"Recover Harder": Effective Approaches to Recovery

“Train hard and recover harder”

It's a bit of a fitness cliché, but it contains good advice. It’s in the period between sessions, not the sessions themselves, that your body will get better at the things you're asking it to do.

So, how should we do this?

Short- and Long-term Recovery Methods

I want to start by introducing a distinction between short- (stretching, foam rolling, ice baths etc.)  and long-term (sleeping, eating) recovery methods. We can probably apply Pareto’s Principle here - the vast majority of your ability to recover appropriately is going to come from focusing on the foundational, “long-term” contributors like sleeping, eating and training enough.

Sleeping enough

Sleep is essential. It’s hard to imagine but you would probably die sooner without sleep than you would without food. The Guinness Book of World Records won’t recognise attempts at staying awake the longest because it’s too dangerous.

Despite this, and perhaps related to our weird capitalistic work culture, there is a big interest in “hacking” sleep so you can sleep less and be more productive, and a fascination with celebrities who apparently managed to do this. Although there does seem to be some genetic variance in how we cope with sleep deprivation (Pellegrino et al., 2014), the general health impact of systematic lack of sleep is devastating.

If you feel like you aren’t sleeping as well as you could be, have a look on The Sleep Council’s website. They have fantastic general advice and advice for a range of difficult sleep scenarios - shift workers, parents, children, teenagers, older people, and people who travel a lot - as well as a great FAQ page and tools like a 30-day course for better sleep, a stress test, and a checklist for creating a good sleeping environment.

There was also a great book released recently called Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker which is worth a read if you’re interested in getting in-depth about this.

Eating enough

The aim here is to eat enough in general, and enough protein in particular, so that you can support your training, reduce your risk of injury and optimize sleep and recovery without causing stress through worrying about what you’re eating.

This is obviously a huge topic - please ask me if you feel it’d be good to do some work together on achieving this.

Training enough

We can also look at the other end of things - the training that you are recovering from. Here are some general truths about recovery and exercise:

  • Lower-volume strength training is easier to recover from than higher-volume training, so avoid sudden spikes in volume and slowly increase it over many months.

  • Training to failure is harder to recover from than not doing so, so avoid doing this unless it’s part of the programme.

  • Training more frequently is harder to recover from than training less frequently. Start infrequently and slowly build from there if your goals require it.

  • It’s easier to recover from low-intensity steady state (LISS) exercise (e.g. walking, jogging, swimming) than it is from high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Try to make the bulk of your fitness training LISS.

  • Ideally, strength training and fitness training would be on different days. If this isn’t possible, leave at least six hours between them.

  • Some people recover badly if they exercise close to bedtime, but that varies between people. Experiment with the timing of your workouts and see what feels best.

Stressing enough

Stress is not necessarily bad - a certain amount is what causes the adaptation that leads to improvements in your strength and fitness. Generally though, we want that stress to come from physical exertion.

Our bodies adapt to all stressors via the same processes (General Adaptation Syndrome). If we are experiencing work stress, poor sleep, heavy drinking, relationship stress or other emotional stress, we are drawing from the same “adaptive reserves” and our bodies will be less able to respond to the intentional stressors of training.

The excellent Greg Nuckols has a nice metaphor that can be helpful here:

Conceptually, you should think of your body not as a machine, but rather as a garden. With a machine, as long as it has a power supply and none of its parts are faulty, you can feed in certain inputs and expect predictable outputs. When you think about your body as a machine, you tend to focus excessively on just the training side of the equation. “I’m alive (power source). I’m not injured (all the parts are functional). If I follow this training program or make this training adjustment, then I’m bound to get these results.”

Sometimes that works. But, more often that not, it results in failure and frustration.

When you think about your body as a garden, it’s almost ludicrous to even consider the idea of forcing some type of adaptation. All you can do is nurture it and provide it with the best conditions for growth. You fertilize it, tend the soil, uproot the weeds, water it, leave it in the sunlight, and give it the best conditions for growth. It will only grow as well as its circumstances allow.

(Source, with a link to a study demonstrating how stress impacts recovery)

If you feel that stress is impacting your ability to recover, let me know so we can try to make a plan to reduce that, where possible.

Short-term recovery methods

Having looked at the areas where 80% (or whatever) of your recovery ability are going to come from - sleeping enough, eating enough, training enough and stressing enough - let’s now look at the “short-term” methods.

2018 brought the first (!) comprehensive meta-analysis comparing various popular recovery approaches. It looked at nine options, and ranked their effectiveness against markers of muscle damage, soreness, inflammation and perceived fatigue as:

  1. Massage immediately after exercise (best)

  2. Active recovery

  3. Compression garments

  4. Cryotherapy

  5. Water immersion

  6. Contrast water therapy

  7. Electrostimulation

  8. Stretching

  9. Hyperbaric therapy (worst)

This was an enormously ambitious study, but there were were still some limitations to it, as Nuckols (again!) explained in MASS Research Review Volume 2 Issue 6 (which I can’t link to because it’s behind a paywall):

  1. Not everything that reduces soreness / inflammation increases recovery. Some things, like cold water immersion and NSAIDS, do that but reduce gains in strength and / or muscle.

  2. This study only looked at the approaches in isolation and not in combination.

  3. The method of assessing recovery varied from study to study, and that’s really hard to control for, despite the huge number of studies analysed.

Still, it’s great to have a bit of guidance on this stuff. The takeaways seem to be:

  • If you can afford to, get massages as close to training as possible

  • If you’re sore, do some light activity rather than doing nothing

  • If you can afford to, wear compression tights / tops after training

  • Despite this study, probably don’t bother with cryotherapy (says Cochrane) since it’s so expensive and not yet proven. Maybe have a cold bath (wild swimming?!) if you fancy it.

Most importantly though, do the basics - sleep, eat, train and stress enough.

Be a gardener.

Please let me know any questions.