Now that we’ve had a look at how to manage your energy levels during the workout, let’s have a look at the bigger picture of how to rest and recover between workouts.
Perhaps before we do that, we should build a clear picture of why it’s important to rest and recover in the first place.
Number one: the workout provides your body with a stimulus to get stronger. The actual getting stronger part happens after the workout, while your body is recovering from the workout.
Strength training challenges your muscles by asking them to exert force repeatedly. Force is the language of cells (in this case, muscle, ligament, tendon and bone cells), says Dr. Andreo Spina. The message your cells receive from this exertion serves as a stimulus for growth and strength development.
[A common understanding is that strength training causes a degree of microtrauma to muscle cells and that the muscle growth that follows is a direct result of the muscle recovering/healing from that microtrauma. At press time, whether recovery from microtrauma is, in fact, the actual mechanism by which muscle growth occurs is a topic of some debate in the scientific community. Moreover, our collective experience thus far has also demonstrated that strength increases are not necessarily always associated with muscle growth—the neurological component of strength development plays a big role in our approach to strength training for circus.]
Let’s get into a bit of physiology. I should warn you, I’m about to get a bit nerdy.
During a workout, several things happen in addition to—or as a result of—your muscles exerting force:
[The non-science-y version is that everything that contributes to the act of muscle contraction can get used up/worn out/depleted.]
Your muscle cells have a reservoir of readily available storage form of carbohydrate called glycogen (which is basically a molecular string of glucose). Glycogen is used to fuel the work.
In addition to glycogen, there are a few biochemical considerations involved in repeated muscular contractions. This can be particularly nerdy, but muscle contraction requires a supply of Calcium and Magnesium ions and a couple of different phosphate-based molecules). These can also be depleted by muscle work.
And then there’s your nervous system.
Your nervous system sends signals from your brain via motor neurons to your muscles to do the work. I realize this may seem like quite a basic notion (because it is), but it becomes a somewhat more complex consideration when we start performing exercises that really challenge the limits of your strength and the amount of muscular tension you can exert. The more intense you make any given muscle contraction—think hard-style plank—the greater the intensity of the neuromuscular stimulation.
For the nervous impulse to actually physically reach the muscle and trigger it to do stuff, molecules called neurotransmitters are used to basically carry the signal across the microscopic gap between the end of the nerve and the muscle cell itself. High levels of nervous impulse into the muscle uses up the store of neurotransmitters available for carrying the signal across to the muscle. (This is a bit of a simplified version of the science, but this is also why sometimes you can feel like you have a decent amount of energy, but you just can’t seem to make your muscles work as hard as they could at the start of the training session).
Technically, recovery begins as soon as you finish a set of any given exercise.
From a very basic survival perspective, your body is highly motivated to get your muscles ready to do their thing again as soon as possible.
So, within minutes after a set of goblet split squats, your body is working to replenish your intramuscular stores of glycogen, calcium, magnesium and ATP (the phosphate molecule that is the body’s basic energy currency) and your nervous system is doing its best to re-set itself and to be ready for the next round.
But during a workout, your body can only go so far, which is why you will eventually arrive at a point where you just can’t lift anymore heavy things for the day.
All of this recovery elevates your body’s metabolism. What that really means is that it takes energy to recover.
Your body needs adequate time and ‘resources’ to fully recover from exercise.
What do I mean by that?
I mean that the body needs adequate protein (the basic building block of muscle), carbohydrate (to replenish muscle glycogen), fat (which regulates hormone function, helps to transport certain vitamins and minerals in the body and is a key energy source for the recovery process), vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals (literally, plant chemicals) and water. (Ok, this just drifted into a bit of next week’s nutrition conversation).
And, the body needs time to put all of that to work. Specifically, the body needs time not exerting more energy so that it can devote resources to basic bodily maintenance and growth. This time not exerting more energy can also be referred to as rest.
The specific type of rest we’re talking about here is sleep.
Here’s what we know (from science):
Sleep is a wonderful thing. Your body benefits from sleep in a variety of ways, but the key lies in quality sleep. Restless and/or light sleep doesn’t quite cut it.
Oh, and quantity: between 7 and 8 hours of sleep every night.
That last one (7-8 hours??? Every night???) seems to be the kicker for many people.
What I’d like to do this week is offer a few quick suggestions for things that will help you to fall asleep faster and to get better quality sleep.
Things that help:
Controlling your exposure to light.
- To fall asleep faster, avoid bright lights and blue light two hours before bed. Yup:reduce your screen time before bed.
- To get better quality sleep, make your bedroom as dark as possible. This can mean blackout curtains, covering up the lights on any electronic devices…and/or wearing a sleep mask.
Control noise exposure.
- Noise can dramatically reduce the quality of your sleep. If you can’t make your bedroom silent, consider earplugs or perhaps something to play some white noise or soothing music to mask more irritating noises, but keep the volume low.
- Ambient heat can delay sleep onset and reduce sleep quality. Conversely, a comfortably cool room can reduce the time it takes you to fall asleep and enter the deeper stages of sleep.
- Caffeine can be a great performance enhancer, but even if you can fall asleep easily with caffeine in your system, it does impair quality sleep. Avoid caffeine within six hours of your bedtime.
So, there you go.
Just as I do for the folks I get to work with in person, I offer all of the above as both ongoing education and as food for thought. From here, it turns into individual conversations. To that end, I invite you to follow up with me—if you feel so inclined—and let me know what you think, where you’re at with sleep and good sleep hygiene, as it were.
And in the meantime, have a great week!