The Recovery Battlefield
Getting aggressive with your recovery
by James Wilson
Let's pretend for a minute that you're a General in charge of planning the key mission that could make or break the war. Your forces have been fighting this war for a few years now and while they initially made some good progress, your troops have lately stopped advancing on the enemy and have actually lost some ground. Realizing that you need a new strategy, you open up your battle plan to see what went wrong and devise the next assault to crush the enemy.
After studying your current plan, you realize that your forces have been investing all of their time and effort focusing on a few battlefronts and only giving token resistance on the others. You seem to have control of the fronts you've been focusing on, so where do you focus your attention now? You would send the reserves to the territories you haven't been focusing on, of course! No self-respecting General would reinforce his strong areas while ignoring his weak ones. That's a sure way to lose the war.
So what does this have to do with pumping iron? Simple, you're fighting the great anabolic/catabolic war right now. Your body is your army and you're calling the shots, General. What do you do when your progress slows down or you start to lose muscle and strength? If you're like most people you might try a new workout, add something to your supplement list or tweak something else in your current plan. These are all good things to consider, but have you ever thought about taking a truly aggressive approach to your recovery program?
This is the forgotten front in the war for the body that you envision. Just like in the scenario I presented above, most people focus their attention on a few things (usually workouts and supplements) and ignore other areas (usually diet, flexibility and other recovery factors). However, when they start to lose ground they simply put more energy into what they're already focused on and continue to ignore the weak link(s) in their program. No wonder so few people ever achieve their ultimate goals!
Why Recovery is so Important
When you take an objective look at how our bodies adapt to training it quickly becomes apparent how important this overlooked aspect is. Your workouts only provide the stimulus for change; the change itself (hopefully a decrease in body fat or an increase in muscle and/or strength) actually takes place during the periods between workouts. How quickly and completely this recovery takes place is a result of many factors, including dietary habits, supplementation, age and personal stress levels, just to name a few.
The quicker and more complete the recovery, the faster you can get back in the gym and the better your performance will be once you get there. Oh yeah, taking an aggressive approach to your recovery program will also lead to less down time from injuries and sickness, just in case you're interested in that sort of thing.
When you consider that most people spend only four to ten hours a week working out (about 2-6% of their total time each week), you see that the time they spend in the gym is only a small part of the big picture. Whether you realize it or not, more time is spent each week on recovery than in the gym. Hopefully you're starting to see why it's vitally important to be familiar with recovery factors to help maximize your performance and gains in the gym.
And for the younger crowd out there, don't think this doesn't apply to you just as much as it does everyone else. I'm here to tell you that using youth as a crutch is a dangerous proposition. (I'm just 25 myself, so don't think I'm being a cantankerous old man here.) Yes, as teenagers and 20-somethings we can sometimes get away with eating junk, working out like idiots and still see descent results. But that doesn't mean that we should.
Like the saying goes, practice doesn't make perfect, it only makes habit. If you never practice good workout, diet and recovery techniques when you're young, then you'll have a hell of a time doing it when you're older. At some point you have to realize that you can't rely on the advantages of youth forever, so develop good work habits early on.
With that said, here are a few factors I'd like you to consider:
Energy System Used — Workouts usually draw most of the fuel used from either the anaerobic (strength training, intervals, ect.) or aerobic (long, continual endurance workouts) pathway of muscular energetics. Not allowing for full energy system regeneration can lead to overtraining.
Psychological Factors — Never underestimate the power of the mind. Work, finances, personal relationships and basic everyday life can all cause stress. If left unchecked stress can have very powerful physical manifestations such as headaches, insomnia and an increase in catabolic hormones such as cortisol.
Efficiency of Waste Removal and Structural Repair — Working out generates metabolic waste like lactic acid and hydroxyproline and wreaks havoc on the structural components of the muscles and tendons. The faster your body can rid itself of these metabolic wastes and fix the damage the faster you'll recover.
Replenishment of Nutrients — The availability of key micro and macronutrients in your diet will have a large impact on recovery.
