Resting for me is fitness training.
We all want to crush it in the gym, but we tend to think our gains depend only on our training and nutrition. However, there are other variables that can go a long way towards improving performance and progress, reducing training fatigue and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). In this article, I’ll cover various recovery strategies I use or recommend based on their cost, ease of implementation, and scientifically assessed and self-reported efficacy.
Recovery Strategy #1 – Static Stretching
Static stretching involves holding a muscle in the same lengthened position for 10 to 20 seconds, then release it. I want to start with it because of the unsavoury reputation it has developed over the years. Many studies, of which this is only one of the most recent examples, show that static stretching before a training session can be detrimental for performance, strength, and hypertrophy. However, after a training session or on rest days, it doesn’t appear to decrease strength or hamper hypertrophy, and it may in fact improve muscle performance, although we need further data to assess that with more certainty (click).
In terms of recovery, a study from last year addressed low-intensity versus high-intensity stretching, and the results showed that low-intensity stretching may result in a slight decrease in perceived muscle soreness and enhancement of muscle function recovery. Since the evidence seems to point at only a moderate effect, I personally combine low-intensity static stretching with foam rolling (more on this later) and dynamic stretching. In total, I do about 5 minutes of dynamic stretching before lifting; 3 minutes of static stretching and 5 to 10 minutes of foam rolling afterwards; then 10 to 20 minutes of combined foam rolling, static and dynamic stretching on rest days.
Moreover, static stretching is an effective way to maintain or improve flexibility (click), which is bound to decrease with age. Enhanced flexibility results in performing movements – lifts included! – more efficiently and through a full range of motion. This benefits strength and hypertrophy, as I previously touched on in this article. If it also helps at least a little with recovery, it sounds like a win-win situation to me!
Recovery Strategy #2 – Foam Rolling
Self-myofascial release is the process of applying sustained pressure to tight muscles in order to return them to a relaxed state. Foam rolling is one of the most popular self-myofascial release methods, as foam rollers are available at most gyms or can be purchased for as little as £10. This is a cheap and quick practice, which seems to have a positive effect on recovery between training sessions without compromising muscle performance (1, 2, 3).
When I started foam rolling alongside stretching, I saw a considerable improvement in my rate of recovery from lower body sessions. At the time, I was about to start a deload week, so I thought the reduction in workload might influence the perceived effect of foam rolling. However, as I began the next microcycle and increased workload again, I continued to use the foam roller and was still less sore after lower body workouts than I used to be.
As a result, I currently do 5 to 10 minutes of foam rolling post-lower body workouts and on rest days, for a total of four days a week.
Recovery Strategy #3 – Compression Garments
Though I don’t wear compression garments myself, I have found various studies providing evidence that they may be useful for recovery, for example from heavy resistance training in individuals of all genders (click) and from heavy manual labour (click). Moreover, a meta-analysis covering 12 studies on exercise-induced muscle damage also supports this hypothesis.
According to this research, it appears that wearing compression garments during the 24 hours following either resistance training or manual labour may enhance perceived recovery and reduce DOMS. If you’re considering compression garments, they seem to be another no-fuss method to take your recovery to the next level.
Recovery Strategy #4 – Mind Your Sleep
This should be everyone’s first and foremost recovery strategy. Without at least seven to eight hours of quality sleep per night, stretching, foam rolling, and compression garments aren’t going to make any difference.
Although this paper focuses on athletes, it also mentions consequences of sleep deprivation evinced from studies on the general population: for example, compromised alertness, concentration, and reaction time, which results in worsened performance of any goal-directed behaviour like exercise; reduced immune function, which increases probability of illness; and even disrupted metabolic processes, such as carbohydrate metabolism, protein synthesis, and appetite regulation, which can impact the effects of your diet in a negative way.
One night of poor sleep isn’t likely to cause any of the above, but not getting enough sleep over the long-term is going to prevent you from reaching your fitness goals. When I went for a run at 6am every morning, I wasn’t hitting the sheets until 10 or 11pm. Moreover, I was very active during the day, so I slept in short, uneasy bursts, waking up sore and exhausted.
In order to better regulate my sleep patterns, I established a strict routine six months ago. My alarm goes off at 5:50am every day, so I decided I would need to be in bed by 9:45pm. I added “Turn off all electronic devices by 9:15pm” to my daily to-do list and at that time I start going through my sleep hygiene rituals, like brushing my teeth. Lastly, I reserve morning and early afternoon for all of my most important and most taxing tasks. At night, I do something relaxing, like watching TV or reading.
It’s still tough, even if I’m used to it now, but this protocol yielded good results. I feel less restless and exhausted at night, more calm and focused during the day, and generally in a better mood, without the aches and pains I used to suffer from. My sleep is also more consistent, bar the odd toilet break.
If you have your own sleep already dialled in, hopefully this article gave you some food for thought on other ways to improve your recovery.
For a more in-depth discussion of some of the research mentioned, I recommend MASS (Monthly Applications in Strength Sports), written by Eric Helms, Greg Nuckols, and Michael Zourdos.
In Future Episodes:
In the next two weeks I’ll cover carbohydrates, fat, and protein: what they are, why they’re important, what kind and how much we should be eating. Be sure to tune in – you may learn something new!
What are your favourite recovery strategies?
A personal trainer who likes bodybuilding, superheroes, and bread.
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