By Dr. Chris Leib and the Exercise Geeks
Recently, many media and scientifically-based articles have been published emphasizing the importance and benefits of optimal recovery for athletes and population alike [1-4]. Whenever there’s a rush of new information on a topic, trying to find the plan of care that’s right for you can be pretty overwhelming.
Below, we hope to simplify this information by classifying recovery and restoration techniques into five broad categories that are imperative for optimal function.
Even mild dehydration can have a negative effect on physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Often, the early signs of dehydration can be nonspecific and difficult to notice. In order to optimize recovery, we must replenish both the water and the electrolytes (minerals in your blood and other body fluids that carry an electric charge) that are lost during exercise. But what’s the best way to do this?
Hydration plan of attack:
1. Don’t rely on thirst ONLY.
Although our innate thirst is often a sufficient guide for telling us when to drink , in instances of high-intensity and long-duration exercise, it can sometimes be misleading . The hypothalamus of the brain is the control center for thirst and hydration and can actually send signals to dampen your thirst when water loss is excessive .
With this being said, one should also be aware of the color, quality, and volume of urine. In the absence of new medications or supplements being added to the diet, pale yellow or straw-colored urine usually suggests adequate hydration, whereas a dark yellow or amber color usually signals dehydration . Infrequent urination and low urine volume can also suggest inadequate hydration .
2. Add a pinch of salt.
Often the first factor we consider when dealing with hydration is water consumption. For recovery from prolonged physical activity, this thought process can be flawed. During physical activity, increased water consumption in combination with electrolyte losses in perspiration can lead to dilution of these electrolytes (especially sodium) from the body, potentially resulting in hyponatremia . Exercise-associated hyponatremia is a disorder caused by excessively low sodium levels in the bloodstream secondary to athletes consuming more water than the kidneys can excrete.
A simple strategy to prevent this condition and better aid in recovery is to add a pinch of Himalayan sea salt to your water in order to better absorb the fluid into your blood . This addition can lead to better hydration with less need for fluid consumption . Just be careful not to add too much salt, or your GI system may fight back.
2. Eat water-based fruits and vegetables.
Many fruits and vegetables are water-based and contain a plethora of natural electrolytes and other essential nutrients that are lost during exercise. Play around with different combinations of high water-based fruits and vegetables such as watermelon, strawberries, zucchini, peppers, and dark leafy greens . Add sea salt to these foods as snacks or mix them all together for a hydration-packed shake.
We all know nutrition is important for health and performance. However, few topics bring nutrition to the forefront like recovery. Generally speaking, the goal of training is to break the body down so it will come back stronger. With this in mind, it’s clear that how one restores their body after vigorous efforts plays a major role in the benefits he or she will get from those efforts.
Nutrition for recovery is complex and may differ highly from person to person, but the following plan of attack is a good starting point.
Nutrition plan of attack:
1. Enjoy a fruity shake with green tea.
Glycogen is the body’s main fuel source during moderate- and high-intensity exercise , and its depletion is a common side effect of exhaustive physical activity. In order to allow for the physiological adaptations to take place that enable progression in training, this vital fuel source must be replenished .
According to a 2008 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology, a simple way to accomplish glycogen repletion is by consuming easily digestible carbohydrates in combination with caffeine immediately after exercise . This combination was demonstrated to create a more rapid glycogen replenishment when compared to consuming carbohydrates alone. Try blending a teaspoon of matcha green tea in with a combination of banana, apples, and berries. Blending the ingredients together makes the concoction more easily digestible without all the processing that goes into commercial shakes, bars, and gels.
2. Add egg whites to your shake.
Breakdown of muscle protein is often substantial with prolonged and high-intensity exercise; therefore, its repair process must be considered a vital part of optimal recovery . Research shows that consuming high-quality protein sources both pre- and post-exercise has far-reaching benefits for this repair process . The “anabolic window” for which this protein should be ingested is often debated and rarely agreed upon. However, the latest research on this topic indicates that consuming these sources anywhere within 4-6 hours of each other is sufficient to optimize recovery .
In order to get a full amino acid profile in your protein selection without having to deal with the confusion of which protein powder is best, try at least three servings of liquid egg whites added to a fruit and green tea mixture both before and after your workout.
