“You’re looking jacked,” one of our athletes said to me the other day. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“Less than you think,” I said. “I’m pretty lazy,” I joked.
“Really? This is my eighth straight day,” he said.
People should not be doing crossfit eight days in a row. Full stop. But in our worthy desire to get better, we sometimes mistakenly think “more is more” and push ourselves beyond anything that makes sense. All those Instagram posts about how we need to “embrace the pain” and how “everyone wants it but no one wants to work for it” don’t help. We believe that some sort of extreme struggle and maniacal commitment must exist for us to get to the next physical level.
But in many ways, the science says otherwise. Exercise, by definition, is controlled damage to your body. You body then is required to repair that damage. That’s is why we get bigger muscles, stronger lungs, and more durable joints: it is a simple response to damage AKA exercise.
When you fail to give your body sufficient rest, recovery, or nutrients, you body is unable to fully repair the damage. And if you turn around and exercise before you have healed, then you run the risk of increasing the damage without reaping the benefits.
Now theoretically that makes sense—if you got a paper cut, you wouldn’t expect it to heal if you jabbed a butter knife into the cut every day. That being said, training can and should be challenging, and good work comes with a certain amount of pain. Soreness is fine and necessary to get stronger. It is a matter of finding a skillful edge—pushing yourself to get stronger but also facilitating an effective recovery.
There are several factors that go into recovery. I usually categorize stress, sleep, nutrition, and recovery work as the main factors. (I’m not going to talk about nutrition—I am not a nutritionist and it is too complex and important. But know that proper nutrition is a cornerstone to athletic recovery.)
Stress is everything. If your cortisol levels are through the roof and you are running on fumes, your body isn’t going to be able to recover. When we are stressed, our body goes into “fight or flight” mode. In this state, your endocrine system (AKA your hormones) diverts energy away from repair. From your body’s perspective, you are in survival mode and repairing damaged tissue isn’t a priority. The kicker of fight or flight is that stress can be from any source: training, work, commuting …actually, most people in our society live a good portion of their lives in fight or flight mode because of increased stress. However, flight or flight is supposed to be a temporary state for our bodies. We are supposed to remain in it just along to deal with an immediate stressor. But we stay in it for prolonged periods which takes a toll on our systems. And when you live a good percentage of your life in fight or flight, it causes serious interruption to repair.
So how do you manage stress? There have been thousands of books on this topic alone and it is too big a subject for a simple blog post. But the two main things I want to emphasize are sleep and the relaxation response.
Sleep is sleep. Get it. Try to get eight hours within the same window every night.
The relaxation response is the OPPOSITE physiological response of fight or flight. It encourages our restore and repair hormones, and they swoop in so that we can get the most out of our exercise. How do you encourage this response? In the same way a stressor cues fight or flight by creating an atmosphere of danger, the relaxation response is cued when we feel completely safe. The best proven way is meditation (check out THE RELAXATION RESPONSE by Herbert Benson or check out his steps to elicit it here). I find that restorative yoga is a more accessible version of meditation for many people and more and more yoga studios are offering restorative classes. Massages, walks in a nature, and watching the water can also encourage a meditative state. Anything that convinces your body that you are safe and calm.
Which brings me to recovery work. Yes, recovery isn’t entirely passive. I am obsessive about training, but I don’t go hard every day. On my days on, I work HARD. On my days off, I do recovery work. On these days, restorative yoga counts as my workout of the day. Mobility work, getting a massage, a slow job in the sunshine…I count all of that as training. I will often do a circuit of corrective exercises when I never break a sweat (clamshells forever!). I consider all of this work as part of my training. And I do all this work on my rest days. It is the work that encourages repair and better movement patterns. You can’t be lazy about repair if you are going to do something as intense as crossfit.
How many days of recovery do you need a week? It truly depends. Intense exercise is actually a sport of recovery: the better you are, the faster you recover both within a workout and between workouts. But it takes effort and time to train your body to recover. And, chances are, you aren’t a professional athlete who eats meals planned to the last red bean, goes to the chiropractor once a week, and sleeps nine hours a night. So you need better recovery not just from exercise, but from life. You need AT LEAST one day off from intense exercise. I do two or three days a week of active recovery, depending on how my body feels. For active recovery, I plan and execute some kind of bodywork (corrective exercises, a massage, long conditioning, etc.) I treat these sessions as any other kind of training and it goes in my training log. Psychologically, that helps my obsessive personality, and physically, it allows me to repair so that I am ready to go hard again.
No single workout or day will make you strong, but if you can keep a wider view and manage your fitness in a balanced way, you will get strong without getting hurt. I know it can be hard to give your one exercise timeslot to something like restorative yoga if you aren’t used to it, but balance is the only way.