The Importance of Proper Recovery

When approaching the topic of training, it’s really very easy to be caught up in the enthusiasm and hunger of starting a new program and grinding out the days doing reps and sets, heading out for practice every other day and getting better at your sport or martial art by spending hours and hours on the field or mat.

But that’s not good for you. We’re not designed to exhaust ourselves physically over and over again without a very crucial anti-exhaustion element: recovery.

Recovery comes in many forms. The best recovery is sleep. Not training is a form of recovery. A hot bath is a form or recovery. The sauna is amazing for recovery. As is a non-vigorous session of yoga, or a nice strong massage.

However you choose to recover, the rule is always the same — you need to recover.

When you don’t, the result is pretty simple: pain, suffering, injury. You fail to get stronger, you fail to remember and internalize your training — you just mentally and physically exhaust yourself, and you’ll be of use to no one least of all yourself.

It sounds a little harsh, but it’s true. If you want to get stronger, better, faster, and more skillful, you need to recover. But what does recovery mean? And just how little recovery can you get away with?

There are no real rules for sleep.

A lot people will try to tell you that you need eight hours, nine hours, or even eleven hours. But by looking at popular athletes and their sleeping patterns, you’ll quickly learn this — sleep is subjective. If you feel tired, sleep more. If you’re drinking enough, eating properly and training hard but you still find yourself losing your ability to focus or dozing off in the middle of the day, you need. More. Sleep.

If you can’t get your full “x” hours, then you can do something a lot of athletes find themselves doing before or after workouts. Power napping. 20-40 minutes of sleep before or after a workout can help your muscles properly rid themselves of the effects of fatigue — or help you accumulate the sleep you need to sort out and clear out past traumas.

Rest. Matters. Period.

Use a points-based system. 

You don’t have to get too technical. But look at it this way — if a full workout is worth a point, and a workout with less intensity is worth perhaps half a point or .7 points, then you need to add up your points over the course of a week and figure out how many accumulative points of damage you’ve been dealing to yourself. Then, you can consider your recovery methods. Here are some important recovery methods:

  1. Ice baths. Cold, cold, cold.
  2. Sauna sessions. Hot, hot, hot.
  3. Yoga. 15-30 minutes a day, targeting whatever you’re weakest at. For me, that’s a strong focus on knees and hips, specifically for lifting and jiu-jitsu.
  4. Deep stretching after workouts. This isn’t 10 seconds per stretch, with an accumulative 5 minutes spent stretching. This should be a 15-minute session of solid 30-second holds.
  5. Massage. A full-body massage is meant by this, with some form of mineral oil. The harsher his/her hands, the better. Old Thai or Chinese techniques are a good bonus.
  6. Sleep (enough to not feel tired). That could mean as little as 7 hours for your purposes, or a solid 10.
  7. Napping. You should know what this is, unless you skipped preschool.
  8. Self-myofascial release. Use a lacrosse ball or something similar, and use it to stretch out your “tight parts”. Myofascia, for the uninitiated, is the connective tissue between and around your muscles, tendons and bones. Through continuous exercise, these tendons and connective tissues get very, very tight — and prone to tearing, or injury. By breaking the hardness and knotting in these tissues apart with a ball — not a foam roller — you can help your flexibility and avoid soreness/injury.

If you employ at the very least decent sleep, yoga and stretching, you should be good to go in terms of recovery. What would really up your game is having a weekly (or more frequent) massage, and of course, performing self-myofascial release on a regular basis, best of all using a lacrosse ball or baseball (I’m trying to do this more regularly). Finally, an alternative to massages are lots of heat/lots of cold (an ice bath or a sauna session), and if you’re really working out hard then napping before or after a workout can help you recover even further.

Think of it this way — sleep and massage nets you about half a point, followed by .3 points for myofacscial release, yoga and stretching, and .1 points for a nap.

Nutrition and hydration plays a big role, too.

The final keys to proper recovery are what you put into your body. I’ve sort of assumed this, but if you’re horribly notorious for bad nutritional habits (and know it) then you’re screwed. Seriously. What you eat is so incredibly important, there’s just no joking around about it. Eat. Well. Do it.

Drinking matters too. You need to drink water, that is — a little alcohol won’t be horrible (in fact, it’s actually kinda good for you in strange ways — more on that some other time), but for recovery purposes, you need simple H2O. The general idea, then, is to accumulate your recovery points, drink often, eat well, and train hard (but never hard enough to hit the point of nausea). Do all that, and you’ll be properly recovered.