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Under Recovery: Your Exercise Enemy!

When I was dancing full time I used to come home from long contracts and sleep for 14 hours straight! My mother felt the need to check I was still breathing, something I doubt she’d done since I was a baby. While this is not unusual for teenagers, we tend to slip into sleeping for shorter periods overnight as we move into adulthood.

I used to call that long konk-out my ‘recovery sleep’, but now I realise that’s exactly what it was: following months of battering by body in physically taxing performances, this was my body’s way of repairing some of the damage. I still regard sleep as a vital part of my recovery, and can sleep for a good 10 hours given half a chance! I’m still very active for my work, and know my body can perform at its best if it’s well rested. Sleep might seem like an obvious part of recovery from physical training, but how much do we really need, and what other factors should we be considering to get the most from our training?

DOMS for days

There’s no denying the satisfaction of feeling DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) following a workout. It certainly feels like we’ve worked jolly hard, and that makes us feel smug! While DOMS may be the result of challenging your muscles in a way they’re not used to, it may also be the result of under recovery. If you’re regularly feeling sore despite repeating similar workouts, this can be an indication that you’re not recovering properly, and therefore not getting the full benefit from your efforts.

Soreness is caused by the micro-tears created in the muscle through exercise which need to be repaired in order to build strength and ultimately, progress!Remember: feeling sore is not a good marker of how hard you’ve worked or how effective a workout has been. If you’re training regularly you need to be recovering effectively enough that you can maintain your regime, while giving your best effort in each session for progressive performance improvement. If you’re constantly feeling sore and tired, neither will be possible.

People often ask me if they should train when they’re experiencing DOMS. This is where being honest about if the soreness is the result of under recovery is important. If your body has been unable to repair the damage from exercise because you’re under recovered and you train again, you’re adding to the stress on your body. This increases inflammation and the chance of injury goes up, while immune system function reduces leaving you vulnerable to illness... It’s safe to say, this isn’t a wise idea. If you’re sore because you tried a new training modality or really upped your weights, but you’re otherwise well rested then you can go for it if you so wish... just maybe try to avoid the really sore muscle groups if you want to walk tomorrow!

Back to Sleep!

Ok, so now you hopefully appreciate that rest and recovery is vital in order the progress with your training and for your general health. But how do we give ourselves the best shot at recovery without being ‘lazy’?

Let’s start with sleep. Sleep deprivation leads to a release of stress hormones, the activation of the immune system as it perceives a threat, and an inflammatory response in the body that causes muscle breakdown. On an anecdotal level, we all know the feeling of being so tired that our body feels heavy and our mind slow! There’s no hard and fast rule when it comes to the amount of sleep you ideally need, and I’m acutely aware that most of my clients who are sleep deprived have children and demanding jobs, or other life stresses that dictate how many hours they can get. However, most people need about 8 hours a night, and that doesn’t mean 8 hours from when you get into bed to when you get out! Factor in how long it might take you to drift off, and if you wake often or for long periods, factor these in and adjust your bedtime accordingly. Personally, I feel best on at least 8 hours and often have the luxury of adjusting my schedule so that I can get this. I urge you to consider what you could change in your life to make your sleep sweet spot possible. It honestly is revolutionary for your energy levels, mood, weight maintenance, hormone balance and of course… recovery from exercise!

Fuel Your Fire

Often when we think of optimal recovery methods, things like ice baths, saunas and massage guns come to mind. While these all have their place, I’m focusing here on lifestyle factors, and one of the most effective tools in our arsenal is the food we eat.

High quality proteins are vital for muscle growth and repair. Those tiny tears I mentioned earlier need to be repaired, and the building blocks for this are the amino acids in proteins. Complete proteins which contain the full spectrum of amino acids (such as meat, fish, dairy products and soya) elicit muscle protein synthesis (otherwise known as MPS = muscle growth and repair) when eaten in sufficient quantities. A daily total of around 1.6g or protein per KG of bodyweight is often recommended for optimal MPS. Spreading this out throughout your day is advisable, so consider how you can include quality protein sources at every meal. Protein is also extremely satiating, something you can use to your advantage if weight management is a focus for you.

It’s obvious to say that exercising uses energy, but you might underestimate how food can affect your training. Muscles are fueled by the glycogen stored within them, and we get this from the carbohydrates we eat. We need our muscles to contain enough glycogen to perform at their best, without fatiguing. For sessions under 90 minutes, eating a balanced diet complete with carbohydrates at regular intervals should be sufficient to fuel your training. It’s only when we look at longer endurance activities that we need to consider carbohydrate supplementation during the session.

After exercise the depleted energy stores need to be refilled in order for us to feel energised, and physically ready to work again. If you have a low carbohydrate diet or practice fasting, this could be negatively impacting your performance and recovery: consider if you’re at least providing your muscles with sufficient carbohydrates pre-exercise to work, and then post-exercise recover. Depending on training modality, fat may also be tapped into for fuel, but most people have adequate stores for this not to be training concern. Just don’t think you can rely on your fat as fuel – it really doesn’t work like that.

Clear That Cortisol!

Cortisol is a stress hormone released by the adrenal glands, which serves to amp us up during training and dull pain, both of which help performance. Cortisol is also released in response to other life stresses, and unfortunately a lot of us are living with elevated cortisol from stressful life situations. If cortisol levels are elevated for prolonged periods, muscle tissue starts to be broken down, sleep is impaired, and inflammation and injury risk increases.

Good post-exercise nutrition helps the body metabolise and clear cortisol. Carbohydrates are once again our friend in this regard – the insulin produced as we digest carbs halts cortisol release for better anabolic response.

Cortisol is metabolised by magnesium, an often under consumed mineral. Including foods rich in magnesium (including leafy greens, fish, meat and nuts) or taking a supplement has a calming effect on the central nervous system, improving recovery. I personally like transdermal magnesium sprays, where the mineral is absorbed by the body through the skin avoiding the digestive tract. I would recommend magnesium sprays to anyone I train, especially if they take part in sweaty activities.

Similarly, vitamin C metabolises cortisol while also supporting immune system function, both of which aid effective recovery.

The Takeaways

In considering the ways you can adjust your diet and lifestyle to optimise recovery, you can get the most from your training, reaping the rewards of your efforts while feeling your best.

- If you often feel tired and sore, evaluate if you’re over-training or simply under recovering from your sessions.

- Make sleep a priority: find a way to get the most, high quality sleep you possibly can, according to your own personal sleep sweet spot!

- Eat sufficient carbohydrates around your training sessions for fuel and recovery: easily digestible, fast release carbs beforehand, complex, slow release carbs afterwards.

- Make sure your diet is rich in protein and a full spectrum of vitamins and minerals including magnesium and vitamin C.


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