HOW TO MAKE #RECOVERY YOUR SECRET WEAPON
By Josh Mathe MS, CISSN, PES
Recovery has become a buzzword in our athletic and wellness communities, and when we hear it we narrow our eyes and nod conspiratorially the way we do when someone talks about grass fed beef or the magic of the kettlebell. But what is recovery? And are you wielding this potential weapon appropriately, or are you waving it around haphazardly just hoping you’ll hit something? Maybe you’re already an expert at this stuff. If so, kudos to you – you’re way ahead of most people. But if you’re like me, you don’t mess around when you work out and you have trouble accepting that sometimes it makes sense to throttle down. You thrive on the challenge and the knowledge that you have an edge because you are willing to work longer and harder than the person next to you. If that’s you, I completely get that mindset, and I honor it. I have no desire to take that away from you. What I do want to offer is perhaps a perspective shift and an open door to a world where training smarter – not harder – actually helps you reach your goals faster… and healthier.
Simply put, recovery is the ability of the body (cells, muscles, nerves, and joints) to heal from physical stress as quickly and efficiently as possible. Or an even broader definition: Recovery is the ability to maintain and improve optimal health while balancing all of your physical and emotional challenges. That’s a mouthful, but it’s simple. You beat your body up. All those weights and track workouts take their toll. And for most of us who are weekend warriors (not pro athletes) the rest of our lives take a large toll as well because we have even more daily stressors - pasta feeds, desk jobs, arguments with co-workers, etc. Life takes its toll. Recovery speaks to how well we let our bodies rejuvenate from all this daily stress. The good news is that human body is designed to respond to stress, and certain kinds of stress are actually good for us in the right amounts. This principle is called “Hormesis” – things that are bad for us in large amounts can actually be good for us in small amounts. Exercise is a great example of a “good” stressor as long as we don’t overdo it and give ourselves time to repair. But how much is too much, and how do I know? And do I need to pay attention to my recovery even if I feel good?
How Much Exercise Is Too Much Exercise?
Yes it’s important to pay attention to your recovery even if you’re feeling good, but we’ll get to that. So how much is too much? The easy answer is that it’s impossible for me to answer that for you. Every person has a unique genetic makeup, life schedule, athletic background, injury history, recovery routine, etc. A 50 year old male Ironman triathlete will have a completely different relationship to exercise than a 15 year old female gymnast in terms of training response to volume and intensity. And that’s really what we’re talking about here. Too much volume (amount) and/or too much intensity (hard effort) of exercise can lead to overtraining and a negative cycle that snowballs into injury, fatigue, loss of motivation, and totally whacked out hormones. Not good.
Another important point is that improper exercise is not the only cause of poor recovery. An unhealthy diet, poor sleep, gut dysbiosis, lifestyle and emotional stress, and inadequate recovery methods/time can all play a role as well.
I don’t expect you to become a scientist overnight, however there are some things I’d like you to be aware of – and if a few of these indicators exist in your life please don’t hesitate to slow down and take care of yourself immediately. Some warning signs of improper recovery:
- Have you lost or gained a significant amount of body mass over a short period of time?
- Do you suffer from insomnia?
- Are you tired all the time?
- Is your urine usually dark yellow or brown?
- Do you generally not feel hungry, even on big workout days?
- Are you always sore?
- What has your mood been like lately? Are you more depressed, down, or angry than usual?
- Have you noticed that you are often suffering from nausea, headaches, congestion, or sore throats?
You can also get super bio-hacky with this stuff if you’re into the data and analytics. Some other things I encourage you to do more research on are: Heart Rate Variability (HRV), blood testing for biomarkers (CRP, Omega 3, IL6), and measuring O2 saturation. You will no doubt find a hoard of other fun things as well in your research.
If you are worried you might be overtraining or close to the edge, here’s what I want you to do today:
- Don’t exercise
- See your doctor
- Consult with a coach who is an expert at whatever your chosen form of exercise is
- Listen to and follow the advice of the doctor and coach
- Hire a coach who can help you avoid this situation in the future
- The recovery strategies listed below will help you, but please do the first 5 steps too
Yes! You Do Need to Pay Attention If You Already Feel Good
There are two kinds of athletes. Those who have been injured, fatigued, and out of balance and those who will be. Perhaps a bit fatalistic, but 98% true. (Unless you’re Superman and in that case I’m honored that you’re reading my blog and I would love to chat about writing a book with you and the other members of the Justice League) The way to prove me wrong is to care about recovery and to start implementing smart strategies now! The other and (to most) just as important reason to care is because it will make you a better athlete. Optimal recovery increases your ability to push hard the next day, it keeps you flexible, it makes you stronger, faster, and it encases your mind in a bulletproof shell of awesomeness. Seriously folks, this stuff can change your world.
