I have previously written about the importance of taking rest days and deload weeks. But what about the little things that you can do in between each gym session to enhance your recovery and in turn improve your performance?
When you are an athlete, every decision you make should reflect that, from what you eat, to how much you sleep, to what you do on a Saturday night. Even if you are not an athlete, there is no reason you can’t apply the same principles to your training for optimal results.
If someone’s goal is fat loss, muscle gain or optimal physical performance, their priorities should be:
1. Sleep (7-9 hours per night)
2. Nutrition (an appropriate amount of calories coming from a consistent diet of mostly healthy foods)
3. Weight training
4. Muscle recovery (active recovery, foam rolling, massage, etc)
When someone brags about waking up at 4.30am after only five hours sleep to go smash out a double weights and cardio workout, I am not impressed. If fitting in a workout means cutting into your sleep time, you are always better off choosing sleep over the gym.
That said, obviously some people will have no choice but to wake up early to go to the gym. If that is the case, make sure you are getting to bed as early as possible the night before and aim for at least seven hours sleep. If someone genuinely does not have time to work out unless they sacrifice sleep, I typically recommend working out on both weekend days – when people tend to have more time – and only once during the week. If you are training correctly, any goal can be achieved with a three day workout plan.
Everyone should aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night. The quality of your sleep counts too. Try to sleep in complete darkness and make sure you unwind before bed. I always make sure that I turn off all technology 30-60 minutes before bed. The light from screens will disturb your sleep, not to mention the constant vibrations of texts, emails and social media notifications will make it difficult to fall asleep. During this “unwind” time, you can read, journal, have a cup of tea, have sex, star gaze – anything avoiding technology will drastically improve your quality of sleep.
When you don’t have enough sleep, it has a particularly negative effect on your diet. Your body will naturally crave high-carb/sugar foods when it is sleep-deprived, not to mention that more time spent awake during a day means more time for eating.
Although I placed sleep above diet in terms of its importance in recovery, it was only by a margin. In my opinion, there is no point in training hard and heavy unless you have both of these things under control.
Prior to your workout you should fuel your body with healthy, energising foods. After your workout, you should aim to eat a high protein and high carbohydrate meal as soon as possible. Do not be afraid to eat big – your body needs it!
Many people struggle with eating on rest days, as they don’t believe they have “earned” their calories. As I have discussed many times before, that is complete BS. I tend to eat more on rest days, as I feel hungrier.
If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. I work out in the evenings, so my body has no idea what’s coming. Once I finish my workout, it wises up and I feel quite hungry. But it isn’t until the next day that I feel particularly famished.
For example, last Saturday’s session was very intense and I had to take both Sunday and Monday as rest days as I felt so sore. During those two days, although I was barely able to walk, I could not stop eating. My muscles needed the food to heal, and they were relaying that message loud and clear!
Anyone looking at my Instagram feed might think I eat burgers, bacon and ice cream all the time, but I’d say that 80-85 per cent of my diet is typically healthy foods: lean proteins such as eggs, chicken, fish and lean steak, complex carbohydrates such as rice and sweet potato, and plenty of healthy fats including avocado, oils, nuts and nut butters.
While there is a time and a place for those “junky” types of foods, I know that constantly eating like that will not allow me to perform my best. My stomach is uber sensitive (even more so since going back on the pill, but that’s a story for another time!) and I don’t feel great when I eat too much of those kinds of foods.
That said, I also don’t think adhering to a bodybuilding-style chicken and broccoli diet 100 per cent of the time is good for either your mind or your body. I am still convinced that eating ice cream before competitions gives me magic powers!
I personally don’t take any supplements other than a standard fish oil, but I have experimented with things like creatine, glutamine, BCAAs, zinc, magnesium, HCl tablets and L carnitine in the past.
I am toying with the idea of taking creatine again but didn’t see any real difference in taking most of the others. I’m fairly certain BCAAs reduced my muscle soreness, but that could very well have been a placebo effect.
I used to have protein powder twice a day, but stopped having it altogether over the past 18 months. In the past couple of months, I’ve been having it more frequently – say, once or twice a week – on those days I know it will be a couple of hours until I get to eat post-workout. There is no real performance-based reason behind it but rather just to avoid me gnawing my own arm off.
I think supplementation is a very individual decision which is why I am hesitant to recommend anything. The best thing to do is try the basics and see if they produce a positive effect.
Muscle recovery techniques
In between training sessions, you should be doing everything you can to speed up recovery as you do not want your next workout to be jeopardised by muscle soreness from your previous session. While straight-up rest and proper nutrition are essential during this period, so is light foam rolling and mobility work. I foam roll before every training session, but also try to sneak in some gentle stretching on rest days too.
Active recovery techniques can be utilised to enhance recovery. This can be anything from walking to swimming to hot yoga, but do make sure you take at least one full rest day per week to allow adequate recovery.
I know this will sound counterproductive, but one of my best secrets to speed up leg recovery is sprints! Lately, I have been doing sprints once a week – either after a heavy leg session or the following day. If you are doing sprints the next day, make sure you thoroughly warm up and don’t go balls to the wall. The idea is to increase blood flow into the muscles to improve recovery.
I also think it’s really important to get regular massages. I used to get one half hour massage every two weeks, but recently I switched to having a 60-90 minute massage once a month. I read something along the lines of “if you can’t afford to have regular massages, you can’t afford to be an athlete”, and I think it’s quite true. Consistently training hard is tough on the muscles, and there’s only so much that foam rolling can help. I know I perform better about 3-4 days after having a nice deep tissue massage.
Do you have any additional tips for recovery?