3. Eat hearty salads.
Although it appears that protein consumption before and after exercise is an important part of the recovery process, it does not mean that a solid pre- and post-workout shake compensates for poor nutrition throughout the day. The process of protein synthesis continues throughout the day and is further promoted by consumption of high-quality protein sources all day long . Moreover, nutrition immediately pre- and post-exercise is most effective when easily digestible. This practice, however, also leads to a rise in blood sugar, creating food cravings and hunger throughout the rest of the day. Therefore, consuming a whole foods-based meal with slower digesting sources of sustenance can be a good strategy to keep you satiated longer.
Each day try consuming at least two large salads with plenty of dark leafy greens, water-based fruits and veggies, high-quality protein (100% grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, free range eggs, etc.), and extra virgin olive oil.
It’s well known that sleep is important for many vital bodily functions, but for the active individual with a busy lifestyle it may seem nearly impossible to find the time to meet even minimum standards. With this in mind, it’s important to note that sleep is more than just your “time in bed.” Really, it’s a natural state of mind for living beings . This state of mind is characterized by altered consciousness, relatively inhibited sensory activity, inhibition of nearly all voluntary muscles, and reduced interactions with your surroundings .
When discussing sleep, the quantity of time one is sleeping is often most commonly mentioned (i.e. “get your 8 hours in”). However, the scientific literature reveals that there really isn’t a magic number of hours one needs to sleep for optimal health and well-being. For example, some studies indicate a positive relationship to mortality when sleeping 6-7 hours [16,17] while others studies show a negative such relationship with more than 7-8 hours of sleep [16,18].
Sleep quantity (amount of sleep) neglects important factors such as depression, socioeconomic status, and physical illness. (Illness may lead to greater sleep duration but not better physical function or longer life .) Understanding this, let’s discuss sleep from the angle of sleep quality. How does one improve the quality of their sleep, and what are the benefits to doing so?
There are three major benefits for physical restoration with improved sleep quality:
1. Waste clearance
As recently as 2013, L. Xie et al. demonstrated the effects of quality sleep on increasing glymapthic system activity . The glymapthic system is like the central nervous system’s (CNS’s) version of the peripheral lymphathic system and is responsible for clearance of waste products from the CNS .
2. ATP restoration
Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is likely the most important molecule involved in energy transfer for human beings . It’s the body’s “molecule of currency”  for energy transfer and is restored during the times of decreased brain activity that occur primarily during non-REM sleep (slow-wave sleep) .
3. Growth hormone secretion
During periods of slow-wave sleep, bursts of growth hormone are produced . Growth hormone stimulates growth (obviously), as well as cell reproduction and regeneration .
Quality Sleep Plan of Attack:
1. Sleep in darkness.
The enzymatic processes that produce melatonin can only take place in darkness . Melatonin is a hormone that anticipates the daily onset of darkness and is involved in the synchronization of the circadian rhythms of physiological functions such as sleep timing and blood pressure regulation . Melatonin has been found to be effective and safe in improving sleep latency (time to get into sleep state), sleep quality, and daytime alertness in several populations that experience chronic sleep disorders . In order to optimize your environment for melatonin production, try using a sleep mask or blackout shades in your bedroom.
2. Awaken naturally.
Scientific literature has demonstrated the importance of awakening from sleep after moving through a deep sleep state into a lighter sleep state [16,26]. Awakening abruptly from a deep sleep state has been demonstrated to increase the amount of time one spends in sleep inertia – a decline in motor dexterity and a subjective feeling of grogginess immediately following an abrupt awakening . If this state is prolonged, one can develop a perpetual feeling of not getting enough sleep, making training efforts less effective.
Try using an app on your phone such as Sleep Cycle, which utilizes an accelerometer-based alarm clock to wake you at a time that corresponds to the closest light sleep stage (when you are moving more frequently) relative to the window of time you want to wake up .
3. Sleep in a cold room.
Along with having higher concentrations of melatonin, lower core body temperature has been shown to be an important marker for reaching an optimal state of sleep quality [28, 29]. Taking a cold shower before bed may seem like a good idea, but the research shows that it’s better for the body to reach its lowest core temperature a few hours into sleep [28, 29]. Thus, a better solution is simply to sleep in a room at a cooler temperature (~65℉).