Recovery Methods & Strategies
Dial in your diet: This could be (and has been) the subject of countless books and debates, but nutrition really boils down to a few cornerstone things.
- Remove/reduce processed foods and sugar.
- Eat multiple servings of vegetables every day, and throw in a piece of fruit or two.
- Keep your blood sugar balanced by adding some fat or protein every time you eat. Avocados, nuts, seeds, high quality (organic & grass fed) meat and dairy, wild fish, etc.
- Stay in a healthy calorie window – use an app like LoseIt or FitDay if you need some guidance.
- Don’t worry about being perfect. Perfect doesn’t exist and the drive to achieve it causes even more stress. Instead focus on moving toward your goals more often than you move away from them.
These are general guidelines for everyone, however if you are really trying to maximize recovery I would also suggest limiting grains, soy, dairy, and alcohol. You might also try adding some green tea and cherry or beet juice a few times a week. And if you really want to dive into this stuff look up “Bone broth” and make yourself a batch.
Now I know you’re asking, “Do I need to supplement?” In general, I am not a fan of lugging a pill box around with you and choking down a medicine cabinet three times a day, however there is definitely a time and place for a few supplements, particularly if we’re talking about ideal recovery. Some supplements to consider adding: Cold stored fish oil (from small, wild fish like sardines or krill),Branched Chain Amino Acids, Glucosamine & Chondroitin, and a one a day multi with Vitamin C. I’m not going to take the time and space to justify these supplements, but I will say there is enough research on all of them to support a reasonable and heavily active person using them to aid recovery.
Dial in your sleep: Really, really, really important. Did I mention sleep is important? 7-9 hours is ideal. This is where your body heals itself. It feels fantastic to throw up a ton of weight or set a new record on race day, but that is only made possible by the steady and boring accumulation of sleep, day after day. Make it a game if you have to and track your daily sleep. But make no mistake – if you aren’t getting enough sleep you are absolutely and without doubt harming your performance (in all aspects of your life) and probably shortening your life span. Here are some important sleep tips:
- Sleep in complete darkness. This allows you to fall into the cycle of sleep necessary for repair.
- Avoid staring at blue light three hours before bed. Yes, that’s your TV, IPad, phone, and laptop. I can feel you rolling your eyes at me, but the truth is the truth. The blue light upsets your circadian rhythm and puts you in a compromised hormonal state for sleep. It also makes you worse at burning fat if that adds to your motivation. If you won’t avoid these things, at least buy some blue light blocking glasses and wear those at night.
- Avoid eating 3 hours before bed. See above for notes about eye rolling and circadian rhythm. If you must eat, keep it small and focus on fat. 1 Tbsp of coconut oil is idea. Or even a Tbsp of almond butter. DO NOT have a bowl of spaghetti or I will find you and taze you.
- Avoid caffeine.
- Practice meditation or breathing exercises before bed (more on this later)
- For extra credit research light boxes and PEMF devices
Dial in Your Mind: This may be your biggest source of potential – both positive and negative. So I encourage you to use it wisely. Your body truly does respond to your thoughts. We can argue about this later, but for now just assume I’m right. The great part about this is that you can choose to harness the nearly limitless power of your mind to help you recover better, reduce stress, run faster, lift more, love harder – you name it, your mind can propel you toward it rapidly and effectively. Some ways to supercharge your mind:
- Take 3 minutes and start the day thinking about all the people and things you have to be thankful for in your life. Make it a habit. Soon you will notice that the world seems like a brighter place with more possibility. Things that would normally bother you roll off you like rain. This sets your stage for greatness.
- There are countless resources on this topic and I’m no more expert than a host of other people, but I’ll share what works for me. I sit for 20-30 minutes, and focus on my breathing. 10 seconds in, 10 second hold, 10 seconds out. Repeat. If my thoughts scatter, I let them, and then I bring them back by focusing on a flame I see in my mind’s eye. At some point I begin visualizing all the different parts of my body (particularly injured ones) and I send healing, healthy energy to them. Some people do this by actually visualizing a smiling face traveling up and down their bodies. This may sound a little out there, but it’s powerful medicine.
