workout recovery

Are You Recovering, Or Are You Just Resting?

We’ve been working on this post for a while, but Life got in the way. (Alternate story: Dallas is better at starting projects than finishing them.)  Nonetheless, we’d like to talk about recovery. No, not economic recovery—though that would be lovely—but physiological recovery from the stressors placed upon us by our modern physical world.

Rest vs. Recovery

These two words, “rest” and “recovery,” have distinctly different meanings when applied to health, fitness or athletic contexts. Recovery can encompass many different behaviors and strategies, but it is fundamentally different than just resting.

Rest is simply the absence of effort or movement—the absence of exertion. Think taking a day off from exercise or sport, napping, chilling on the couch, rotting your brain with Jersey Shore or Lost reruns, and going to bed nice and early so you get adequate sleep. All of that is fine and good, but resting is only one small part of true recovery.

Recovery is the restorative process by which you regain a state of “normalcy”; healthy and in balance. (If your “normal” is not “healthy,” perhaps you should spend some time considering that.) Recovery is far more than just taking a day off from training. Genuine recovery includes adequate rest, but also must include the engaged, deliberate execution of a cogent plan to offset the (physical and psychological) cost of your training.

In his 2010 All Banged Up post, Dallas wrote:

“I see more sub-acute and chronic injuries resulting from inadequate recovery from exercise (especially with high-intensity programs), than resulting from an acute or traumatic incident. The primary fault lies with inadequate or improper recovery from exercise, not the type or intensity of exercise. (To put it another way, it’s not that you’re hurting yourself doing pull-ups – more often than not, it’s because you’re not properly recovering from those pull-ups.) I believe that a high-intensity exercise program is both effective and sustainable life-long only when combined with good nutrition and recovery practices.”

Merely taking a day or two off from exercise when you’re feeling overtrained (or All Banged Up) is, to put it bluntly, the slacker’s version of “recovery.” One of the many things that was underscored during our training with Rob MacDonald of Gym Jones is that recovery requires just as much (or more!) discipline as training itself. Which means if you’re training hard, a case could be made that you should spend more time focused on recovery than you do on training itself.

Don’t have that much time in your busy, stressful life? It might mean a little less training and a little more time spent on recovery.

Still don’t think that’s really necessary? Maybe you just don’t realize how stressful your life really is.

Stress is Stress

Let’s review the biological concept of hormesis as it relates to recovery. Hormesis is an adaptive process that occurs as the result of a specific “dose” of a stimulus. In simple terms, you could summarize it as “the dose makes the poison” meets “what doesn’t kill you might make you stronger.” Hormesis describes the dose-specific response to a stimulus; whether something’s net effect is beneficial, harmful, or neutral depends on the “dose.”

Another way to put it is, “some is good, but more is not better.” Hormesis is at the core of our favorite refrain, “context matters,” and is reflected in our Whole9 Health Equation as the balance of Stress vs. Recovery. Why all the focus on stress?

During his 2012 Paleo(fx) presentation, Dr. Daniel Kalish said, “Psychological stress and physical stress are virtually indistinguishable in the body.” We wanted to give him a standing ovation for that. So what does that mean, in terms of hormesis and our Health Equation? If you’ve got a ton of psychological stress, that costs you something. It costs you recovery capacity. It cuts into your reserves. In fact, being chronically psychologically stressed is probably more damaging than overtraining or under-sleeping, though those are obviously poor behaviors, too.

Think about your own life. Ask yourself if your “dose” of a stressor is appropriate for your context. There are lots of examples of stressors: intermittent fasting, high-intensity exercise, under-eating, cold showers or acute exposure to cold, sleep restriction, caffeine intake, eating extremely hot peppers… the list is long.

A “stressor” isn’t necessarily a bad thing – but the application of that stressor in that dose in a context already saturated with a high stress load may be detrimental to your health.* If you’re a parent with an infant (and thus some degree of sleep deprivation/disturbance), a busy job, and some financial stress, do you think the net effect of getting out of bed at 5:00 AM five days a week to do high-intensity exercise is positive? Likely not. (If we just described your life, please… just stay in bed.)

