The Art of Recovery

Introduction

Recovery is one of those aspects of training that everybody talks about and yet most people don’t understand. 

I challenge you to find a coach that denies that recovery is a necessary part of a training programme.

You won’t find that person.

On the one hand, when I ask most coaches about recovery, the majority simply tell me that they schedule a day off training for every client every week. “After all, recovery is important,” they say.

I’d argue that this is not enough. In fact, recovery is an active process. It’s a process in which you help your body to get better, you don’t simply leave it to chance.


If today is your recovery day, remember: recovery is an active process, not just a day lounging around, eating chips.


On the other hand, I encounter coaches who are so obsessed with numbers that they make all their decisions about recovery based on the output of algorithms that allegedly assess the effects of training on acute and chronic stress. They don’t make a move unless the “data” tells them it’s necessary. 

As much as it would be great to live in a world where everything was a certainty, based on hard and fast numbers, that’s simply not reality.

In fact, when it comes to recovery, we really are talking about more of an art than a science, thus the title of this article, in which we’ll explore what you can do to enhance your results through quality recovery practices, not harm them by adopting the much-repeated mantra that “I’m an athlete and I’ve trained hard all week, so I can lie on the sofa and eat as much cake as I like”!

Have you ever had a day or two off training, where you lounged around and did nothing, only to return feeling flat, demotivated, and weak?

If so, you’re not alone.

As much as recovery is touted as a break from training, simply doing nothing can result in a physical and psychological step backwards. You can lose far more than you gain.

Your body has become accustomed to doing “stuff” every day and it thrives on that activity. Movement is good for your energy levels, it’s good for calming the nervous system, it’s good for clearing waste products from your system and there is a clear connection between movement and positive brain activity.

Stop and do nothing and you’ll almost certainly take time to get back into the swing of things when you return.

This is one reason why my Healthy Athlete Course teaches the idea of setting a baseline of activity that is simply what you do for health, and my Athletic Readiness concept is all about a base level of conditioning that you maintain year-round. 

These ideas are not about being “on it” or “hard-charging” the whole time, they’re about always maintaining basic physical capacity.

The same principle can and should be applied to recovery.

As mentioned in the introduction, most people have a planned day off every week. They believe it’s necessary, so they follow the practice religiously.

This is not inherently bad, but it does suffer from a few flaws.

Your nervous system, hormonal system etc. do not follow a simple seven-day cycle. It’s perfectly possible, and common, to have a planned recovery day on a day when your systems are firing on all cylinders.

This is a day on which training would be a fantastic idea, a day when you’d be able to push harder and recover better than most other days, simply because your body is working with you.

But you don’t get this opportunity because your plan says to rest.

On the flipside, it’s possible to have a training session planned for a day when your systems are not operating at their best, but you go ahead regardless and wind up sick or injured. 

The answer here is to learn to listen to your body, not simply trust a piece of paper or the information on your computer screen.

Planned days off mean that your training can also suffer from the influence of life’s events.

Unless your training is your job, you’re likely to run into this problem more often than you’d believe.

Having taken the scheduled day off, a last-minute hitch at work means you have to work late, your child falls ill and needs care or any of a multitude of other life events takes over. Before you know it, you’ve added two or three days off training (if you’re lucky) to the scheduled day you took off.

When you consider that a week off training for an athlete who is trying to peak costs as much as four weeks to return to the form they had when they stopped, you can see that life getting in the way can be costly to your hard-won gains.

The solution here is to allow life’s events to dictate your time off training, at least to some degree. Yes, you might find some of the recovery activities that follow in this article difficult in that situation, but the good news is that most of them require less formal time to do than what we think of as “training”; mobility and flexibility can be done in front of the TV, breath work can be done anywhere, and walking can be fitted in between work tasks.

Then there is a problem that arises not because of too much recovery time but too little.

Imagine you took Sunday off training. On Monday morning, you’re still tired, but your training plan says you should be doing a workout. So, you do it.

After all, you had a day off yesterday.

That’s the point at which you start digging a hole.

You know what they say: “When you find yourself in a hole with a spade in your hand… STOP DIGGING.

The solution here is to learn to listen to your body. That can be hard to do, not least because ego can get in the way of making good decisions. However, responding to fatigue signals is how you allow your body to recover stronger.

