How many people do you think put any noticeable effort into planning their recovery from training? Based on my fourteen years of training experience, not too many.
A few years back, I almost bought into the then-popular theory that damn near everybody who lifted weights more than two days a week was “overtraining.” I soon realized that most people weren’t anywhere near overtrained.
If you take time to plan out your recovery methods, I guarantee that you’ll see tremendous progress. Here are some of the most effective recovery methods.
How many lifters do you know who walk around in a sleep deficit every day? Look at your co-workers tomorrow, and you’ll probably see some exhausted people.
It only takes a night of sleep deprivation — getting less than six-hour of uninterrupted sleep — before central nervous system performance begins to decline.
But how much sleep do you need actually?
The standard suggestion is seven to eight uninterrupted hours. However, if you’ve been chronically sleep-deprived, you may need to spend several weeks “paying down” your sleep debt.
The best and easy way to do this is to simply sleep more! Add an hour at night and grab a nap as often as possible (even a 15-minute power nap helps). Eventually, you’ll be back to “normal,” and you can go back to the suggested seven to eight hours per night.
Quick Tips for Catching Good Sleep
• When you’re first getting used to afternoon naps, find a good meditation CD, sleep tape, or white noise machine. They’re incredibly helpful.
• Keep your bedroom as dark as possible. Cover LCD screens (on alarm clocks, the television, the DVD player, etc.), and put heavy “blackout” drapes over any windows.
• Wear a sleep mask, even after you darken the room. As someone who always had trouble falling asleep, I found wearing a sleep mask helped tremendously.
• If you decide that you need prescription sleep drugs, proceed with extreme caution. Some drugs are actually thought to interfere with REM sleep. So while you may sleep more, you’re lacking the most crucial stage of the sleep cycle and basically trading sleep quality for quantity.
Instead, try melatonin, ZMA, or even the classic warm milk and turkey cocktail (but not blended together). So find something that works for you.
Wait, don’t panic. I’m not asking you to convert to Buddhism or try to contact your animal spirit guide. Even the most simple forms of meditation — just closing your eyes and saying “in and out” as you breathe — will work wonders.
You may find that you even fall asleep while doing this. Great!
Fifteen minutes of just letting go of your day’s troubles will help your mind relax and let your body recover. More benefits of meditation include a possible shift toward fat burning, improved carbohydrate metabolism, and reduced cortisol levels.
It better be evident that these are all beneficial for Figure Athletes.
There are a million meditation songs out there. Try a few different ones on youtube to see what you like and what you respond best to. If you’re worried about any possible religious connotations, seek out a “sports relaxation” CD.
3. Post-Workout Nutrition
I suppose the new trend is pre-workout nutrition, and this is a great idea. A great post-workout recovery drink, like Surge, is vital!
When Bill Starr wrote about the benefits of post-workout nutrition way back in the ’70s in his classic book, “The Strongest Shall Survive,” he said:
“European researchers found that if their athletes ingest protein, preferably in liquid form, in less than 30 minutes after exercise, their recovery rate is three times faster than if they wait past this time period.”
This was written nearly 40 years ago, yet some people still haven’t caught on. Get a good recovery drink and sip it before, during, and after training.
4. Daily Nutrition and Supplementation
Frankly, most lifters don’t under-eat, but they do eat the wrong foods to facilitate recovery. Follow the basic principles of a (relatively) healthy diet, and you’ll be okay.
I just talked about the benefits of post-workout supplementation, but it bears repeating. I still think the nutrition chapters of Starr’s “The Strongest Shall Survive” are excellent. His vitamin and mineral recommendations are overkill, but that’s not the point.
If you get vital vitamins and minerals into your system right after training — vitamins C, D, and A, calcium, magnesium, sodium, and potassium — you will recover faster.
5. Foam Rolling
I’ll admit that I thought foam rollers were “B.S.” for a long time; until I tried one. For ten bucks, I totally transformed the way I felt. After two weeks of rolling four times per week, I felt amazing. My flexibility was back, my joints didn’t hurt, and sometimes it was actually a significant energy booster.
I’ve been unable to find any research explaining why, but if I was tired, a good 10-minutes on the foam roller was like a shot of espresso. It’s never failed to produce similar results in my clients, either.
