In the past, if you’d blown out your quads with a killer leg workout one day, then tried to lift legs again two days later and felt debilitating soreness, you would have said, “Well, I guess I need more time to recover.” But now, we have come to realize that recovery is less related to too much stress on a particular muscle group and more indicative of the overall stress of life.
“Recovery is not just about your ability to exercise and perform,” says nutritionist Mike Roussell, PhD. “It’s about all areas of our life, from our training to our overall ability to sleep and get rest, to our ability to perform cognitively at work, and you can’t compartmentalize. One affects the other.”
When you experience stress, it triggers the sympathetic nervous system, known as our “fight-or-flight” response, which gives the body a boost of energy to deal with perceived danger. The problem is that the body doesn’t differentiate stress from a workout, a long day of travel or overbearing in-laws from stress from a near-death experience with a grizzly bear. Over time, the over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system can lead to fatigue, illness, difficulty sleeping, digestive troubles, an elevated resting heart rate, anxiety and a host of other issues.
But from an exercise perspective, a 2012 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise showed people with high levels of chronic stress also take longer to recover their strength after a workout. Constantly elevated stress levels mean constantly elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which has a catabolic effect on muscle tissue; that is, it breaks it down. High cortisol levels hasten the breakdown of proteins into amino acids and sugar, which means you’ll start to use muscle as an energy source. Cortisol is also a powerful anti-inflammatory, and because inflammation is needed to heal muscle tissue, too much cortisol can delay muscle repair and reduce long-term strength adaptations.
How Do You Know If You Need More Recovery?
According to Dr. Roussell, the average person needs to ask themselves this question: Am I making measurable progress towards my goal? “If you’re not,” he says. “you’re either not doing what you think you’re doing, you could do more, or you need more recovery.” For example, if you’re trying to lose weight but you’re not exercising at least four times a week for 45 minutes or five times a week for 30 minutes, you’re not hitting the activity level necessary for weight loss. But if you are training sufficiently to meet your goal, and you’re not getting seven to nine hours of sleep per night or are not otherwise managing stress levels properly, it’s likely you need more recovery. “Fatigue, decreased performance, a decrease in sleep because you’re so wound up you can’t sleep, a lack of drive or desire to train, and an increase in injuries like pulls and strains are all examples of the carryover of different types of stress,” Roussell says. “If you experience any of these, recovery should be more of a priority.”
So What Do You Do to Adequately Recover?
Eat: This mandate may seem counterintuitive to those with weight-loss goals, but if you’re not consuming enough calories, you could be inhibiting your ability to recover. “You at least need 30 grams of protein at every meal, and especially right after exercise,” Roussell says. “Just that can have a huge impact from a muscular recovery standpoint.” And calorie-counters can take solace in the fact that you don’t need carbohydrates after exercise unless you’re an endurance athlete; the body can adapt and become proficient at drawing energy from other sources.
Low-Intensity Exercise: High-intensity interval training, known as HIIT, has been all the rage for the last decade. However, all high-intensity workouts, all the time only stimulates the sympathetic nervous system. According to Dr. Roussell, one or two 45- to 60-minute bouts of low intensity, long-duration exercise per week can have a positive impact on the parasympathetic nervous system; the “rest and digest” that opposes “fight or flight.” Training at a lower intensity level can mediate the over-production of stress hormones and lower your resting heart rate. But no, it isn’t easy. “For hard-chargers, it takes more discipline to control yourself and hold back for an hour than it does to go all-out for 20 minutes,” Roussell says. “But if you’re a Type-A, go-person at work, and you do a lot of HIIT training, mixing in lower intensity exercise is really important.” And, according to Dr. Roussell, if you train six days a week and are in very good shape, a low-intensity walk in the woods or yoga class can, in fact, be considered a day off and is actually better than a day of full rest, because it brings more balance to the nervous system and oxygen and nutrients to the muscles.
There are dozens of recovery modalities available today to professional athletes and average Joes alike: foam rolling, massage, yoga, meditation, Epsom salt baths, salt pods, infrared saunas, cryotherapy chambers. While the jury is out on whether or not any of these modalities have a conclusive, positive long-term effect on recovery, if they help you personally to relax, they are good tools for you. “So much of your ability to perform is mental, so if you feel massage or foam rolling helps you out, the thought that it’s beneficial is going to enhance your recovery more than the actual modality itself,” Roussell says. “That psychological effect is real because most of the time stressors are perceived stressors as opposed to actual stressors.” So if you enjoy a good massage and it allows you to rest, go for it. But if the simple thought of a yoga class stresses you out, it’s not the recovery tool for you.
“Sleep is the trump card,” Roussell says. “It is the ultimate recovery tool.” So if you’re staying up late and getting up early and, worse, frequently changing time zones, the stress from a lack of sleep will affect your ability to perform physically. We need between seven and nine hours per night to recharge the central nervous system, replenish energy stores, repair and rebuild muscle and regulate hormones. While we sleep, the body produces human growth hormone, HGH, which is critical to the building of muscle. A healthy amount of sleep also positively affects levels of the hormone leptin, which promotes a healthy metabolism and appetite and therefore weight, while shorter sleep duration is associated with an increase in the hunger hormone, ghrelin, which causes an increase in sugar intake and leads to weight gain. So, do what you need to do to get more sleep: schedule a bedtime, don’t eat right before going to bed, reduce blue light exposure and alcohol and caffeine consumption late in the day, take a bath or meditate to prepare the body for sleep, or find other sleep rituals that work for you. And if you can’t get it all in at night, take an afternoon nap. Many studies have shown that napping during the day can be a game-changer for muscle growth and repair.
About Lindsay Berra
Lindsay Berra is a New Jersey-based freelance sports journalist who contributes regularly to the Sports Business Journal, Baseball America, ESPNW, Fast Company, Men’s Health, Bodybuilding.com and other outlets. At MLB.com and MLB Network from 2013 through 2018, she established herself as an authority on baseball fitness and injuries. As a senior writer for ESPN Magazine from 1999 through 2012, she covered primarily ice hockey, tennis, baseball and the Olympics. Lindsay graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she played varsity softball and men’s club ice hockey. She is a Level 1 CrossFit coach, triathlete, avid hiker and yogi.