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How Much Recovery Time Do I Really Need?

Perhaps the main factor in reaching your fitness goals is your time necessary to recover. It is also possibly the most overlooked. We workout, we beat our bodies up, we recover, we repeat. The whole cycle often takes close to a week, but the actual working out part is only an hour or two….So from a total time standpoint, only about 1% of our muscle building cycle involves actually working out the muscle, while the other 99% of the time, we are recovering so we can train again. Several scientific studies have noted that the more often a muscle can be worked out, the more it will improve. So the quicker we can recover, the quicker we will grow. With that said, think of how quickly you could grow if you needed literally no recovery time. You could train 24 hours a day, hit every muscle five or more times, eat 60,000 calories per day and add 60 pounds of muscle every week. Wouldn’t that be amazing? Unfortunately the human body doesn’t quite work that way. Training damages our muscles, depletes our energy supplies and taxes our central nervous system and joints, all of which need time to recover. Luckily though, there are some things we can do to enhance this process and shorten our recovery time.

To understand why we need recovery time, let’s first understand what exactly recovery is in an exercise context. Recovery is defined as the time required to meet or exceed performance in a particular activity. That is, how long it takes you after you work out at 100% effort to duplicate (or beat) what you did before. There are two pertinent kinds of recovery. One is short-term recovery, which is time in between sets to repeat a set. The other, and the one we are concerned with, is training recovery. Training recovery is the duration in between workouts required to be properly prepared to perform at their peak potential. In the context of weight training, this is the duration in between training the same body part twice. Often we think we are ready to train again, only to start lifting and feel broken down and weak, meaning we were not fully recovered. Short-term and training recovery generally involve two separate types of fatigue. Peripheral fatigue, related to short-term recovery, is defined as the impairment of a specific muscle to perform a task. This is essentially the depletion of ATP (energy) within a muscle. Wait a couple minutes and the body recharges the muscle and it can perform again. The other, more sinister fatigue is central fatigue. Central fatigue is mainly fatigue of the central nervous system (CNS). Training stresses the CNS and in turn the brains signals to the muscles will actually be dampened, resulting in diminished performance. Here are some specific criteria to determine if you are fatigued or ready to train a body part again:

  • Muscle soreness– Quite simply, this means if you can feel the muscle is sore, it is still damaged and not yet recovered.

  • Poor exercise performance – This is how many of us find out we are not quite ready to train. We hit the gym for another workout and just feel weak and achy. Even though we may not be sore, this indicates central fatigue and stress on the CNS.

  • Decrease in appetite – As the body has slowed to recover, so slows the metabolism and appetite as it recharges

  • Increased inflammation – This can be anything from achy joints to minor colds or susceptibility to allergies.

  • Quality or quantity of sleep – sleeping too much or restless sleep can indicate an over trained state

  • Gastrointestinal issues – This is an often overlooked symptom, however any stomach or digestion issues can sometimes be the result of overtraining.

Now let’s dive into how much recovery you need. Unfortunately, the correct answer is it depends. It depends on age, diet, how adapted you are to training as well as what you do in between workouts (including stress, sleep, and activity level). Also, the type of workout you have determines how long it will take to recover. The more stressful on the body the workout, the longer it will take to recover. This can be summed up as the more muscles you use, the type of training (strength/power training takes the most recovery time, cardio the least), as well as how much motor recruitment is involved. That is, the more your CNS is taxed, the longer it will take to recover. There is no easy answer to how much recovery is needed, but as a rule, if you can’t perform at least at the level you did your previous workout, you are not sufficiently recovered.

So what can we do to optimize our recovery so we can work out more often and grow more muscle? Although there is no widespread consensus on an exact protocol to aid recovery, here are a few keys that will help you get ready to go faster:

  • Rest and proper nutrition, lots of greens – This is obvious but needs to be stated. Avoiding extra activity outside of the gym that taxes the muscles and places more strain on the body is necessary to rebuild. Get plenty of sleep and eat a regular, healthy diet. Scientific studies have also shown that eating lots of cruciferous, green vegetables can assist in speeding up recovery and rebuilding muscle.

  • Vitamin C, vitamin E and Glutamine – A 2007 study showed that certain antioxidants, like Vitamin C and E have the ability to prevent muscle damage and soreness, thus reducing recovery times. There have also been several studies in different settings demonstrating high levels of Glutamine may accelerate tissue repair, including muscle.

  • Hydration – Drinking enough water and staying hydrated cannot be over emphasized. When the body is short of water, even by a little bit, all body processes slow to some degree. Drinking plenty of water keeps body processes running smoothly, removes toxins from the body, and improves recovery time.

  • Light cardio – A recent clinical study has shown that light cardio of only 15 minutes post workout or on off days decreases recovery time and helps build muscle. It does so by increasing blood flow to muscles and thus increasing the exchange of nutrients in and out of muscles to accentuate their repair. It is important that this cardio itself not be taxing on the system however, so something light like a walk should suffice.

Overall, the quicker you can recover the quicker you will improve. Many pro athletes have stated that their career ended not because they lost the ability to do what they used to be able to do, but rather, they lost the ability to do it as often due to impaired recovery with age. Keep in tune with your body and listen to what it tells you. Workout when you are ready and rest when not training.

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