We can put so much effort and hard work into our training, consistently showing up to workout and straining to get that extra repetition, but then put nowhere near that level of concentration on following up with proper recovery methods.
And that’s a bad idea, because proper rest and recuperation is at least half – maybe more – of the health and fitness equation.
You can’t break yourself down with intense training and not allow what it takes to recover well from the session, because you’ll not only compromise your progress, you could very well get backtracked and lose some of your gains.
It is true that we can likely do more than we think, and handle and adapt to more frequent training. It’s actually very helpful to train as often as you can tolerate, especially at different intensity levels. Strength and skill training benefit from as much regularity as possible.
The difficulty is in understanding what your level of tolerance is, and figuring out how much frequency and intensity you can perform consistently without burning out physically and mentally.
The mental part of all this is probably the most important. You may be able to handle difficult and exhausting training well from a physical standpoint, but then the strain and grind of it all starts to take its toll mentally. That can turn into the symptoms of dreading your workouts and a lack of motivation for something you couldn’t wait to do just a couple weeks past.
Call it nervous system fatigue, or more simply, just getting “burned out”. Whatever the case, you need to be aware enough to take a break, or your body will force you to take that break.
Below, I’ll outline my favorite techniques for ensuring proper rest and recovery, and I encourage you to experiment with these and figure out what will work best for you.
Recovery Strategy #1 – Use Movement as Your Daily Medicine
There’s an old bodybuilding saying,
Never run when you can walk; Never walk when you can stand; Never stand when you can sit; Never sit when you can lie down.
The idea is to never expend energy unless necessary because, supposedly, it’s energy that could have gone to building muscle. Well, building muscle is nice and all (although we’re certainly not concerned with building as much as possible at all costs), but this concept is a case of “if a little is good, then a lot is better.”
There’s a difference between properly recovering and turning into a sloth between your training sessions.
Movement should not be relegated to the gym
Formal exercise should not be the only time you move. Movement is good for you and it helps your body recover faster.
Just think about your own experiences. Chances are, if you live in the Western world, you spend most of your day sitting in one place. What happens at the end of the day when you get up? You may feel stiff and a few joints may crack.
Well, there’s a reason for that. Our bodies were not made to hold one position for extended periods of time, and we are not well equipped to handle the current sedentary lifestyle in the U.S. The latest research shows that the more time spent sitting actually increases one’s risk of death from all causes.
Our bodies crave physical stimulation and movement.
The physical benefits of movement include improved circulation, digestion, and functional mobility. You may train hard and stretch and move your body in all kinds of great ways in your 90-minute workout session, but that leaves you another 22.5 hours (minus sleep) in the rest of your day.
Now, I’m not telling you to quit your job if it requires you to sit all day, nor am I suggesting you should take up marathon running on your “off” days.
You should just take measures to get a little more activity into your daily life. That could mean parking further from the grocery store, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or simply walking around the block a couple times every morning.
There are many ways to track your daily movement activity, such as pedometers or journalling, and making it even easier are smartphone apps that will collect this data automatically as you go about your day.
Here in Japan, it’s not uncommon to walk for miles every day just through the course of your normal daily routine. This kind of regular activity is then part of your lifestyle, and improving your baseline of movement like this not only speeds up your recovery time, it also helps to keep you healthy and active for your entire life.
Recovery Strategy #2 – Get Enough Food and Sleep
The specifics of diet and nutrition are quite involved, but the basics of eating whole, natural food and avoiding as much processed empty calorie foods as possible will take you very far.
Yes, I know that changing your food habits can be very difficult, especially if you’ve gotten used to a certain way of eating for a long time. You shouldn’t be striving for complete change in a day, but making even just one better eating choice once a day will add up to a lot of benefit over time.
Food is Fuel
It’s not just the type of food that matters, but also the quantity.
Very often in a training regimen, people can get caught up in eating the right kind of foods for their goals and become overly picky about what they consume, especially in the case of dieting for fat loss. I’m not against sensible dieting for body composition change, but I am against a severe restriction in calories.
In the very simplest terms, food is fuel. And you need adequate amounts of fuel to not only carry you through the day, but also to support your hard training.
I see too many people training hard and being consistent in their workouts, but then failing to give themselves enough food. Decreased food intake disrupts your entire system affecting your sense of well-being and performance in all your activities.
Don’t pig out for sure, but don’t think you can subsist on a low calorie diet and still make good gains in your training sessions. Eat enough food to support and recover from your training.
Sleep is Imperative
I can’t really say enough about sleep.
We basically have a built-in “reset” button that’s meant to be used every single night. Yet, most people can’t even imagine what it would be like to get one good night’s sleep, let alone a week’s worth.
Most people just ignore their need for sleep, either cramming in another show on TV or maybe finishing up some paperwork they brought home from the office.
It’s a fast paced and busy world out there.
I feel it too, between my responsibilities at my gym and with GMB, and the ever hectic life of a parent, there doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day.
It’s easy enough to steal time away from your sleep, but just like dipping into your savings account too much, all that stealing is going to catch up with you sooner or later.