This is not that different to how we should react when we come down with an illness. We should give our immune system the best opportunity to fight the infection. Instead, most people take medication that masks the symptoms and head to work. I think we’ve seen during 2020/21 where this kind of thinking ends up.

Being tired from training is not a disease state, but it does require your body systems to do significant work to recover.

I’d argue that there’s a better way.

It’s not complicated at all.

Don’t routinely schedule days off training. Instead…

  • Take time off when you’re tired.
  • Take time off when you’re ill.
  • Take time off when life gets in the way.

This takes a little bravery, a willingness to listen and respond to your body’s signals and a willingness to accept that the inevitable encroachments of life are an opportunity, not a threat.

We’re all individuals, with different recovery profiles. There is no universal time recommendation that can be made for recovery.

Instead, it’s a process of experimentation to discover what works best for you.

The time when knowing individual recovery requirements is most valuable is when working with athletes who need to taper for competition. Simply put, a taper is a period of reduced training volume, during which you try to maintain fitness whilst reducing fatigue in the athlete. The goal is to be fresh on race day.

I’ve worked with athletes who needed a one-day taper before an event and others who’ve needed a week. One athlete I’m aware of needed almost 3 weeks to absorb the training they’d done.

How do you know you’ve recovered enough?

  • You’re no longer significantly sore or tired.
  • You’re motivated to hit the next training session.
  • Your training performance continues to improve - stalling or going backwards when you’ve been training consistently often means you need more recovery time.
  • Your HRV numbers improve. (I’m not going to discuss HRV in this article because I remain to be convinced. My experience both personally and with several clients hasn’t shown the kind of correlation of HRV with performance that’s been claimed.)

Once you’ve figured out how much recovery time produces the best results for you, make sure you use that information (and make sure your coach does too). There are few things more of a waste than having knowledge about yourself and not applying it!

After years of training for Ironman and following the standard “take a day off every week” advice, I had a season in which I tried something different: I didn’t take any days off at all.

Instead, I planned a pattern of escalating volume with regular deload weeks over a 6-month period. 

The results were little short of astounding.

The step up in performance on the week following a deload week was marked. From this, I discovered that it wasn’t the days off that mattered, but the imposition of something I call “relative rest”, a short period of significantly reduced training volume.

This is most marked in sports with huge training volumes, but the principle works in almost any sport or activity.

If, for example, you normally lift 3 sets of 10 reps per exercise in the gym, reducing to just 2 sets of 10 at the same weight for a week will almost certainly see you step up in performance the following week. 

If that doesn’t work, perhaps you need to cut it to one set, or have a slightly longer or shorter deload. That’s right: it’s time to experiment.

I’m not suggesting here that YOU should have NO days off. Instead, I am suggesting that you implement some sort of pattern in which deload weeks feature periodically.

There are a bunch of things that you can try in order to improve your recovery. You certainly don’t need them all, and because we’re all different, each of us will develop our own combination of things that work for us.

In a world full of gurus who claim to have the only answer, being different can raise howls of protest. In all things, you need to do you because you’re the only person who has to live with the results.


Not Wrong, Just Different!


“The best way to be tired and stay tired is to sit around all day and do nothing.”

I tell my kids this often, and we all know that it’s true. When the human body isn’t sleeping, it wants to be moving.

That movement causes us to be more, not less energetic.

The key to using low intensity activity for recovery is that it has to be low intensity.

The concept of a “recovery run” is common and even quite popular amongst runners. Except that most runners cannot run easy enough for that run to be a recovery activity. For many people, running is an effort at any level because they have yet to develop the ability to run fast enough. For them, the best recovery run is a walk.

Walking is not only low intensity, low impact cardiovascular exercise, it’s also a fundamentally human activity. Our upright bipedal posture is unique among mammals and it’s that posture that our bodies most wish to adopt.

As a result, when we walk, we calm our nervous systems, moving from a sympathetic to a parasympathetic state. This shift helps us to recover better from any exercise stress because the brain and body are no longer in a state of high alert, with all the hormonal effects of that state (We’ll discuss nervous system states a bit more later).

Swimming

Just like running, many people cannot swim fast enough when trying to swim fast to allow them to use their accustomed swim stroke as a recovery activity.

For those who can swim that easy and not drown, swimming can be a remarkable recovery activity.

