It’s very easy to feel like we have to keep grinding away if we want to improve and get ahead. Whether that’s in your workouts, your career or your personal life, it’s the modern way to keep pushing and pushing. And, of course, we need to work hard to achieve our goals—that’s not in question at all. The stresses of striving to be our best can be healthy and productive, but ongoing stress without sufficient recuperation and recovery is not.
It is imperative for our health and performance that we give ourselves a chance to calm down and recover well from the strain we go through every day. It’s ironic that we can put forth the effort to workout consistently, but then give barely any attention to our “days off” and recuperation. It’s also self-defeating, because proper rest and recuperation is where we make gains and progress. Without it, you’re just digging a hole for yourself that you’ll never get out of. Regularly scheduled down time is absolutely a necessity to avoid physical and mental burnout.
The stress and recovery cycle
We are built to adapt to stress. Our bones and muscles are strengthened by resistance training, our hearts and lungs are strengthened by cardiovascular work, and our brains improve with learning and practice.
Stress and challenge are necessary—without sufficient stress, we won’t grow. But too much stress leads to breakdown.
The mental and physical parts of this go hand-in-hand. The physical soreness and fatigue combines with the mental strain and grind, which causes you to dread your workouts and lack motivation. This can turn into a negative cycle.
Nervous system responses
This has a lot to do with how our nervous system works. Our autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for the ongoing background functions of our bodies, works without our conscious involvement, and is divided into two opposite and complementary parts: sympathetic and parasympathetic.
Sympathetic nervous system
You’ve likely heard of the “fight or flight” response of the sympathetic nervous system, where in times of stress our bodies release adrenaline and other hormones to give us a boost of energy for dealing with perceived threats.
Parasympathetic nervous system
The sympathetic ramps you up; the parasympathetic dials you down. This “rest and digest” response decreases your heart rate and blood pressure, and dampens your systems to help with proper rest and recovery.
You can see the balance here. Our workouts and other stresses turn on our sympathetic response, which gives us alertness, strength and the capability to keep pushing through when needed. This is balanced by the parasympathetic, which calms everything down to help you recover so that you can handle stresses again.
You need both, to survive and thrive. An imbalance toward one side or the other is not healthy and prevents you from doing your best. And for most of us who strive to do our best, we tend to do too much work at too high an intensity. Let’s talk about how to even that out.
Rest and recovery day strategies
Here are our best strategies and tactics to help you recover on your off days from strenuous work.
Light cardio training
There’s a good reason many great athletes incorporate easy training into their regimens. It simply works. This involves doing light and easy movement such as walking or bicycling at a pace that you feel you could sustain for hours, below your aerobic threshold, which in general is less than 70 percent of your maximum heart rate.
It’s just enough movement to feel like you are doing something, but not enough to get out of breath or feel fatigued at all. This improves blood flow, stimulates the nervous system in a non-stressful way and overall feels good.
Fifteen to 30 minutes will do you well, and can easily be squeezed into your lunch break, or before or after work.
Meditation and breath work
Meditation can happen in whatever form you feel most comfortable doing. The most important components of mediation are proper breathing and a focus on what you are doing in the moment. Finding a way to not think of the past or future, and being present, is essential to recovery. This can happen in any activity you do, as you don’t need anything other than your presence of mind and a few cues to make this happen.
One of the best ways to start is to focus on controlling your breath. This could be as simple as practicing a steady, even breath where you breathe in for three seconds, hold three seconds, and the breathe out for three seconds. Repeat this pattern for as long as you’d like. Don’t try to stop from thinking about anything, because that will make it worse! Simply acknowledge whatever is going on in your head, continue focusing on your breath and keep going. Eventually your mind will stay clear.
The key, and I cannot stress this enough, is to not strain. You can’t force yourself to relax. Keep at it every day. However, if in a session you find yourself working too hard to let go and focus on your breath, it’s best to stop and try again the next day.
Start at five minutes and work your way up to 20 minutes (or longer if it feels good).
Another tried-and-true recovery method is stretching. It feels good to gently stretch stiff and achy muscles, and there is plenty of evidence that stretching stimulates the recovery response for our nervous system, increases blood flow and lowers cardiovascular markers.
With this in mind, I’d like to share an effective sequence that combines gentle stretching with mindful, controlled breathing. This is a quick and easy way to help you focus a bit more on recovering well from your training and hectic lifestyle.
In this video, Alicia will demonstrate six movements that will gently work through your major body areas to feel more relaxed and limber after just a few minutes.
- In this movement, you are aiming to make an “A” with your body, bending and straightening your knees with straight arms to lift your hips up high. Remember, the purpose of this series is to gently move your body into a good stretch. This should not be intense!
- As you perform the repetitions, it should feel like it gets easier, not harder. So take your time and don’t strain as you bend and straighten.
- After five to 10 repetitions, stay in the stretched position for 15 to 30 seconds. Hold only as long as you are comfortable.
Kneel to Cobra
- This is a nice stretch for your spine, where you’ll move slowly from kneeling to the Cobra backbend.
- The closer your hands are to your knees, the more of a stretch it becomes, so adjust accordingly.
- Focus on scooping your chest forward and up and relaxing your back as much as possible.
- Do five to 10 movements, then settle into a stretch that feels good for 15 to 30 seconds.
Kneeling Lunge to Hamstring Stretch with band/strap
- These two stretches are great to perform one right after the other on the same leg.
- In the kneeling lunge, be sure to start with your knees as wide apart as you need to feel stable, and have the front foot far enough forward that you don’t feel your ankle stopping you as you lunge into a stretch. This is a hip flexor stretch on the back leg.
- Gently move into and out of the stretch five to 10 times and then hold for 15 to 30 seconds.
- Then lie on your back for the hamstring stretch. A band or strap is very useful for helping you to do this in a more relaxed way. Loop it around your foot and use it to pull your leg into the stretch. It’s fine to have your knee slightly bent if you feel strain in the back of your knee.
- Move in and out of the stretched position five to 10 times, then hold for 15 to 30 seconds.
- Then repeat this combination on your other side.
Elbows on Chair, Upper Thoracic to Bent Arm Chest Stretch
- This movement combination works on your upper spine, back, chest and shoulders.
- Use a sturdy chair/stool/bench as support for your upper body.
- In the first move, you’ll kneel in front of the support and place your elbows upon it. It may also be more comfortable to place your forehead on it as well—do a few repetitions to see what works best for you.
- Bring your chest down to the ground but also think of scooping your chest forward at the same time. This will help you feel a stretch in your upper spine as well as your latissimus muscles of the upper back.
- Do 10 to 15 repetitions, then hold the stretched position for 15 to 30 seconds.
- Next, place your palm on the support with your elbow bent. Your upper arm will be at about a 45 degree angle relative to your chest.
- Lean into the support a bit and turn your body away from your hand to stretch your chest and shoulder.
- Do 10 to 15 repetitions in and out of the position, and then hold the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds.
- Repeat on the other side.
Focus on your recovery as much as your workouts
Proper rest and recovery are just as important as doing your workouts, and they deserve as much of your energy and effort. Frankly, without proper recovery, you will never progress well.
Nourish yourself with good food, get to bed at a decent hour, breathe and stretch and turn down your hectic brain for a few minutes every day. Train hard but don’t beat yourself down so much that you just end up spinning your wheels.
Do your best to take care of yourself and it will make all the difference!
Photo and video credit: Courtesy of GMB Fitness