It’s funny how a word can have different associations over the years. Between the ages of say 8-20 ‘recovery’ for me meant recovering a car as I was living and breathing the motor industry as a fresh faced, junk food eating future garage owner.
Now, at the age of approaching 30, ‘recovery’ means how physically prepared you are for exercise. Otherwise known as how ‘over’ your last session you are.
99% sure it’s the same meaning for you too, if you’re reading this?
Recovery has almost reached buzzword status in the fitness world of late. It’s being thrown around left, right and centre. It’s almost like when the monk becomes enlightened………but in this case the trainee becomes recovered.
And of course, as soon as something becomes highlighted or receives any degree of significance, along comes a whole market of supplements, methods and approaches designed to boost said thing.
But let’s digress slightly and tackle the topic at hand, real recovery and how it makes you a better athlete.
‘Fatigue masks fitness’
Put another way: you’re only as strong as you are fresh. Or as I like to think about it, are you able to display your full strength, power, endurance, flexibility or whatever physical attribute you so desire?
It’s taken me years (and is still a major ongoing process) to grasp more isn’t always better or doesn’t always equal more. The real reality here is for those of us who train regularly, we are probably rarely ever able to express 90-100% of our true unfounded strength!
Surely you can think of someone over the years who didn’t train crazy hard or even crazy regular, yet they could still rock up and perform annoyingly and deceptively well? It’s no longer some sick joke in my head but rather an example of someone running fresh and close to full potential, due to the fuel tank being close to full all the time.
Now does this mean we shouldn’t push it and instead half-ass it all the time? No, not quite. It means we need to be careful how often we operate at our peak – and how often we expect to be able to.
Frustratingly enough, the more advanced/strong you get the more this is true.
As someone who has a pretty intensive weekly training schedule (and has done for years now), it’s rare for me to have much down time. These are the joys of your ‘hobby’ also being your job. Add in the passionate/obsessive nature I have to it and it can feel like a part of you is missing when you have to take down time.
Recently though, I was forced to let the accelerator up a notch as I was feeling a little run down. Wearing T shirts and having cold showers in 3 degrees might be a part of it, alcohol and cheat food might be another factor, and a build up of training volume could also be at play?
It’s ironic really, when you first start out, motivation is the hardest thing. You actually want to take more time off. Then when you get past a certain stage it takes far more discipline to stop training when you know you should……..
Although what also develops over time is another fitness buzz-phrase: ‘listening to your body’. At my stage I know without question when I don’t want to train and need to leave it. The past few days were one of those occasions.
Anyhow, I’m better now and have returned to the grind. But it got me thinking, how can we avoid even getting forced to this run down state? Can we get there before we’re too down trodden?
And by the same token, how do we know we’re fresh enough to really push the limits?
Recovery markers that ACTUALLY make a difference
You’re not a biochemist. You don’t have access to daily bloodwork. Therefore you can’t know scientifically exactly how you’re operating biologically at any moment. I know your OCD hates this but unless you’re loaded you can’t keep paying for high end blood panels to be done every day, although I’m sure this is some rich man out there’s toy or secret obsession………..
Through experience I’ve found some pretty damn accurate markers you can use daily to tell how fresh you really are.
Here are my main 5:
Your balance is a function, or expression, of your nervous system’s ability to coordinate your body. When you’re fatigued and your nervous system isn’t on all cylinders, the first thing to go is your balance.
You can test this by standing on one leg and adding in some complexity, such as moving the arms overhead, closing your eyes or both.
For the more calisthenics orientated of you, and my personal favorite test, the good old handstand is a great marker. On days I’m fresh I can do zero warm ups or mobility drills and still find a nice line in a handstand, the first time of asking. Conversely, on days it takes me 10 attempts to find a banana handstand for a few seconds, I know my system isn’t exactly awake.
Have you ever had a hard upper body session the day before, to wake up and be unable to touch your toes, sit in a squat or even open your legs at all?
Even though the areas are untouched and should be fine, they don’t fucking feel it! The reason is your system is fatigued and therefore you can’t express your full subset of attributes. Flexibility is a big one here and is very closely linked to the nervous system. And it makes sense……..when you want to improve your flexibility (and make the flexibility last) you need to get the nervous system involved.
If you can move into good ranges with little preparation, you know you’re somewhat fresh. When basic ranges of motion feel locked up and restricted, this is often a sign of fatigue still being present.
3. Minimal warm ups needed
Much like what we just discussed, how much preparation do you need to operate near your true capacity? Can you move well – and by ‘well’ I mean fast, fluently and strong – without having to mentally and physically prepare for 10, 20 or 30 minutes?!
My best sessions have been the ones where I just knew instinctively I didn’t need a cardio session, a mobility session and loads of rehearsal sets before I got to it.
Which makes sense; if you need top force the body into something maybe the body just doesn’t want to do it?
4. Low(er) resting heart rate
I spared much of the science here thus far but this one can’t be ignored. The resting heart rate is a time tested and universally accepted marker of both physical fitness and physical readiness.
Collecting a baseline average every morning upon waking can be super handy for detecting future fluctuations. Even an increase of just 5BPM can be a sign of unrecovered stress.
Also, the more you train (assuming you’re being sensible and recovering adequately) the lower your resting heart rate should be over time.
5. Falling asleep & getting up are BOTH easy
The way I see sleep issues are as a spider diagram where the branches can be dozens and dozens. Fundamentally they’re the same thing: sleep of less than ideal quality/quantity, but there are many types.
Some people can fall asleep super easy but can’t stay awake. Others can’t fall asleep but when they do, they can’t wake/get up.
There are also those who can’t get enough sleep. They sleep 8 hours, they’re tired. They get 10 hours they’re tired. They get less, they’re tired. They can’t win basically.
Yet again, I’ve experienced both sides of the coin here. I’ve felt tired in the evening, to go to bed, to then find I can’t sleep for shit; I’m just WIRED. And I’ve slept ‘well’ to feel super glued to my bed the next morning………
These are very powerful factors, believe me. Sleep is a natural process, much like urination, defecation, sex, eating, breathing, blah blah blah. It’s NOT a process that can be forced. If you have to force it something is wrong for me. I believe it was the late Charles Poliquin who always said there are two types of overtrained/overreached states – one where you’ve been doing too much volume/work and the other where you’ve been doing too much intensity.
He always said the classic symptoms of each were needing/wanting to sleep all the time and not being able to get asleep at all, respectively.
I’m not sure how accurate scientifically those claims are but I’ve certainly felt the intensity one many times – particularly at times when I was pushing the strength envelope recently.
Extra points of consideration
Obviously the 5 points above are subject to other factors separate from solely how prepared your body is. Temperature is a big player, too. If you’re in a cold climate your flexibility isn’t going to be as good at baseline as it would be if you were in the Moroccan desert.
The warm up needs are also heavily influenced by temperature. You could be as fresh as a daisy but if you live in Akureyi in Iceland, you’re going to need to do something to get the core temperature up prior to training, even in ‘summer’.
Resting heart rate will depend on stress levels outside of training stress and stimulants etc. Which is why it’s important to get a baseline before drawing conclusions. But the longer you do it, the easier it will be to distinguish when you’re not fresh and when you’re raring to go.
What do you think? Are there any other factors for physical performance/readiness you have found that work well? Let me know in the comments below!
As always, thanks for reading.
Once again, I’ve shot a video discussing these markers for anyone who likes a YouTube vid! Check it out and share it if you like it, that would mean the world to me!
The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.