Recovery & Physical Culture

If you are enthusiastic about physical culture like me, then chances are that at some point in your sport or exercise regime you have had to deal with serious fatigue, plateaus and injury. 

Even for those of us who are not in sports, by simply trying to put our health first and sticking to the routine by exercising fervently even when we are exhausted, we may be doing more harm than good. Proper training is simply about seeing results, making progress, and the prevention and mitigation of injury. 

Whether you are training to lose body fat, gain muscle, or win an Olympic gold medal the principals are the same. In sports like swimming, we deliberately train way more than is necessary to burn fat and maintain good health by pushing our bodies to their physical limits with the intention of tricking our them into thinking our environment is about to destroy us. 

This stimulates our bodies to adapt to meet the brutal requirements placed on them, but only if we allow our bodies a chance to rebuild and recover. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t actually get stronger or fitter from your workout. In fact, a hard workout has a lot of negative effects on the body. Training is a catabolic process that breaks down our muscles, but provides the stimulus for the anabolic process of recovery. 

A hard workout is not to be taken lightly, it raises your blood pressure, leaves you physically weaker, lowers your immune system - leaving you more inclined to get sick, creates inflammation in your body and suppresses levels of important hormones. 

This process of recovery places huge demands on our bodies and requires long deep sleep and proper nourishment, without both together we won’t recover. If very hard workouts are continually followed up with more hard workouts, this recovery process is not being allowed to happen and the body keeps tearing itself down more and more leading to overtraining and even to adrenal fatigue. It is not actually our training that makes us improve, but rather our recovery from the training that does.

How do we know if we have crossed that very fine line between doing the perfect amount of hard training necessary to stimulate adaptation and doing too much? An excellent way of answering is to ask your body if it is ready by measuring your resting heart rate upon waking in the morning. This can be done easily with smartphone apps that do this when a finger is placed over the camera lens. 

I recommend recording your heart rate every morning for a normal, healthy week to give you an idea of its usual range. Now, if you find that on one morning your heart rate has jumped up by more than six beats per minute, that is a clear indicator that you need to back off and take a much needed rest to facilitate recovery. Essentially, this regular recovery sustains improvement.

This elevation in the resting heart rate is due to a “flight or flight” response from the sympathetic branch or our nervous system as a result our being overstressed switching over into what I call survival mode. I can even feel this when I observe my breath by noticing a compulsion to instantly re-inhale after I exhale. 

This is the opposite of the “rest and digest” response from the parasympathetic nervous system that should be running things if we are rested early in the morning, which can also be felt subtly in the breath. It brings with it the relaxed sensation of calmly not needing to immediately inhale after an exhalation. 

When this heart rate spike happens, and it will, it doesn't mean that you need to take a day off training, but rather think about it as recommending you work in instead of work out. I am not advocating that you forgo training after a few days of killer workouts. 

Instead, I am suggesting that you take the opportunity to help your body recover by doing what I call a “workin.” A couple days a week I have designated recovery “workins”, that predictably fall when my body will need some extra rest. These sessions provide an excellent opportunity to practice precise technical aspects of my sport as well as provide me with the opportunity to improvements in flexibility and mobility. 

The goal of these sessions is not only to improve but to accelerate recovery and actually cultivate energy by doing some light exercise that leaves me feeling energised for the rest of the day. Also, light aerobic exercise, meaning anything with a heart rate under 120 bpm for over half an hour is scientifically proven to significantly expedite recovery.

To all our up and coming sportsmen and women, recovery should be taken just as seriously as training. In this Olympic year the Trini notion of work hard, party hard simply won’t cut it. 

A lifestyle of regular late nights and alcohol consumption can stress the body and prevent recovery as much, if not more than a few hard training sessions in a row. You aren’t just trying to train harder than your rivals, but also out recover them too. The harder you train, the more you need to recover, and the more recovered you are, the harder you can train.

@georgebovell