Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
14 Aug

7 Things You May Be Doing That Impair Workout Recovery

WorkoutSimplicity is baked into the Primal Blueprint by design. You eat plants and animals, avoid grains, get plenty of sleep and sun, and spend time doing things you love with people you love, and things just kind of fall into place. You can tinker around the edges and get really into the details, but I try to make this stuff as simple as possible. I’ve especially tried to distill exercise, a notoriously contentious topic, down into a simple, “universal” recommendation – move frequently at a slow pace throughout the day, lift heavy things twice or thrice a week, and sprint once in a while. While I maintain such a regimen will get most people reasonably fit and let them recover easily from their workouts without having to think too hard about recovery, it’s not the same for everyone. Some folks, particularly my harder-charging readers, my CrossFitters, my endurance athletes, and my barbell fanatics could use a more detailed discussion on workout recovery (since, after all, recovery is everything).

Today, I’ll start that discussion with a focus on seven factors that can impair your workout recovery:


Exercise is a potent stressor, and that’s why it works so well: by encountering and overcoming the stress of a heavy squat, or a sprint uphill, or an arduous hike, our fitness improves to make the next encounter a little easier. Unfortunately, dealing with any kind of stress diverts valuable manpower away from workout recovery.

I’m not making this up, folks. This isn’t just a guess of mine. Recent research confirms that “mental stress” impairs workout recovery, and it doesn’t speak in generalities. 31 undergrads were assessed for stress levels using a battery of psychological tests, then engaged in a heavy lower body strength workout. At an hour post workout, students in the high stress group had regained 38 percent of their leg strength, while students in the low stress group had regained 60 percent of their strength back. An earlier study showed that tissue healing – which our muscles must do in order to recover – is impaired during times of stress. Students received puncture wounds to their mouths, and half went on vacation and the other half had exams. On average, the exam group took three days longer for their wounds to heal. You aren’t healing puncture wounds (usually) after training, but the muscle recovery process is extremely similar and places similar demands on the body.

More Workouts

Sometimes, people get the funny notion that the benefits of exercise accrue as you exercise – in real time. These people often assume that more is always better, and that a surefire way to get lean and fit is to cram as much exercise into your schedule as humanly possible, because it’ll only make you fitter. These are the people you see spending hours at the gym every day on the same machines, using the same weights, looking and performing the same, year after year. Well, they’re wrong. Fitness accrues after workouts and during recovery. You don’t get stronger, faster, and fitter working out. You get stronger, fitter, and faster recovering from working out. And don’t be misled by those incredibly fit and strong folks who seem to train all day, every day. They’re not fit because they train that way. They train that way because they’re fit enough to do it.

As a general rule, the harder the workout, the longer the recovery period required.

Excessive Calorie Restriction

“Eat less, move more” is the popular, inevitable refrain from fitness “experts” giving weight loss advice. They claim that reducing your calorie intake and increasing your activity will always lead to simple, easy, inevitable fat loss. And yeah, that’s one way to lose body weight, but there’s one big problem with this equation: you need calories to recover from your workouts. Not a problem if you just want to lose body mass at any cost. Disastrous, though, if you want to improve performance, get stronger, and get fitter, because you need those calories to refuel your muscles and restock your energy reserves.

Plus, inadequate calorie intake coupled with intense exercise sends a “starvation” signal to the body, causing a down-regulation of anabolic hormones. Instead of growing lean mass and burning body fat, starvation (whether real or simulated) promotes muscle atrophy and body fat retention. Either alone can be somewhat effective, but combining the two will only impair recovery.

Inadequate Protein

Your muscles move you, which is why no matter what type of training you do – endurance, strength, MovNat, hillwalking, dancing, Zumba, Tabata skipping, competitive tag, Ultimate Frisbee, long duration room pacing – your muscles need to recover. Some workouts require less muscle recovery, sure, but every form of physical movement uses skeletal muscle. Muscle needs protein to repair itself and recover from exercise; this is perhaps the most fundamental concept in exercise recovery.

