We all live very busy and stressful lives. More people are training than ever before with the popularization of fitness branches like CrossFit and group fitness programs. This is excellent but, because of this, it has now become even more imperative that we focus on recovery for optimal health and performance. There are a multitude of techniques and modalities available for recovery, but many are extremely expensive and, as a result, inaccessible. But fear not! My goal with this blog is to expose you to some cost-effective recovery methods, as well as enhance some techniques you are already using. As stated by Dr. John Rusin, in regard to recovery, passive modalities (simply laying around on the couch all day because we are too sore) are the least effective tools at our disposal; thus, their use should be limited. If you are sore on an off-day, your best bet is to be active in your recovery. Recommended methods often include, but are not limited to, acupuncture; massage; cryotherapy; vibration platforms; or fancy compression gear. While these are all great, they may not be feasible for many people. Instead, let’s look at some more cost-effective and readily-available methods!
Self-Myofascial Release (SMR) techniques tend to receive a bad rap from many people, simply because the mechanisms by which they work are often misunderstood. Fortunately, more and more research has come out suggesting that SMR techniques can improve short-term flexibility while causing no decrease in strength and performance. This is why it can be an excellent pre-workout tool. SMR can help to reduce post-workout muscle soreness, while aiding in our recovery. It has recently been suggested that SMR techniques help to decrease arterial stiffness, which decreases the risk of heart attack and congestive heart failure; SMR has a long list of benefits! Fortunately, many people have access to SMR tools; many gyms have foam rollers handy and lacrosse balls are affordable for anybody. If you’re in a pinch, just use a barbell! Here are some tips to effective SMR:
Not going too fast
- If we want to make any lasting changes in our fascia, we must slow down throughout the movement.
- People often refer to SMR work as “rolling out” and speed through it as if we were kneading pizza dough but, in reality, slow and steady wins the race!
Tack and stretch
- Another often overlooked method is the tack-and-stretch method
- While rolling, when you find what may feel like a knot, hang out there and flex and extend the closest joint through its full range of motion (i.e. bend and straighten the knee when rolling the quadriceps). This may be uncomfortable, but is an excellent way to truly make progress!
- Because SMR work can be painful, many people will hold their breath and guard against tension. Instead, try this: contract your muscle hard when you find a tight spot while rolling out, but then fully allow yourself to relax and fully exhale!
Meditation is an excellent way to relax and clear our mind during times of high stress, and can also be an invaluable recovery tool. It’s also free! There are many different techniques that can be used, but my favorite is box breathing. Basically, we attempt to inhale, hold, exhale, and pause for the same number of seconds at a time, gradually increasing the length of time we can do so from week to week. For example, I was initially only able to do 2 seconds for each phase, and have worked up to 6 seconds each! I advise that you try to lay on your back with your feet elevated and practice proper breathing. Ideally, a full inhale involves diaphragmatic (belly) breathing and THEN thoracic (chest) breathing, and a full exhale follows the reverse order. This is a technique that is often used by U.S. Navy Seals in high-stress times during combat, especially their snipers; if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me! I first discovered this technique during my varsity football days, and found that it helped after workouts, before big games, and during high-stress situations during the game. How exactly does meditation help recovery? We have two main branches of our autonomic nervous system:
Sympathetic (fight or flight)
- High stress situations
- Adrenaline is pumping
- Helps us perform better during high-stress situations
- Great during games or intense workouts
Parasympathetic (rest and digest)
- Low stress situations
- Helps us to recover and digest our food
- Great after workouts, before bed etc.
Being in a sympathetic state can be excellent during workouts or when we are in danger, but is exhausting if we stay there for too long. Therefore, it is imperative that we get into a parasympathetic state as soon as possible after workouts to start the recovery process. Meditation can help take us from a sympathetic to a parasympathetic state! Box breathing is an excellent tool that we can all access; it may just take some practice.
Coach Ryan recently posted an excellent infographic on why sleep is so important and how to get better sleep! The basics are that we should limit stimulant use close to bedtime (e.g. caffeine), exercise regularly, ensure adequate exposure to sunlight, limit daytime naps to 30 minutes, limit screen-time before bed, use our bed for sleep and sex only, reduce the temperature in the bedroom, avoid fluid intake right before bed, avoid clock watching, and invest in comfortable bedding. Following these tips will help ensure that we have a deep and restful sleep, which is the most powerful recovery tool at our disposal!
Active Rest Workouts
This may sound like an oxymoron to some, but performing a lower-intensity “workout” can be an amazing recovery tool! These could include something like an aerobic warm-up, some focused mobility work, some bodyweight or very light lifting movements, and some more mobility and meditation to wrap up. This will do so much more for your recovery than sitting on the couch! One little-known tool that is amazing for recovery when used properly is the sled. Sled movements are concentric-only, meaning they do not cause muscle damage but still force you to use your muscles and promote blood flow; this is an excellent way to get stronger and promote recovery without the soreness! The possibilities for these workouts are endless as the sled is such a versatile piece of equipment, so be creative! You can push, pull, row, press, drag, lunge, and do many more things with the sled! If recovery is the intent, weights can be kept a little lighter and rest can be moderate (not short like a conditioning workout).
Nutrition is one of the most important factors in recovery. It is such an expansive topic that is too vast to fit into one blog, but in sticking with our theme, I wanted to touch briefly on how to make it affordable. Precision Nutrition offers an excellent infographic on how to do so. It is comprised of five main components:
- Utilize the PN Hand Portion system as opposed to counting calories as this will leave you more satisfied, simplifying eating while keeping it enjoyable!
Cook Most of Your Meals
- Cooking and eating at home is so much cheaper!
Pre-prep Your Meals
- You will be much less likely to get takeout food!
Become a Savvy Shopper
- Places like bulk-food stores can be an excellent way to save money on high-quality foods!
Avoid Food Waste
- Plan before you shop so that you don’t over-buy, and preserve foods properly so you can have them available for longer!
According to Precision Nutrition, some of the best cost-effective foods are eggs, canned fish, whole chickens, rice, potatoes, beans, lentils, carrots, frozen spinach, butter, extra virgin olive oil, frozen berries, and herbs and spices. You truly can do a lot with a little; you just have to be creative!
Contrast showers can be uncomfortable, but make for an excellent recovery tool. As an added bonus, you’ll likely save some money on your hot-water bill at the end of the month! All you have to do is alternate between bouts of very cold and very warm (never to the point of burning your skin) water for up to 10 minutes to help promote recovery. I would start with 30-second bouts of each, alternating back and forth. The temperature contrast forces your blood vessels to dilate (get bigger) with the warm water and then contract (get smaller) with the cold water, thus acting as a pumping system to rid the muscles of lactic acid or toxins that have accumulated from your recent workouts. If you have a specific area of the body that is sore, you can concentrate the water on this spot for a more focused recovery.
There is a whole world out there dedicated to optimizing recovery. While many commonly recommended techniques are inaccessible, there is still a lot that can be done! The key to recovery is to be proactive, rather than reactive. Ensure you are optimizing your workouts with proper warm-ups and cool-downs, followed with active and passive recovery techniques to maximize your results!
Myles specializes in contact sport performance. He is the head strength coach for Laurier University’s Men’s Rugby squad and helps develop local football athletes to take their game to the next level. Myles also works with dedicated members of the community looking to improve personal fitness.