For one thing, the fact that you’re suspended in the water means you’re able to exercise muscles and joints without impact. For another, almost anywhere you’ll swim, the water is sure to be lower than body temperature, meaning it will help to reduce chronic muscle or joint inflammation due to cooling.

Best of all, water immersion simply has a calming effect on the nervous system.

The good news is that even if you can’t use swimming itself as a recovery activity, heading to the pool with your kids for half an hour of splashing around in the water will achieve a similar effect. And the children will love it too.

I freely admit to not being a fan of yoga classes - but then I’m not a fan of “fitness” classes in general.

That doesn’t mean I don’t see potential value in some level of yoga practice.

From my perspective, two aspects of yoga seem to be useful.

  • The focus on breathing.
  • Relaxation into poses, especially those that emphasise flexion patterns - Downward Facing Dog is a great pose to hang out in for a bit; very relaxing once you can do it.

It’s well worth finding a yoga class that has a focus on relaxing poses (if classes are your thing) or learning a few poses that you can simply drop into your day as and when you have a few minutes.

Allied to yoga is simply doing a bit stretching.

It’s not always practical or even possible to do a yoga class late at night, but it is possible to incorporate a few stretches into your TV time.

As most people watch TV late in the evening, this is a great opportunity to help your nervous system calm down before bed. Not only do you improve your flexibility, you also improve your sleep. It’s a definite win-win.

Using light resistance stretch cords or bands can be a great way to keep yourself mobile on your days off.

Simple exercises like a scapular mobility series or face-pulls can make a significant difference to your overall mobility and joint health.

Most people respond to muscular soreness by stretching a bit more. Failing that, they head to the nearest massage therapist or physio.

Whilst seeing a therapist can be a great option (see further down the article), there is a lot that you can do for yourself in this regard.

Before we worry about flexibility - the stretching - we need to consider tissue quality.

Muscle and connective tissue have a tendency to develop hot spots and tight bands, both of which can restrict pain-free movement. A lack of flexibility and ultimately mobility result from this lack of movement through a normal range.

We can address tissue quality by using a few simple tools:

  • Foam Roller
  • Lacrosse Balls / Yoga Tune-Up Balls
  • Massage stick

You use these tools to find and treat sore spots and tight bands in the muscle fibres, much like a good therapist will do the same using trigger point therapy, dry needling and various deep tissue massage techniques.

Funnily enough, it’s exactly on those days when we do no training that these tight spots often develop. Or at least it’s on those days that we notice them.

A little bit of time spent working on your personal weak spots pays huge dividends in not getting sore and injured next time you train.

One of the most important things we want to address when we’re recovering is the balance between our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. 

The sympathetic nervous system is that part of our CNS that responds to threats with a “fight, flight or freeze” response. It’s meant to be a temporary and very occasional state, but has become an almost habitual state for many of us.

This chronic stress is at least a part of many of the chronic diseases that we suffer in the modern world.

For example, we know that too much glucose in the bloodstream over extended periods is bad for our long-term health. The obvious way we end up in this condition is by eating too much carbohydrate. 

Far more insidious, even for those of us who are fat-adapted, is that our “fight, flight or freeze” state dumps glucose into the bloodstream from our glycogen stores. Live under chronic stress and you court the very same illnesses as those who eat lots of sugar, albeit more slowly.

Your parasympathetic state is like the Yin to the sympathetic Yang. It’s the calm, relaxed state that we’re meant to live in most of the time. The threat of being eaten by a lion is, after all, a rare one.

If we’re after optimum recovery, we need to cultivate a more parasympathetic existence. We can help our nervous system achieve this using a few methods.

How you breathe matters.

We need to take in Oxygen and expel Carbon Dioxide efficiently to thrive. These need to be in balance in our lungs. Too much or too little of either will signal a threat to your nervous system.

Contrary to popular belief, CO2 is not bad for you. In fact, it’s the amount of CO2 in your system that stimulates changes in breathing rate.

As breathing is such a large topic - one which warrants an entire article on its own - I’m only going to touch on it here.

Nose-Breathing 

We should all cultivate the habit of nose-breathing as much as possible.

Doing so sends a signal to the nervous system that all is calm. 

One of your first reactions in a threatening situation is to open your mouth to get a large rush of oxygen. 

