Two of the most powerful tools you have for recovering between training sessions just happen to also be two of the most fun! Relaxation and eating enough food to meet your daily energy needs are important strategies to manage the stressor effects of training and exercising. When employed properly, meeting your calorie needs and getting a little R&R can play a significant role in allowing your body to adapt to training, as well as come back faster so that you are good to go and back to training hard when you want to be. So with these two practices in mind, let’s look at how you can improve your recovery and keep training and growing in the process!
The saying, “there’s no such thing as overtraining, just under recovering,” has been tossed around more and more lately. While the validity of this may be hard to ever fully substantiate (many factors to try and control for) the sentiment is certainly eye catching. A major area of recovery that is shrouded in conflicting information is the science of nutrition. With so much being made about, “staying thin,” “eat this and drop pounds fast,” “finally get that summer bod you’ve always wanted,” or, “the one ultimate super mega supplement to rule them all,” it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that if you aren’t eating enough food (i.e. adequate calories to cover your energy expenditure) you aren’t going to fully recover. Additionally, with the fast paced-ness of modern life it can be really challenging at times to prioritize a full meal, and more often than not snack bars and quick options are being substituted for more substantial dish. Further, skipping meals can becoming more and more common with busy work, travel, and home lives. However, more important than any specific nutrient or fancy supplement, meeting calorie needs is nutritionally the most important thing you can do to ensure recovery from training.
If you haven’t consumed enough calories via your diet then your body will go elsewhere to find that energy sources, and that usually means either your fat cells (not a bad thing!), the stored carbohydrate in your muscles (okay, as long as we replace these later) or your muscles (Now wait a minute! I worked my butt off for these guns I don’t want to lose them). The reason for drawing energy sources from your body itself is because unfortunately growing bigger and stronger muscles is not exactly high on the list of priorities your body keeps with regard to physiology. Things like, breathing, pumping blood everywhere, and digesting food all take precedence, as well as a host of other happenings that keep you running problem free. So, if all your basic calorie needs aren’t met then your muscles won’t be getting the recovery aiding nutrients they need, leading to a slower recovery and adaptation to training. One easy way to keep an eye on calories to ensure your taking in enough food is to utilize an app such as Myfitnesspal or a pen and paper food diary to get a sense of what a few days of eating looks like. From this information you can gain a sense of whether or not your normal diet is meeting your needs or if there could be a way to improve your recovery nutritionally!
Where nutrition meets the body’s recovery needs from a physiological standpoint, rest and relaxation aids the psychological side, and this may be an even more powerful aspect of recovery than previously thought of. Your nervous system has two primary divisions to it: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. When working out and training hard we are primarily firing our sympathetic nervous system. This is the division that is responsible for the Fight or Flight response, and responds to stresses, such as a long set of kettlebell swings, max out bench press, or Airdyne sprint. The other side of this coin is the Parasympathetic division, which is responsible for Feed and Breed, as well as Rest and Digest.
So where does getting some relaxation in your day come to play with your nervous system? Well, psychologically speaking, we aren’t going to be able to utilize our parasympathetic response, which is responsible for digesting those delicious and useful calories we talked about earlier, without reaching a state of at least moderate relaxation! For most people this could mean simply sitting down to watch an episode (or 6, but who was counting) of The Great British Bake Off or reading a good book with a cup of tea. Further, our parasympathetic nervous system is related to sex hormone production, such as testosterone and growth hormone, both of which play a role in muscle repair and growth. If constantly elevated levels of stress blunt these hormones then their benefits will not be fully realized. Now, when life gets especially stressful, it may be necessary to take extra means to find that relaxed state, especially when hoping to recover from training. At times of extra stress it might be worthwhile to consider setting aside time to meditate, get a massage, or if stress levels remain in the red for an extended period of time, speaking with a therapist. Managing stress and psychology, and in turn your nervous system response, will help foster a conducive environment for your body to be able to physiologically come back from training, adapt, and grow stronger.