Recovery: the Non-Sexy (But Necessary) Element to a Better Body

Recovery: the Non-Sexy (But Necessary) Element to a Better Body

Recovery from training is sexy only in the movies.

“Would you like a massage?”

Cue the soft lights, the gorgeous masseuse, the sublime body experience.

In real life, recovery looks and sounds a little different.

There’s groaning during that massage, but no one would mistake it for sounds of pleasure. It’s more like the sound you would imagine hearing if someone stepped on an elephant’s trunk or rubbed the cat the wrong way. The massage therapist’s fingers are barely touching your traps and you’re already responding to the disturbance of the air over your skin.

“Ow Ow OW!” “Uggghhhhh!” (“Breathe. Breathe. Breathe!”) ” “Sweet Baby Jesus.” “Make it stop!”

Okay, maybe that’s just me. But recovery is hard. I mean, we go all out on the workouts and get into the pain of the moment of exertion (well, if it’s not cardio, or even if it is), but then there’s this secondary and critical component to our fitness experience that we often rush by and barely consider in its execution: recovery.

What exactly is recovery?

Recovery from training is: 

  • Your post-workout nutrition
  • Your daily nutrition
  • Your sleep
  • Your supplements
  • Your “bodywork” (i.e. chiro, acupuncture, massage, etc.)
  • Light cardio on rest days, or restorative exercise (like yoga)

Basically, much of your self-care.

What recovery isn’t: 

  • Alcohol
  • Loads of couch-time
  • Internet surfing
  • “Cheat” meals

Recovery also includes your graduated return to full activity after the dreaded “I” word. (Injury. Look, I don’t even want to say it because I’m afraid the Ghost of Injuries Future will hear me and knock upon my door.) But how and when we return to full activity after an injury can make the difference between an uneventful relaunch into the fitness atmosphere, or delayed and repeated relaunches that never quite get you there. (Launch too soon and you set yourself back. Launch too late and you have to overcome your own inertia to reenter the fitness atmosphere. It’s far easier to stay in some kind of motion than to restart a cold engine.) You have to know when to push past discomfort, but when to stop because the pain is sending you a message to stop.

See, recovery is a tricky thing. And it only gets more important as you age, just like the warm-up. When you’re young, your body is more forgiving than when you have a few miles on the odometer.

When you’re 25, you can roll in after a night of drinking, throw down on the workout, hack up a lung in the parking lot, crack open a beer, inhale some chicken wings, then start the process all over again the next day. Try doing that at 40. (No, don’t!)

Things just don’t work the same way. Your body makes one beer feel like five beers and those chicken wings become an oily pit of hot sauce in your stomach on the day after. You do that routine once in a while because it’s fun and you wonder if you still can get away with it, but you can’t and you pay for it. Your body makes you pay for many things as you age, and adding more discomfort to your recovery is something you suddenly don’t have much interest in anymore.

But my point is not that recovery is difficult or easy. My point is that recovery is necessary, and you should sit down and have a talk with yourself about it. A workout is only one or two hours per day, for most of us. What we do with the remainder of our day is as important for our body as the time spent in the gym. (Read “Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself.”) Muscles grow at rest (read “How Many Rest Days Do I Really Need?”), so we need to do everything we can to enhance their ability to recover from the work to which we have exposed them.

So what should you do after a hard training session?

The answer differs for everyone. Some folks drink a protein shake, some eat certain foods, some sleep a certain number of hours, some have a sacred spiritual dance for the Recovery Gods. (I just made that up, but I’m pretty sure I would do that if it worked.) Some folks swear by the foam roller or their chiropractor, and some folks swear at the foam roller and the chiropractor.

The answer here is not what works for some folks or for me, but the answer is what works for you. To find those answers, however, you’re going to have to do some exploration and application. Read articles (like “What Should I Do on My Off Days?”) and listen to podcasts (like “Maximum Recovery for Maximum Exercise.”) Then, test and observe and evaluate. What works for you? What doesn’t? Test again. Evaluate again. Try new things, and repeat the process until you find a plan that helps you the most to be your best.

I wish I could give you the bulletproof magic plan for recovery (roll less, eat this, sleep this many hours) but the truth is that recovery, like nutrition, is specific to each individual. While you can have a general guideline of what to do (active rest, good nutrition, mobility work), ultimately you’ve got to test and try and see the results. Compare/contrast. Go again. Adjust again.

But here’s the cool part: recovery helps you to get stronger and better. The Road to Badassery isn’t only routed through the Forest of Steel, but it winds past the Lake of Leisure, as well. Be smart about all parts of your training plan and stay healthy for the long run! (Well, speaking metaphorically. But you can go for a long run if you want! I’m going to go deadlift!)