Recovery is one of the most overlooked aspects of fitness. Everyone wants to know how to train or what to eat to optimize their performance, but they don’t always think about how they can recover to make the most of their training.
Simply put, recovery refers to how your body heals and adapts to the stresses of physical activity. Your body naturally begins the recovery process after you exercise or train, but there are things you can do to speed up this process and improve the training that follows. When it comes to recovering from exercise, there are three main pillars that serve as the foundation for recovery: sleep, nutrition, and hydration.
Pillar I: Sleep
Sleep is probably the most important factor in exercise recovery. When you sleep, your body creates 95 percent of the hormones present in your body. These hormones help to aid in muscle repair and growth (testosterone), ligament and joint repair (growth hormone), and body fat storage (insulin). By getting the appropriate amount of sleep — 7 to 9 hours per night — you are allowing your body to reset its natural circadian rhythm and repair itself.
Sleep has also been shown to increase the rate at which your nervous system learns new skills. One study found that you can increase your ability to learn a new skill by 10 to 30 percent by getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. Although you are not conscious, your brain is still communicating that skill to your body. You can literally improve your running technique or lifting technique while you sleep!
Pillar II: Nutrition
Nutrition is typically the most applied method of recovery, but it can also be applied incorrectly. Your body needs fuel to perform, period. If you are not giving your body the right fuel, you are asking for problems. Your body also uses different fuels for different reasons. When you strength train, your body tears down the muscle fibers. Protein is what your body uses to help repair, build, and protect those muscle fibers. Protein also protects your muscle fibers from being used for fuel. If you are under-consuming protein, you are signaling to your body that it can use your stored muscle for energy (something nobody should want).
Dietary fat also has an important role in recovery. Dietary fat is the building block for hormones in your body. If you don’t consume enough fat, you can rob your body of the ability to create testosterone, growth hormone, and other hormones that help your body function correctly. Carbohydrates are the last piece of the puzzle. Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred source of fuel for intense exercise, such as strength training, sprinting, or high-intensity athletics. Carbohydrates give your muscles the fuel they need to not only perform their best, but to also protect your body from using your muscle as fuel.
Pillar III: Hydration
Hydration is the last component. Roughly 60 percent of the human body is water, and it is vital for all chemical processes in the body. If you do not have enough water your body will not be able to function properly. Everything, from electrical messages sent by your nervous system to a cell’s metabolism, is affected. General guidelines for water intake vary based on a couple of factors, though eight, 8-ounce glasses of water per day is a good baseline and easy to remember.
Remember: Getting in better shape isn’t about what training you are capable of, but what training you are able to recover from. If you want to train hard, you’re going to have to recover even harder!
Author: Chris Ball, CSCS
“Back to Recovery Basics: The Big Three.” EliteFTS.
Stickgold, Robert and Matthew P. Walker. “Sleep-Dependent Memory Consolidation and Reconsolidation.” Sleep Med. 2007 Jun; 8(4): 331–343. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2680680/
“Water: How Much Should You Drink Every Day.” Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/water/art-20044256.
“How Much Sleep Do Adults Really Need?” National Sleep Foundation. https://www.sleep.org/articles/how-much-sleep-adults/
Walker, MP. et al. It's Practice, with Sleep, that Makes Perfect: Implications of Sleep-Dependent Learning and Plasticity for Skill Performance. Clinics in Sports Medicine, Volume 24, Issue 2, 301-317.