4. Eat your protein; cut your sugar.
A 2011 study in the Western Journal of Nursing Research demonstrated that participants eating a high-protein diet had better quality sleep, as measured by the number of wakeful episodes during night-time sleep . The same study also indicated that a high-carb diet corresponded with much shorter periods of restful sleep.
Research on the processes and benefits of meditation is a growing field in neuroscience. In the realm of recovery, meditative practices have been shown to downregulate the biological processes that were triggered during physical stress to the body and mind [31-33]. Specifically, meditation produces a decrease in sympathetic (fight-or-flight response) and an increase in parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) activity, leading to recovery benefits such as a decrease in heart and respiratory rate, decreased cortisol (the body’s chronic stress hormone), and synthesis of glycogen [31-33].
In Dr. Chris Leib’s experience, meditation has been an integral part of helping him through some of the most trying times of his life and currently sets the standard by which he measures happiness. Moreover, his meditation practice acts as a counterbalance to the physical, mental, and emotional stress of the daily grind of physical training, raising children, and managing a career.
The following suggestions are based on Chris’s formalized instruction and experience with meditation over the past six years. There are several methods for practice, and we encourage you to seek out a practice that fits your personal needs.
Meditation Plan of Attack:
1. Get in position.
When practicing sitting meditation, it’s important to find a comfortable position that promotes both relaxation and proper breathing mechanics. Sitting in a chair is acceptable initially; however, in general, chair sitting promotes a flexed posture that compresses the diaphragm, leading to difficulty with abdominal breathing. It’s best to look at your sitting meditation posture as an ongoing practice with the goal being to sit comfortably (not forced) with an erect spinal position. Working up to this position can be accomplished by strategically using cushions to elevate the hips and lower the knees. (When the knees are lower than the hips, an erect spine is much easier to maintain.)
Even when finding an optimal cushion set-up, muscle endurance still needs to be built gradually. It’s important to practice patience with your sitting position as you develop both the mobility and endurance necessary to maintain your seat. Start with short five minute bouts twice daily, as opposed to one longer sitting. Then, just as you would with exercise, gradually build up your session duration as you see fit. Even very short bouts of meditation can have substantial benefit for recovery.
Once you find an appropriate sitting position, it can be helpful to start by noticing the rate and rhythm of the breath. Initially focusing on gradually lengthening the exhale can be a helpful practice to promote the parasympathetic changes so beneficial for restoration. Exhalation has been shown to increase activity of the vagus nerve, a key component for promoting PNS activity [34, 35].
Once you’ve found some calm through the practice of extending the exhale, the “object” of the meditation can become broader, allowing for observation of “what is.” That may sound cheesy, but it need not be more complicated than that. Simply “notice and note” what is around you. Focus can be geared towards a dominant sensation (i.e. pain, itch, sound, smell) or on the mind and its inevitable wanderings. It is important not to get overly transfixed on a goal within the meditation. Simply stay with non-judgmental observation of your present moment.
4. Open your mind.
When embarking on a meditation practice, keep an open mind. When training the mind, many things may arise that are not yet well-explained scientifically. Experienced practitioners use various ways of explaining goals or results of practice that may initially contradict some of your core beliefs. A major part of a meditation practice is noticing the unskillfulness of your biases towards or away from certain modes of thinking. This observation of “mental patterning” allows you to see past initial judgement and learn from everyone. You never know what might speak to your sensibilities when you keep your mind open.
Terms like “mobility” and “mobilize” can have a broad array of meanings in the movement professions. In terms of recovery, let’s discuss the common denominators that are necessary for an appropriate practice.
Mobility Plan of Attack:
1. Train movement/position, not structure.
Whether performing static stretching, self massage (with balls or foam rollers), or getting/applying manual therapy, all techniques should be applied in the context of movement or positional restoration. In the case of recovery, mobility work needs to be geared towards movements and positions that counterbalance the activity from which you are recovering. For example, if an athlete just finished a long cycling endeavor, it’s likely that the body can use mobilization techniques that promote opening into extension, especially at the hips and thoracic spine.
