The Key To Recovery

This column is intended to be a very straightforward and practical guide to recovery. In elite sport it is not just about training harder than your competition, but also about recovering faster than them too. The faster one can recover, the sooner they can train hard again, and the faster the rate of improvement. 

Let’s start with sleep. This is the most important thing—more important than a massage, supplements or anything thing else. Sleep is when we adapt and when our bodies repair themselves from the damage inflicted on them while training. However, most of us are not getting the most out of a night of sleep, and therefore not allowing ourselves to recover properly. 

Part of this has to do with our melatonin production. Melatonin is a hormone produced in our pineal gland that works to set our circadian rhythm—our body’s internal clock. It makes us sleepy in the evening and alert and active during the day. For millions of years, when the temperature cooled and the light levels dropped our bodies made melatonin, relaxing and making us sleepy in preparation for falling asleep.

Now in this day and age we stare at bright light emanating from blue screens under artificial lights until it is time to go to sleep. This confuses our body, tricking it into thinking that it is still bright daylight and that we should be alert and awake. So our natural melatonin production doesn’t actually begin until we turn off the light and lie quietly in the dark. 

Often times we are so tired that we manage to fall asleep anyway. However, since our melatonin levels are so low we don’t actually fall into deep sleep, which is where the rejuvenation happens as testosterone and growth hormone are produced until much later on when our melatonin levels are sufficient. So although we may think we are getting an adequate number of hours of sleep we aren’t properly sleeping for all of them. 

So, what can we do? Firstly, limit staring at phone and computer screens before bed. Some experts suggest avoiding them for at least an hour before turning in. Try picking up a book instead and reading it by a lamp light similar in intensity to that of a campfire, something relaxing that we have grown accustomed to for the last few hundred thousand years. 

Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone, found in breast milk and also in red wine. I occasionally take it as supplement before bed in the form of a sublingual lozenge to help reset my internal clock after being jet lagged or to just to help my body wind down. In my opinion I find doing this makes seven or eight hours of sleep feel as restful as ten, sometimes with episodes of dreaming that seem to last for years. Melatonin also has a host of other benefits to the body. 

Growth hormone is essentially what keeps us young. It is secreted by the pituitary gland and is responsible for triggering the body’s repair mechanisms to going into overdrive. However, insulin and growth hormone work in opposition to each other. So, when your insulin is high your growth hormone levels will be low.

This means that if you want to maximise your growth hormone production while sleeping you need to avoid high glycemic index foods before bed. This includes whey protein which is highly insulinogenic, instead supplement your protein intake with casein protein which is slow release and low glycemic index. However consuming branched chain amino acids would arguably be even more effective. 

When we physically stress our bodies to the point that our tissues get broken down from intense exercise or very heavy weights, there is a flood of amino acids into the bloodstream. Our bodies have been hardwired to recognise this as sign that we need to adapt to meet the imposed demands of our environment, and so there is a natural reaction to release growth hormone. If we consume branched chain amino acids before bed they will bypass the liver and enter straight into our bloodstream provoking a similar response while we sleep. 

Whenever I have a hard practice, my body seems to get shocked into survival mode. My cortisol or stress hormone levels go through the roof, stimulating my sympathetic nervous system or the fight or flight response. When this happens I feel slightly ill and wired, comparable to having a few cups of coffee. I imagine my body saying to itself “wow, that was close. We very nearly died there, don’t fall asleep, it’s not safe!” 

If this happens in the late afternoon or early evening I find that when I lie down to sleep my mind is overactive, and my body just can’t get comfortable, resulting in insomnia for hours no matter how physically tired I am. It’s a terrible feeling, a more extreme version of not being able to go straight to bed after a stressful long drive and needing a while to wind down. However, it’s is a natural side effect of stress on the body, but one that delays and prolongs recovery. 

Ideally we want to begin to recover as soon as possible after a strenuous workout. The solution to this problem is magnesium. Magnesium in the form of an epsom salt bath, oral supplement or magnesium oil that is rubbed into the muscles serves to de-stress the body and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system or rest and digest response. There is so much more we can discuss, but we are out of space here. Until next week.