The Importance of Recovery Part 1

Recovery is a hot topic in the fitness industry right now. Between the gadgets and therapies popping up on a regular basis, and the information overload on social media promising the “best exercises” to solve any problems, there is a lot to sort through.  This five part series will explain the need for recovery and then break down some common strategies. From here, you’ll be able to make an informed decision. But before we talk about recovery, we need to understand stress!

 The overarching theme to soft tissue injury, the sensation of restriction, and the inability to display relative motion boils down to one word: Stress.  A stressor can be anything from the muscular force you create when you lift weights to the tone of voice your coworker uses during a meeting.  The way your body responds to these stressors determines what happens next. Let’s consider two scenarios:

  1.  You stress your muscles by lifting weights and in response to that stress, your muscles become stronger so that they are better prepared to cope with similar stress the next time you face it.  
  2.  You’re running and attempt to quickly cut and change direction;  the stress applied to soft tissue such as the Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) exceeds the capacity for that tissue to respond to stress, the ligament tears.  

While it’s impossible to eliminate all stress from our environment, we can change our behaviors, to become better adapted to the stress we encounter every day.  This is the basis of biological function in a living organism.  A key concept that I’ll refer to frequently is adaptation. Every program we write at Paragon is done so with a specific intended adaptation in mind.  If a client wants to increase their leg strength, “leg strength” is the adaptation we hope our programming promotes.  In this scenario, 3 sets of 5 squats would be one of the many methods we may use to lead the client to the desired adaptation.  The word intended is important to consider because while we do consider ourselves expert programmers, there is no way for us to know for sure how any individual is going to respond to the program they’re given until after they’ve completed it and we can see the results.  

For example, let’s say we give 100 clients 3 sets of 5 squats for the next 12 weeks.  We’d expect that the majority of clients are going to respond by getting reasonably stronger over that period of time.  We’d also expect a small number of those clients to become significantly stronger over that time period and another small number of clients to not get stronger at all or potentially (though unlikely) get weaker- a classic bell curve.  Same program, three very different potential outcomes.  To take this a step further, even if we compared you to yourself, we’d see differences in stress response over the course of 12 weeks. This means that doing 3×5 on day 1 will result in a different stress response than doing the exact same workout 4 weeks, 8 weeks, 12 weeks later.  How can this be?  The way your body responds to stress is at least slightly, and in some cases significantly different than anyone else. And, can change drastically day by day, week to week, and month to month. 

Intuitively, this should make sense.  Think back to your best workout in recent memory, a time you left the gym feeling amazing- you felt strong, set some PR’s, and left with a big smile on your face.  We could give you that exact same workout one week later and you could leave it feeling like you got hit by a bus.  Your energy is down, you’re feeling sore in places you didn’t know you had, you had to decrease your weights on some exercises just to get through each set.  Because recovery depends on so many factors, this happens to the best of us. Maybewe didn’t sleep well the night before, we didn’t eat as we normally would, we got pulled over on our way to the gym, the list of possible disruptions is endless.  Even though we gave you the same amount of mechanical stress during your workout as the previous week, your body’s reaction to this stress may be quite different and clearly your body will not adapt in the same way because it wasn’t prepared for that level of stress.  

This balance of stress vs. the ability to respond to it are the underlying purpose behind tech companies like iPhone and Oura Ring tracking a metric called “Heart Rate Variability” (HRV) or “Readiness.”  These tools are attempting to quantify your body’s internal state of preparedness.  When your preparedness is high, you’re able to put more stress on the body while still getting favorable adaptations.  When preparedness is low relative to task demand, things like ACL tears occur.  

What does any of this have to do with recovery?! 

There are two ways to make sure the stress placed on your body does not exceed your ability to adapt to it:  You can decrease the amount of stress or you can increase your adaptability.  Decreasing the amount of stress can be a very viable solution in short term situations such as acute fractures, ruptures, tears, etc.  However, you can only reduce stress by so much for so long before this reduction in stress itself becomes maladaptive!  Aside from these more exceptional acute injuries, we’re looking to improve your adaptability long term and recovery plays a critical role in this process!  

Part of improved adaptability is simply long term, intelligently progressed training.  If you do 3 sets of 5 squats twice a week for 12 weeks, you should expect that the 30 pound dumbbell you started with will not impose the same level of stress in week 12 that it did in week 1, in fact it should feel a little easy.

  • Step 1 to improving your adaptive capacity is to make sure that you’re progressing things slowly and intelligently week by week. 
  • Step 2 is what happens between workouts.  Your recovery will play an important role in how you adapt to the workout as well as how you show up to your next one.  A body which is well-recovered shows up with good HRV, readiness scores, and is prepared to adapt to the stress you’re about to impose.  A body which is poorly-recovered could receive the same amount and type of stress, and respond in a very negative way such as injury, poor performance, or burnout.  

The remainder of this article will focus on popular recovery methods and suggestions if you’re considering using them.  I can’t emphasize strongly enough, however, that none of these methods are likely to make a meaningful, long term impact on how you feel if you haven’t addressed our Pillars of Health as they relate to your adaptability: physical, nutrition, sleep, stress management/relaxation, social connection.  For example, if you’re not taking care of your sleep at least to a sufficient level, there is no “best stretch” to get rid of your back pain long term.  If you’re training hard and regularly under eating, there is no way to foam roll away your injuries. The next part in this series will examine stretching, foam rolling, cold therapy, and planned rest/deloads in depth.

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