Exercise Recovery Fundamentals: What Your Body Needs to Perform
Marcus Johnson, BS, CSCS and Lanny Littlejohn, MD
Reading Time: 8 minutes
What is exercise recovery?
Recovery is returning the body to a level of homeostasis promoting repair, growth, and the enhancement of physical function over time. Specifically, tissues are repaired, the nervous system normalizes, and many other bodily systems replenish resources. This process includes rest, soft-tissue work, low-intensity exercise, hydration, nutrition, sleep, and much more. Taking the time to recover from exercise is key to maintaining your health and fitness. There are many ways to build recovery into your lifestyle, improve the benefits of your current recovery, and enhance your ability to recover. As always it is important to start with the basics before we move on to more advanced modalities like float pods and contrast baths. If the basics are not taken care of they will impede your ability to perform physical activities, let alone making it through the workday or home life.
Exercise programs should be properly programmed by a certified and well-educated coach (college degree, years of experience in various settings, etc.), personal trainer, or exercise physiologist. The program must include a warm-up, adequate rest periods, appropriate volume and intensity, and a progressive system of exercises over time to meet your individual needs. If these things are not controlled your recovery will become a much bigger concern over time. Performance is the delta between fitness and fatigue, and recovery is what keeps fatigue at bay. Improper programming can hurt you more in the long run than it can help you.
Recovery is a multi-faceted process with aspects that are affected by many different variables. Picking apart each pillar of recovery and building skills to identify your needs using specific techniques to meet them will make a world of difference for your health and fitness. Know that it may take you as long to get good at recovering as it did to eliminate your butt wink in the squat, remember to breathe on the bench, and to change your socks between workouts!
Sleep is, without a doubt, the most important aspect of recovery. It has a massive effect on your ability to function on a daily basis and complete workouts, move towards health and fitness goals, and enjoy the lifestyle you desire. The book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker is a comprehensive guide to this specific recovery technique. In his book, Walker makes the connection between sleep volume, quality, and the impact on various aspects of life. Sleep is connected to your overall energy levels, weight management, emotional state, internal health and much more. You can even die from lack of sleep. Talk about a negative influence on your health! Get the most out of something you have to do every night anyway and it will make your life much more enjoyable.
Walker makes the point that in order to change sleep habits it starts with a non-negotiable eight-hour sleep window. If you need to be awake at 6am for work, exercise, or some other ridiculous reason you better be turning the lights off at 10pm. Go to bed and wake up at the same time no matter what day it is or what you have going on. He also suggests dimming the lights one hour before bed and limiting screen time (especially your mobile devices). If you must use your mobile device near bedtime such as being on call 24/7 like one of us always is, at least download a blue light filter app to use when the sun goes down. Keep a cool bedroom, around 68 degrees Fahrenheit to allow your body to drop its core temperature 2-3 degrees which is optimal for sleep. Avoid alcohol and caffeine as it only encourages fragmented sleep (waking up throughout the night which according to Walker naturally occurs through the aging process anyway so don’t make it worse!) and promote the most restorative, deep sleep. Walker’s last tip is to get out of bed if you cannot fall asleep. Your bed is meant for sex and sleep. If you teach your brain otherwise it will learn the cycle of being awake.
Good nutrition is not only good for your health, but it makes a world of difference in the ability to recover from exercise and prepare for the next session. As previously mentioned, returning your body to homeostasis is the goal of recovery. Physical activity appropriately stresses the body out of that comfort zone to promote physiological adaptations for higher levels of performance. To accomplish that goal your body needs fuel in the form of proper nutrition. Depending on the volume and intensity of the activity your body may require varying levels of fats or carbohydrates to perform and everyone needs proteins to repair microtears in the muscle as a result of exercise.
General fitness goals include power, strength, and endurance. Identifying your individual goals and needs is important to select the proper nutrition objectives for your body. For example, a cyclist would value endurance and a power-lifter would value strength and power. Different activities stress the body in different ways requiring different fuels for performance and recovery. What you do changes how you should eat.