While just a partial list of factors, I find these to be the most relevant simply because we can influence each of these factors in some way to tip balance of power in the anabolic/catabolic war in our favor. The more of these factors that you can shore up and get aggressive with, the more likely you'll be able to claim victory in that war.
I'm going to touch on each of these factors, explaining briefly why you should care and then giving you the goods on how to manipulate each one to maximize your time and effort in the gym.
Energy System Used
We're all familiar with the practice of working different muscle groups on different days, commonly referred to as using a training split. Why do we do this? To allow the different muscles to recover before we work them again, of course. But there's an underlying factor that, if missed, could seriously derail your progress.
Let me explain. Most of us are familiar with interval training and its many variants (HIIT, TC's 50-Yard Dash program, etc.). Many of us currently use interval training in place of regular aerobics, and for good reason. It's more fun, extremely time efficient and you always look more impressive to the college girls when you're hauling ass around a track, as opposed to plodding through countless laps (hey, you've got to keep your priorities straight).
A typical training split using strength training and intervals might have someone lifting weights on Monday, Wednesday and Friday while doing their intervals on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Seems logical, but is it? Consider what this training split looks like from an energy system standpoint. Both weightlifting and intervals put a large stress on the anaerobic (without oxygen) pathways of muscular energetics. By not paying attention to this detail, this training split taxes the same energy systems for six straight days with only one day of true recovery.
While you might be able to tolerate this program for a short time, using this split for months on end would eventually lead to overtraining. If you're simply doing intervals to speed fat loss, then it's better in the long run to do most of them after strength training. If you're trying to increase your speed then do them first. Either way, to insure recovery don't do more than two days in a row of workouts that tax the anaerobic energy system.
If you're an endurance athlete or still use conventional aerobics, then remember that it takes up to 48 hours to refuel from a strenuous aerobic workout. The take-home message here is the same — don't do more than two days of hard aerobics in a row, especially when coupled with strength training. Properly timing your anaerobic and aerobic training days (or doing your interval work after lifting weights) will make sure that you aren't unknowingly burning the recovery candle at both ends and setting yourself up for overtraining.
This battlefield is probably the easiest to secure so you should be able to claim victory here rather easily. Unfortunately, this is as easy as it gets. Now the real battle begins.
The Mind Game: Psychological Factors
This is going to stray from the realm of what you normally read in muscle magazines. That right there should tell you that this is most likely an area that you aren't defending from the enemy very well. Your biggest hurdle to securing this area may be your own preconceptions about what a big, buff bodybuilder does to reach peak condition. In other words, get ready to open your mind and think differently.
Just to give you an idea of the power of the mind, studies show that people with chronically high levels of mental stress are fatter, have more health problems and die sooner than those who manage their stress levels better. On the positive side, we've all heard about the mother who lifted a car off her baby or the obscure athlete rising to the challenge and winning Olympic gold, all because they believed that they could.
The human mind is the single most powerful thing in existence, yet when was the last time you thought about your mind's well being, much less how to use its powers to increase your strength and muscle gains? You can have everything else about your program dialed in, but if you don't take steps to at least manage your daily stress levels it can all be for nothing. In some respects the mind is an area that will work for the other side if your forces don't maintain an active presence there. If you really want to achieve peak condition, this is one area you must take back and keep from the enemy.
I could go on for hours about the mind and how it can adversely or positively affect you and your training, but that's going beyond the scope of this article. Hopefully you can see why the mind is an area that you should pay attention to and actively help it recover from both training and daily stress. The most important thing to do is get at least eight hours of sleep a night. Sorry folks, you'll never achieve your goals unless you do. There's just no getting around the importance of sleep for your progress.
You should also meditate, pray or whatever it is you personally call it a few times each week. Simply take some time to go to a quiet place, close your eyes and let the outside world and its distractions slip away. For a simple and basic introduction to meditation techniques try the book Meditation for Dummies.