How much protein do you need to recover from a workout, exactly? As I said earlier, it depends on what kind of workout you’re trying to recover from. Strength training probably merits more protein than hiking, for example. According to research in athletes, anywhere between 1.8 grams protein/kg bodyweight and 3 g/kg suffices. And if you are practicing calorie restriction while exercising, increasing your protein intake can ameliorate the muscle loss that tends to accompany it.

Lack of Sleep

I recently penned a post devoted exclusively to the importance of sleep on fitness performance. The gist of it was that sleep loss doesn’t always impair performance, but it does impair recovery from exercise. Sleep debt impairs exercise recovery primarily via two routes: by increasing cortisol, reducing testosterone production, and lowering muscle protein synthesis; and by disrupting slow wave sleep, the constructive stage of slumber where growth hormone secretion peaks, tissues heal and muscles rebuild. That’s probably why sleep deprivation has been linked to muscular atrophy and increased urinary excretion of nitrogen, and why the kind of cortisol excess caused by sleep deprivation reduces muscle strength.

Additionally, sleep loss can increase the risk of injuries by decreasing balance and postural control. If you trip and fall, or throw out your back due to poor technique, you won’t even have a workout to recover from.

Nutrient Deficiencies

Active people are “living more,” which puts greater demands on the body and increases the amount of “stuff” it must do to maintain health and basic function. Since every physiological function requires a micronutrient substrate – vitamin, mineral, hormone, neurotransmitter, etc. – and physiological functions increase with exercise and recovery, active people require more micronutrients in their diet. “More of everything” is a safe bet, but there are a couple key nutrients that working out especially depletes:

Zinc: Exercise, especially weight training, works better with plenty of testosterone on hand to build muscle and develop strength. Zinc is a key substrate for the production of testosterone, and studies show that exercise probably increases the need for zinc. In fact, one study found that exhaustive exercise depleted testosterone (and thyroid) hormones in athletes, while supplementing with zinc restored it.

Magnesium: Magnesium is required for a number of physiological processes related to workout recovery, including oxygen uptake by cells, energy production, and electrolyte balance. Unfortunately, as one of the main electrolytes, lots of magnesium is lost to sweat during exercise. The same could be said for other electrolytes like calcium, sodium, and potassium, but most people get plenty of those minerals from a basic Primal eating plan. Getting enough magnesium, however, is a bit tougher, making magnesium deficiency a real issue for people trying to recover from workouts.

Infrequent Workouts

You know this specimen: the weekend warrior. Every other weekend or so, he gets amped up and goes on a big bike ride, does a 10k, swims a few thousand meters, attempts to deadlift twice his body weight, tries to climb the local mountain, or performs some other impressive feat of human endurance/strength/pain tolerance that he hasn’t done for months. He feels great doing it and feels incredibly accomplished, but by the time Monday rolls around he’s wracked with crippling DOMS that prevents him from performing simple physical tasks like shoe-lacing and back-scratching, let alone going to the gym for an actual followup workout. Since he can’t work out – or even lift his arms over his head – it’ll be another couple weeks until he exercises again. By then, any progress he made has already disappeared. He’s back at square one.

The presence of any one of these factors in your life can and likely will affect your workout recovery. Having several – or all – of them? Good luck with that.

Next time, I’ll talk about some recovery tactics. Thanks for reading, folks. Be sure to chime in with any thoughts you have on impediments to workout recovery!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Can someone explain to me why i with my desk job should only lift about 3 times max a week in fear of overtraining, while other people have a physical job thats about as exhausting as my training AND can lift on top of that? This fear of overtraining sounds to me like someone knew his target demographic well, people who hate working out and want to be told that less is better. Also, what about adaptation? If i work out more, my body should adapt to that in some way instead of destroying itself, given i do it in a sane manner.