According to the Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, endurance athletes benefit most from a macronutrient split of 55-65% of their calories from carbohydrates, 25-30% from fats, and 15-20% from proteins. Strength and power athletes have different requirements with carbohydrates making up 45-50%, fats 20-30%, and proteins 20-30% (Haff). Although the percentages seem relatively similar the result of these two different approaches make the athlete able to perform those distinct activities effectively.
With all that being said, everybody is different, and everyone approaches exercise and recovery differently. Experimenting within the percentages of recommended macronutrients and the foods that end up representing those categories (rice, bread, or potatoes for carbohydrates) takes time. Start with foods you enjoy and make it easy to stick with. If you need fats as an endurance athlete but hate avocados go for bacon instead, or add oils to your meals for a fat boost.
Hydration is key. Have you heard that one before? Hopefully, because if you have not then you are missing out! Hydration IS key. Your body needs water not only because it makes up a large portion of your anatomy, but it is critical to most bodily functions and recovering from physical activity.
It has been said that eight, 8oz glasses a day can “keep the water doctor away” for many years. Surprisingly it was not until recently that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) made the argument for more. A general rule of thumb to keep properly hydrated is to drink half of your bodyweight in ounces. For example, if you weigh 200lbs your drinking goal for water should be 100 ounces a day or 12-14 8oz glasses of water. This matters more than you think it will. If someone tells you eight, 8oz glasses of water is still a thing no matter if you are a grandma five times over or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson tell them to take a hike – and bring water!
The big factors that make a difference for water consumption are gender, body type, activity level, and diet. If you are male, you likely require more water. If you are very active, drink more water. Like nutrition, this is something to discover for yourself starting with the habit of consuming half your body weight in ounces of water daily – even if you are not thirsty! Thirst is a sign you are already dehydrated and only moving further away from hydration until your next drink. Always have a water bottle with you.
Stretching is something everyone can do more of. Just crushed an amazing workout? Wanna feel like crap tomorrow? Skip stretching! How about being really strong but not able to bend down far enough to pick up your kids’ toys off the ground? Skip stretching! Have fun stepping on Legos and trying to sooth the pain when your hamstrings are screaming at you following last weeks’ Nordic Hamstring Curls!
Not only am I talking about the “stick your leg up on the fence of an outdoor eating area at a café and gaze into the patrons’ eyes” kind of stretching. I mean active stretching, dynamic warm-ups, and foam-rolling. Static stretching is just that: static. This means you are holding a position for a set amount of time (usually 30 seconds but a range of 20-30seconds works well). Holding these positions is great post-exercise and not so great pre-exercise. Think about it. Why would you want to hold still before moving for an hour? Do not even get me started with the bouncing stretching – you can do that in a dark corner all by yourself if you absolutely need to (but don’t do that, just stretch like a normal person, please).
Start your activity with a dynamic warm-up (moving stretches such as high knees, leg kicks, and arm circles), perform your exercise routine and then static stretch. This is a great way to reduce tension and take care of your body. Dynamic warm-ups are important to recovery because they set yourself up for a productive and safe workout among other things. Those other things include priming your nervous system for movement (soccer players do legs swing, baseball players do torso twists, etc.), increasing blood flow, increasing heat via kinetic energy, and putting your joints through a range of motion prior to performance. Static stretching post-workout is helpful for reducing stiffness and soreness which in turn will enhance your recovery and ability to perform in the future. Both are equally important so make sure to mix them in.
Lastly, foam rolling (or self-myofascial release) has become widely popular over the years. Why? Because it works! Yes, it does hurt a bit after putting it in a training program but after that stage for many people it can feel like getting a massage from someone when done properly – and there is some value in massage as well, as we’ve written about elsewhere. It can also feel like daggers no matter what you do. If you are someone who experiences negative effects from foam rolling just skip it. The research is inconclusive as far as the mechanism of foam rolling and how best to do it, etc. But it is safe to say that it works for a lot of people and has little downside pre- or post-exercise. Rolling the extremities for one to two minutes per area at a rate of one inch of body length per second (slow, slow, slow) works well. Arguments for its use include reducing tension through novel stimulus to the nervous system, enhancing fluid movement, and improves blood flow which overall encourages recovery, healing, and repair.
