What you need to know about recovery (and what probably doesn’t matter)

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I’ll start this week’s blog off again with a review of my week. Last week I went heavy on deadlifts and so this week I went heavy on squats and bench press and went submaximal on deadlifts. On bench press I hit a single at 122.5kg which is 2.5kg heavier than last competition and moved very easily and felt like I had 2 more reps left in the tank. I also hit 110kg for 5 reps on bench press which is a 5kg personal best. My heavier squat day didn’t originally go so well. I was struggling with a fairly bad cold on the day before and day of my squats but went in anyway and failed miserably. I was supposed to go up to 190kg for an easy single but 180kg felt like a tonne and so I decided to stop there and come in the next day. I did and managed to hit 190kg fast and easy despite still feeling pretty crappy. This gave me confidence as this was my heaviest squat in my last competition but right now I can hit it easily despite feeling awful. In terms of my weight cut, I’m down another .2kgs this week which is not a lot but considering I lost more than expected last week, I’m not too worried. I won’t make any alterations this week but will potentially have to cut calories next week.

Now onto the topic of this week’s bog – recovery. I’ve spoken a lot about training and nutrition in previous blogs but another key aspect of health and fitness is recovery. In order to be the healthiest you can be and to perform at your best, you must recover well. In this article I will talk about ways in which you can optimise your recovery from your workouts as well as discuss recovery strategies that may not be effective and at times even detrimental.

The first thing I’m going to talk about probably doesn’t come under the umbrella of recovery but has a strong link with your ability to recover and that is ensuring that you are always training within your means. If you are consistently training above your maximal recoverable volume (amount of work you can recover from) then no matter how much sleep you get, how much you eat or how many ice baths you take, you will not recover well and progress will be nearly impossible. Before you start talking about recovery, you must know how much work you can recover from and make sure you do not exceed it unless you are doing it for a specific reason (e.g. functional overreaching). Another important thing to consider is taking rest days and deload weeks. This can help dissipate fatigue that may have accumulated over days or weeks and allow for good performance.

Once you’ve got your training volume under control then sleep is your next priority. The more you can sleep the better when it comes to recovering from training but most people have a life outside of the gym and so sleeping may need to be limited. The amount of sleep you need will depend on a number of factors like genetics and activity level but 8 hours of quality sleep is generally sufficient for most people. If you feel you can recover just fine with less then that’s great but I think it is worth experimenting with sleeping longer and if you feel and perform better then maybe you need to up your sleep. The same goes for if you wake up after 8 hours of sleep and feel sluggish and tired and unmotivated – you probably need more sleep.

Once you have your sleep in check then relaxation and managing stress should be looked at. What a lot of people don’t realise is that stress is a huge contributor to fatigue. Whether that is physiological stress from your training or other daily activities like walking up stairs or riding a bike or psychological stress from work or relationships, stress can accumulate and can have negative effects on training. The first thing to do is to work out what life stressors can be removed. Some stress you can not just eliminate. For example, if you have 3 young kids to cook dinner for, wash up for and put to bed or if your job has become more stressful as your workload has increased recently then there isn’t a whole lot you can do about it. However some stress is manageable and sometimes removable. For example, you may have friends constantly asking you for favours and you can’t keep up then it might be worth saying no sometimes if you know that it is something that will cause you stress. Once you have removed or controlled some stressors then you should look to use some relaxation techniques. These will be different for each person but some examples could be going for short walks, yoga, meditation or even watching Netflix for an hour or so in the evening. As long as these activities don’t affect sleep or cause too much stress on your body then anything that makes you feel relaxed should be effective.

Another very important factor to consider when trying to optimise recovery is nutrition. Generally speaking, the more food you can eat or the more calories you consume, the better you will recover. If you are consuming more calories than you are expending then recovering from workout to workout is a lot easier and if you’re training programme is good then you shouldn’t have too many days where you feel awful overly fatigued going into sessions. If you are at maintenance then you can still have productive training sessions and recover from them fine but as your calories dip below this point, fatigue will start to accumulate and recovery can be impaired. Therefore if you are looking to recover optimally then you should avoid dieting, however this is not practical as weight loss is a fairly common goal and for periods of time, most people will be in a calorie deficit. You must accept that your recovery will not be as good as when you were eating at or above maintenance and adjust your training accordingly but there are a few things you can control to make the most about of this situation. The first is to ensure that protein intake is sufficient. If you look back through my previous blogs then you will find one where I address the topic of how much protein you should be eating. If you are getting enough protein in then the second thing to consider but probably the biggest factor in fatigue management is carbohydrate intake. This will depend on activity level but some good recommendations are: 2g per kg of bodyweight per day for light or rest days, 4g per kg of bodyweight per day for hard training days and 6g per kg of bodyweight per day for the hardest of days or days where you are training multiple times. Fats are also going to have some impact but far less than carbs and protein. As long as your fats aren’t dipping below an essential level then you shouldn’t see too much of an impact on your recovery.

The final part of this discussion are recovery modalities such as ice baths, cryotherapy, compression and sports massage. These recovery tools are by far the least important. If you are consistently overtraining and undereating then there is no amount of massage that can make up for this. For most of these recovery methods, there just is not enough evidence to be sure that these are effective in reducing fatigue and any evidence there is shows the impact to be minimal. However 1-2% can make a big difference for elite athletes and so it is still worth considering some of these methods even if the effect is placebic. The key with most of these recovery tools is the timing. Although some of these methods can reduce fatigue in some people, they come with some harmful side effects. The main one we will consider here is how they can interfere with adaptations to training and hamper gains in muscle, strength and fitness. Therefore if you are in the middle of a training block with no competition or event coming up or if you compete in a sport and are in pre season then these methods are probably not worth doing as you may get back to full fitness quicker but the improvements you could have made in that time will be less. However, if you are a week or so out from a competition or if you are playing a sport and in the middle of a grueling season then these recovery methods are probably going to be less harmful and more likely to be of benefit. You have already done your hard training and adapted to that and so the last bit to do is to recover fully so you can perform your best where it matters most – in competition.

As you can see, if you want to recover well then it is the less glamorous things like sleep and nutrition that will play the larger role and the cool fatigue reducing modalities like ice baths, compression leggings will only have a minor impact if any. The key take aways here are, train within your means, get enough sleep, relax, eat enough food and if you feel like you benefit from ice baths etc. then use them pre competition and avoid using them during training.

Speak to you guys again soon.


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