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Why Poor Recovery Will Make You Sick, Sad and Weak

For those of you familiar with GP, you know we take the balance between training and recovery very seriously. It's a subject we feel we cannot educate our clients on enough. Recovery is too often a poorly understood or ignore aspect of training and the organization of sport (i.e. practice, competition). Many coaches and trainers push their athletes to the brink, attempting to build physical stamina and mental resilience. This is a part of sport and a necessary component to improving physical attributes such as strength, speed, and power. However, if you miss the boat on recovery, you could be sabotaging your efforts.

Why is recovery so important?
How much time do you spend training on a weekly basis, working towards physical or athletic goals? Probably not much, at least when compared to the amount of time spent between those sessions.

Training, regardless if you run, lift, swim, or skate, is a stimulus to the body. It's a stimulus for change and that stimulus will only generate results if you recover adequately between training sessions.

When recovery is poor, health and performance begin to suffer. This is the point at which many people describe themselves as "feeling flat" or “hitting a wall.” What they are communicating is low energy levels and an overall sensation of not feeling right. Fatigue has built-up because recovery has not been adequate. This state of fatigue can be referred to as “over-reaching" and in more serious cases it is known as "over-training."

Over-training can involve signs/symptoms such as:

  • significant decreases in power or capacity of physical attributes such as strength, speed, or power
  • significant and chronic joint and muscle pain
  • significant changes in mood, such as depression
  • significant sleep disruption
  • major immune problems — frequent illness (i.e. bacterial/viral infections)
  • hormonal suppression (i.e. low thyroid, low sex hormones, amenorrhea or irregular periods in women)
Over-reaching is a much milder version of overtraining, but is a far more common and can involve:
  • low energy
  • lack of motivation to train
  • feeling "run-down"
  • persistent sore and achey joints or muscles
  • mild mood changes such as feeling more irritable, moody, or anxious
Understanding Recovery
Lack of recovery is a complex phenomenon with wide-ranging effects, with the heart of the issue being fatigue. The underlying causes of fatigue fall into two main categories:
  1. Central (CNS) - The central nervous system (CNS) serves the purpose of monitoring the body, similar to the function of a car engine regulator. If you "redline" the engine of your car too long, the engine shuts down. Your brain attempts to protect your body in the same fashion by reducing the ability of your body to "fire muscles" through nerve impulses.
  2. Peripheral (muscular) - The other form of fatigue, peripheral, is related to energy system depletion and/or metabolic byproduct accumulation. Sticking with the car analogy, this is similar to running out of gas.
There are plenty of activities and responsibilities that will consume our days and the time between workouts, or in other words, our recovery time. The activities that we choose to be involved in will have a profound impact on our ability to recoup and recover. To understand the influence our activities can have on our recovery, we must first place them into two distinct categories:
  • Sympathetic activities – often referred to as “fight or flight”
  • Parasympathetic activities – often referred to as “rest and digest”
Sympathetic activities dominate our lives. Whether it's the pursuit of educational, athletic, or career goals, trying to establish financial stability, or building relationships, these activities bring on varying degrees of stress. Your body reacts to stress by elevating levels of cortisol and adrenaline.

Stress, or over-stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, can become chronic. If that happens, production of stress hormones begins to slow and the development of ongoing, chronic fatigue may occur. This is central fatigue. The body has been "redlining" for too long and is beginning to shut down. See the problem?

Now, I'd think we'd all be fans of simply removing all stressors from life. Doesn't that sound appealing? However, that is not a realistic option. Instead of eliminating stress, the key is to establish a balance with relaxing and invigorating activities.

Relaxing and invigorating activities stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is vital to restoring balance to the body and improving recovery. Such activities include:
  • Low-intensity, aerobic-based exercise (cycling, walking, hiking)
  • Massage
  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Hot tub or sauna
  • Relaxing hobbies such as reading or listening to music
  • Meaningful relationships
  • Drinking tea
Depending on your tastes and what you find to be relaxing, any of the above activities can have the ability to lower stress, improve oxygenation of tissues, facilitate lymph circulation, and promote a hormonal environment that is vital to recovery.

Keep in mind, one activity is not necessarily better than another. All that matters is that you pick a specific activity that you find enjoyable. The many systems of the body are working overtime between training sessions to bring the body back to balance, the least you could do is give your body a boost.

Immunity and Recovery
Training is a stressor to the human body. The stress which training places upon the body is truly under-appreciated. Training stresses the entire body and all it's systems, such as the cardiopulmonary system, detoxification system, hormonal system, metabolic system, central nervous system, neuromuscular system, and the immune system. They are all affected by training and all these systems do not recover at the same time.

When it comes to immunity, the relationship between exercise and immunity is what researchers call a “J-shaped curve”.
  • Sedentary individuals are at moderate risk for infection. Their immune system isn’t running as well as it could be.
  • Individuals who are regularly active, using moderate intensity and variety in their training, demonstrate the most resistant immune systems.
  • Individuals who are active, but consistently pushing the limits in workout frequency, duration, intensity, or loading without proper recovery put themselves at increased risk for becoming sick.
Take home: High levels of exercise intensity with inadequate recovery can result in immunosuppression. Don't allow your lack of recovery to leave you at an increased risk of coming down with a cold, virus, or infection.

Nutrition and Recovery
When it comes to nutrition and recovery, eating real food in its unprocessed form will give your body the nutrients it needs. Make consuming whole foods, along with herbs and spices, such as turmeric and garlic, a priority in keeping inflammation to moderate levels and assisting in recovery. It's also important to consume adequate amounts of water and fluids to assist with lymphatic function.

Supplements used before, during, or after training, known as peri-workout nutrition, can enhance the recovery process. These include the use of carbohydrates, protein and BCAAs. Glutamine and creatine have also been shown to be effective in promoting recovery. It's important to understand that if recovery supplements or a nutrient dense meal aren’t consumed in a timely fashion after workouts, the regeneration process can be delayed.

Recovery Recommendations
To sum up, here is a general list of recommendations to help you improve your recovery:
  • Make a point of including 20-30 minutes of parasympathetic activity each day (i.e. meditation, massage, warm bath, good conversation, laughing, etc.)
  • Consume nutrient dense foods at regular intervals, use herbs and spices, and drink adequate amounts of water and tea
  • Consider using a carbohydrate, protein, BCAA, and/or creatine supplement as part of your peri-workout nutrition
  • Incorporate variety into your training program
  • Utilize low-intensity exercise on days between high-intensity training sessions to promote recovery (i.e. walking, cycling, swimming, flexibility work)
  • Avoid the regular use of anti-inflammatory medications
  • Make rest a priority and aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night
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