Train Hard, Recover Harder

Tom MacCormick

Strength and Conditioning, Personal Training, Sports Science

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Based on my email inbox and Instagram DMs, recovery from training is a hot topic. I get asked all kinds of questions about recovery techniques.

 

  • "Can you assess my supplement stacks?"
  • "Should I do active recovery workouts?"
  • "When do I foam roll?"
  • "How would you change my nutrition on rest days?"
  • "What stretching routine should I do post-workout?"
  • "Will ice baths or cold showers help my gains?"
  • "What about cupping, compression garments, and percussion massagers!"

 

 

I’m delighted people are giving their recovery some attention. Sadly, I think they are focusing their attention on the wrong parts of the recovery puzzle. In this exercise recovery series, I will help you maximize your recovery and results by focusing on what matters.

 

I’ll explain:

 

  1. Why stress is a double-edged sword and how to manage it.
  2. Why recovery starts with great programming
  3. The two most powerful recovery tools and how to optimize them
  4. Six other recovery methods that work

 

This trend for increased attention to recovery is admirable.

 

In part, it isn’t surprising given I’m fond of reminding people they don’t get bigger and stronger lifting weights, but by recovering from lifting weights.

 

I have often tried to illustrate the importance of recovery by displaying progress as a simple equation:

 

Stimulus + Recovery = Adaptation

Stress Can Be Good

Stress can be both good and bad. Good stress, or what psychologists refer to as eustress, is the type of stress we feel when excited. Training is a stress to the body. If adequately dosed, it is undoubtedly useful.

 

Bad stress comes in two forms:

 

  1. Acute stress triggers the body's stress response, but these triggers and emotions are not happy or exciting. In general, acute stress doesn't take a heavy toll. The stress response is fleeting, and the body returns to homeostasis, or its pre-stress state, quickly.
  2. Chronic stress is bad. It occurs when we repeatedly face stressors that do take a heavy toll. We often feel crushed, overwhelmed, and trapped by this stress. For example, a stressful job with a jackass for a boss or an unhappy home relationship can cause chronic stress.

 

 

Your tolerance for stress and the ability to manage it is different from mine.

 

Our tolerance also fluctuates over time. There is only so much stress you can handle. When you have too much pressure, you get overwhelmed. Your recovery from training will suffer at times of high stress.

 

Managing your stress levels will improve the quality of your life.

 

It will improve your digestion, recovery, mood, and productivity. It will also enhance your muscle gain and fat loss efforts.

 

Stress Management; Not Avoidance

Notice I refer to it as stress management—Not stress avoidance or reduction.

 

The fact is that you cannot avoid stress altogether.

 

You can, however, improve how you manage it. If you manage stress better, you will be happier, fitter, leaner, and more muscular. In short, life will be better.

 

What Is Stress?

The body’s control center is the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The ANS regulates the involuntary functions of the human body. The stuff that happens without you consciously thinking about it, such as breathing or digestion.

 

The ANS has two branches:

 

  1. The parasympathetic is also known as your rest and digest mode.
  2. The sympathetic is the fight or flight mode.

 

These two work in a see-saw-like fashion. Whenever one of the modes is activated, the other isn't. When one is up, the other is down.

 

Unfortunately, your body cannot differentiate between different types of stress.

 

When the sympathetic nervous system is upregulated, it cannot tell the difference between the stress of a life-threatening event, a challenging workout, or the asshole who just cut you off in traffic.

 

To manage stress, we want to spend most of our time in a parasympathetic state. The reality is, however, that we spend too much time in a sympathetic state. The non-stop barrage of stresses adds up as we face daily challenges.

 

This sympathetic state has many negative health implications and inhibits our ability to build lean muscle and drop body fat.

 

In my experience, so many hard-gainers struggle to see progress because they are chronically stressed and work to manage stress, which increases their anxiety and causes a downward spiral.

 

Rather than being hard-gainers, I refer to these people as easy-losers.

 

Their stress levels result in them losing gains alarmingly quickly with the slightest change in a routine or life circumstance because they manage stress poorly.

 

With that background out of the way, it’s time to identify strategies that help to control stress as much as possible.

 

Monitoring Heart Rate to Manage Stress

A good proxy for your stress levels and parasympathetic versus sympathetic dominance is your waking heart rate.

 

Monitoring your heart rate will give you useful data to assess your general stress status and identify when stress levels spike upward.

 

Significant increases or decreases in your waking heart rate indicate when you are experiencing higher periods of stress. I suggest you get a decent heart rate monitor to assess this. You could also explore heart rate variability apps to add another level of assessment.

