It’s one thing to know that post-workout is recovery is important (and even what helps with the recovery), but it’s a different thing—and more important—to actually do the recovery work. You might already know that yoga and meditation can help post-workout recovery, but the dots have to be connected: You have to do more than go to a yoga class, or close your eyes and set a timer. You’ll get very little out of going through the motions of restorative activities. To optimize recovery, you have to reset your perception of rest and break your habit of resisting it.
It’s how you “work in” that matters. It must become your new normal, a given every day. To do this, you have to bravely endeavor in the opposite direction of your usual mode of operation in order to blend your working out and working in to full advantage. The good news is that you already possess everything you need to recover for real right now. With practice, you can make the process of working in as habitual as working out. And it feels good, too.
Real recovery = Making recovery a practical, integrated part of daily life
It’s fitting that working out is called exactly that. It’s an output, an energy expenditure in which you work against external factors—your feet hitting the pavement, your legs powering your bike, your arms pulling your body through the water, your muscles contracting against the weight in order to get the results you need to achieve your goals.
With practice, you’ve built your tolerance for working out. But without practicing your work in, you’ll build more resistance than tolerance for real recovery. Going hard comes easy because you are familiar with output. There’s comfort in the familiarity of pushing yourself to your limits. You’re conditioned to keep going and muscle your way through challenges. You attach a great deal of value to training, and rightfully so. And naturally, it feels counterintuitive that endeavoring in the opposite direction—working in—will move you toward your goals.
Sports and fitness pursuits are becoming more extreme, requiring more hours, more miles, and more output in general. Working out is not always a conscious choice you make; it’s a familiar, comfortable—and often unintentional—habit. It’s a hard habit to break, and one that makes you quick to say yes to doing more. You say yes enthusiastically because you’re passionate about what you’re doing and willing to do what it takes to win. But do you recognize when the workload is too heavy? And if you do, can you say yes to recovery with the same level of conviction? Or do you agonize about skipping a training session? Saying yes to going hard is much easier than saying yes to resting easy because working out feels like progress and working in feels like a hard stop.
Athletes also fail to decelerate because they don’t recognize just how much they’re doing and how tired they are. When you are always going it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between work and rest, between energy and fatigue. Being amped up feels normal. Your body forgets that there are other, equally important gears and paces. But frazzled is not fit. And being injured sucks.
Mental and physical stress—from the aches and pains that often linger post-workout to the pressures of competition—can wreak havoc on even the strongest of athletes. Depriving your body of focused recovery during a particularly gruelling training program can cause your training to go haywire. Workouts tax your muscles, and those tissues cannot grow without ample time to repair. Energy is a limited yet renewable resource. It must be replenished through nutrition and rest. Without continual input, energy becomes more and more depleted, creating a deficit over time. The resulting fatigue lowers your mood and negatively affects your mental state, and, when left unaddressed, it can increase the risk of depression. All of these factors detract from the training you have put in and threaten your performance, leaving you feeling heavy and lethargic—and possibly even stagnant.
In pursuit of better performance, you keep looking for more ways to maximize output. But your body is already saturated with the physiological effects of your workouts. Many of these are not only positive but critical for growth: You become stronger as you train your body and mind to endure exertion, and chemicals like endorphins and serotonin linger post-workout, making you feel good—as does the satisfaction of a big effort or key training block completed. But continually muscling through can place an unsustainable load of stress on your system. While stress is a crucial ingredient for growth, systematically overdoing it puts you at risk of under-recovering, which is the root cause of overtraining.
Under-recovering = Trading input for more output
Without ample daily rest you fall into a deficit as you become oversaturated with the stress of your training, soaking you in a 24/7 bath of cortisol and other stress hormones because your body still thinks it’s fighting through even when your workout is over. Your tissues actually break down under overtraining conditions. When you’re in a hot bath and your fingertips become wrinkled and puckered, you have to get out of the water so they become smooth again. It’s the same with your muscles and your mind. Rest factors into building strength and endurance because it takes time to adapt to the forces involved. Without rest, not only is it impossible to progress in a meaningful way because your hard work can’t pay off to its maximum, but it’s more likely that you’ll regress. Continuing to push is like being on a treadmill, running without advancing. Instead of looking for more ways to put out, consider input as a tool to maximize your output. Stepping off the treadmill halts the output so that you can absorb all your hard work and reap the rewards. It gives you the opportunity to actually feel what you’ve done. It’s also powerful injury and burnout mitigation. You can and should keep going hard. But don’t miss out on the other end of the spectrum and underachieve because you are under-recovering.
