The Recovery of Exercise

Understand the effects of Training and Recovery

The Recovery of Exercise

The Recovery of Training

The Stress-Adaptation Training Model

Exercise is a stress-adaptation model, which means that the health and performance benefits of exercise are generated through the recovery process that occurs after training. Your training session stresses the body, breaking it down by damaging muscles and exhausting them of energy and nutrients and fatiguing the nervous system. The recovery process adapts the body by building it back up, yielding health and performance benefits. This means that we can only derive health benefits from exercise if we can recover from it. Because recovery takes place outside the gym, it is often neglected or misunderstood. To optimize our health and/or performance, we have to optimize our recovery.

Before we start discussing the best ways to improve recovery, let’s look at the processes that control the stress-adaptation model. The body’s response to stress (in this case, exercise, but the mechanisms are the same for stress from your job), is controlled by the autonomic nervous system (ANS). There are two primary systems that make up the ANS: sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

  • The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is the “fight or flight” system that prepares us for stress. When our bodies prepare for stress, such as being reprimanded by a boss, training, or being chased by a predator, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in by releasing adrenalin, cortisol, and other stress hormones. These stress hormones increase heart rate and blood pressure, while decreasing digestion and other non-essential body functions. The SNS system delivers blood, oxygen and energy to the brain and muscles so that they can deal with the stress. The SNS is catabolic, meaning that it breaks the body down and expends energy.
  • The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the “rest and digest” system that helps us recover from  stress outside of the gym. The PNS is anabolic, meaning that the body is building. It is responsible for digesting food (there could be a whole article on gut health), making hormones, repairing muscles, increasing strength, and keeping the body in a state of relaxation. De-stressing and activating the PNS are critical to the balance of the feedback loop between both of these very important systems.

The difficulty with this feedback loop is that most of us are already stressed outside the gym from jobs, kids, study, and other pressures. If we aren’t finding ways to create balance in this feedback loop, we can start to perpetuate a state of chronic stress inside the body.  The adage “stress is bad for you” relates to the inability of our bodies to return to the PNS. A state of chronic stress can increase your heart rate, blood pressure, and triglycerides, all of which are byproducts of the SNS. The health detriments from being in this state can vary by individual, but may include hypertension, fatigue, depression, and many others.

There are a number of facets we can focus on to maximize our recovery and get the most out of our workouts:

  • Nutrition is obviously the number one facet. If we do not provide our bodies with proper macronutrients, which provide us with the energy to fuel our bodies, or we miss out on the micronutrients from whole foods, which are required to optimize cellular health, we are very literally operating at a fraction of our capacity. We must eat a balanced diet of carbs, fats, and proteins, and ideally we should get as many of these nutrients as possible from nutrient-dense foods.
  • Sleep is another facet with a critical effect on the PNS. Key predictors of the PNS are slower breathing and decreased heart rate, both of which are at their lowest during sleep. An increasing understanding of REM cycles yields clear evidence that sleeping 7-8 hours per day will have an immediately positive impact on your health. We’ll be discussing this more in the future about the differences between stages of sleep and restorative sleep.*

After nutrition and sleep, there are other things that we can do to help balance our SNS and PNS:

  • Meditation can decrease breathing and heart rates, both of which are key contributors to PNS activity. It has also been shown to help with psychological stress, depression, and anxiety.
  • Breathing, a key component of meditation, can also increase PNS contributors. Wim Hof** has done some extraordinary things in this field and is teaching others how to control their nervous system under the stress of extremely cold water. Look up “The Iceman” on TED Talks--very interesting stuff!
  • Massage is another effective tool for recovery, provided that we can relax through most of the session.
  • Invigorating yet relaxing activities are also beneficial, including hiking, sitting by the lake, going for a bike ride, doing yoga, getting into water, going for a light jog, etc. If you enjoy it and it leaves you feeling reset, it’s probably a good thing.

Remember that just because you leave the gym doesn’t mean your training is done. To truly improve health and/or performance, we must understand how to recover. Take your training outside the gym!

*Check out Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep? book

**Watch Wim Hof on TED Talks