Training hard is a challenge itself, but recovery is when the magic happens: when you recover properly, you’re giving your body the opportunity to heal itself, re-build damaged tissues and come back better for your next session. Today I want to discuss the things that I’ve found most beneficial and which have kept me at my best.
Sleep is the most important variable for recovery. If you don’t sleep long enough, with the right quality, you’re not going to recover between workouts, your body will be sore and your mind sluggish. Simply put, unsatisfactory sleep will mean missing out on getting stronger, fitter and healthier. Sleep is the time your body dedicates to recovery, using stored resources to regenerate tissue, restore hormonal balance and recuperate mentally.
Over the past few months I’ve learned the value of good sleep and used it to drive my recovery. The minimum should be 8-10 hours of sleep of the right quality. Maximising sleep quality requires sleeping in the darkest possible environment whilst being well-fed and hydrated. If you struggle to get to sleep, reduce “screen-time” in the evening and, if this doesn’t work, consider a core circuit or mobility session followed by a glass of water – you’ll soon be tired enough!
Proper nutrition should be a cornerstone of every athlete’s recovery. If your diet sucks it will be impossible to reach your goals: the structure of your diet is the basis for how you recover, progress and perform. Firstly, ensure is that you’re eating enough – building muscle requires you to eat more calories than you use, if you’re trying to get leaner you’ll want to do the opposite. The internet has loads of “TDEE” calculators which will estimate your baseline calorie-use. These aren’t perfect, but they’re a place to start. Once you’ve set your calorie balance, make sure you’re getting the right balance of foods in – a proper balance of dietary protein, carbohydrates and fats will improve your recovery further. The needs of individuals will be slightly different, but a diet high in protein will make recovery much faster and easier, as well as aiding in both muscle growth and fat loss.
This is not, however, sufficient for optimal recovery: food quality plays a large role in health and performance. It’s possible to achieve your calorie balance and macronutrients by eating junk food, but it is awful for recovery and health. Junk foods are heavily processed and often low in micronutrients. Micronutrients (such as vitamins and minerals) are key for proper health and athletic performance through processes like energy transfer and protein synthesis, both of which are fundamental to strength and fitness. I keep it simple and give my body the best chance by sticking to whole foods wherever possible – cuts of meat, high-quality fish and lots of fruit and veg should be the cornerstone of any athletic diet!
Timing meals will improve your recovery even further. My rule of thumb is that food should be faster-absorbing closer to training. Breakfast and evening meals should consist of proteins and fats as well as some slow-digesting carbs. Meals that are a few hours away before/after training will be an even mixture of carbs, fats and protein. Immediately before and after training, I like to focus on a combination of simple carbs and protein – this is usually in the form of a protein shake with fast-acting carbs to refuel after a tough session. Training hard 5-6 days a week will make it difficult to hold on to body weight, but a proper approach to nutrition allows me to stay on top of my body. Building muscle whilst staying lean requires hard work and discipline in and out of the gym: attention to detail and discipline in your diet will show in your performance.
(Fortunately enough I work with my own nutrition coach Adee Cazayoux from Working Against Gravity, “WAG”. She helps to keep me on track throughout my season and is always there whenever I need guidance and support).
Staying hydrated is essential to health and performance. Proper water intake will make noticeable changes in general health, energy, muscular recovery and joint health. A bad session could be the result failing to get enough water in while you rested – an easy fix.
There are some obvious considerations: if you’re training with high psychological intensity (I.e. it feels difficult), high volume or a lot of aerobic work then you’re going to need a lot of water. However, your water intake outside of training is at least as important – most people forget this because they’re either busy or don’t feel thirsty. It’s important to remember that not feeling thirsty is not the same as being well-hydrated. I always keep a bottle of water handy: you’d be amazed at how much more water you’ll drink just by having it nearby – especially in the winter months.
Mobility has received a lot of attention lately, for good reason – functioning as a human requires the flexibility to move well without pain. Training, especially hard or repetitive training, can cause all kinds of problems: joint impingement, connective tissue inflammation (tendinitis and others) and muscular tears, all of which can be reduced through mobility work. Stretching and mobility work also reduces soreness and improve recovery after a tough training session.
Mobility work has loads of components: stretching (both static and dynamic), foam rolling, flossing and massage are just some of the most popular methods. Dynamic stretching before a session helps to warm the joints, reduce impact injuries and improve exercise technique. Static stretching after or between sessions will help reduce DOMS and joint pain. Foam rolling will help remove waste products after exercise and is especially useful for endurance athletes. Massage is more expensive and sought-after for a reason: an experienced and knowledgeable sports massage therapist can reduce soreness, tightness and fix all the funk that you accumulate over a long training career.
Training for recovery is worth considering if you have the time and want to take your training seriously. Active recovery sessions are light, low-volume exercise whose main purpose is to accelerate the body’s recovery responses. It might sound counter-intuitive but your body doesn’t want to be sat on the sofa: we’re built to move every day and casual exercise will keep the blood flowing and de-stress the mind.
Active recovery exercise can also be a great way to mix up your training and break the tedium of training in the same environment: I like to drop the weights and get outdoors by walking, hiking or swimming. This won’t be possible for everyone, but a quick pool session or walking through the park is an enjoyable way to commit some extra time to deliberate recovery.
Recovery isn’t going to make you a world-class athlete overnight or fix a bad approach to training. However, it is a tool at your disposal to become the best athlete you can and keep coming back at your best. If you spend dozens of hours in the gym every week then a few hours out of the gym, focusing on how you treat your body, is a relatively small task. Adding even a few of these methods should make a real difference in the way you feel and perform in training!