Slow Down Significantly to Accelerate Radically
Working in—intentional, optimized recovery—is largely uncharted territory for athletes. It’s like outer space—expansive and full of possibility and right in front of our eyes. To maximize your athletic potential, and to make the most of all your workouts, you have to shift your focus to the expanse within.
Don’t mistake working in for “stopping” or lack of action—it will not happen by default when you’re not actively training. Working out is an intentional expenditure, and so is working in. Just because recovery involves rest doesn’t mean that it’s a passive, sleepy state. Working in is a purposeful, engaged approach to optimizing your recovery.
Just like you have to fuel yourself with proper nutrition so that you have energy to feel and perform your best, you have to recover adequately every day so that your body and mind can return to equanimity and you can recharge for your next session.
Consistent input is the counterbalance to your consistent output. It helps you maintain stronger awareness of where you’re at by pulling you out of the oversaturation of output so that you can adjust your cadence based on what is actually happening.
Use Your Nervous System
We tend to approach recovery with different tools and techniques—foam rollers, compression, massage, physical therapy, and even different approaches to sleep and nutrition. It’s ironic that our restorative activities tend to first focus on our muscles, even though they are the part of our body that naturally recovers the quickest because they receive direct blood flow. You might be less aware of the system that has the biggest impact on your ability to restore body and mind after a big output: your nervous system. Your autonomic nervous system regulates your body’s instinctive, unconscious actions and influences the function of your internal organs. It includes your brain, spinal cord, and nerves; and it regulates many bodily functions, such as heart rate, digestion, blood pressure, and respiration—all of which keep you going and moving forward, and play a critical role in movement, exertion, and ultimately performance.
Your nervous system sounds the alarm by way of a chemical stress response when you’re confronted with life-threatening events, often referred to as the “fight or flight” response. This is governed by your sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which under duress triggers a reaction where blood pressure increases to supply more oxygen to your brain and muscles, and all your systems are optimized for you to defend yourself or run for your life. Your focus narrows to meet the challenge. This is all incredibly useful if you’re attacked in a dark alley. Or running from a tiger. Or, more likely, when the fight is on for first place or a new PR in the last 100 meters of your race.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, your relaxation response is governed by your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS)—this is where you rest and digest. Since your nervous system is designed for self-preservation, your PNS should kick in once threatening events have passed to slow your heart rate, aid in digestion, and return you to a baseline of calm. It broadens your perspective and helps you to be more aware of where you’re at so that you can more clearly discern the most appropriate course of action, rather than just react. Strengthening your PNS increases your resilience and helps you to more easefully manage whatever comes at you.
The problem is that because we are doing so much, all the time, we get stuck in fight or flight and can’t wind down. As a result the SNS response is easily triggered by normal day-to-day occurrences like rushing to get to the gym, or triaging a full email inbox. When you’re in this frame of mind your brain perceives the threat of failing to hit your pace in a key training session the same way it perceives the threat that you might be late for your meeting because you’re stuck in traffic. While you need to get fired up to nail your workout, getting amped up in gridlock confuses your body with unnecessary stress and deprives you of spending time in a more relaxed state. The physiological design of the nervous system is disrupted by the pace of life. Stress management might be a big motivator of your workouts, but without consistent, effective PNS activation you’re merely creating a vicious cycle of SNS stimulation.
We’re so busy that we marginalize recovery and keep putting it off, quarantining it to the off-season or rest days rather than prioritizing and normalizing it as a critical daily occurrence. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that even when you do have the opportunity to rest, relaxation can feel elusive. If tension lingers long after your workout is over, or if you find yourself lying awake at night with your mind abuzz, you’re well aware of this all-too-common scenario. You have to intentionally calm your nervous system in order to shift from effort to ease—from SNS engagement to PNS response. Use your nervous system to full advantage to optimize your recovery. Now more than ever, optimal recovery requires tangible skills, practice, and diligence—it requires you to work in.
When I Do Stop, What Should I Do?
Once you learn to listen to your body, how do you effectively transition from working out to not working out in order to make the best use of downtime and rest days? How do you ensure productive recovery? How do you recover for real? Working in equips you with two key skill sets to accomplish this:
- Mental focus training
- Physical relaxation practice
Recovery is personal. And despite any beliefs you have about its place in your training and life, consider the fact that it doesn’t have to be confined to evenings or weekends or vacations. It shouldn’t be relegated to downtime or your perceived lack thereof. Waiting until you’ve crossed everything off your to-do list to relax is like running to stand still. In fact, it probably won’t ever happen. Don’t wait for injury or burnout to force you into recovery mode. Do it now.
Adapted from Work In: The Athlete’s Plan for Real Recovery and Winning Results by Erin Taylor with permission of VeloPress.