by Chris Loh, Perpetua RIDE Coach
It has been said that the best athletes in the world are the ones that can recover the quickest. Take Crossfit Games Champion, Mat Fraser, who said that up to 2015 he had done everything he possibly could inside the gym to push himself to the limit, which resulted in a second place in the Crossfit Games.
This spurred him on to look at his recovery and elements outside of his “usual” training in order to give him an edge. He then went on to win every Crossfit Games since 2016. In 2019 he was quoted saying; “Any piece (of recovery) I can grab now to help my preparation for tomorrow, I’m doing it.”
What can we learn from elite athletes to optimise our own training and performance?
Firstly, we must objectively assess our current fitness levels and ability to recover from training stimulus. Everyone will differ in this regard depending on training age (number of years that you have trained and/or exercised), type of training you have done, gender, genetics, stress management and much more.
Over time, you’ll develop a sense of how your body is feeling but this skill is built by experiencing a range of differing training stimuli and feelings of recovery (and lack thereof.)
There are a range of products that can be used to assist with this process. Any fitness tracker, chest straps or rings that give you the ability to measure Heart Rate Variability (HRV) will prove most useful.
What is Heart Rate Variability?
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is a measure of the variance in time between heartbeats. Your heart should not operate like a metronome, and the more variance between your heartbeats, the better you are equipped to deal with stresses.
HRV depicts the balance of your autonomic nervous system (responsible for non-conscious bodily functions: heart, liver etc.) and in particular; the relationship between your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is the part of you that is reactive to stress/stimulus which can be caused from training, danger, illness, psychological stresses etc.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is associated with rest, relaxation, absorption of nutrients and essentially responsible for all thing’s recovery.
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) results from the SNS and the PNS simultaneously sending signals to your heart. High Heart Rate Variability means that your body is responsive to both sets of inputs and your body system is capable of adapting and performing.
It is worth mentioning that the body cannot tell the difference between doing a heavy squat or running away from a tiger – hopefully when the tiger sees how much is on the bar, it will more likely to try spot you than eat you!
If we are constantly in a Sympathetic Nervous State, we become fatigued and it can negatively impair our cognition and feelings of well-being. This is what happens when we overtrain and/or don’t properly recover.
Why do we need SNS stimulus?
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably undergone stimulus from training/exercise to improve your fitness, performance or body composition. Stimulus – whether physical or mental – is essential to creating adaptations to progress.
This can be applied to any walk of life. When you think of “experience” required for a job – that’s essentially exposure to stress/stimulus which a person has adapted to, making them capable to complete the job. When applying this to exercise, we can experience muscle soreness or fatigue to our central nervous system but once recovered, we can progress in intensity.
On the subject of muscle soreness: this should not be used as a barometer of how hard you have worked; but it is a signal of recovery required.
What can we do to promote a PNS state?
Sleep is fundamental to recovery. Sleep deprivation is so common that many cannot tell whether they are deprived or not. Feeling tired seems normal. Adults require 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night and sleep is not something that we can “catch up on.”
If you do not get enough sleep, the number of hours missing will compound. Many people might think that getting 6 hours or less is sufficient and simply do not have the time to sleep more than that. If this is you, just remember that you will sub-optimally perform (both cognitively and physically,) if you are consistently sleep-deprived.
Ways to improve your sleep:
- Consistent sleep schedule
- Completely dark room
- Cool room temperature
- Reduce screen time pre bed – or use blue-light blocking glasses
Friends and Family
Humans are social beings. Spending time with loved ones and in company that you enjoy can be a massive stress reliever and is a great way to promote a PNS state. This is often an area overlooked when stress management is being reviewed but has a massively beneficial effect.
Consuming adequate nutrients is crucial for recovery. Protein is the most spoken-about nutrient in this regard because it is fundamental to building and restoring muscle tissue. But Carbs are important as well. Consuming an adequate amount of carbohydrates allows your body to restore energy in order to perform again.
And don’t forget – food should be enjoyed and promotes a dopamine (happy hormone) response which coincides with a reduction in stress response.
Tip: protein servings per meal should be 0.4 to 0.5 grams per kilo of bodyweight spread over 3 to 6 meals per day – try have equal protein servings in every meal rather than loading all your protein into one meal.
Note: Dieting/eating in a calorie deficit is a stressor. During times of dieting, your ability to recover can diminish and sleep can become affected. In periods of dieting and fat loss, be aware that performance and muscle gain conditions are sub optimal.
Doing things that give you enjoyment can help you disengage and reduce stress. Walking, reading, golfing, and fishing are a few of my favourite ways to disengage.
Your ability to recover will determine your results from training and exercise. There is a euphoric feeling to having a few good days, weeks and months in the gym. But maybe before your next bout of training, consider what recovery measures you can put in place first and then fit your training around that. If you have a coach, they will likely have taken this into account when designing your program. So train hard, recover harder and get the best results of your life.
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