Rules of Recovery

So, you started strength training 3 days a week (go, you!), with a goal of building muscle and reducing body fat. After a couple months, you’re seeing some progress, so you decided to ramp it up to 5 days, and add in cardio on the other days, because more is better..right?

Or, you’re training for a marathon and decide each training run should push the pace, and the more distance you run the better.

Wrong. When you’re performing intense workouts (intense for you – anything that is a challenge to your body), you’re creating microscopic tears in your muscles. Don’t worry, this is the entire point of working out! Because, what happens next is as the muscles repair themselves through rest and proper nutrition, they grow in size and strength. The key to results is giving your muscles the time and resources they need to repair.

The key to results is giving your muscles the time and resources they need to repair. Click To Tweet

There are two major components of recovery I’m talking about today; Physical and Nutritional. Let’s look at why they are important, and different ways to incorporate these aspects into your training.

Physical Recovery

Like I mentioned briefly, your muscles need to repair themselves after a tough workout, through a cellular process (protein synthesis) that rebuilds broken down tissue, resulting in a bigger and stronger muscle. (This is a very basic explanation, and the exact process is still being studied). This happens when your body is resting, so giving ample time for them to recover is imperative. Here are a few areas to focus on to maximize muscle recovery through physical actions:

Recovery Time
Generally, you want to leave at minimum a full day between strenuous workouts. If you do full body strength training and workout on Monday, wait until Wednesday before your next strength training session. If you like to strength train more often or want to spend less time per session, split training may be for you. You can do upper-body one day, and lower-body the next, allowing your upper-body to recover.

For those doing intense cardio training (think sprint training, hill repeats, Tabata plyometrics, or long runs for endurance athletes), the same concept applies. As a run coach, I have my runners have a rest or yoga day following their long run, and a shorter steady state run the day after interval training.

When creating a training plan, plug in your hard-effort workouts first so they take priority and are spread out, then build recovery time around them.

Get Enough Sleep
I put sleep as a number one priority for better health for a reason. As you sleep you’re recharged not only mentally, but physically. As trainer Nick Ebner explains to Men’s Health,

As we sleep, energy consumption is lowered, allowing us to use the high-quality food we eat during the day to more efficiently build muscle. Growth hormone is naturally released, improving muscular recovery and regeneration. Also, as we sleep the brain recharges. This is important for building muscle because a rested brain is a motivated and focused brain. – Nick Ebner, Men’s Health

Aim for 7-9 hours a night, but consider getting extra Zzz’s on high training days or the week leading up to a big event. For those with kids, demanding jobs, and a bursting calendar, try to fit in power naps.

Stretching and Massage
To be able to perform correct movement patterns and ensure your muscles are ready for whatever workout you throw at them, a solid pre- and post-workout stretching routine is a must.

Before your workout, go with a dynamic stretching routine, taking your body through similar movement patterns for your workout. If you’re lifting heavy on leg day, start with some body weight squats, hip hinges and lunges. If you’re running, leg swings and gate openers are great. Here is a quick dynamic warm up to give you some ideas. After your workout is a great time for static stretching.

Massages aren’t just a luxury or treat after a tough workout. In a 2012 study, massage was found to have positive effects on muscle recovery.

Tarnopolsky and his team found that massage therapy reduced exercise-related inflammation by dampening activity of a protein called NF-kB.

Massage also seemed to help cells recover by boosting amounts of another protein called PGC-1alpha, which spurs production of new mitochondria — tiny organelles inside cells that are crucial for muscle energy generation and adaptation to endurance exercise. –Eryn Brown,

If you can’t budget regular massage sessions into your training cycle, try this foam rolling routine for an affordable at-home alternative.

Nutritional Recovery

Your body is a machine that needs enough of the right fuel to run at it’s best. Food can be medicine or poison, it’s up to you. Sounds drastic, but it’s true.

Quality Calories
Think of how your body feels – energy level, mood, comfort – after a burger, milkshake and fries, versus how you feel after a piece of grilled salmon, roasted cauliflower and quinoa. To work at their best and recover properly, your muscles need real, whole foods, not processed fillers.

There’s no one diet (by diet I mean way of eating) that is best for everyone, but focusing on a balance of complex carbs, lean protein, and healthy fats in each meal will set you up for success. Pay attention to how your body reacts to what you put in it, and how you feel during your workouts after eating certain foods.

What you put in your body before and immediately after a workout plays a big role in how your workouts go and how efficiently your body recovers. For tips and ideas on what to eat before and after you exercise, check out this post!

Quantity Calories
You’ll probably notice an increase in hunger when you ramp up your workouts. Getting the right kinds of calories is one thing, but getting enough of the right calories is just as important. Running 15 miles doesn’t mean you can eat the entire pizza, but it does mean you will need more calories to support the rebuilding of muscle tissue and replace what you burned.

Personally, I like to increase my calories throughout the day. Add an extra snack mid morning and/or mid afternoon, and bulk up what you already eat with healthy additions like avocado on your sandwich, peanut butter in your smoothie, or flaxseed oil in dressings and sauces.

Water is critical to good overall health, and when it comes to recovery it’s just as important as what you eat.

Water helps all of our functions. A few examples are more efficient nutrient uptake, lower levels of stress on the heart, improved skin tone, and better hair quality. – Jeff Kuhland,

Especially when you have a tough workout on the calendar, make sure you’re not just chugging water right before. As we tell our marathon training program participants, “drink early, and drink often”. Pay attention to the color of your urine. It will be a pale yellow when you are well hydrated, and darker if you need more water. Feeling thirst means you are already somewhat dehydrated, so do not rely on thirst to guide your drinking habits. Take water breaks throughout a long workout, and make a point to replenish after you finish, even if you do not feel quenched.

Rest days are just as important as training days. Click To Tweet

Rest days are just as important as training days. To get the results you are working so hard in the gym for, it’s imperative to allow time for your muscles to recover. Through rest, massage, getting enough of the right foods and water, you’ll be primed to reap all the benefits of your training!


Published by Samantha Kellgren

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