Lastly, I strongly recommend becoming familiar with Eastern philosophies on stress and life management. The best book I've ever come across for this purpose is the classic The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. (Yes, this is the part where you have to keep an open mind!) In this very easy read (my clients read this book and all have finished it in three or four days of light reading) Benjamin has managed to capture the essence of Taoism. Anyone who reads it is sure to gain a new perspective on life and how to mange it better.
Sure, you might think it sounds silly to suggest that what stands between you and the body you want may be 30 minutes of quiet time a few times each week and reading a book that explains Eastern philosophy through a stuffed bear, but trust me, this is powerful stuff. In high level athletics it's often said that the mental barrier is what separates the winners from the losers and such is the case with this war.
While it may not add ten pounds of muscle in two weeks or fifty pounds to your bench overnight (it might though, you never know), making sure your mind is working with you and not against you will ensure that you aren't sabotaged from within, just when you think you're ready to claim victory.
Efficiency of Waste Removal and Structural Repairs
Workouts are hell on your muscles. They generate free radicals, produce lactic acid, cause microscopic tears in the muscles and tendons and basically turn your body into a metabolic scene reminiscent of Braveheart after the Scotts got their butts kicked. The faster your body can get rid of the dead (metabolic wastes) and fix the wounded (structural damage), the faster it can be ready for action.
Faster and more complete recovery of this kind will lead to far more progress in the long run because of more quality workouts and less time lost to injuries. Unfortunately, forgetting about your body's recovery immediately after your post-workout shake isn't going to cut it.
To claim victory here you have to form a multi-pronged attack. To speed the removal of the metabolic wastes after working out, simply use a cool-down (10 to 15 minutes of light aerobic activity) and stretch for 10 to 15 minutes after that. Don't scoff; the cool-down is an essential part of recovery. It helps your heart pump fresh blood in and pump waste-ridden blood out of your muscles. Stretching helps to "wring" the muscles of even more of these casualties of war. Stretching after training also helps speed recovery since muscles won't really start to recover until they return to their normal length. (Strength training leaves the muscles in a shortened state.)
As far as speeding the repair of structural damage, my first two recommendations involve supplements that will give your body the raw materials needed for the repairs. Protein is obviously key (preferably with most coming from whey and casein) and the recommendation of 1 to 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight is usually sufficient. I also recommend using a glucosamine/chondroitin combination. Don't wait until you need it to start using this powerful supplement duo. The whole idea is to be aggressive and head off any problems before they arise.
Stretching also helps speed the structural regeneration of your body, so take 15 minutes every day and stretch. I personally use and recommend the routine described in Ian King's article The Lazy Man's Guide to Stretching. Stop making excuses why you can't stretch. Put a towel by your couch so that when you're sitting there watching television you'll be reminded to get on the floor and stretch. Don't worry, you can still watch Tony Soprano whack people and get in a good stretching session.
Lastly, make use of one of the most powerful (and least used) regeneration techniques — massage. Massage is perhaps the oldest technique known to mankind for speeding recovery and has an almost endless list of therapeutic affects including removal of metabolic waste, restoration of optimum muscle tension and length and circulation of lymph, just to name a few.
You don't even have to shell out the $50+ dollars an hour to put it to work for you. All you need to do is find a massage school near you that has a student clinic. At these student clinics you can get an hour long full-body massage for $20 to $30. Since massage students must log a certain number of hours to receive their certifications, almost all schools have some form of this, so ask around. Get a massage two to four times a month and I'll guarantee that you'll feel and notice the difference.
In battle, every good general knows that staying one step ahead of the enemy is the only way you can really hope to defeat him. Taking these steps will make sure your body can clean up the battlefield and get the reserves in place as quickly as possible to do just that.
Availability of Key Macro and Micronutrients
This is just a fancy way of saying that you should eat right. Only by making sure your body has the raw materials it needs to recover can you ever hope to win the war. We all know diet is the key and I won't keep you going over things that others have already done so well on this site concerning different diets, supplements and their merits.
