes, they are genetically gifted. Sometimes, pro athletes are simply herculean demi-gods, birthed with literal mutations that allow them to perform feats 99% of us could never reach, no matter how meticulous or committed our training was. However, most of the time, they just consistently bust their butt, train smarter, and recover better than you. This article focuses on the latter part of that statement.
Chances are if you are reading this, you’re putting in the work. You may even have a strategic plan in place, detailing your entire training schedule in preparation for a race, or other competition. You may even go as far as to have specific elements of intensity levels and appropriate strength training in your routine. If so, good for you! I don’t doubt your ability to work. What I can almost guarantee that you suck at though, is your ability to recover.
First, let’s get the Webster-y stuff clarified: What exactly is recovery and why is it important enough to have a dedicated section of this website? When we talk recovery, we are NOT talking about rest. Rest is simply when you’re not working. A day you don’t train is a “rest day,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean it qualifies as a “recovery day” until you perform elements of recovery (which we’ll get into later). Recovery is crucial to your improvement towards any goal because it’s where changes actually take place.
***Warning: Use of science-sounding terminology to build credibility coming up***
Work, defined as an intensity level performed beyond homeostasis, provokes a stimulus response which the body must recover from, in order to increase work capacity, as a delayed effect, to more efficiently perform future work.
In other words, your body doesn’t get better/faster/stronger when you train, but rather, during the recovery from training. Allow me to use all-caps to fully get this point across: TRAINING BREAKS YOUR BODY DOWN, RECOVERY BUILDS IT BACK UP.
Thank you for giving me that opportunity to yell at you, it was very cathartic. So what happens if you stubbornly keep training hard, without prioritizing recovery? Bam! Pow! Other Batman Noises! You get injured! A recovery routine is not only essential for seeing results improve, but also – and maybe more importantly – to prevent any potential injuries.
Now that we’re nice and warmed-up on the topic, ready to jump into the numbered list?
I assumed you yelled “YES!” at your digi-screen, so let’s proceed. I break the essential elements of recovery into 4 primary categories:
1. Active Recovery
Active Recovery can be summarized as low-intensity movement for the purpose of getting your “blood moving.” Hopefully, your blood is always moving (if not call a doctor NOW), but performing low-intensity exercise in between high-intensity training, helps speed along the recovery process by delivering a higher rate of oxygenated blood and clearing toxins. This allows your body to repair muscular microtears more efficiently. Perform activities you enjoy.
WHAT: Light jog, leisurely walk, or cross-training sport that leaves you energized, not exhausted.
WHEN: As many times per week as your schedule allows, optimally the day after your most intense workout(s).
You know this one. You’ve been told to get more sleep since you were a child. You don’t need me to tell you how important it is, or how much you need. What you do need to know is how much it affects your body’s ability to recover.
The majority of the body’s healing and immune processes happen in our sleep. Remember, when we workout, we are creating micro-tears in our muscles. A lack of quality sleep means the tears won’t properly heal, and you wake up feeling sore. If you then go to workout before you’re recovered, you start in a deficit, and may begin to plateau towards your goals.
Anytime someone complains to me about not reaching, or stalling towards a fitness goal, my first question is always, “Are you sleeping enough?” The answer, 100% of the time is, “No.” So next time you feel tempted to binge just-one-more-episode on Netflix, put down the remote and pull back the sheets instead.
WHAT: Uninterrupted deep sleep in a cool, dark room.
WHEN: 6-10 hours every. single. night.
Guess what your body uses to produce energy? Food. Guess what your body needs to recover properly? More food. There are times when a caloric deficit is desirable, i.e. weight loss. If your goal is anything other than shedding pounds, such as improving performance, you better be eating enough. See: Michael Phelp’s 12,000 calorie training diet. Under-consuming calories can slow your metabolism, taking you into a dreaded catabolic state, where your muscles continue to break down after your workout.
Also in this category is water. Water is the essential life – and recovery – ingredient. Simply put, when you are dehydrated, it’s akin to pulling the emergency brake on your body’s metabolic processes. We’re made of so much water, we’re basically cucumbers with thoughts. Always Be Drinking Water© and stay anabolic my friends!
WHAT: Eat enough and drink more water than you think is enough.
WHEN: Time your meals to have your heaviest carbohydrate intake sandwiched around your workouts…. mmmmm sandwich…. The more intense your workout, the more calories you need to fully recover and regrow.
REMEMBER!: Drink plenty of water before and during exertion. Once you feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.
Different from your body doing work, this is work done on your body. Professional bodyworkers include massage therapists, chiropractors, arrosti practitioners, or other professionals that perform work that helps speed along your body’s recovery process. Understanding budgets and schedules don’t always allow for professional appointments, much bodywork can be performed solo, referred to as self-care.
Sometimes, dynamic or static stretching is enough to get the job done. I strongly suggest adding recovery tools to really target and effectively heal the body. Luckily, a wealth of great products (rollers, etc.) exist that allow us to perform consistent bodywork on ourselves.
WHAT: Manipulating the body’s tissue to alleviate specific pain points or general tension.
WHEN: At least 5 minutes of self-care on a daily basis. Professional assistance as-needed.
EAT. SLEEP. RUN. REPEAT
Nearly every runner I’ve met loved to sweat. We love the feeling of endorphins released, the feeling of accomplishment, and the all the other wonderful benefits that come from getting our bodies moving. Even when the training gets tough, we love the challenge. While we want to train like an athlete, we typically don’t recover like one.
I get it. It’s easy to think, “Oh, I just need to train harder, ” thinking only the ‘doing’ brings results. It can seem contradictory to think, what you really need is not more work, but better recovery. A current trend in the world of fitness is to talk about over-training. I’m here to tell you “over-training” is a myth. The human body was made to move. The real issue is under-recovery.
Let’s start these good habits now, so that injury doesn’t slow us down later! Hopefully, I’ve gotten your gears turning about how to approach and implement your own recovery routine. Until then, stay hydrated, sleep well, and go get a massage. Your body will thank you.
About the Author:
Lance has previously been fat, weak, and injured. Lacking any real innate athletic ability, his application of data and science has produced some pretty awesome personal results, such as bench pressing over 500 pounds in competition. As a professional Strength & Conditioning Coach he’s helped enhance the performance of NFL athletes, olympians, ironmen, and improved the race-day performance of hundreds of runners.
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