Your body is an adaptive organism- meaning it changes as a reaction to stress placed upon it. The body overcompensates in its recovery from exertion, leaving the tissues slightly better adapted to that type of stress than they were before. This is why you are stronger now than you were in your first training session. We exploit this feature of our biology to become fitter, stronger, and leaner.
We stress the body deliberately and systematically through structured and progressive training. Structure is important in order to ensure the entire musculature is worked in a manner conducive to your aims. Sets, reps, rest periods, exercise selection, frequency and volume are all variables we can manipulate as when programming to achieve certain aims.
Progression is important as your body needs to be continually nudged and challenged into change. Your body is ruthlessly efficient, and will only adapt as far as it needs to based upon the stress you have placed upon it. Stress must be carefully manipulated to induce improvement. The most simple way to do this is progressive overload through linear progression; for example putting an extra 2.5kg on the bar every time you squat while keeping the sets and reps constant. Progressive overload was mythologised by the ancient Greeks in the story of Milo, who gained his prodigious strength by picking up a calf every day from birth as it grew into a huge bull.
Training is the highly visible part of creating a healthier, fitter, stronger, leaner body. If you go on on the instagram/ facebook/ twitter page of your favourite athletes or coaches there will likely be far more posts about training sessions than recovery- because its more exciting. This mistake is to think that the part of the process these people choose to publish is the whole story- when in fact it is only the tip of the iceberg. Lurking below the surface, far less obviously, is the hulking mass of the most important aspect of making progress- recovery.
The body needs to to repair and rebuild after the trauma of training.
There are five broad areas listed here, all of which could be the subject of dozens of articles in their own right. I have included a brief outline as to why each matter, and loosely how to approach them.
– Follow a diet conducive to your goals provides a stream of the macro and micro-nutrients your body needs when they are needed.
– Eat simple ingredients of the highest quality. Invest in what you put into your body.
– Learn simple cooking techniques- steaming green veg, roasting root veg, braising, frying or grilling meat and fish. Cooking can be quick, easy, cheap and tasty. Eating healthily doesn’t have to be eating plain, dull food over and over.
– Eat vegetables at every meal.
– Depleted glycogen is replenished with carbohydrates. Protein is delivered to regenerate muscle fibres. Fats are used in hormone production, which in turn leads to more efficient protein synthesis.
– Alcohol and poor quality food actually stress your body as it devotes resources to removing the toxins.
Mike Dolce, an MMA trainer, says his athletes must eat as if they want to live to be 120. According to his philosophy, performance and aesthetics are consequences of health. Your body will do whatever you ask of it if you look after it properly.
– All of the chemical exchanges in the body occur in water, so keep yours topped up.
As a rough rule, drink 500ml upon waking, then 500ml more with every meal. Drink another litre for every hour of training.
– Staying hydrated helps concentration, digestion, and the removal of waste products from tissues.
– Add a pinch of sea salt to replace electrolytes lost through sweat, especially in the summer.
– While sleeping, your body releases testosterone and human growth hormone, and restores cognitive function.
Allow yourself 9 hours in bed to allow for falling off to sleep time.
Use black-out curtains and ear plugs as needed. To avoid distractions put your phone over the other side of the room. Your body needs darkness to sleep, and your backlit phone screen will inhibit the release of sleep hormone.
– Do this for a whole 7 days and see how you much better you feel. You only realise how chronically over tired you are when you sleep properly for an extended period and have something to compare it to.
Mobility and Soft tissue work
– As a result of both training and life style (sitting down all day at work, wearing high heels), your body may need some extra help to achieve normal ranges of motion and mobility- allowing you to get into better positions when you load your body with weights, reducing the risk of injury.
– Soft tissue work increases blood flow, which carries away waste products and releases tension, allowing for increased movement, better mechanics in the lifts and decreased chance of injuries.
Removal of Stress
– This is less tangible than the others, but very important.
– When they body feels stressed, our adrenal glands pump out adrenaline into our blood, causing the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism to kick in.
– This can be very useful in certain situations: for example if someone tries to mug you, or if you are about to pull a max deadlift. Adrenaline is behind stories you hear of grandmothers lifting cars off children.