 

Be More Productive With Less Stress

Cal Newport talks about how being on autopilot can help you be more productive and less stressed. He says that there are two types of work in his world:

 

  1. Regularly occurring tasks

  2. Non-regularly occurring tasks

 

Being on autopilot is true of almost everyone’s life.

 

The problem with regularly occurring tasks is that they are so numerous that if we try to manage them on the fly, we get behind and become overwhelmed.

 

I believe this sense of being overwhelmed is one of the critical drivers of stress in people’s lives. It certainly is a significant cause of mine.

 

To deal with this, Newport assigns every regularly occurring task a specific time slot. He calls this his auto-pilot schedule. He found that he doesn’t waste time or energy struggling to prioritize and schedule tasks day-to-day. They run on autopilot.

 

Once you have this stuff allocated to specific times and make that a routine, you can assign all other available time to other things that interest you. This method takes some up-front planning but, it pays dividends.

 

The final point is to understand that it will take time to refine and adjust this process.

 

Fortunately, you’ll be so much more efficient you’ll have the time available to make adjustments when needed.

 

The Miracle Morning Routine for Positivity

Having a morning routine to start your day gets you off on the right foot and sets the scene for the rest of the day.

 

It allows you to run the day rather than the day running you.

 

I am a proponent of the Miracle Morning Routine. I do the express version, which takes less than 15 minutes and has six steps.

 

The six steps are:

 

  1. Silence

  2. Affirmations

  3. Visualizations

  4. Exercise

  5. Reading

  6. Scribing

 

There are various apps available that guide you through the process.

 

When I stick to the Miracle Morning routine, I am more productive and feel in control.

 

Meditation Combats Stress

Meditation is a great way to combat stress. I have not gone full granola-yogi yet. Perhaps when I’m a bit older, I’ll embrace Zen fully.

 

I am aware that the word meditation conjures negative connotations with some people (my granola-yogi reference is a case in point). So, if you’re not quite prepared to consider meditation, call it sitting in silence, chillaxing, mindfulness, or whatever makes you comfortable.

 

Rather than full-on meditation, I sit quietly and focus on my breath for a couple of minutes.

 

Belly breathing deep breaths through the nose and slow exhalations out through the mouth do the trick.

 

If you want some guidance, then the app Headspace is excellent. I have done some of the 5-10 minute guided meditations, and it certainly chills you out. These few minutes every day will have a remarkable effect on managing your stress levels.

 

Mindfulness

Being mindful or present is all the rage these days.

 

There is a good reason for that. We live in an ever-connected yet hyper-distracted world. The sheer volume of inputs competing for our attention is mind-boggling.

 

Living in this always distracted state is stressful and similar to Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).

 

Try to fix this:

 

  • By focusing entirely on one task at a time
  • Then, aim to be present within that task.
  • Fully immerse yourself in the sounds, smells, sensations, visuals, and taste of whatever you are doing.

 

Whether that be journaling in your leather-bound notepad while drinking a coffee, hanging out with friends at a BBQ, or drafting that killer sales pitch sitting in front of your laptop in the office.

 

Being fully in the moment will make you more productive, efficient, and effective at whatever you are doing. It will help to improve your mood and filter out external, potential stressors.

 

Cheesy quote alert:

 

Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift – that is why it is called the present.

- Eleanor Roosevelt

 

Emotional Reactions Last 90 Seconds

In his book, The Chimp Paradox, Dr. Steve Peters talks about our chimp brain and how it can control us. When the chimp takes over, logic evaporates, and emotion takes over.

 

All too often, when we are under stress, we take the emotional approach. The chimp inside us gets irritable and can wreak havoc before we know what has happened.

 

When we get an emotional reaction to something, it usually subsides after about 90 seconds if we don’t act on it.

 

Pema Chodron speaks about this in the book, Living Beautifully: With Uncertainty and Change.

 

Emotions will ebb and flow. Under stressful situations, they might rise like a Tsunami inside you. That’s only natural. It seems the best way to deal with and keep stress under control is to accept the emotions. To feel them. But do not act on them. If you act on them, you add fuel to their fire. They will rage higher and for longer. Instead, let them burn themselves out. Then, once you are calm and logic has returned, consider ways to avoid repeating the situation, which placed you in a stress position and caused negative emotions like fear, worry, hate, or anxiety to surface.

- Pema Chodron

 

Take a Deep Breath

While feeling the emotions, it might be a good idea to take a deep breath in through your nose, hold it for a few seconds and then exhale through your mouth.

 

This deep breathing has an incredibly calming effect on your body. In my experience, it can help to speed the reduction in negative emotions when they arise.