Maybe it increased the blood circulation, or perhaps it just loosened up my muscles. Either way, I only care that it worked and continues to work.
If you just don’t notice any relief from a foam roller, go to the hardware store and get a big piece of PVC. That’s also good at getting into places that the roller can miss, like the hamstrings, for example.
There’s no doubt that a professional massage is a luxury, but if you can afford it, get one as often as possible. There has been controversy about massage if it actually reduces recovery time, but that’s missing the point.
It’s more about relaxation than anything else. For one hour, you’re free of any troubles. No cell phones, nagging bosses, or lines for your favorite lat pulldown machine, and somebody’s rubbing almost every muscle you’ve got. It sounds like a worthwhile investment to me!
Anyway, most of the studies saying that massage doesn’t speed recovery focus on Swedish-style massage. For anyone who’s built any amount of muscle tissue, Swedish massages are a waste of time, recovery-wise.
Most lifters simply have too much muscle and need a much deeper style of massage to have a significant, positive effect. You’ll need to check out either a sports massage therapist or Shiatsu. If you can find an active release therapy (A.R.T.) practitioner, go for it!
If you’re a trainer, you’d be wise to locate a massage therapist to train and exchange services. It’ll be the best investment you’ve ever made.
7. Epsom Salts and Sea Salt Baths
This is no recent fad. My grandmother told me about the benefits of Epsom salt baths years ago, when I first picked up a weight. She didn’t know why they worked, and she just knew they did. It turns out that the high magnesium content in Epsom salt baths facilitates the removal of acids through the skin.
Add about two cups to your bathwater, along with a handful of sea salt. Places like Bath and Bodyworks will have about a thousand bath time/relaxation powders to choose from. You can also look for a “bath tea bag,” no joke. It looks like a giant teabag you put in the bathtub.
A few months ago, I had a super-heavy max effort lower body workout planned. My back and hamstrings were feeling tight, so I decided to take a quick bath combined with a 15-minute nap. It worked like gangbusters, and I hit a 15-pound deadlift P.R. that evening.
The baths also work well after training or even on the next day. Combine them with some light stretching and a power nap, and you got a recipe for recovery soup!
8. “Extra” Workouts
I know, I know. You’re thinking, “Extraworkouts help with recovery?” Yep, but it’s not what you expect.
Try walking more. Don’t jog; walk. Walking can be a good, calorie-burning, blood-moving activity that won’t sap strength or eat muscle. Around 20 to 40 minutes is an excellent place to start. Think walking is boring? Get an iPod or a hyper little dog, and get going.
But you’re not limited to just walking. One type of extra workout that’s worked best for me is using a sled or Prowler. You can put in a reasonable, solid effort but not get sore because of the lack of eccentric work.
The Prowler is specifically designed to be pushed, pulled, and cursed at after workouts.
Remember that you’re doing this for recovery, so go light. There is no need to be a hero with the weight or distance you use.
9. Learn to De-load
Of all the advice so far, this is the hardest for me to follow. For most of us, training is fun. Yeah, it’s tough, but we love it. Because of this, our instinct is to go 100% all the time, but many coaches recommend “de-loading” every fourth week, and it’s a good rule of thumb.
Powerlifting coach Jim Wendler wrote a guide to designing a de-load week. Basically, you should reduce your very heavy lifting but continue with your easier accessory work.
There are different ways to do it, so experimentation is the best route. The general idea is to spend one week not beating yourself up but still making progress in the gym.
Sometimes doing less in the gym can lead to more.
10. Take Time Off
What about a whole week off? These are also necessary, every so often. For me, a de-load is usually more productive than a full week off; but I’ll still take them. The only things I do during a week off are some stretching and walking.
I’ll occasionally combine the week off with a break from my normal diet. It’s a great relief psychologically and physiologically. Don’t worry about gaining weight during this time. If you can gain noticeable weight in one week, you’re doing some serious eating.
I often have to force my clients and athletes into a full week off. People who are hard workers and have addictive personalities can become downright obsessed with training. For them, it’s even more important to get away for a short time fully.
They always come back stronger next week. And so will you!