We need sleep for many things, including psychological recovery, physical recovery, and some of the body’s most basic physiological functions.
So stop ignoring sleep, and start working on getting a good night’s sleep as consistently as possible. If you haven’t been able to do that, I can guarantee that as soon as you do, you’ll notice significant changes in your physical performance.
Recovery Strategy #3 – Be Realistic and Consistent in Your Training
The number one mistake people make when getting started with exercise is that beginners often have unrealistic expectations about how much they can handle.
It’s a natural thing to want to dive right in and do as much as possible. But that’s not going to get you anywhere. You’ll get bogged down very quickly, and you’re likely to quit before you make any progress.
Sometimes you can make a big leap in your training, whether it’s in intensity or frequency, but don’t expect it to happen on a weekly or even monthly basis. It’s a paradox that taking your time and progressing slowly is the fastest route to progress. Especially in the skills training that we do here at GMB.
Doing a realistic amount of work aids your body’s natural recovery process. Progressive overload done right also strengthens your recovery ability and you’ll be able to handle more work in the long run. But push beyond your current capacities too often and you’ll quickly discover that it’s not the best idea for sustained growth and improvement.
Our bodies are great at adapting to stress, it’s a simple formula for self-improvement.
- Too much stress, and we’ll break ourselves down.
- Not enough stress, and we won’t grow.
But just the right amount of stress, and we grow and benefit from the experience.
Consistency is Key
Along with the proper levels of stress, is the consistency of these levels of positive stress.
Allow your body to adapt by sticking with a particular fitness program for at least several weeks. You may be tempted to switch up your workout routine frequently, but it’s consistency, not variety, that best allows you to grow and to recover from the positive stress of exercise.
Our GMB Curriculum programs are 3+ months long.
Long programs? Yes. We devised the training programs to provide the proper stimulation and consistency for optimal gains.
Randomization and inconsistency may seem a good way to “force” the body to react and adapt and that’s the basis of some popular training regimens out there. Yet this random approach and lack of consistency can be confusing and create increased negative stress. You’ll end up being less than proficient on certain movements and exercises and get frustrated when you aren’t performing them as well as you’d like.
Recovery Strategy #4 – Incorporate a Meditative Activity into your Daily Routine
You don’t need to sit on a mountaintop in solitude to start meditating. “Meditation” is really just a way to pull away from an external focus and get back into what’s happening within yourself. This is an important part of recovery.
Meditation can come in whatever form you feel most comfortable with (so, if you’re a “mountaintop meditation” kind of guy or gal, knock yourself out!)
You may find, especially in the beginning, that the very thought of sitting and relaxing, or lying down and breathing, is anything but comfortable. Our 21st-century world overstimulates us to the point where temporarily decreased stimulation makes our skin crawl.
As with anything else, it just takes practice.
Elemental Breathing Meditation
Here’s a really short and simple breathing meditation I like to use to aid in my recovery process. This simple technique may be both the easiest and most advanced mental training practice you’ll learn.
- In a comfortable position – choose sitting or lying down, and stay with it for a while before switching around – close your eyes and just observe your breath.
- Some teachers have you count, while others ask you to regulate the breath in some way. I’ve found it’s best just to “watch” your breath and concentrate not on controlling the inhale and exhale but simply to observe it.
- Set a timer and start at 5 minutes, adding a minute every day or so until you reach a max of 15 minutes.
- It will be difficult at first, just like everything that’s worthwhile, but keep at it. Don’t do anything but concentrate on how you are breathing. Don’t force it and soon you’ll find that you’ll be “losing” yourself and the timer will ding before you know it.
- The key, and I cannot stress this enough, is to not strain. You can’t force yourself to relax! Keep at it everyday but if in a session you find yourself working too hard to concentrate, it’s best to bag it and try again later.
Choosing Your Own Meditative Activity
If deep breathing doesn’t speak to you, or you simply can’t relax in that mindset, choose another activity that will help you reach a better level of relaxation. The activity you choose should:
- Be familiar and comfortable (though not necessarily easy)
- Demand concentration to keep your mind in the present moment (so you don’t start thinking of stressful stuff again)
- Be able to be done anytime
- Not require much time – less than fifteen minutes is a good rule of thumb
- Not be too strenuous (if you have to rest from your relaxation, you’re doing something wrong)
- Be easy to do daily
You probably won’t find the perfect activity right away. It’ll take a little trial and error – and you’ll need to remind yourself to actually do it – but it’s worth the effort.
Don’t Get Shortchanged, Pay Yourself First
Recovery is just as important as the training sessions themselves. Devote as much of your energy to recovery practices as you do in your workouts and you’ll progress much faster.
Keep moving. Feed yourself enough and get to bed at a decent hour. Train hard but don’t beat yourself down so much that you can’t keep up a regular practice. Take time to reconnect with yourself, whether that takes chanting in silk robes, or listening to your favorite music and looking up at the stars.
Take care of yourself and reap the benefits of all your hard work.