*This is one of the reasons why we rarely recommend intermittent fasting to our consulting clients. Unsurprisingly, most of them are on the “too much” side of the stress scale, rating their daily stress at an average of 8 out of 10. These folks don’t have any “reserve” left to offset an additional stressor, which means adding IF on to their current health equation would do them more harm than good. IF may be a perfectly appropriate tool for other folks with different contexts, but it’s not for everyone.

Minimum Effective Dose

Exercise is an excellent example of hormesis in action. An appropriate “dose” of physical stress provokes a positive adaptation in your body (you get fitter), but dosing progressively larger and larger amounts of exercise can be seriously detrimental to your health.  Make no mistake – excessive training (or, perhaps stated more accurately, under-recovering) can and commonly does have serious health consequences. And what look like “reasonable” training for one person might be way more stress than a different person has the capacity to adapt to.

Clif Harski and Eva Twardokens, among other Smart People we know, talks about the “minimum effective dose,” that sweet spot on the hormesis graph. This is where healthy adaptation is occurring, but you’re on the safer side of the stress curve, not revving at the redline day in and day out. In the case of exercise, doing none is pretty unhealthy, but doing too much is unhealthy too.

The real key is to find that sweet spot, where you’ll have optimal adaptation to the stressor without reaching the point of diminishing returns–or worse, when the exercise “takes” more from your health than it gives back. Like with other stressors, exercise is dose-dependent, and the appropriate dose for you depends almost entirely on you, your context, and your goals.

Are you Under-Recovered? Here are a few things to look for:

  1. You used to be excited about going to the gym – not so much anymore.
  2. Your performance (or lack thereof) is seriously stressing you out , and a poor workout ruins your day.
  3. You’ve got chronic muscle soreness after every workout, and/or that lingering “shoulder thing” that just won’t seem to heal.
  4. Your sleep pattern has become irregular.
  5. Even though you’re in bed for enough hours, you never feel well-rested in the morning.
  6. You need a Monster drink or three espressos to get fired up for your training sessions.
  7. You crave carbohydrates (sugar!) more than you used to.
  8. You’re getting sick a lot, or just can’t seem to kick that cold you picked up.
  9. You’re training hard and “eating right” but that little belly just isn’t going away.
  10. You’re actually gaining fat, instead of losing it.

Any of this resonate with you?

So how does all this connect back to actual recovery? In order to progress forward with health, there must be a relative balance between Stress (such as exercise) and Recovery. Otherwise, you’re writing checks your body can’t cash, eventually ending up beat down and “overdrawn.”

In case you’ve not experienced this eye-opening phenomenon firsthand, take our professional word for it: it takes a lot longer to recover from an overdrawn state than it took to get you there in the first place. Like paying off debt, it’s a prolonged and generally miserable process. We’re not trying to scare you – we’re simply sharing what we know in the hopes that it will save you some heartache. Take it or leave it.

Recovery 101

You don’t get fitter when you are training. Whether you C*******, or Zumba, or swing kettlebells, or run marathons… you get fitter when you are recovering from that training.

Being committed to recovery means that sometimes you don’t train hard, even if you really want to, and even if everyone else is doing it.

A commitment to recovery may mean that you take ice baths sometimes.

It means that when all you want is pizza and a beer, you choose a nutritious meal instead.

It means that you put away the computer/TV/smartphone/video game and go the heck to sleep.

It means that you spend some intimate time with your foam roller, lacrosse ball, stick, ice pack, or other self-care tool/torture device.

It may mean that you seek out a reputable practitioner of your preferred therapeutic approach: massage, Rolfing, acupuncture, chiropractic care, naturopathic or functional medicine.

It might mean that you use your noggin’ and take a pass on a race or competition that really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of Your Life and Health.

It might even mean that you revisit your trip down Whole30 Lane.

A little reminder:

“Aerobic” is not a dirty word.

If you’re passing on lower intensity, longer duration activity and exclusively working at a high-intensity, we think that’s a short-sighted perspective. For our clients, we recommend regularly spending at least a half-hour doing easy activity as part of your recovery practices. Riding the Airdyne, walking, swimming, or biking for 30-90 (long, slow, boring) minutes expedites recovery from hard training, improves metabolic efficiency (especially in folks on a low-ish carb, high-ish fat diet), and improves cardiovascular health.

