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4 Ways to Recover and Why it’s Important

By: Allison Wojtowecz

Recovery is one of the most important aspects of your fitness and health regime but is one of the most neglected.  When we think about fitness, we think about lifting, getting stronger, cardio and sweating.  Moving around is good for us, sure.  Working out is good for us, sure.  Sometimes we just want a workout that leaves us feeling like we went all-out, sure.

 

But what about those days in which we tell ourselves we “need to hit the gym” even though every muscle is screaming at us with soreness?  Those times when work is busy and hectic.  The days where the house needs cleaning, the kids have 4 different practices to get to, and you still need to make a healthy dinner?

This is stressing me out just talking about all of this, but my point is this: we are chronically stressed.  As much as it’s important and healthy to work out, that in itself can be just one more thing to do.  In fact, the act of working out itself is a stressor to the body.  While generally viewed as good stress, it’s still stress.  And sometimes any stress is perceived as bad when there’s too much of it and steps are not taken to properly manage it.

That’s where recovery swoops in.

As a chronic workout junkie myself, it’s taken a lot longer than I’d like to admit for me to take active measures to ensure I’m recovering properly from all the things going on in my life.  It wasn’t until my brother starting taking his recovery seriously after a  deep core muscle injury while playing collegiate lacrosse did I truly see the importance and benefits of recovery first hand.  While he was recovering, he forced me to join him for his 30-minute post-workout recovery sessions.  This opened up discussions between the two of us about how he’d actually been reading all sorts of benefits to performance that recovery has.  That it’s not just something you should do post-injury, but something that will really boost your workouts when you’re completely healthy.  That recovery, specifically times without stress, will help you avoid the injuries in the first place.  Things we always hear about, but that I finally saw come to life in his recovery from this injury.  Things that started taking effect in my own workouts and daily stress levels.  

Seeing the benefit to him both mentally and physically, fundamentally shifted my mindset toward recovery from something to be skipped to something that should be prioritized.  

When I started adding recovery into my fitness schedule, I had some really amazing results.  First, my muscle mass has improved, my strength has gone up (I can do pull ups now!) and my body fat is the lowest it’s ever been.  My sleep is phenomenal.  And, possibly most importantly, my ability to handle day to day stress is so much better.  Better work, school, internships, my schedule is packed and I am busier than ever, but I feel so much more balanced and calm in the midst of the (sometimes) chaos! So I have seen firsthand the benefits of recovery, but what does the science say?   Let’s look at what science says about my 4 favorite ways to recover.

Stretching

While this has been a recovery strategy for a long time now, stretching is actually still heavily studied because its benefits have not been made clear.  Some people claim they feel less sore afterward, some think it improves performance, some think it makes no difference at all.  These points are all still highly debated.  However, one proven benefit is that muscular stiffness is decreased by repeated bouts of stretching (Torres et.al.).  This same study proved that the indicators of muscular damage from exercise were not changed with stretching.  So, the benefit here comes down to that muscular stiffness experienced post-exercise.  Because they are not tight, the muscles are better able to move normally soon after a good stretch session even when soreness lingers.

Foam Rolling

So then what about the pain aspect?  The topic of foam rolling is still debated, as this recovery method is fairly new to mainstream exercisers.  It’s painful, yes, but people generally feel that they walk away feeling better than before hitting the roller.  

Lucky for us, research seems to be drawing the same conclusion.  According to a study conducted by Pearcey et.al. in 2015, foam rolling was shown to “substantially improve” tenderness in the quadriceps muscles following a bout of high-intensity exercise.  As far as direct performance enhancement is concerned, there appears to be no connection between foam rolling and the actual improvement of exercises following.  However, because muscular soreness is decreased, performance during the workout is better because the athletes can work at a higher intensity for a longer time period (Healey et.al.).  Basically, the foam rolling isn’t going to make you directly better at your workout.  It is a tool to use that allows for decreased soreness, leading to better output during the workout.  Because your output is increased, your athleticism improves.  Seems like a pretty logical explanation for this one!

Yoga

I’ll be the first to admit that this was the hardest thing for me to take on.  Having been the person who made fun of “yogis” as they talked about their tough class of the morning, I honestly just never had an interest in going to a “fake workout class.”  Boy, was I wrong!  Yoga is extremely challenging and I swear, nothing makes me sweat more.  While it can be used as a workout on its own, taking some of the more therapeutic poses from this practice can be extremely useful in a recovery regimen.  Many of the poses might not even be recognized as yoga – we all just know they feel good!

Some interesting research on the benefits of yoga has been popping up lately, even those that were conducted years ago and are just now gaining notice.  A 1975 study by Patel showed improvements in high blood pressure in a test group that practiced yoga versus a control group that did not.  All blood pressure markers were improved with this practice, except for the necessary rise in systolic blood pressure during exercise.  It should be noted that a rise in systolic blood pressure from exercise is normal and should be happening.

A newer study from 2012 showed significant balance improvements in post-stroke patients by implementing a yoga practice.  This same study implied that the community aspect of putting these patients in a group yoga class also helped improve their sense of self-efficacy and decrease their fear of falling (Schimd et.al.).  In yet another realm of health, a study released in 2009 discovered that a regular postural yoga practice can improve body image and disordered eating in women, regardless of their reason for partaking in yoga.  The women also had higher body satisfaction scores and better BMIs than those in the comparison group (Dittmann & Freedman).

Though these are just a few examples of why I think incorporating even basic yoga into a recovery routine, it’s obvious that there are both physical and mental benefits to practicing it.

Deep Breathing

A major part of a yoga practice is concentrated breathing.  And researchers have found that this focused deep breathing has a wide range of health benefits.   Research on breathing deeply has been booming lately, and the common consensus on its ability to reduce acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) stress is that it decreases both.  In a study released in December 2016, self-reported stress, as well as the physical indicators of heart rate and cortisol levels, were all decreased following concentrated breathing sessions (Perciavalle et.al.).  This is huge because that points not only to both short- and long-term physical stress markers but also to the fact that people can perceive the difference!  Our brain waves reflect this de-stressed state, too – theta waves are produced quickly after beginning a controlled breathing session and cause the mind to shift from an overactive state to one of calm (Jerath et.al.).  That puts you in prime relaxation mode so you can get the most of a recovery session.

While it may seem weird to include some breathing exercises in an exercise recovery regimen, just think about how you breathe differently when working out versus relaxing.  During workouts, you probably think about breath a lot more than when you’re not doing anything too physically demanding.  You synch your inhales and exhales with weight lifting, you try to control breathing pace while running, you make sure you are breathing while doing core work.  Taking the time to focus on breathing as its own practice has the potential to improve your performance during these physical bouts of exercise, as shown in a study on collegiate female rowers by the University of Wolverhampton (Stefanos et.al.).  These women were either in a breath-training group or a group that did not partake in this training.  The results show that those who trained they’re inspiratory (breathing) muscles were significantly more resistant to fatigue than those who did not.  If breathing with intention a few minutes a day gives you an edge like this, all while de-stressing you, why not give it a shot?

Just to wrap it up…

This article covered a lot of ground.  But the main point is that recovery does a body good, both mentally and physically and this is supported by my own personal experience and some really solid research.  Adding a recovery regime into your fitness program will help us have better workouts, healthier minds, and more positive outlooks toward life in and outside of the gym.  So don’t skip that your recovery, because it is time well spent!  

How do you like to recover?

 

 

Sources

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