Active rest is something that is often overlooked in a training program. Think about it, you just crushed a million deadlifts, hit your macros, water intake, and you stretched – you rock (once you post it on Instagram)! That was Monday, today is Tuesday, and tomorrow there is another killer workout to complete. What shall you do!? Here are some options:
- Lay on the couch and let the pain overwhelm you.
- Static stretch some more, foam roll some more, walk to the fridge for a beer.
- Go for a walk, jog, bike ride, swim, play with your kids, dog, do some of that yard work you’ve been putting off all summer. (Hint: this is the best option).
Rest is important, but so is activity. Putting them together is a winning combination between workouts, on off-days and to regulate soreness. Light activity is effective in recovery to start the motor again at a lower level so that the byproducts of the more stressful bout (your exercise program) are addressed in a way that promote homeostasis and recovery.
Many times we get totally amped up during a workout and our sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive. This is compounded by the amount of preworkout that you may have taken just before exercise which has compounds in it that have a half-life much longer than your exercise session. Remember the days of Ultimate Orange or more recently of the “good” Jack 3-D? Using that in the evening and then squatting 10 sets of 10 would leave you staring at the ceiling fan all night in your bed. We already covered how important sleep is right?
Parasympathetic breathing is simple controlled deep diaphragmatic breathing that turns the parasympathetic system (slows heart rate and lowers blood pressure, etc) up and turns the flight or fight sympathetic system down. To do this take at least 5 minutes immediately after your work and lie on the floor, try to rest your legs on a bench if you can, and breath in deeply using your abdomen/diaphragm over the course of 6-8 seconds. Hold that breath 2-4 seconds, then slowly let it out to full expiration over another 6-8 seconds. Hold the breath at end expiration. Attempt what ends up being 3-4 breaths per minute for a full 5 minutes.
Is my recovery working yet?
How do you know if your recovery works? Well, most of that is up to you unfortunately. But there are signs that you can look for that indicate your exercise routine is too much, recovery too little, or a bit of both. Overtraining syndrome is a reality that some people face – and the more motivated you are the more your chance of experiencing it. The symptoms vary but in general if you start to notice a pattern of fatigue, soreness, loss of performance or gains, etc. reflect on your exercise and recovery because it could be inadequate.
Exercise and recovery are supposed to be healthy habits but that is not always the case. Remember that, when done right exercise should enhance focus, sleep, energy, mental health, and a million other things. In return, your sleep, hydration, and nutrition should enhance your exercise. Deadlifting and sleep sure make me happy! If you find that overall, you are not experiencing those benefits of training, the balance is not where it should be.
Long-term recovery strategies
Knowing what recovery is, how to facilitate it in various ways, and why it is important the next question is how can you set yourself up for recovery over the long term? There will be times, maybe even weeks or months at a time, where sleep, hydration, nutrition, stretching, or multiple factors at once are not going how you planned. When the baby arrives, or the new job starts that will take priority over your recovery because that is how life works. Making recovery a part of your lifestyle is the best option. Hold it to the same standard as your exercise program because they are one in the same.
Go on walks during breaks at work or hold walk-and-talk meetings when possible. Can you ride your bike to work, or bus and walk the rest? Change your position from sitting to standing throughout the day and seriously contemplate a standing desk if you work in an office environment. Walk before or after dinner at night – include your partner and forgive yourself when you ultimately fail to make it happen. Sometimes the best recovery is truly none at all. Once you find your rhythm and get into a consistent routine of recovering in all of the forms available to you the benefits will become clear and your body will thank you.
Marcus Johnson is currently doctoral candidate in Physical Therapy and can be found at https://www.instagram.com/marcusaj51/
And, of course, Lanny is always right here.
Haff, G., & Triplett, N. T. (2016). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Walker, M. P. (2018). Why we sleep: Unlocking the power of sleep and dreams. New York, NY: Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.