Don’t confuse durations over a half hour with “chronic cardio” – the long duration, moderate-to-high intensity stuff that really nails you. To be clear, no one was ever harmed by a two hour hike or an easy spin on the bike with their kids. Keeping the intensity low is the key to recovery activities, and including some long, easy stuff in your routine improves health and recovery from hard training—which ultimately will improve performance in your higher-intensity sport or exercise program.

Regardless of how you choose to step your recovery up (perhaps, in part, by stepping your training down), it’s time. Summer’s activities are just around the corner, and if you play a sport, participate in outdoor pursuits, or simply like comparing your physical capacity to others (or yourself!), now is the time to invest in yourself. Now.Not tomorrow, or next week, or after a few more workouts. Now.

You owe it to your Future You not just to rest, but to recover.

 

Comments

  1. says

    Great info. Thanks for sharing it. In a world of go,go, go recovery is not a common practice and your article does a great job of explaining the benefits of recovery. Well done and thanks again. Wendy

  2. says

    Thanks for the feedback, Wendy. We’ve personally learned (the hard way) that not taking enough time for recovery seriously hampers your training – and your health.

    Best,
    Melissa

  3. says

    Fantastic article, guys. All too often we see people try to screw the bolts tighter and tighter on one area of their life to address the diminishing returns and turn a blind eye to other areas requiring way more attention.

    The other point to note in the recovery is the personal interactions in your life. Observe the recovery of other species in the wild (or in the zoo): it always involves chilling time within the family unit with plenty of physical contact. Surrounding yourself with wrong people can drain your physical and emotional energy and make you feel exhausted and empty. Positive people have the ability to recharge your energy just by their presence, touch or words. They are the ones you want to keep.

  4. says

    Anastasia,

    You are spot-on. We commented on that here: http://www.facebook.com/Whole9/posts/10150861243106554 Also, we’re a little Devany-esque in that we purposely seek out “lazy time” with people we care about. I use “lazy” in quotation marks because to us, “lazy” = time to process things, develop new ideas, and build (or strengthen) relationships. You can’t squeeze that into a few minutes between nonstop appointments. Thanks for your insightful comments.

  5. Jeff says

    So, if someone finds himself under-recovered, how does he go about digging out of that hole?

  6. E says

    Good question Jeff. I thought the article was heavy on the problem but light on the solutions (what to do). I personally don’t like ice baths. Further, if my sleep is irregular, what do I do? The article just read that a symptom was sleeping same amount of hours but not feeling rested, for example.

  7. says

    Jeff,

    As we mentioned above, first, stop training so much if that’s your major “withdrawal”. Or if sleep deprivation is a major issue, stop making choices that continue to promote inadequate sleep. Second, actually spend some time focusing specifically on recovery itself instead of hoping it’ll happen magically. Genuine recovery requires genuine effort. Review our Whole9 Health Equation (linked in the above article) for a discussion of various factors that play into recovery.

    E,

    Please review the portion of the post that begins with “Recovery 101″. You might not like ice baths, but a) “liking” things shouldn’t be a primary consideration when you’re committed to genuine recovery, and b) there are many other suggestions in the above post beyond ice baths. As for your sleep, I have no information about your sleep pattern and therefore can’t make any specific recommendations. Ideally, though, your bedtime and wake time should be pretty consistent, close to sundown & sunup, respectively, and you should sleep in a cool, completely dark (and quiet) room. Also, exposure to blue light within an hour or two of bedtime (such as from electronic screens such as computers and smartphones) will reduce the restorative qualities of your sleep. Hope this was helpful, and that you understand that the reason I can’t offer you specifically a detailed solution is because, as we stated above, context matters, and I don’t know anything about your context.

    Best

    Dallas

  8. Jeff says

    Dallas, so it sounds like you’re saying I must not be making the effort? i spend hours weekly getting massages, taking ice baths, working on mobility, foam rolling, lacrosse balling, and oh yes, sleeping! Nutrition is the best it’s ever been and I’ve even dramatically reduced my training volume, but still can’t seem to dig myself out of this hole. What am I missing?