    Mat wrote on August 15th, 2013
    • Hi Mat,
      Yes.. I think you are right. I am a woman so maybe my fitness objectives are different than yours but I understand your point. I personally fell off the wagon so many times just because I was giving myself all this recovery time. It is hard enough to force yourself to start exercising if you are sedentary and have sedentary job and doing it only 2- 3 times a week – it seems that you never really get off the ground. So after years of starting and failing I discovered that more frequency works just fine. I was reading someone elses blog – this person uses the workout system I am using and it struck me that she is doing strength training 5x a week plus she runs 2 times a week (this is what she likes). And this is when I thought – ok so the system is designed to work out 3x a week but this lady – who has a great success in it and could easily get on the cover of fitness magazine is doing more!!!! I started to aim to train every day and see what happens and it turns out that doing 5x a week is easier. I take a break on Sunday as it is usually unrealistic to fit in a training and I also usually have one day a week off when I feel tired and I just take it easy. I also do yoga once a week. With this frequency of training I may have some soreness in the muscles especially if I do both Yoga and strength on the day, but it is never to the point that I am looking funny when going down the stairs. I started to see real results in my body shape and strength only after 4 weeks. Also I think it is really crucial if you want to lose weight (or fat I should rather say) it is just not enough to go primal. You can overeat on primal like on any other diet/ lifestyle and you need to be aware what you eat in energetic (calorific terms) – if it is too much you are not going to loose fat – end of story. I love Mark’s musings and I think a lot of it makes sense there are only 2 “buts”. Having Fit organizm – like him or his wife’s usually allows you intuitively up regulate your food intake and stay within your weight range – this does not happen with someone who has put on fat and been sedentary for years – it takes concious effort. I can say this from a perspective of someone who was fit and how easy was this and how I knew what to eat and how much intuitively – and my perspective now – when I decided to loose more than 20 pounds and get myself back to fit state. And anyway – have you seen the posts of Mark or Carrie when they talk about their day – this is definitely not desk jobs, you cannot make up for the overall activity that people who are moderately active having jobs where the move around and hike regularly if you are a city hermit just by training 3x a week. In all honesty -to make this work you have to do as much training as you can. See if you can do 5x a week. If you want to loose fat – look at the calories you eat – until I have done it – nothing worked. And yes – your body will adapt to more training – it is probably only 1 week when it is hard and then it goes easy. Much much easier if you give yourself resting time – which is “prescribed”. If you feel you have energy to train – do it.

      Magda wrote on August 15th, 2013
      • Thanks so much for your encouragement! I recently started doing some light bodyweight exercises on my “off” days, which was totally fine, so i will do as you did and build on that and see where it takes me. :)

        Mat wrote on August 15th, 2013
  2. I really enjoyed this article! I am new to Crossfit and think this really helps keep the big picture in mind. I am also interested to see/learn on how working nights (9pm-7am) and sleeping during the day affects recovery and digestion.

    Ashley W. wrote on August 15th, 2013
  3. that damn STRESS gets me every time…

    MizFit wrote on August 15th, 2013

    Further insight concerning the necessity of adequate sleep.

    kevin wrote on August 15th, 2013
  5. It all comes down to nutrition. I just discovered this recently after doing a food journal where I realized that I was about five hundred calories under my goal. I also realized I was actually eating WAY too much protein and not enough fats or carbohydrates for recovery.

    Matt wrote on August 15th, 2013
  6. What if the only time you have to workout consistently is on the weekends? Like a Thursday through Monday. Should I just give it up?

    parson wrote on August 15th, 2013
    • Heck no, don’t give it up. Twice a week is plenty. Some people do strength (super slow reps) once a week and call it good enough.
      You could also do exercise in ten minute bits. That works pretty well. It’s usually possible to find ten free minutes here and there, do some push ups, shake a tail father, walk, jump rope, etc.

      dmunro wrote on August 15th, 2013
      • I meant to add, because exercise is mainly for the purpose of feeling good, expressing the joy of having a body, and being able to get up out of your chair when you’re 80.

        dmunro wrote on August 15th, 2013
  7. Mark, another brilliant article as always! Apparently the only benefit Cross fitting doesn’t offer is thick skin as is evident from all the offended cross fitter replies. :{

    Alan wrote on August 15th, 2013
  8. Lack of stress and lack of sleep are such a huge factor. But I agree that nutrition is key. I have found liquid magnesium to be a really big help in recovery and taking mineral supplements. Also coconut water is a great healthy alternative to replace electrolytes.