– When tapped into for short bursts, it is invaluable- but when you are constantly in a state of anxiety for extended periods, it is damaging. If you are going through your day lurching from one stressful situation to another (traffic, stress in work, conflict, worries) this will have a detrimental effect on your health.
– When in this elevated state of physiological arousal, your body diverts blood away from the digestive tract and into the muscles, in readiness to run away or fight. If you are constantly in this state, your food will not be absorbed as readily into the bloodstream, as there is less blood in the capillaries of the small intestine for the nutrients to diffuse into. If there are fewer nutrients being absorbed into the blood, your cells are being starved of vital resources needed for repair, hormone production This is why are still hungry after eating; the food hasn’t been absorbed properly- so then you have a snack to sate your hunger.
– Be aware of stress as something harmful, and actively attempt to reduce it. Be more organised, assertive and make more time for good people in your life.
– Finally- watch your caffeine as this puts you into that elevated state. Try only drinking it a few hours before or after food- or even just before training to sharpen up.
Recovery > Trauma
The body can be seen as a bank account. Stressors take money out of the account, whereas recovery puts money in.
Ingesting toxins (drinking, junk food)
Emotional stress (anxiety, conflict)
Lack of sleep
Partaking in any of these spends money in your account.
You can also credit your account with tools of recovery
Soft tissue work ( massage, foam roller, lacrosse ball)
Intelligent decisions with regard to recovery puts credit in your account.
You need to keep that account topped up, because if it falls below zero you will run into trouble. Recovery must at least equal trauma caused by training. If trauma exceeds recovery, you will start to feel run down. You may get injured, and your progress will stall or even regress.
Using this metaphor, we can draw several conclusions.
1.Professional athletes can endure far more grueling training sessions than amateurs as their lives are built around training for their sport. They have dieticians telling them what to eat, and cooks to make it for them. They can have soft tissue work regularly with a chiropractor. They may nap between training sessions as they don’t have any other job. In many sports Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) play a part in the recovery process further (no moral judgement on that here). They will have a sports psychologist to relieve anxiety. Their lives are set up as best as possible to support a brutal amount of training volume and intensity.
2.Further to this, copying the training program of a full time athlete is unsustainable. You may be able to emulate their training itself, but without also copying their recovery, you will more than likely place yourself in a deficit which will be detrimental in the long term. It doesn’t matter how tough you are mentally- if you are sleeping 5 hours a night, getting drunk a few nights a week, eating takeaway every day and hydrating only with red bull, you almost certainly aren’t going to be the best version of yourself.
3.Living in your overdraft is unsustainable. Continuously out-training your recovery means that, at best, you are blunting the efficacy of your program. At worst, you are heading for a fall: feeling drained, constantly tired, lacking motivation, getting injured. If you are eating and sleeping well (8 hours + a night), hydrated, doing your mobility and soft tissue work, you should be feeling like a damn superhero.
4.Recovery isn’t glamorous, but it is essential. You must have enough credit in your account, banked by proper recovery, to support the expenditure in the gym. Getting an extra hour sleep a night for a month won’t get many instagram likes, but it will enable you to deadlift a PB, which might.
5.In the same way as you live the lifestyle you afford according to your earnings, you must train according to what your recovery allows. If you are a full time student, with no boyfriend or girlfriend, no job, you don’t drink or smoke, spend your loan on organic produce, and can nap between training sessions, you could well be able to handle a relatively high volume of training. If you have kids, work 9-5, and play a sport, then you must cut your cloth accordingly with regard to what you can afford to spend in the gym. Be realistic about what your lifestyle allows you to do, and how far you are willing to change your lifestyle in order to accommodate the goals you have.
6.If you want to train harder or push through a plateau, recover smarter to give yourself that extra credit to play with.
7.There is no such thing as over-training, only under recovery.
In conclusion, it isn’t enough to train hard then switch off when you walk out of the door. Whether you are training for health, aesthetics or performance, you must understand what that your actions in the gym do not exist in a vacuum, but must be seen in the wider context of your life. Your recovery is the foundation upon which everything else is built. Invest time and energy in improving your recovery, and watch that investment pay off in terms of achieving your goals.