The Next Frontier in Recovery

Technology is quickly narrowing the knowledge gap between elite athletes and the rest of us.

Globally, fitness and training has exponentially exploded over the last couple of years, helped by social media, trends, and technology. It’s virtually impossible when looking at social media not to be exposed to someone uploading their latest personal best on their squat or run time. Some people take offense to these posts and consider them to be narcissistic, but like it or not, it’s a trend that doesn’t look like it’s ending anytime soon. In fact, it’s only going to increase with the expansion of gadgets that allow people to connect with social media for easy shareability.

I have noticed a significant shift in the last couple of years toward general gym-goers having a much higher level of knowledge pertaining to training application, programming, nutrition, and supplementation. Several years ago, you would see many more ill-informed people doing incorrect things in the gym with bad form. Now, people are getting fed information via social media on when to take a deload, on carb cycling, or how to mobilize a talocrural joint, just to name a few. Often times I’ll go up and ask people where they learned whatever they are doing, only to get the response, “I saw it on YouTube.”

The truth is, there is no shortage of information out there, and anything you need to know can be found online. With the uprising of knowledge, people are pushing their limits in the gym more frequently with advanced methods, whether it’s strength, athletic performance, anaerobic conditioning, or body composition targets.

Getting access to the training protocols of top-level athletes in CrossFit, bodybuilding and sports via social media is a common occurrence. This can be both good and bad. People sometimes apply high-level training to an intermediate or novice lifter, which is not only dangerous, but skips over the fundamentals. On the plus side, it shows the general population the amount of work and dedication it takes to perform at the highest level.

The Stuff You Won’t Watch on YouTube

As social media is driven by likes, shares, and views, the less engaging content, like rest and recovery, gets glossed over because everyone wants to see what the wolverine can deadlift, and what the bikini competitor does to develop her glutes. It’s going to be far less engaging to see them sleep for eight hours and eat large quantities of green vegetables.

But therein lies the secret sauce, which is how well you can recover from your training protocols. Little do people realize that the majority of their results (provided they do the work) are based on how well they can recover and adapt to the training stimulus they are applying. You can flog a dead horse until the cows come home, but unless you’re recovering it doesn’t mean a thing! You need to think of exercise like administering medicine: too much or too little won’t give you the desired outcomes. Getting the right dose of training along with appropriate recovery strategies is the recipe for success!

How Training Makes You Better

The whole premise of training is to adapt to the stimulus that you are exposing yourself to. When you lift weights or go for a run, you are exposing yourself to stress and your body will respond accordingly. Cardio training will help capillarization, increase stroke volume, and improve mitochondrial density, while resistance training will increase muscle cross-sectional area, and improves strength and power output.1, 2

These effects are explained by something called “General Adaption Syndrome,” also known as supercompensation.3 It is a four-step process. Step 1 is the application of training and the body’s reaction to the training stress. Step 2 is the recovery phase or active rest. This phase will result in the energy stores and performance returning to baseline (homeostasis). Step 3 is the supercompensation phase, with a positive reaction from the stressor producing an improvement. Step 4 is the loss of the supercompensation effect, when there is a decline straight after the peak.4

Supercompensation can’t happen if you never allow your body to recover.

Real-Time Recovery Monitoring

Just as general populations have improved their knowledge of training techniques and protocols through technology and social media shares, I believe that the next trend is the final frontier for improved results, which is learning the latest science on recovery strategies and monitoring techniques.

There has already been a wave of technology made accessible through wearable devices that gather data on sleep, sweat, movement, heart rate, and heart rate variability. With that data alone, we have unprecedented insight into energy expenditure, rest, overtraining, and nervous system motorization.5, 6

The exciting part of this is that it’s just the beginning. Future devices will be able to measure in real time things such as blood glucose, cholesterol, hormone levels, and much more. The implications for this will be huge, with implications for diet, training and sleep. Giving more descriptive measures will not only make people more aware of what their body will be suited to, to enhance the recovery process, but will inevitably help with behavior change. For example, getting direct feedback on your blood work just after eating a donut can act as an effective deterrent, by letting you know what it can do to your health immediately after consumption!

