5 signs your recovery is not optimal
Recreation. Yes, that is “not sexy”. rest days? foam rollers? Discharge? Stretch? Just boring...
Most people would love to work themselves out in the gym every day because that's the only way to see results, right?
Maybe not. Or even certainly not!
The truth is, no matter how tough your fitness regimen, how often you train, or how good your diet is, if your recovery is poor, your health, energy, and achievements will suffer. And worst of all: you could lose the fun in sports!
And a not so good rest can be the reason why...
- you are not achieving success in the gym
- you don't lose the last few pounds - but maybe even gain weight
- you're exhausted all the time
- You constantly struggle with sore muscles, stiffness and recurring injuries
In this article, we'll go over five common signs you need to rethink your recovery routine and two simple solutions that will help you recover faster. And even more important - don't let negative experiences spoil your fun in sports!
What is rest anyway?
Most people probably understand "recovery" to mean something like:
“...Recovery is when my muscles are no longer sore. It's when I can train again and feel good about it."
So you roll out of bed, shake out your legs and they don't feel too bad. Your shoulders don't feel strained or restricted. Your eyes are not overly droopy. So you go to the gym.
You're recovered, right?
Not quite. These are just random statements about how your body is feeling.
Recovery, in the scientific sense, is the body's ability to restore its physical and mental processes.
So the goal of recovery isn't to go to bed with sore muscles, wake up "refreshed" and go back to training at 50% power. The goal of recovery is to refresh and restore your muscles, tissues, and ligaments so you can match and even surpass your previous performance.
This is the true definition of "growth".
Now that you know what recovery is, let's look at how you can find out if your recovery routine is affecting your performance.
5 Signs Your Recovery Is Below Average
1) Your performance is stagnating or declining
If your athletic performance isn't improving despite the right training and diet, it might be time to take a look at your recovery routine.
If your recovery is poor, your training is ineffective and you're wasting your time and energy. You are basically training for the sake of training without changing or improving your performance.
It's like you're a hamster on a wheel, running at full speed and not making progress.
Too little recovery means you'll never get faster, better, or stronger - even though you train for hours.
That's the definition of insanity, isn't it?
The most important thing is that you recover properly so your body can do its best and your results don't flatten out.
2) You gain weight despite good performance
When you exercise too much or don't properly recover between workouts, your body tends to go into what is known as "fight or flight" mode.
This condition is characterized by overactivation of the sympathetic nervous system, which stimulates the adrenal glands to release stress hormones such as cortisol.
"Fight or Flight" is a useful physiological state when you need to flee from a hungry tiger in the jungle, for example. But when it comes to your recovery, that's not ideal.
Having high cortisol levels day after day from overtraining and underresting can be particularly damaging to your waistline¹
The chronically elevated cortisol levels you get from overtraining and not resting enough can even contribute to weight gain in a number of ways, for example
It increases your appetite, especially for foods high in sugar and carbohydrates²
Affecting certain hormones that help you build muscle and burn fat.
Switching metabolism to store fat by down-regulating thyroid activity⁴.
When you rest and recover properly, you reduce the stress on your body, lower your cortisol levels, and put your nervous system into a parasympathetic "rest and digest" state.
And in this parasympathetic state, you can really reap the rewards of your training.
During the recovery phase, your body is signaling that a number of repair mechanisms are taking place and that your thyroid and metabolism should be up-regulated.
This makes it easier for you to build muscle and burn fat during the recovery phase - and isn't that the goal?
3) You are overly tired or exhausted
If you've ever had a strenuous workout, tiredness and fatigue are likely the result. Lots of people love the sense of achievement when they hit the gym, and after feeling the burn, they faint on the couch in the middle of a Netflix show, jeans still on and drool all over them Face.
Okay, that's a little dramatic. But you get the point. Post-exercise fatigue is normal...to a certain extent.
However, what is not normal is when fatigue creeps into your daily life.
When it becomes impossible to get out of bed. When you reach for that third or fourth cup of coffee to get through the workday.
When you come home from a normal day at work but feel completely exhausted.
If you can no longer motivate yourself to exercise because you are so tired. And in very extreme cases, when you can't fall asleep at night (aptly referred to as "tired but awake").
This extreme fatigue can be linked to poor athletic recovery and may be related to prolonged elevated cortisol levels (mentioned above).
After a while, your receptors become less sensitive to cortisol and the body's energy production system (called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal or HPA axis) stops working properly.⁵ This leaves you feeling drained and burned out.⁶
Not exactly the recipe for human excellence.
4) Low heart rate variability
It may come as a surprise, but a healthy heartbeat is actually somewhat irregular, meaning that each beat doesn't necessarily occur at the same interval.
For example, instead of hitting like that, it hits
lub dub... lub dub... lub dub... lub dub...
a healthy heart actually beats like this:
lub dub ....... lub dub .. lub dub .... lub dub ...
The way we measure changes in the rhythm of the heartbeat is called heart rate variability (HRV).
Measuring your HRV is one of the best ways to tell if your body is stressed, and in general, the higher your HRV (measured using HRV devices from 0-100), the more rested and ready you are to exercise.⁷
For example, when the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, it releases acetylcholine to induce a slow heart rate and a state of relaxation. Your heart rate is at its highest at this point, and a high heart rate indicates a low stress level.
On the other hand, if you're over-trained and not well-rested, or suffer from sleep deprivation, your heart's healthy beat-to-beat variability will decrease, indicating a low HRV.
Even if you don't have an HRV monitor, you can determine this phenomenon by feeling your pulse on your neck or wrist.
You should feel the longest intervals occur on the exhale (parasympathetic) and the shortest intervals on the inhale (sympathetic).
In other words:
A high HRV (~90+ on one device) means that the intervals between heartbeats are highly variable, indicating that you are well rested and recovered.
A low HRV (<60 on one device) or an HRV that jumps from day to day means that the variability in your heartbeat intervals is low, which could indicate that you are overtrained and not recovered.
Monitoring HRV is a great way to find out how your body is actually recovering, even though you may not be feeling so well.
5) You are constantly sore, stiff, or injured
Yes, we know that your high school basketball coach often repeated the ultra motivating phrase "no pain, no gain". While that may be true for a sprightly 15-year-old, the last thing most of us want to deal with as we age is excessive muscle soreness, stiffness, or recurring injuries.
Let's talk specifically about sore muscles.
DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) is a mystery to scientists, but it's thought to be related to an inflammatory response that increases the sensitivity of nerve endings in the connective tissue of muscles.⁸
Usually DOMS occurs 1-2 days after exercise and causes muscle soreness, pain, stiffness and in some cases an increased risk of injury.
Contrary to what Coach Jackson told you in basketball practice, there's no evidence that muscle soreness is indicative of increased muscle damage or hypertrophy (ie better "gains").
In fact, research has shown that both high and low muscle soreness training programs result in similar gains in muscle mass.⁹
In other words, muscle soreness is not a prerequisite for better performance or muscle gain.
A little soreness never hurt anyone, but being constantly sore, stiff, or injured is not only annoying and painful, it could also mean your body needs a break from hard training.
Instead of torturing yourself through the pain, you may need more active or passive recovery. Try foam rollers, stretches, or light exercise to break up the inflammatory buildup in your muscles.
Key points and a simple recovery solution
In summary, if you have any of the following problems, you should reconsider the importance of your recovery routine:
- performance plateaus
- resistance to weight loss
- Low heart rate variability
- Frequent muscle soreness, stiffness, or injuries