“There is no such thing as overtraining, only underrecovery.”-Unknown
How does your body get stronger, faster and leaner? It happens by applying a stress and then recovering from that stress in a cyclical pattern. This begs the question “Is there a way to improve the recovery process so the cycle occurs faster to allow greater training volume and intensity? The answer is yes.
First, you have to apply the proper training stress to produce the adaptation you want, whether it’s a stronger squat, a bigger chest, less body fat or more endurance. Next, you have to get the optimal recovery for adaptation in order to heal. This includes basic nutrition and therapeutic strategies to target the following mechanisms:
• Muscle and tissue repair
• Removal of waste products and reduction of inflammation
• Restoration of energy stores and nutrients necessary for cellular activity
• Recuperation of the central nervous system, which, in simple terms, is repair of the connection between the brain and body
The following are 10 practical strategies to accomplish this in real life.
#1: Get to Know Your Brain: Do Meditation
It’s well known that exercise enhances brain function and leads to an increase in new brain cells. Now, emerging evidence suggests that the brain plays a principal role in recovery and may even rival nutrition in its influence.
Meditation is one of the most powerful ways to get to know your brain for better recovery and enhanced performance. Did you know that those who meditate regularly have naturally higher levels of growth hormone, DHEA and testosterone, as well as lower baseline cortisol?
Research suggests that meditation regulates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis for reduced stress. In one study, researchers found that compared to a stress reduction class, young men who did regular meditation had a higher cortisol response to stress, but it was cleared very quickly once the stress was removed.
This is highly favorable because the stress hormone response is supposed to be large, but fleeting. We should only experience this response when we are in acute, extreme danger – not all the time, as is happening in modern life.
Testosterone and growth hormone were also higher at baseline in the meditation group at the end of the study. A second study shows that melatonin, which is a key hormone for sleep and a powerful antioxidant, was elevated following a meditation practice.
Sleep is probably the best-known factor in recovery, providing more support for you to start meditating today!
How to get started: Telling you how to meditate is out of the scope of this article – it’s not as simple as just sitting quietly, by the way – so it's worthwhile to find an experienced teacher. To get started, you can find a comfortable position and focus on your breath, allowing your mind to clear of thoughts. When thoughts do arise, notice them and let them go, refocusing on deep breaths.
#2: Use Music to Your Advantage
The philosopher Nietzsche said, “We listen to music with our muscles.”
He’s right. Not only does music boost mood, it can improve performance and increase work output and readiness to train.
Music also benefits recovery: For instance, one study showed that listening to music during recovery led athletes to be more active during the recovery period after intense exercise, allowing for faster lactate clearance.
Non-exercise studies show music decreases cortisol in anxious people and boosts immunoglobin A, an antibody linked to immune function. Both are factors in accelerated recovery from training.
What to listen to: Whatever is pleasurable – it doesn’t have to be relaxing if that’s not your thing. The training study had athletes listen to a random blend of different rhythmic beats, whereas other research shows that whatever music people like individually has the most favorable effects.
#3: Topical Curcumin & Magnesium
Topical magnesium and curcumin are extremely effective anti-inflammatories that play a powerful role in accelerating recovery.
Magnesium helps improve muscle healing by interacting with the calcium that accumulates during intense muscle contractions. Magnesium is rapidly depleted during training because it regulates blood pressure, muscle contractions and insulin sensitivity. It also plays a role in buffering lactic acid, enhancing work output, improving heart function and supporting testosterone.
Curcumin, a compound derived from the spice turmeric, is the darling of the wound healing and cancer fighting world. Many studies are being done on it, and recent results show that curcumin accelerates healing by improving cell repair and reducing inflammation.
Also noteworthy, it’s effective for reducing oxidative stress during high temperatures, which is relevant because the recovery process is impaired when you are under heat stress.
How to use ’em: Topical application of curcumin or magnesium is suggested because anecdotal reports show they can reduce sensations of pain. Topicals come in creams and sprays. Simply apply them to muscles after hard training.
For years water was the number-one supplement. There’s a strong link between dehydration and delayed recovery.
Hydration is critical for proper body temperature regulation and both muscle and heart function. Research shows that a hydration deficit of as little as 2 percent decreases maximal strength and athletic performance because it leads to a drop in blood plasma volume so that adequate energy doesn’t reach the muscle cells.
There’s also evidence dehydration will affect the testosterone-to-cortisol ratio, which is a common measure of recovery status as well as readiness to train.
Hydration tip: Every day drink at least 0.7 ounces per pound of body weight.
