“We don’t get stronger in training, we get stronger in recovery.”
-Josh Thigpen, 3x WSM Competitor and author of Cube for Strongman
Everyone knows rest is important. In the midst of this three day holiday weekend, founded on the idea that the workforce needs to rest sometimes, this topic seems particularly poignant. Tips for recovery in the strength game are as wide and varied as home remedies for rashes: there is tons of stuff that is outright false and made up. RICE is no longer the optimal acronym for recovery, ice is barely supported by the research now, and just resting isn’t enough anymore. My hope is to shed a little light on the topic, use a little bit of science, and hopefully give you as the reader/lifter what you need to maximize recovery and accelerate gains.
Passive vs Active
First, I’d like to go ahead and make a distinction between different recovery methods. By my own definition, passive recovery methods are things like simple rest/decreased activity, ice baths, contrast showers, etc; active recovery involves a bit more movement and activity to accomplish similar results. Some define active recovery more along the lines of a workout of lower intensity compared to typical workouts. From my viewpoint, I prefer active recovery in the sense of more functionally active leisure activity. This could mean, sled drags, walking, swimming, or any number of activities that do not involved your particular sport of choice. We’ll go into the how and why here in a second, but first, think about what you’re doing on the days you aren’t in the gym. Seriously. Are you sitting around on the couch watching movies, or is walking the most strenuous activity you’ll experience that day? This will be important for a number of reasons, which I’ll explain.
Work Hard, Play Hard
The powerlifters here at NBS just started a new phase of training, many of the strong(wo)man competitors are gearing up for fall shows, and everyone is getting a little beat up. It happens. We train hard, make gains, and train harder to (in theory) make more gains. Eventually that train stops though, and we begin to out train our capacity to recover. In essence, you have a sink to symbolize the amount of training your body could handle. The size of the drain is your work capacity, and the water inside is all the training you’re doing. If the drain doesn’t adjust in size, there’s only so much you can do before the sink overflows. Recovery methods can serve as an overflow valve, preventing over training and allowing you to keep making progress if done alongside properly programmed training and nutrition.
As all these little aches and pains start to add up, we start looking for reasons to fix it. Not enough calories, mobility sucks, etc, when in reality the problem may simply be we aren’t recovering appropriately. Life gets in the way sometimes, sleep cycles aren’t always perfect, and we have to find a way to supplement our recovery in other avenues. That’s where the idea of active recovery comes into play. There are three primary reasons why I like to prescribe active recovery and limit bracing alternatives for smaller injuries/aches:
Active recovery may help you recover quicker and reduce soreness from the previous workout.
Depending on your goals and how you go about it, active recovery could also let you burn some calories and work on training technique.
And finally active recovery may serve some important psychological benefits not the least of which is that many people simply feel better when they exercise daily; movement is known to be able to elevate mood among other things.
Game Plan for Getting Right
The following are the techniques I personally use and recommend for anyone looking to speed recovery along. I’ve used these successfully on a variety of athletes, including on myself when my primary sport was distance running and now currently for strongman. The methods have been refined somewhat but they work, especially in conjunction with appropriate nutrition, periworkout intake, and training.
1) Contrast Showers – immediately postworkout. 2 to 1 ratio of hot to cold. As many rounds as it takes until you run out of time or start feeling invigorated again. It usually takes me 4-5 rounds of 1 minute as hot as I can tolerate, followed by 30 seconds of as cold as I can tolerate. Always end on a cold round.
2) Foam Rolling – morning after. I know, I wrote the article on avoiding foam rolling. But here’s where it is useful. Hit your muscle groups most trashed from the previous workout about 10-20 passes before you head off to work. Get some fresh blood and nutrition into the tissues.
3) Take A Walk – evening after. Here’s where I let people pick their poison a bit. Spend 20-30 minutes walking at a brisk pace outside. Work up a bit of a sweat. Alternatively, try some lighter sled drags, or if you have to be in the gym, go through some lighter accessory work to bring blood into the area. Make sure and eat beforehand. Some studies are showing it positively affects nutrient partitioning if you do.
And that’s it. It seems simple, because it is. But I promise you’ll be surprised at what all this can do for recovery. If you’re taking the time to supply your body with good sources of fat, carbohydrate, and protein, should you not also do everything you can to make sure all that wonderful fuel makes it to the tissue that needs it?
That’s what I thought. Until next time, stay strong, train hard.
John Taylor Weglicki, PT, DPT