When people think about what it takes to get bigger, stronger, or faster, they often only think about what happens in the weight room. In actuality, training in the gym breaks the body down, while the period of recovery afterwards is what builds the body back up.
You get bigger, stronger, and faster by recovering from that training. This process is called “supercompensation”. This can also be visualized in the image above.
When talking about recovery, it is important to note the role of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for increasing heart rate, blood flow and alertness. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for reducing heart rate and digestion, and conserving energy.
Dr. Mike T. Nelson puts it well when he says to “think of [the] parasympathetic like your brakes and [the] sympathetic as your gas pedal.” Both parts of the autonomic nervous system play vital roles in an athlete’s performance. In this article we are going to focus primarily on activating the parasympathetic nervous system to allow for better recovery.
Importance of Sleep
Quality and quantity of sleep are essential for athlete performance and recovery. Lack of sleep is shown to have negative effects on almost every area of performance, including reaction times, cognitive ability, and injury rates. Both acute and chronic sleep deprivation have large negative effects on performance. Acute sleep deprivation is getting less than 7-8 hours of sleep in a given night, and chronic sleep deprivation is not getting enough sleep for extended periods.
Every individual has different needs, but it is generally recommended to get at least 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night to recover from the stresses of training. Making positive changes in sleep quantity and quality also has a strong correlation with increased testosterone and an improved immune system. In a study of 10 young men whose sleep was restricted from eight hours a night to five, daytime testosterone levels decreased by 10 to 15 percent.
Sleep hygiene refers to sleep-centered habits that can improve sleep quantity, sleep quality, and latency (how long it takes to fall asleep). The first recommendation for improving sleep hygiene is to create a quality sleep environment. In order to do this, make sure your bedroom is cool, dark, and quiet. A popular way to ensure this is to hang blackout curtains and wear earplugs. Also, you might refrain from eating, relaxing, or studying in the bedroom, as it should be a place used exclusively for sleep.
The next recommendation for improving sleep hygiene is to go to sleep and wake up at similar times on a consistent basis. This is important because the human body has a circadian rhythm that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. Adhering to a sleep schedule that allows your brain to release melatonin (the sleep hormone) at the same times every night will greatly improve sleep quality.
Another recommendation is to reduce blue light exposure in the hours before sleep. Blue light emitted by screens such as phones, computers, and televisions can impair the brain’s ability to produce melatonin. If using a screen before bedtime is unavoidable, purchasing an affordable pair of blue light reduction glasses and wearing them in the hours before bed is a viable option. The last simple recommendation to improve sleep quality is to limit caffeine and other stimulant consumption to early in the day, as the use of stimulants like caffeine close to bedtime can impair sleep.
Proper nutrition is also vital to an athlete’s recovery from training. It is important to ensure that you are eating enough calories to meet your bodyweight, body composition, and athletic goals, no matter the time of year. We won’t dive into the nitty gritty of nutrition in this article, but we will go over some of the basics to make sure you are recovering the best way possible. A few of our strength coaches have found the Renaissance Periodization EBook useful as a more comprehensive guide to nutrition. You could also check out Andy Galpin’s research on nutrition for athletes.
We commonly see athletes not eat the right amount of calories to meet their goals. This can go both ways, as both over- and under-eating are non-conducive to fitness and performance goals. There are a multitude of factors that go into the correct calorie balance for an individual, but in general if you want to lose weight you should be in a calorie deficit, and if you want to gain weight you should be in a calorie surplus.
When athletes ask how many calories they should be eating, we typically consider a few different factors. If they have already been tracking their calories using an app such as MyFitnessPal, then we can check their average caloric intake and add or subtract from there. If they haven’t been tracking their calories, we will typically have them download MyFitnessPal, and then we will tell them to eat normally and track everything they eat or drink for 4-5 days. From there, we will sit down with them again and see how many calories they’ve been averaging while eating like they normally do.
Unless altering body composition is the athlete’s main goal for the training block, most athletes typically need to primarily focus on calorie and protein intake. Depending on numerous factors such as eating habits, body composition, goals and more, protein intake at 1.6-1.8g/kg of bodyweight should be sufficient for most athletes.
When speaking of controlling stress in regards to training, most people exclusively think of the physical stress of the training itself. The truth is that physical, mental, and emotional stress all affect the body’s ability to recover and grow. The nervous system and endocrine system cannot tell the difference between physical, emotional, and mental stress.
An example of this would be a person feeling exhausted after a taxing emotional ordeal such as an argument with a partner. When exposed to stressors, the body transitions into a sympathetic nervous system state, also known as fight or flight. In this state, the hormones cortisol and adrenaline are increased. Short term, these effects are normal and healthy. However, being chronically stuck in a sympathetic nervous system state makes recovering from stress difficult.
One of the most important steps in managing stressors is to take an objective look at what in life is actually a stressor. Many people think they are “relaxing” when watching sports, watching television, or playing video games. The truth is their heart rate is likely elevated and they are in a sympathetic nervous system state—which means they are not recovering or relaxing during this time. This is not to say that activities outside of training that act as stressors must be completely removed, but it is important to be aware of them and to make an effort to limit their impact. Another important step to managing stress outside of training is learning stress management techniques to use in your daily life.
An established method of returning to a parasympathetic nervous system state is meditating or doing some form of breathwork. There are many techniques for meditation and breathing, and almost all of them are in some way effective at putting the nervous system in a state to recover. Additionally, learning conflict resolution techniques that allow for less unneeded stress in one’s daily life can massively reduce the amount of mental and emotional stress accumulated outside of training.
Baseball players have historically been told to do flush runs post throwing to remove the lactic acid from their arm. The soreness that many associate with lactic acid is the result of the massive stretch shortening cycle that the arm goes through in the delivery, along with the eccentric forces that throwing exerts on the body.
The goal for active recovery on recovery days should be to stimulate blood flow and restore range of motion. Great choices for active recovery on rest days can include anything that’s low stress and low impact. A few examples include movement circuits, walks, meditation, tempo runs and targeted soft tissue work. The main goal for these days is to avoid activities that will bring you back into a sympathetic state and inhibit your recovery.