Lots of people spend time and effort working out and even eating well in order to improve performance or general health. While these are great things to invest time and money into, there is still a giant piece of the puzzle missing…recovery. Recovery is so often overlooked or at the very most reduced to nothing more than a day off. What many people fail to realize is that they could be spending just as much time and effort on recovery as they do their workouts and diets. So, my goal with this post is to show you that recovery is so much more than taking a day off from the gym to sit on the couch.
If we imagine a pyramid (or look at the one above) these are all of the different aspects to improving health and performance. People tend to be always looking for a new passive modality to give them that edge over everyone else. Passive modalities are anything you have done to you, without having to do anything yourself. While effective they are just the tip of the iceberg (or pyramid) and there is so much more that you can do with active modalities. Active modalities are anything that you do yourself, and this is the category where active recovery falls into. Lifestyle factors, nutrition and training are massive contributors to health and performance, but most people already realize that. I want to focus on active modalities (specifically active recovery) since it is so often overlooked.
First of all, to understand recovery you absolutely need to understand the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is your “fight or flight” response and is a high-stress state that we tend to be in during training or competition. The parasympathetic nervous system is your “rest and digest” response. It is a low-stress state that we aim to be in during recovery (however we often never quite get there). When you increase one (let’s say parasympathetics) you decrease the other (sympathetics). When you spend too much time in a sympathetic state, your body produces excessive hormones such as cortisol. While beneficial in the short-term, cortisol can have harmful effects if excessive amounts are sustained for long periods of time. You also never give your body a chance to adapt to the stimulus you are working so hard to introduce it to during training. So, make sure you realize that your recovery begins the second your workout ends, and you are working to get your heart rate and overall stress levels down from this moment on until your next workout. So, this article will essentially outline ways to accomplish this singular goal.
First, I want to mention foam rolling because it is a hot topic of controversy. Some people love it and perhaps over-glorify it while others think it is a waste of time. However, in reality it is completely goal dependent. If you foam roll before a workout you are aiming to stimulate a muscle (or muscles) that you will be using whereas after a workout (for recovery) the goal, and therefore the process is completely different. Foam rolling for recovery needs to be a purposeful action with some defined goals in reach. These goals are increasing lymphatic drainage, muscle pump stimulation (venous return) and a parasympathetic response. The key to achieving this is by utilizing global movements instead of focal trigger point techniques. You should use long passes on large muscle groups rather than focusing on painful sites and lingering there. When you elicit a pain response, you are increasing sympathetics which is counterproductive to recovery. And remember to breathe through the diaphragm throughout the movement (I will get into more detail about this later).
Secondly, movement is important for recovery. However, these should not be strenuous movements but rather slow, controlled movements that do not raise your heart rate by any substantial measure. One good technique you can employ is bi-phasic stretching. This is a two phased approach to stretching that incorporates some movement. It begins with a dynamic oscillatory phase and is followed by a static phase. In the dynamic oscillatory phase, you find stable positions in which you have full control (i.e. you are not off-balance) and slowly rock back and forth within this position. You then move to the end range of motion and hold it which is the static phase. There should not be any passive stretching but rather everything is controlled and contracted with a high degree of proprioception (being aware of where your body is in space). If you want to take this to the next level, you can move into some slow-flow yoga movements. This will force you to sustain a slow, controlled movement at or near end ranges of motion.
Thirdly, parasympathetic breathing is something you absolutely should be working on if optimal recovery is your goal. There is a connection between breathing and the parasympathetic nervous system so the moment your workout ends it should be your main focus. Box breathing is a good way to utilize this benefit. Lay on your back with your hips and knees up on a bench or stool in a 90/90 position. You want to maximize surface area contact with the ground, so your brain senses a high degree of proprioception and allows you to relax. You want to ensure you are using your diaphragm which means breathing through your belly, not your chest. After a full belly breath, it is okay to have a small inhalation through the chest to utilize your full tidal volume. Close your eyes and breath in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, breath out for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds and repeat.
One more technique that is especially beneficial for high-level athletes is neural recovery. This is done through highly explosive, neurologically driven movements such as Olympic lifts and plyometrics. Basically, you want to keep your heart rate in a resting state (which varies from person to person) which entails a long rest period between sets and/or repetitions and keeping the load low. An example of this would be doing 1 repetition per minute for 15 minutes. It sounds crazy doing only 15 repetitions over 15 minutes as an entire “workout” but that is why recovery is different from regular training. This helps to re-establish neurotransmitter stores, increases anabolic hormone production, improves neuromuscular function and increases motor unit recruitment and coupling.
The last thing to consider is programming recovery into your routine. You can do a recovery session in your post-workout window (immediately after your training session), as a secondary recovery workout (4-6 hours post-workout) or as your “off-day” programming. Personally, I like to do a full active systemic and neural recovery workout on my “off-days” and then a couple shorter recovery sessions as a secondary recovery workout throughout the week as they fit in to my schedule. There are many ways to do it but make sure you are doing something and recovering better so you feel better.