It’s important to have an awareness of either your personal tendencies for movement/positional faults or common faults of the movements/positions that you are chronically performing. This way, your mobility practice can be geared towards correcting those faults either after activity or in preparation for it.
2. Make sure you can breathe.
The importance of the breath speaks to one’s understanding of what is trying to be accomplished during mobility work. Aggressively forcing yourself into a position in which you are currently restricted – or loading massive amounts of pressure onto a tissue you are trying to mobilize – is short-sighted, as it underestimates the crucial role of the nervous system in improving mobility. If pressure is too great for one to control his or her breathing, the tissues attempting to be mobilized will often “fight back” by creating a neurological guarding response that increases muscle tension and leads to increased risk of injury.
Make a controlled, relaxed breath with an extended exhale the focus of your mobility practice. This will allow for deeper expressions of the positions or movements being mobilized.
3. Create pressure changes.
Along the same lines as focusing on one’s breath, it should be recognized that a major part of the mobility process is to create varied pressures to the tissues that spark mechanical proprioceptor (mechanoreceptor) activity. Specifically, mechanoreceptors such as muscle spindles, Golgi tendon organs (GTOs), Pacinian corpuscles, and Ruffini endings respond to stretch, resistance, deep, sustained, and vibratory pressures by creating local tissue lengthening and relaxation, as well as systemic nervous system downregulation [36-39].
Practically, this means that focus needs to be placed on the depth, duration, rhythm and angle of pressure applied to the tissues being mobilized. Moreover, developing a practice for progressing the intensity of these pressures allows for an ongoing assessment of the state of your nervous system, as improved tolerance to pressure often indicates a healthier nervous system.
When foam rolling, work on these strategies:
- Get heavy. To optimize deep pressure, make sure to allow the body to get “heavy” on any spot of restriction before creating any motion around the area.
- Explore different angles. Once appropriate depth of pressure is attained, add motion around the area in a variety of different angles. Motion perpendicular and parallel to the area of sustained compression works well, but don’t be afraid to explore a variety of angles and motions. There is no wrong way to create pressure. Do what feels best for your body.
- Spend two minutes. In order to reap the benefits of sustained pressure, make sure to spend at least two minutes in any area being mobilized.
Recover or Face the Consequences
Although the science of recovery is relatively new, there does seem to be sufficient evidence to indicate that recovery and restoration practices need to be included in any strength and conditioning regimen (just see the long list below!). Recovery is simply another part of performance enhancement, and it deserves equal attention to training. Sure, you might get away with neglecting recovery in the short term, but eventually it will come back to bite you in terms of health and physical performance.
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- Brown et al. (2012), “Control of Sleep and Wakefulness”, p. 1118–1119. “Compared with wakefulness, sleep reduces brain energy demands, as suggested by the 44% reduction in the cerebral metabolic rate (CMR) of glucose (791) and a 25% reduction in the CMR of O2 (774) during sleep.”
- Eve Van Cauter & Karine Spiegel (1999). “Circadian and Sleep Control of Hormonal Secretions”, in Turek & Zee (eds.), Regulation of Sleep and Circadian Rhythms, pp. 397–425.
- Jim Waterhouse, Yumi Fukuda, & Takeshi Morita (2012). “Daily rhythms of the sleep-wake cycle”,Journal of Physiological Anthropology 31.5
- Fenton, Reuven (29 August 2007). “Bio-alarm clocks set for perfect wake-up”. Reuters. Retrieved 9 June2008.
- Dijk DJ, Lockley SW (February 2002). “Functional Genomics of Sleep and Circadian Rhythm Invited Review: Integration of human sleep-wake regulation and circadian rhythmicity”. J Appl Physiol 92 (2): 852–62.doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00924.2001 (inactive 2 February 2015). PMID 11796701. Consolidation of sleep for 8 h or more is only observed when sleep is initiated ~6–8 h before the temperature nadir.
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- Lindseth, Gelinda, Paul Lindseth, and Mark Thompson. “Nutritional Effects on Sleep.” Western Journal of Nursing Research (2011): n. pag. Web.
- Cahn, B. Rael; Polich, John (March 2006). “Meditation states and traits: EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies”. Psychological Bulletin 132 (2): 180–211.doi:10.1037/0033-2909.132.2.180. PMID 16536641.
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