- All successful people visualize success. Period. You’ve probably even done it in other areas of your life and for other reasons. Make it a daily practice. Think about the things that are important to you. For me it’s career, wife, sport performance. Take a few minutes in the morning or before bed (or even while doing a long, slow run) and see in your mind what success looks like in each area. Smell it, see it, hear it, feel it. Let it in deep. Get excited.
Dial in your recovery boosters: There are quite a few external things you can incorporate into your normal routine that will greatly speed recovery and limit your chance of injury (or help you heal from an existing injury). Play with these. Find a few that work well for you. Heck, be an overachiever and use them all! In no particular order my favorite recovery boosters are:
- Foam Rolling: By now I’m sure you’ve heard of this and probably tried it, but are you consistently doing it? Buy a foam roller (they are cheap) or use one at your gym 2-3 times per week. Focus on areas of particular tightness or pain (unless the pain is acute). Roll gently up and down the muscle and when you find a tight spot, increase the pressure and hold for at least 30 seconds. Repeat. You can also use balls and sticks for the same purpose. It’s basically targeted, self-directed, deep tissue massage and it works.
- Message: I know we don’t all have the funds to get a massage every week, but try to squeeze one in at least once a month. This is a great way to work out the kinks, stay flexible, keep toxins from accumulating in your body, and address potential problem areas before they get any worse. Other huge benefits to massage that are rarely talked about are the endorphins stimulated by touch, as well as the stress reduction and mental quiet that can be achieved by simply “being” for 60-90 minutes. Maybe you don’t like to treat yourself. Maybe you don’t like to be touched. Get over it.
- Mobility Exercises: What do you do to stay flexible and fluid? Probably nothing, or some half-hearted static stretching every now and then. If I just called you out accurately, don’t feel bad – most people have trouble focusing on mobility because it’s not as action packed as some of the other things we do. But utilized consistently and appropriately, mobility exercises can greatly increase range of motion, muscle recruitment, and even core strength. There are many methodologies and philosophies and my advice is to try a few and find what works for you. Yoga and tai chi are two of the most popular and “active” mobility exercises you can do, but there are other things like stick drills or Scott Sonnon’s Intuflow (search Google or YouTube for either or both). Add something 2-3 times per week. If nothing else, add some dynamic stretches and begin moving your joints in slow circles to keep them lubricated with fresh synovial fluid. Every little thing you do, as long as you do it consistently, will pay dividends.
- Hot-Cold Contrast: Sounds crazy, but once you start doing it you won’t ever want to stop! Going back and forth between hot and cold increases blood flow and decreases inflammation, so it’s good for injuries as well as prevention. It’s also just plain exhilarating! There are a few ways to go about it, but my two favorites are: Sauna for 5 minutes, cold shower for 2 minutes, repeat for 30 minutes OR Take a 5 minute shower, 20 seconds of cold, 10 seconds of hot, 10 times. I know. Just try it. (You may also find yourself burning fat more efficiently and losing weight more quickly. Bonus.)
- Chiropractic/Acupuncture Therapy: I would definitely recommend seeing either or both of these health care practitioners if injured or often in pain, however I also see them for routine maintenance. I know detractors will tell you they are not “real” doctors and that you can get injured or waste your money, however my experience has always been positive and the results impressive. Ask around, interview a few people, and find someone you can grow to trust.
The moral of the story? Work hard, play hard, rest harder – and smarter. Listen to your body. Ask for help and consider hiring a coach if you’re serious about whatever it is you are throwing yourself at with abandon. And think of recovery as your secret weapon. Anybody can go sweat and grunt for an hour. But the few who have the discipline and maturity to maximize the quiet times when no one is watching – those are the people who make magic happen. Go make magic.
(I also encourage you to check out some very cool guys who are great resources for recovery and related topics: Ben Greenfield, Dave Asprey, Mark Sisson, Mark Divine, and Kelley Starrett)
Josh Mathe is passionate about squeezing every last drop from life, and helping others do the same. He is the best-selling and award winning author of In the Footsteps of Greatness, as well as a speaker, fitness expert, nutritionist, and ultra-endurance athlete. When he is not speaking at events or running through the wilderness, Josh works with individual clients as the owner of One10 Performance & Nutrition and serves as the Executive Director for the Sustainable Health Institute. Josh holds a Master’s of Science in Human Nutrition, and is a certified sports nutritionist (CISSN), Performance Enhancement Specialist (PES), Superhuman Coach, and run coach.
For more information or to contact Josh directly, please visit www.joshmathe.com