Whether you’re an experienced trainer or someone entering the gym for the very first time, making sure that you are giving your body every opportunity to recover is important to allow you to train consistently. Your body will not be conditioned to the stress of exercise and if you don’t employ the right approach to training and recovery, this will lead to some serious aches, fatigue and potentially time out the gym. This can, for many people, be disheartening and mean that their New Year resolutions fail before they become long term habits.
To help you avoid the pitfalls of jumping in at the training deep-end, here are four ‘rules’ you can follow to help ensure your recovery is on point and that we don’t have to ‘suffer’ as badly as you might think.
#1 Take a Sensible Approach to Exercise
Although the temptation when going back to training, or starting for the first time, is to attack things full-on and ‘beast’ yourself, this is probably not the best approach. More is definitely not always better when it comes to training.
This is because our bodies take time to adjust to exercise stress, and by jumping straight in with high training volumes you will undoubtedly be placing your body under stress it will not be adapted to and therefore will take much longer to recover from.
Gradually increasing our exercise stress over time allows our bodies time to adapt and become more resilient. Though we still need to recover, this will be a much shorter time period, allowing you to exercise more consistently and in the long run help you reach your goals.
Whether you like to lift weights or run, this principle still applies. For example, if your ‘thing’ is lifting weights, start with whole body workouts focusing on 1-2 exercises per body part, not annihilating a single muscle group. This will mean that you are not going to be stressing the muscle so much that recovery will take several days, or potentially even weeks if recovery strategies are particularly poor. Then after a few weeks you can start to increase the amount of focus you place on each muscle.
#2 Schedule Rest Days
Following on from the idea that more is better, in the early stages of exercising it is unrealistic to be training 5-6 days a week. Exercising regularly is obviously great, but we have to balance this with our ability to recover. Instead of focusing on training every day, start by training every second or third day. If you do feel the need to train more often, make sure that you are mixing up your training intensity so that not every session is pushing you to the limit.
Proper recovery is as important as the exercise itself, and this starts with allowing the muscle to rest and adapt to exercise. If we don’t rest, then the chances are we are actually slowing progress despite the fact that we may ‘feel’ that training more often is better.
Increased training frequency is an effective way to build training volume and force positive adaptation to exercise, however we need a base level of resistance to stress before we can think about training more frequently.
If we consider the previous whole body resistance training example, we could start with whole body training 2-3 days per week with 1-2 days’ rest in between. Then we could move to focusing on a single body part in each session, training it with higher volume but once per week. We could then program training with an increase the frequency with which we hit each body part, aiming for twice per week when we become more advanced.
Your ability to progress to being able to handle this level of training stress as a more ‘serious’ trainer will be heavily dependent on the other lifestyle factors that support recovery.
#3 Get Enough Quality Sleep
This is an obvious one, yet an area where many people struggle to help support recovery because they do not place enough attention on making getting quality sleep a priority.
Give yourself time to power down before bed. About half an hour before you want to sleep, turn off the TV, put down your phone and do something relaxing, listen to relaxing music, or read a book: anything that is not ‘illuminated’.
It is also important to make sure your sleeping environment is the most conducive to good sleep. Make sure any light entering the room is blacked out as much as possible, any lighting on electronic devices/TV is off, place your phone face down if it needs to be on.
If you struggle to sleep because you are a ‘worrier’, get into the habit of writing down a to-do list for the next day before bed, put your thoughts on paper and create a plan of action. Try and do your worrying before you go to bed, but if your brain won’t switch off then get up and make your to-do list then.
#4 Don’t Neglect your Nutrition
If we are exercising, then we are using up fuel that needs to be replaced and breaking down tissue that needs to be repaired. The two most important nutrients for recovery in this regard are likely to be carbohydrates and protein.
The main fuel for muscle during strenuous exercise is glycogen, and this is replenished by consuming adequate carbohydrate. This can be provided by eating whole food sources, but for convenience there are recovery ‘drinks’ that contain everything you need to support recovery, including protein.
Although protein is often seen as something for building muscle, and indeed providing enough protein is important for this process, during all forms of exercise we not only break down muscle that needs repairing, but our body uses up proteins in other ways. For example, the enzymes that are responsible for allowing physiological processes to take place are made of proteins, so however you exercise, consuming enough protein is important.
The amount of protein you require will be largely dependent on your goals, but aiming for between 1.6-2g per kg of bodyweight will put you on the right track to supporting recovery. Getting enough protein from whole foods can be difficult, but the simple addition of a quality source of protein like whey can help meet your daily targets.