#5: Eat Adequate Calories
A state of overtraining and a low-fat, energy-restricted diet have one thing in common: a catabolic environment that leads to muscle loss and delayed recovery. Athletes, particularly college athletes in sports with a high workload, are well known for not eating enough.
You need a wide variety of whole foods to replenish everything from glycogen stores and blood antioxidant levels to vital nutrient levels, while addressing the protein threshold mentioned in the next tip.
Fat loss tip: Things get trickier if your only goal is fat loss. Naturally, a calorie deficit is relevant for fat loss. So, to get the nutrient building blocks you need for recovery, opt for a high-protein, higher-fat, low-carb, whole-foods diet that is low in grains or grain free.
#6: Get Enough Protein
Amino acids in protein are used to build muscle and repair tissue. Get protein from a high-protein diet with foods such as meats, eggs, nuts and abundant vegetables. Relying on either a protein powder or amino acids during and after training can enhance recovery.
For example, a recent review found that individuals who took protein powder after training had a 38 percent greater increase in muscle and a 33 percent greater increase in strength than those who did not. On average, taking protein increased muscle mass gains by 0.69 kg and maximal leg strength by 13.5 kg compared with placebo trials. The average amount of protein that was supplemented on top of the normal diet was 50 grams.
Whey protein is well accepted as a superior protein source for the following reasons:
• It’s quickly digested and highly absorbable, elevating blood amino acid levels for tissue repair.
• It has a high content of the branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) but also provides nonessential aminos that have been linked to elevated protein synthesis rates.
• It raises glutathione, which is an internally produced antioxidant that is linked to longevity and disease prevention.
Dosing tip: Training goals will dictate your daily protein dose. For gains in muscle and strength, a threshold dose above 2 g/kg of body weight a day appears to be recommended.
Although the protein review mentioned above found that average protein supplementation was 50 grams, your intake should be dictated by your individual goals. A smaller dose of 20 to 25 grams may be all you need.
#7: Eat High-Zinc Foods: Shellfish & Meat
Adequate zinc is critical for recovery because it is a key element in zinc-copper SOD, which is a necessary internally antioxidant powerhouse like glutathione. In simple terms, it helps decrease the inflammatory response of intense training for faster removal of waste.
Surveys show zinc deficiency is common. For example, one third of Americans get less than the US RDA of 8 mg for women and 11 mg for men. Research shows a suggested optimal level is 15 mg a day.
Foods rich in zinc are shellfish (oysters are the most commonly known) and meat. Cashews, almonds, sunflower and pumpkin seeds are also high in zinc, but these are poorly absorbed.
Supplement tip: You may want to supplement; however, zinc is toxic in high amounts and studies show you do not need to chronically take zinc. Rather, you need to achieve an adequate level of zinc, then get a red blood cell zinc test or monitor status with a taste test, and adjust your intake accordingly.
#8: Eat Antioxidant-Rich Fruits: Berries, Pomegranate, Kiwi, Pineapple
Drinking pure blueberry or tart cherry juice has been found to reduce muscle pain after eccentric exercise. Both of these fruits contain antioxidants that speed the internal elimination of waste products so the body can heal faster.
Similar phytonutrient-rich fruits include pomegranates, raspberries and kiwi, all of which have been found to improve blood antioxidant levels in people who ate them with a high-protein meal.
Pineapple is also a good source of simple carbohydrates and has abundant nutrients that help reduce inflammation and support enzymatic function to restore cellular activity.
Considerations: When eating blueberries and other antioxidant-rich fruits, avoid drinking milk at the same time because studies suggest that the proteins in milk inhibit the antioxidant activity in the body. If whey is your post-workout protein source, simply wait about an hour after drinking it before consuming antioxidant foods – whey digests quickly, so one hour should be more than enough time.
#9: Eat Nutrient-Rich Greens: Leafy Greens & Cruciferous Veggies
Along the same lines as #3, eat a wide variety of green veggies with every meal. They are packed with antioxidants and contain compounds that help the body safely eliminate the hormone estrogen.
You want to promote estrogen detox for two reasons: First, some people metabolize estrogen poorly, which increases cancer risk. Second, poor elimination of chemical estrogens, which are everywhere in the form of BPA plastic and other toxins, will delay recovery.
Suggested veggies: Broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy, chard, collards, kale, cabbage, arugula, watercress, radishes and turnips.
#10: Foam Rolling & Massage
Research supports both foam rolling and massage for muscle recovery. Massage increases drainage of waste products from cells, and stimulates receptors on the skin, leading to a decrease in pain feedback from the spinal cord.
How to do ’em: People often foam roll before training, which is fine – it won’t decrease performance, but it also hasn’t been found to enhance it. To accelerate recovery, use massage and rolling after exercise.