 

A side effect of stress is shallow breathing.

 

Shallow breathing impairs the proper oxygenation of cells and reduces your body’s ability to recover.

 

Given I am so fond of saying, “You don’t get big lifting weights, you get big recovering from lifting weights.”

 

I’ve said it twice in this article, so it should be obvious why I believe being stuck in a stressed, shallow breathing state limits your gains.

 

Post Workout Recovery Pro Tip: Using some simple breathing exercises, post-workout switches you from the fight or flight mode to the restorative rest and digest mode.

 

This breathing instantly reduces stress levels, increases the oxygenation of cells, and accelerates the recovery processes. If you train in the evening, it will also help you to relax and get to sleep.

 

Sleep is the most powerful recovery tool you have available, so this is crucial!

 

Breathing exercises can also be beneficial as a proactive stress management tool when done daily. As I mentioned earlier, I try to do it each morning for a couple of minutes. It creates a wonderfully calm sensation. I would never claim to appear serene, but this is probably the closest I feel.

 

Gain Perspective

Is what is stressing you out that bad? Most of the stuff we worry about is not that significant. It’s rarely life or death or leading us to financial ruin.

 

Sit back, take stock, and ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen?”

 

Often this allows you to gain some perspective, view the stressor objectively, and place its significance appropriately in the hierarchy of events, needs, wants, or stresses in your life.

 

Nine times out of ten, you’ll then chill the f**k out and realize you’ve got your knickers in a twist unnecessarily.

 

Bonus Tip:

 

Step away from your phone–no, not this very second–keep reading this fascinating article:) then, step away from your phone.

 

Phone Dependency

While waiting for a train or in a line, what do you instinctively do? Most of us reach for our phones. This dependency for our phone wasn’t the case as recently as 10 to 12 years ago.

 

We would have to wait—occupied only by our thoughts or perhaps the conversation struck up with a stranger waiting alongside us (conversations with real people, in-person–now that is weird).

 

We’ve lost the art of patience, waiting, and thinking.

 

Boredom is a thing of the past. There is always a notification, something on social media, YouTube, or Netflix to entertain us. We still plug into the matrix and appear unable to extract ourselves.

 

There are many positives to smartphones (don’t get me wrong, smartphones are incredible). The downside is we have become slaves to them.

 

Our phones increase our stress and anxiety and help to push us towards a sympathetic state.

 

Try to take some time away from them—a digital detox of sorts. Switching off/into flight mode can relieve stress and anxiety. It can also allow you to achieve the mindfulness and presence that I discussed earlier.

 

Taking time away from our phones isn’t easy. Smartphones are addictive! I struggle with it but, I am aware that when I have work to do, or I’m out with the family, I am less stressed, more productive, and happier when the phone is out of sight. This struggle applies to those that I am with also. Start small and build up the time.

 

Some ideas to begin to control your phone usage are:

 

  • Don’t check it for the first 30 mins of your day.

  • When doing important work, please switch it on airplane mode and set a timer for how long the work task should take. Don’t look at your phone until the time is up.

  • No smartphones at mealtimes

  • Put your phone down in another room when at home so you’re not distracted by it.

  • Are you watching TV with your wife, girlfriend, husband, boyfriend, friends, family, cat, or dog? Have the phone out of sight. Enjoy doing what you are doing and the fact you are not distracted by the phone.

  • Establish no-go zones. Whether it be physical (e.g., not in the bedroom) or time zones (e.g., no phone use for the first hour after I get home from work), this rule will improve the quality of your relationships with significant others.

  • Lead by example on this. If you would like to be less distracted when spending time with your partner, begin by deliberately being less distracted yourself. Then, when you suggest they do the same, they are more likely to respect and value your opinion. Trying to force it on them before you have achieved it will meet with resistance.

 

I hope the above tips on managing stress are useful to you.

 

If you can use some of these to manage your stress, you will be a happier, more productive, and focused person. You will also thrive on rigorous training programs and translate your workouts into noticeable gains in strength, size, and body composition.

 

In the second installment of this series The Importance Of Structured Training Programs In Recovery, I explain why significant recovery begins with excellent program design.

 

In it, I outline the four key concepts you need to understand how to optimize your training and maximize your recoverability.

 

Don't miss the other parts of the exercise recovery series:

 

  1. Train Hard, Recover Harder
  2. The Importance Of Structured Training Programs In Recovery
  3. Nature's Two Most Powerful Exercise Recovery Tools
  4. Active, Passive, And Earned Exercise Recovery Strategies
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