  9. says

    Jeff,

    Whoa – it sounds like you’re actually making quite a bit of effort. How frustrating when you’re doing everything you think you should be and still not seeing the results you want.

    It’s really hard for us to say what YOU need to do without a full consultation – we can make general recommendations here, but when someone comes to us saying, “But I’m already DOING all of that… now what?” we really need to dig deeper. There are other factors at play – health history, stress levels (psychological and physical stress), the kind of training you are doing (or have historically been doing), medical conditions – all of which would need to be explored in detail. In addition, lots of these issues take months to resolve – years, even, depending on what’s been going on and for how long. And we just can’t analyze and triage all of these factors adequately via email or over a web posting.

    We’ve got consultation options available under our Consulting tab, if that’s a route you’d like to take. We’re off-line tomorrow for our Tuesday, but will check back in Wednesday to see if there are other questions we can answer for you.

    Best,
    Melissa

  10. Kass says

    “If your “normal” is not “healthy,” perhaps you should spend some time considering that.”

    Ouch. That one hit a little close to home. Maybe I should get working on those stressors ;)

    Hugs M&D!!!

  11. Jeanye says

    I’ve been looking forward to this post! It certainly didn’t disappoint. I learned that I am definitely better at resting than recovering. I love the idea of long walks and bike rides being restorative. I think I’ve fallen into the trap of “if it isn’t high intensity it isn’t beneficial.” Thanks for the reminders!

    Enjoy your Tuesday!

  12. Juni says

    This article had perfect timing.
    I’ve overtrained in the past and have recently been exercising with a weekly goal of “some” strength and “some” HIIT Cardio. I also have a dog who helps with my active recovery time by taking me on nice walks. :)
    I was stressing about not having a set schedule but feeling on an intuitive level that making sure to get consistent exercise but not locking myself down to a set schedule was right for me. I love the chart that says you should be on the “safer” side. I’ve been in that place, feeling really good/seeing results but still plagued by the question “am I going hard enough” ?
    This is not only validating but it also relieves the stressor of stressing out about my workout schedule!
    I’m going to check out more of the Whole9 articles on exercise but I can honestly say this article helped me recover from a bad mindset.
    Thank you!

  13. Johnny says

    Do you have a recommendation for how and when to increase intensity or frequency of a new training program? I’m not after elite performance but want to maximize my fitness progress without sacrificing my health

  14. says

    Kass: Sometimes, we’re talking to YOU. Glad you’re listening.

    Mighty Kat: We love link love! Thanks for sharing.

    Jeanye: Always nice to hear from you – and it’s really nice to hear that we can inspire someone with as much training experience and knowledge as you! Sometimes, you hear just the right message at just the right time.

    Juni: We’re glad this resonated with you! If you’re on the safe side, employing that minimal effective dose, you’re doing PERFECT. Going harder only leads you closer to danger territory. As Dutch Lowy likes to say, harder isn’t better. BETTER is better.

    Johnny: I don’t think anyone with a health-focus needs to perform high-intensity exercise more than 3 times a week. That gives you enough gas in your tank to really hit those sessions hard (and provoke adaptation), but enough down time to really recover – it’s a great balance. If you want to move more than 3 times a week, go for it – but make your other days low intensity recovery sessions. Walk, swim or bike at an easy pace, as described above. Go to the gym, but foam roll, stretch, mobilize or do skill work only. Movement is good, more intensity is not.

    Not everyone may agree with this program, but in our experience this is a formula that gains our health-focused clients excellent fitness AND excellent health.

    Best,
    Melissa

  15. says

    Johnny,

    We have already talked about this, my friend! Patience must be your middle name, especially given where you’ve come from. If you’re making yourself healthier with your nutrition and sleep habits, training smart and recovery well and managing stress, your body comp will fall into line. Focus on the things you can control (as we talked about – training and recovery!) and do not think about body comp for at least 60 days. That’s an order.

    Melissa

  16. Laurel says

    oh boy, does this hit me right between the eyes! I’m seeing problems with 2, 3, 7, 9 & 10. Time to take stock and make some different decisions regarding workouts, recovery, rest and priorities. Thank you very much for the insightful article! (I also gained a lot of positive perspective and made changes from an article someone shared with me last year that was from your site about stress addiction. thanks for that one as well!)

