Whether you’re working out for bigger biceps, a faster 10K or just to be healthier, there’s one thing that stays true: recovery is as important as working out to get gains. You don’t get stronger when you’re exercising – it’s only when you stop to recover that your body can adapt to the training and improve.
RSNG asked exercise physiologist and master trainer Tiina Hoffman for the everyday recovery hacks that will deliver great gains – so long as you do the work first!
1. Balance Your Exercise Load With Your Recovery
Your muscles take at least 48 hours to recover after an intense workout, with the DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) often peaking the day after a workout. But to recover completely a muscle can take up to five days. A 2016 review of studies into working out for muscle growth found that working each muscle group twice per week, and allowing 3-4 days rest between hitting each one, delivered the best gains.
‘It’s best to intersperse high intensity days with lower intensity recovery sessions’
If you’re working out for fitness or sport performance then the 48 hour rule still applies – it’s best to intersperse high intensity days with lower intensity or recovery sessions, says Tiina Hoffman:
‘Emphasise finding an optimal balance between exercise load and recovery – as the exercise volume and intensity increase, also the need for recovery increases, e.g. the number of easier days and easier workouts between high-intensity sessions, the need for sleep and nutritional needs, such as getting enough high-quality calories, protein and carbs.’
2. Don’t Lose Sleep To Workout
Sure, there are times when you just have to set your alarm clock and hour early to fit in your workout programme. But for long-term gains this should only be an occasional last resort, says Hoffman:
‘If you can go to bed early enough to get your 7-8 hours of sleep, early morning exercise can be a great way to fit it into a busy schedule, but if it means cutting an hour off already marginal sleep, the lack of sleep and fatigue will sooner or later start “cancelling out” the benefits of exercise and your performance will likely not improve.’
3. Cut Your Stress Levels
Some stress is normal, and even useful – it helps us to perform and get the job done. Where stress becomes toxic is when it turns chronic. If work, and life in general keeps piling on the pressure, then you risk running out of time to unwind, becoming permanently stressed out.
This will send your gains into reverse, says Hoffman as your access to high-quality sleep disappears.‘Chronic stress is known to disturb the quality of sleep, and even the ability to sleep, and sufficient, high-quality sleep is crucial for exercise performance and recovery from exercise. It also reduces our overall resistance and makes us more susceptible to various illnesses and infections,’ she says.
‘The best form of passive recovery is sleeping and it’s even better in REM sleep’
4. Use Two Flavours Of Recovery
Recovery doesn’t always just mean sitting on the sofa with your feet up. If you’ve done a leg-shredding, heart-pumping workout the day before then your body may actually benefits from being active.
‘For optimal performance and fitness gains, make sure you balance your high-intensity training sessions with very easy recovery workouts,’ says Hoffman. ‘Easy walking or other very low-intensity exercise speeds up removal of lactic acid and helps the muscles recover.’
Then there’s the passive kind of recovery, which includes hot/ cold pools, stretching and massage. And yes, even sitting and watching TV, reading a book or hanging out with friends can help you recover and destress – just avoid watching full-on action or horror movies. ‘These will raise your heart rate, increase your adrenaline levels and reduce your ability to recover.’
5. Make Sleep The King
The best kind of passive recovery is sleeping and it’s even better in REM sleep when your body is otherwise paralysed. So, for the best gains make it a priority. ‘If you need 7.5 hours of sleep, schedule it in and don’t compromise when things get too busy,’ says Hoffman.
You can also take steps to improve the quality of sleep, so that you spend enough time in the gold standard of REM sleep, by avoiding stressful tasks and thoughts before bed and making sure your bedroom is quiet, comfortable, dark and cool.
‘Learn to “switch off” and slow down, especially in the 1-2 hours before bed. This gets your mind and body ready for high-quality recovery during sleep.’
6. Don’t Overdo The Recovery Workouts
As useful as a recovery workout can be, it’s all too easy to get carried away in the moment. Suddenly, an easy jog turns into a 5K PB, or a few easy laps of the pool becomes a lane sprint. Not only will this derail your recovery, it can become a slippery slope to overtraining syndrome.
‘Understand that an easy workout really is EASY – you should not breathe or sweat heavily and your heart rate stays at a very moderate level. Use a Heart Rate Monitor to learn how easy you need to go,’ says Hoffman. If you know your max heart rate then your recovery zone is at 50-60% of that. (At age 20 the average max heart rate is 200bpm and it goes down to 190bpm at age 30.)
7. Activate Your Yang
If the Yang of your nervous system is being eye-ball to eye-ball with a tiger, then the Ying is lying in a hot bath. Your fight-or-flight response jacks you up to be ready for anything, and is governed by your sympathetic nervous system to dump adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol into your blood, sending your body into a stress-state, ready for action.
Meanwhile, the parasympathetic nervous system is the one that kicks in once the dust has settled and you can lower your guard. ‘Parasympathetic activity is the rest and digest side, so the body is relaxing, switching off; recovery is happening,’ says Hoffman. So give your Ying a chance!
WHAT NEXT? Want a quick and easy stretching session to help you recover on your recovery days? Then try these Essential Yoga Poses from RSNG yogi Abi Carver.
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Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.