Now, in this final installment, we’re looking at the key to keeping your exercise program working for you: recovery.
Whether your exercise goals are for health, aesthetics or athletics, the means to those ends all come from changing your body composition. That’s why our workouts focus on losing fat and building muscle. But true transformation in our bodies doesn’t actually occur while we’re training. It happens during recovery.
The reality is that exercise hurts our bodies. And recovery heals them. When we work out, we push our bodies to the point of cellular breakdown with the intention of building them back up stronger and more efficient. With every strenuous bike ride, weight training session or bout of high-intensity interval training, we give rise to this process.
That’s why allowing our bodies the time and support to recover is crucial to the effectiveness of our exercise programs.
How does the recovery process work?
When we work out, we feel sore — it’s a natural part of the process to build muscle and make changes in our body composition.
Muscle hypertrophy (growth) occurs when muscle fibers sustain damage through exercise. The body repairs damaged fibers by fusing them, which increases muscle mass.
So, what happens to the fat? It’s a pet peeve of mine when people erroneously say they need to “convert fat to muscle.” That’s not how it works. Fat doesn’t turn into muscle!
During this muscle-building and fat-burning process, we understandably feel tired and weak, as our body focuses on repairing and rebuilding itself. Most of the soreness we feel comes from the inflammation produced as a result of the cellular changes.
As uncomfortable as it is, our body’s inflammatory response is an important part of the healing process. Although we can do things to help support and expedite recovery, which I share below, it’s important not to stifle it by loading up on ibuprofen or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, also known as NSAIDs, which may clear the inflammation but can hinder healing and, subsequently, the effectiveness of your workouts.
That said, post-exercise inflammation is only good for you to a point. That’s why it’s necessary to adequately recover between workouts. Otherwise, you’ll continually break down muscle and create inflammation without allowing the rebuild — making exercise counterproductive. This phenomenon is called Overtraining Syndrome, which negatively affects your health and fitness level, and can lead to injuries. Falling victim to OTS can be avoided by following the recovery guidance below.
Prioritize recovery at all stages of training
Recovery isn’t just about getting enough sleep! It needs to be an integrated part of your overall training program. From days off to resting between sets and cooling down at the end of workouts, recovery is as important between workouts as it is during and immediately following exercise.
Ready to start recovering? Below, I outline strategies to optimize recovery.
Optimize recovery with these strategies
Fuel with the right foods: Food is fuel for your body and mind, so it plays a vital role in recovery. For more on this, I asked my friend, Angie Asche, a registered dietician who works in professional sports and owns Eleat Sports Nutrition, to share her insights.
Asche said it helps to view nutrition for recovery as “the 3 Rs: repair, refuel and replenish.” She said, “Repair represents protein because protein is essential for repairing muscle tissue. A general guideline would be to consume at least 20 to 25 grams within an hour after your workout.” That equals a 3-ounce chicken breast (24 grams of protein), one 7-ounce container of 2% Greek yogurt (20 grams) or one scoop whey or plant-based protein powder (grams of protein varies depending on brand).
“‘Refuel’ represents carbohydrates, one of the energy sources used during workouts. So, after an intense workout, you’ll want to refuel that energy source by consuming a sufficient amount of carbohydrates, around 1 to 1.5 grams per kilogram body weight.”
And, finally, Asche said “replenish” reflects the need to replenish fluids, which we cover below.
Leverage your breathing: There is no question that the act of breathing is important for giving your body the oxygen it needs to get you through your workouts. And, as mentioned above, your exhales expel the waste byproduct produced through fat burning.
But breathing is also the key to accessing your parasympathetic nervous system, the aspect of your autonomic nervous system tasked with recovery and restoration. In as little as 90 seconds of deep breathing, you elicit a “relaxation response,” which taps your parasympathetic nervous system, lowering your heart rate, decreasing your blood pressure and inhibiting stress hormone production.
Stretch a little daily: How many times do you finish the “work” part of your workout, towel off, grab your water and hit the road? Too many people skip the cool down. As mentioned above, just a little time spent breathing goes a long way toward recovery. The same applies to doing a few cooldown stretches.
Too many people don’t want to invest more time in their workouts with a cooldown, but the truth is that you only need to stretch for a few minutes after each workout to get the feel-good, circulation-boosting, flexibility-improving benefits. In fact, stretching longer isn’t always better, which you can learn about here.
I use a handheld massage gun both in my work in pro sports and personally as an effective recovery device. If you have access to one, I recommend using it daily before and after training sessions to target the areas you experience the most tension.
Make your recovery work for you
Thankfully, exercise scientists have put a great deal of time and energy into researching recovery, so there are many tried-and-true strategies. However, with some modalities, like cryotherapy, research is emerging.
As long as you’re optimizing your sleep and nutrition, drinking enough fluids, taking days off from intense exercise, using rest periods in your workouts and adequately cooling down after training sessions, it’s up to you to decide what other strategies work best for you.
Dana Santas, known as the “Mobility Maker,” is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and mind-body coach in professional sports, and is the author of the book “Practical Solutions for Back Pain Relief.”