In a very strange twist, it’s been shown that if you want to stimulate any state, you can do so simply by performing the actions that you would perform in that state.

Try it…

Adopt the posture and breathing of someone who has a deep depression. Sit in a slumped forward position, hands in your lap and head down. Breathe in shallow manner and stare at your feet. If you want to make it really effective, think about how unfair the world is.

Voila! You are now depressed.

It works the same way with stress. And breathing is one of the first, and biggest steps in a stress response.

There are other benefits to nose-breathing too, but achieving that calm state is arguably the most important.

Crocodile Breathing

Nose-breathing encourages you to breathe lower down in your abdomen, using your diaphragm. Breathing slowly and deeply this way stimulates the Vagus nerve, which flips you very effectively into a parasympathetic nervous system state.

Crocodile breathing is an effective way to train yourself to breathe this way because of the proprioceptive (knowing where you are in space) feedback you receive doing so.

Here’s how you do it…

  • Lie on your stomach, looking straight down at the ground, forehead on your hands.
  • Breathe in and out through your nose using a tempo of 1:2:1 (e.g. Breathe in for 3s, out for 6s, hold for 3s).
  • Aim to breathe as low in your abdomen, pushing out against the floor as you breathe in.
  • Don’t force all the air out, simply breathe in a deep, relaxed manner.

The feedback from pushing into the floor with the stomach encourages diaphragmatic breathing. Both this and the slower breathing rate helps to stimulate the Vagus nerve.

Ball Breathing

I have no doubt there’s another name for it but using what I call ball breathing adds an extra element to crocodile breathing.

Instead of lying flat on the floor, lie over a small, partially inflated gym ball (like the Overball pictured, Yoga Tune-Up also do one), press into the ball with your abdomen on the in-breath and allow the ball to sink deep into the abdomen on the out-breath.

I’ve found this remarkably effective for relaxation, so much so that I use it if I’m not tired at the end of a busy day. You’ll go from wide awake to very chilled out in just 5 minutes of ball breathing.

We discussed foam rolling under the section on tissue quality, but it’s also a great way to move from a sympathetic to a parasympathetic state.

In this case, we’re not looking for deep tissue work as we were then. Rather, light to medium pressure rolling along the length of larger muscle groups can promote relaxation of those muscles and a more relaxed state. It’s a lot like having a relaxation massage as opposed to a deep tissue massage.

Meditation combines the power of relaxed breathing with letting go of worrisome thoughts.

This is one of those things that we know works, even though we don’t know exactly how it works.

What’s great is that you only need 10 minutes, but the results can be remarkable.

The difficulties many people find with meditation are either the religious connotations - it doesn’t have to be religious at all - or the fact that meditation is not something which anyone ever masters - it’s a practice, the point of which is not perfection or even progress, just practice.

A regular appointment with a massage therapist, physio (physical therapist) or similar bodywork therapist can be worth its weight in gold.

The “regular” part of this advice is important because you want a therapist who will get to know the foibles of your body. We all have weak spots which require regular attention and monitoring.

Once a fortnight is a good minimum if you can.

Whilst you can keep an eye on these and treat them yourself, using the tools I mentioned in the tissue quality section, a good therapist can usually apply a bit more pressure into those areas and might be able to identify weaknesses and poor patterns that you won’t spot yourself.

For example, my physio identified that I tend to tense my jaw whenever I need to use my Psoas muscle in any significant way. It’s a pattern I’ve developed over years and had become a default pattern. The Psoas is a hip flexor. I’d never have spotted that.

My other advice on therapists relates to how to spot a good one. I’ve tweeted this a lot.

This is just a taste of the multitude of practices that you can adopt to improve your recovery. I’ve written it using the “recovery day” as the template, but you could just as well apply most of these practices to recovery between workouts or at the end of a hard training day.

The beauty of a focus on recovery is that it really is an art, not a science. It’s something you play around with until you find the items that work for you and implement them on a regular basis.

As much as many of us would love to believe the contrary, I leave you with this tweet…

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Will Newton


In over twenty years of coaching, I have coached everyone from absolute beginners to world champions. My interest in getting the best results for people who train for health and fitness or the love of sport, rather than as professionals, drives me to find the most effective ways to get results. My mission is simple: Be in better shape at 70 than most people are at 20, and to help you do the same.

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