  17. cougarKat says

    cool blog. thanks!i trained like a sicko, crazy woman for two weeks straight making it all high intensity curcuit training with weights, minimal rest, and after all that hopping onto the treadmill to sprint for another 30 minutes. for two weeks straight, no excuses. and to be completely honest, i only cared to consume breakfast to put me through my insane sessions and a postworkout drink afterwards. the rest of the day i’d graze on bananas or go hungry.and that’s when i came down with a flu, it hit me hard and it was sooo real, with aches and fever and snots and lots of cough.i vowed to listen to my body and never abuse it, ever again. as of now, i’m recovering from the disease, it threw me out of whack; my training, my job and college weren’t my usual priorities..i refused to let my body rest and it got mad.hah.now i know better..

  18. Jo says

    Great timing! I have been feeling like this the past 4 weeks and I know its from overtraining but my addiction to exercise/keeping fit/losing weight has stopped me from resting and listening to my poor body which has been super tired. This week it has eventually caught up with me. I have spent this week doing some down time from high intensity work outs and been doing pilates and walking and booked a massage. Resting/recovery is certainly a required exercise too.

  19. says

    This article is amazing – and shares our company’s sentiments spot on. We would love to have seen some information on whole body cryotherapy as an effective and powerful recovery method (in place of ice baths). We would love to share information with you about this new innovative yet sound in theory and practice therapy. Check us out at http://www.austincryo.com!

  20. megan says

    Quick question: If cold showers are on the list of possible stressors how is an ice bath good for recovery?

  21. says

    Megan,

    It’s all context-dependent, as the article says. For some people, an ice bath is just the right amount of stressor, and helps to aid in recovery. For others, who are already stress “maxed out,” the addition of MORE stress (even small stresses) may be more harmful than helpful.

    Think about it this way – for someone with little stress in their lives, the pressure of an impending deadline (and an angry email from their boss) may prompt them to kick their butts into gear and get things accomplished. For someone who is already stressed to the max, adding one more stress (harsh words from your boss) may prove too much – they collapse in tears, and feel overwhelmed with life in general. It’s all about hormesis, and your own individual context.

    Melissa

  22. Sally says

    well……ow! and wow! and that explains a whole lot…intuitively i knew something was ‘off’ with me, and i can even pin point when it started (when i made a HUGE jump in my training). thanks for the info. ! I may need one of those consultations if i can’t figure this out on my own. thanks guys! you have a knack for making me pull the trigger on Life Changes!

  23. Bliss says

    First, I came across this post on Melissa Joulwan’s website:
    http://www.theclothesmakethegirl.com/2011/11/11/a-healing-experiment/

    Then I read your blog post above about rest v. recovery. I have not been “in a good place” for a while. I used to be a gym junkie and enjoyed it. I paid attention to what I ate and how I trained. I looked good, I felt good, and at the age of 42-43, I was in the best shape I had ever been in. I always struggled with weight, and now I didn’t. I lifted 3-4 days a week and did cardio, mostly running, 4-5 days a week, taking off one complete day a week.

    Then in 2011, life got in the way. I had stress at work. I was trying to complete my graduate degree. I was baking (for others) a lot, which, for me, meant “sampling” batter and dough, etc. Anyway, I got off-track and have not been able to back on it. Now I am battling some significant psychological stress.

    After reading your post and Melissa Joulwan’s post, I am realizing that I just need to take time to concentrate on health and fitness, not on working to lose weight and get in shape, you know what I mean? I need to get serious about my nutrition to begin with. Then I need to concern myself with healthy activity, which is difficult for me. I have to get myself out of the mindset that if I don’t run at least 2.5-3 miles at a time or not do a weight workout that includes multiple sets of squats, then I haven’t really exercised. ‘Cause that’s how I think.

    Currently, I am tired and sluggish and lack energy a lot of the time. I have been off-track for the last couple of years and have gained 20-25 pounds. I read your book right after it came out and even did a couple of Whole 30s. I think that’s where I need to begin. I mean, it’s right there in the title of your book–it starts with food.