The Pitfalls of Inadequate Recovery

Recovery is beneficial to everyone, with no exceptions; whether it’s weight loss, muscle gain, athletic performance, or just for general health purposes. You might be able to cheat the system for a short period of time, but in the long run, you will have to pay for it through rest, recovery, and nutrition. For example, if you’re seeking weight loss, it’s a harmful strategy to simply increase training frequency without factoring your increased physiological needs. You may be burning more calories with the increased effort, however the long-term metabolic impact caused by raised cortisol and stress levels will be detrimental to sustainable results.7

(Source: Bev Childress)

The same logic applies for the heavy-hitting bodybuilder who thinks that just increasing the intensity, volume, or frequency of weight training sessions will lead to packing on more lean muscle mass, faster. Think again. Without adequate recovery, the consequences could actually be catabolic, as the true magic of hypertrophy occurs during the all-important recovery phase, not actually during the work.2

Recover as Hard as You Train

Until technology evolves enough to do the thinking for us, here are some general strategies to ensure your training isn’t ruined by inadequate recovery:

  • Sleep: There is an individual point for most people, but as a general rule of thumb, aim for seven hours, and adjust accordingly upon tracking and self-assessment.
  • Nutrition: Make sure you meet all your macro- and micronutrient requirements. With increased training, there will be increased requirements for certain nutrients. I highly recommend getting blood tests as a way of tracking certain micronutrients. If you don’t know what your requirements are, always seek professional help in the area of sports nutrition.
  • Deload/Planned Taper: This is highly dependent on the macrocycle of your training schedule, but as a general guideline, there should be a deload or a taper in your training every six to eight weeks. The three main ways to do this are to reduce either intensity or volume (around 15%), or you can do supplemental lifts or cross training as a substitute.
  • Active Rest: Rest doesn’t always mean plonking yourself in front of the TV and doing nothing. Movement training, mobility drills, self-myofascial-release (SMR), and hot and cold water therapy are great ways to improve recovery.
  • Breathing and Mindfulness: Both breathing exercises and mindfulness have been shown to increase parasympathetic tone, which is a crucial factor in the recovery process.8 Plus, research has reported increases in performance and reduced anxiety levels.9

Don’t Bankrupt Your Fitness

Think of your body like a bank. You go into debt every time you train or exercise. Your fitness level, genetics, intensity, frequency, and volume of the training will all play a factor in how much debt you can take on before you have to pay up with rest and nutrition. If you don’t save enough by taking much needed time to recover, then eventually you will be paying for it through sickness, injury, or extreme fatigue, causing a reduction in performance and ultimately, long term results.10

How far in the hole are you?

Sleep Debt Accumulates Quickly


1. Pesta, Dominik, Florian Hoppel, Christian Macek, Hubert Messner, Martin Faulhaber, Conrad Kobel, Walther Parson, Martin Burtscher, Michael Schocke, and Erich Gnaiger. “Similar qualitative and quantitative changes of mitochondrial respiration following strength and endurance training in normoxia and hypoxia in sedentary humans.” American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology 301, no. 4 (2011): R1078-R1087.

2. Powers, Scott. Exercise Physiology: Theory and application to fitness and performance. McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2014.

3. Selye, Hans. “Stress and the general adaptation syndrome.” British Medical Journal 1, no. 4667 (1950): 1383.

4. Gambetta, Vern. “Athletic development.” Champaign: Human Kinetics Publishing (2007).

5. Aubert, André E., Bert Seps, and Frank Beckers. “Heart rate variability in athletes.” Sports Medicine 33, no. 12 (2003): 889-919.

6. Mourot, Laurent, Malika Bouhaddi, Stéphane Perrey, Sylvie Cappelle, Marie?Thérèse Henriet, Jean?Pierre Wolf, Jean?Denis Rouillon, and Jacques Regnard. “Decrease in heart rate variability with overtraining: assessment by the Poincare plot analysis.” Clinical Physiology and Functional Imaging 24, no. 1 (2004): 10-18.

7. Kellmann, Michael. “Underrecovery and overtraining: Different concepts-similar impact.” Enhancing Recovery: Preventing underperformance in athletes (2002): 3-24.

8. Levy, David M., Jacob O. Wobbrock, Alfred W. Kaszniak, and Marilyn Ostergren. “The effects of mindfulness meditation training on multitasking in a high-stress information environment.” In Proceedings of Graphics Interface 2012, pp. 45-52. Canadian Information Processing Society, 2012.

9. Ramel, Wiveka, Philippe R. Goldin, Paula E. Carmona, and John R. McQuaid. “The effects of mindfulness meditation on cognitive processes and affect in patients with past depression.” Cognitive Therapy and Research 28, no. 4 (2004): 433-455.

10. Budgett, Richard. “Fatigue and underperformance in athletes: the overtraining syndrome.” British Journal of Sports Medicine 32, no. 2 (1998): 107-110.

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