In this article we take a look at recovery and why it’s important as well as discuss some strategies on how to measure and maximise your recovery.
What is recovery and why is it important?
Having been working within the fitness industry for more years than I like to admit now I’ve learnt a great deal about the benefits of training. However Perhaps the single most underrated facet of health and fitness is recovery – In our world of excess where ‘more = better’ there comes a point of diminishing returns.
I’ve seen this first hand in my own training for the National Fitness games, whereby I have been experimenting with how much training load I can tolerate. It has been a real eye opener in that all the little injuries that I have acquired occurred during periods of heavy training where by my biomarkers for recovery were right down.
Think of recovery as a state in which your body drives energy towards repairing and re modelling tissues to be bigger, stronger and more functional. We only have a finite amount of energy, if we choose to use too much of this energy training and working then not enough is left over for repair and growth.
If you spend too long in recovery debt then it will inevitability lead to the following:
- Loss of physical performance in gym.
- Higher likely hood of developing injuries especially chronic conditions like tendonosis.
- A suppressed immune system so more chance of illness.
- General lack of drive, motivation and energy.
How to monitor recovery
Today we are blessed with more tools and methods than ever before and so it has become far easier to monitor your recovery status. Here are some of the most common:
Can you improve you program numbers by at least 2.5% every session? All things being equal when you train hard, eat well, sleep soundly and manage stress, you should improve every session. If this is not happening either you’re not pushing hard enough or you are under recovered.
2. Grip strength
A simple technique I first learnt from Peter Marcasiano, your grip is intrinsically linked with recovery. At the beginning of your training session pick up the heaviest bumper plate you can with a pinch grip, if you markedly struggle from one day to the next then it’s likely you’re under recovered.
3. Resting heart rate
You get a true reading if you measure your overnight average resting heart rate. There are many devices out there but our favourite here at CoActive is the Oura ring https://ouraring.com. If you are 5 beats above normal this indicates you stressed and under recovered.
Perhaps the best indicator of recovery is heart rate variability or HRV. You will need a Bluetooth heart rate monitor or Oura ring to measure this.
Your heart is not a metronome as it beats through a wide spectrum of rhythms throughout the day. These beat to beat variations are what we measure when we talk about heart rate variability. A low HRV score where by the heart beat is more steady and even is an indication that the body is under stress. Where’s as a high HRV score indicates good recovery.
The reason HRV is so interesting is that gives us a great insight into how your autonomic nervous system is functioning. The autonomic nervous system is made up of the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. It controls many unconscious functions such as digestion and breathing, and is very sensitive to stress. The body will always strive for homeostasis and does this by either speeding things up with the sympathetic nervous system or slowing things down with the parasympathetic nervous system.
When we are stressed our sympathetic nervous system is activated. In this state our ‘fight or flight’ hormones are released such as adrenalin and noradrenalin giving us bursts of energy. This response is great if you are doing a hard strength session at the gym, however it’s not so good if we are lying in bed worrying about a looming work deadline.
On the flip side if we are in a relaxed state then our parasympathetic nervous system is activated. It is here where we digest are food properly, breath more deeply and generally recover best.
Low HRV Score
- Sympathetic nervous system activated
- Steady even heart beats that are metronomic
- High resting heart rate
- High blood pressure
- Trouble sleeping
- Poor recovery
High HRV Score
- Parasympathetic nervous system activated
- Lots of natural variation between heart beats
- Relaxed state
- Low resting heart rate
- Good digestion
- Deep breathing
- Good recovery
How to maximise recovery
If you start to monitor your biomarkers such as resting heart rate and HRV then it becomes much easier to manage your work and training load week to week. So the first step towards maximising recovery is identifying when your pushing too hard and then taking the appropriate action, be it a day off from heavy training or doing more of the following:
- Good Nutrition
- Adequate Hydration
- Quality Sleep
We’ve covered the above topics and how important they are in past articles, needless to say if these basics are not in place then all other ‘recovery hacks’ become negligible.
Walking in nature
If you notice that you are run down and under recovered then a great ‘working in’ activity is walking, especially if it’s done in nature. This will promote circulation and lymph flow, give you space to clear your head and promote deep breathing all of which aids recovery.
Meditation / power naps
Meditation is a great way to activate your parasympatheitic nervous system, de-stress and promote recovery. If you are new to it then the app ‘Head space’ is a great introductory tool. You can get the majority of the recovery benefits of meditation with ‘power naps’. The key is not to nap too long, 15-20 mins is the ideal.
This one is not for everybody especially coming into winter. Having a cold shower post training can dramatically reduce inflammation and muscle soreness thus speed up recovery. Try to work up from 20 secs to 90 secs at a time. To find out more a great resource is www.wimhofmethod.com.
Infra red sauna
Along with the great detoxification effects, infrared saunas are also fantastic recovery aids. Having short 20 minute sauna sessions after workouts will help lower cortisol, improve lactate disposal and speed recovery between workouts.
Epsom salt baths
I’ve spoken before about the great restorative effects of Epsom salt baths. The combination of soaking in hot water and absorbing the magnesium and sulphur from the salts are great for recovery especially after a tough leg session!
Doing baths, active mobility stretches, foam rolling and using facial release tools are all fantastic methods for keeping supple and performing well, however nothing beats good quality hands on soft tissue work. A regular sports massage is a fantastic way to break down adhesions, promote lymph flow and generally speed up recovery from hard training. We are fortunate here at CoActive in that we have a great sports massage therapist who comes in on a Saturday morning, I know even doing just 1 massage a month makes a huge difference to how I feel and perform. If you’d like to book a sports massage with Kwame please contact us.
When we talk about health and fitness I know it’s much more exciting to focus on smashing another tough training session in the gym, however if you want long term sustainable results then it is absolutely vital to put some thought and effort into your recovery. By starting to monitor your recovery even if it’s simply testing your grip strength prior to big sessions or keeping an eye on your resting heart rate, it will allow you to train smarter not just harder. You can then start to implement more of the above strategies when your body needs them.
Being the wrong side of 40 and still training 6 days a week has forced me to take my recovery seriously, here are the checks I like to get done on a ‘good’ day:
- Prioritise sleep – minimum 7 hours a night.
- Monitor sleep with the Oura ring – this gives a readiness score based on a combination of sleep quality, resting HR, HRV, breathing rate and body temperature.
- Eat 4 quality meals made up of lean protein, veg and healthy fats with starchy cho in last two meals.
- Train hard – Eustress.
- Infra red sauna 15 mins post training.
- Cold shower – 60 seconds on a good day! (I’m working on it).
- Power nap or 15 minutes meditation – with Oura ring.
- Epsom salt bath before bed.