I put this here so I can remind you one more time that until your diet is under control you will never, ever get where you want to be. If you tend to brush over the nutrition articles and need a refresher, then Chris Shugart's article The Diet Manifesto will get you up to speed.
Monitoring Your Troops' Status
By now you've hopefully decided to get your troops better organized and focus your effort on all fronts in this war. Now you need to know if your plan is working. After all, no plan is perfect and there has to be a better way to tell if you're overreaching your body's recuperative abilities than to wait and see if you get injured or sick. Luckily, there is.
By keeping a daily log that charts a few key indicators of your recovery status, it becomes relatively easy to tell when fatigue is building up and overtraining is on the horizon, allowing for adjustments to be made well before it can set in. Here's a list of bodily functions that can be observed in order to gain some insight as to the completeness of recovery:
Hours of Sleep — Pretty straightforward here. As mentioned earlier, you must get around eight hours a night for full recovery. If you notice a decrease in sleep for a few nights in a row then plan on lowering your training volume slightly until you get back in the eight hour range.
Bodyweight Fluctuations — Monitor your bodyweight daily. A decrease of more than two pounds in one day is usually an indicator the training load is too high or you're not eating enough. An increase of more than two or three pounds in one day means your training intensity may be too low or you're eating too much.
Appetite — A decrease in appetite is another sign of overtraining. Use a five point scale with one being no appetite, three being average and five being ready to eat everything in sight, including the neighbor's annoying poodle.
Sleep Quality — Use a five point scale with one being very restless, three being average and five being very deep and restful. A sudden decrease in quality of sleep is usually an early indicator of overtraining so you may need to back off a bit if this is detected.
Muscle Soreness — A sudden increase in muscle soreness, indicated by a decrease in this score, might mean that you should allow for extra rest. Again, use a five point scale with one being extremely sore, three being a little sore and five being no soreness at all. Also, if you find yourself with scores of two or one for weeks on end, then you might not be fully recovering from your workouts, indicating a need for less volume and/or frequency.
Training Willingness — This is a very simple but often overlooked indicator. Too often, a person's response to a decrease in training motivation is to pop some ephedra tabs and head to the gym anyway. While we obviously have to use discipline and sometimes hit the gym when we don't feel like it, if you find yourself always needing a pick-me-up before training, consider a small break or the need for more complete recovery between training sessions. Use a five point scale where one means dreading your next training session, three being average, and five being ready to rip the freakin' squat rack off the ground.
Along with the individual observations and solutions I just described, you should add up your scores for appetite, sleep quality, muscle soreness and training and divide by four. If you score less than a 3.0 and you're supposed to lift that day, then allow for an extra day's rest. Remember that going back to the gym before your body is ready to do battle again is seriously handicapping your forces. Trust me, the enemy doesn't need any help kicking your ass so don't give it to him. The day off will do far more good than gutting through a workout you're not ready for.
The important thing is to be consistent and log your information daily so you can make observations based on previous records. It only takes about 60 seconds a day to step on a scale and log these things. Only by looking at weeks and months of these readings can you get an idea of how you truly respond to various training programs.
Before I finish let me say that this doesn't mean that you can let your guard down in the areas you're already focused on. You still have to use an effective workout and supplement plan; you just need to make sure you have every battlefield covered if you ever want to win this war. Only by expanding your current battle plan can you hope to do that.
Now the ball is in your court, General. Are you ready to take it to the next level and plan the offensive that will lead your troops to victory? Deep down, you know I'm right. The areas you're not focused on are the ones that are holding back your advancement. Will you make the mistake so many have before you and ignore this advice, simply sending more troops and supplies to the same battlefields, allowing the enemy to sneak in undetected? Or will you reinforce the territories you've been ignoring?
The fate of the war may very well depend on your next decision.
About the Author
James Wilson is the owner of Extreme Strength Systems — a personal and athletic training and consulting business in Encinitas, California. You can contact James at 760-815-5193 or visit his web site at ExtremeStrength.com.
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