    Alison wrote on August 15th, 2013
  9. Hi Mark

    Great article your wrote, once again.
    regarding sleep, remember to sleep in a room totaly dark not even digits from your clock must show. belive me you can feel the difference.
    as a guidance i use a app to messure my puls resting in the morning when I am ready for workout my morning restingpuls is 36-38 beats pr min. when I am not fully recovered I is normal 4 – 5 beats higher telling me that this day, will only be a light running i the forest with my dog.

    I love to workout 2 times a week full body, using Kettelbells Maxwell challenge, and body weight plus joint mobility, running at a slow pace with my dog in betwin

    Stefan Jørgensen wrote on August 16th, 2013
  10. Hi Mark

    Great article your wrote, once again.
    regarding sleep, remember to sleep in a room totaly dark not even digits from your clock must show. belive me you can feel the difference.
    as a guidance i use a app to messure my puls resting in the morning when I am ready for workout my morning restingpuls is 36-38 beats pr min. when I am not fully recovered I is normal 4 – 5 beats higher telling me that this day, will only be a light running in the forest with my dog.

    I love to workout 2 times a week full body, using Kettelbells Maxwell challenge, and body weight plus joint mobility, running at a slow pace with my dog in betwin

    Stefan Jørgensen wrote on August 16th, 2013
  11. Mark,
    what is excessive calorie resrtiction? What about IF? I personally IF up to 15 to 18 hours and perform high intensity workouts in a fasted stated, would not have it any other way. That being said, there’s not much room left in the day to eat due to IF, so I eat what amounts to a protein snack (tuna/olive oil) and shake post workout, then have my last meal in the evening.. and it’s big (12 to 18 oz of fatty animal protein, mixed veggies, coconut oil, olive oil, nuts and some berries)

    No idea how many calories, but I am fat adapted, lean and posses good muscle mass. Workouts are always high performance, 4 to 5 times per week, anywhere from 15 to an occasional 30 minutes (ugh), no weakness issues.

    So, when you say calorie restricted, what do you mean? My primal eating is a self regulating calorie restricted plan. Did our deep ancestors eat numerous times every day? IF is primal in my opinion, and very beneficial from what literature I have read.

    By the way, I have never felt better. I cannot fathom training in an “non-fasted” state.

    Yourticus wrote on August 18th, 2013
  12. Just saw this on the cover of Wall Street Journal –

    “Life in the Slow Lane: Some Bikers Savor Leisurely Rides in the Salle – Clubs for the Deliberately Plodding Cyclist Take Off; Dodging the Spandex Crowd”

    It’s called the Slow Bike Movement, and it seems to jive with Mark’s advice to move frequently at a slower pace.

    “Participants say slower riding is a backlash to today’s hardcore fitness world, brimming with boot camps and mud runs.”

    No spandex needed!

    susan grace wrote on August 19th, 2013
    • No thanks, I’ll stick to my 20 mph rides. I feel so rejuvenated afterwards. A slow ride does nothing for me, I might as well go for a walk instead.

      Nikko wrote on August 28th, 2013
  13. Crossfit the gift that keeps on giving? Spending hours in the gym is overtraining short high intensity training is not overtraining don’t blame crossfit

    John Lively wrote on August 22nd, 2013
  14. I use BodyPump to train because you chose the weights and reps you want. Sure, the classroom environment gives you the drive not to be the “quitter,” but I constantly modify the weights to suit my workout frequency. By that I mean if I am able to work out two or three times per week, I can handle heavier weights, but if my other obligations (work) keep me away from the gym a day or two, I have to back off five or ten pounds. It makes a difference. As others are saying, what good is it to feel like a failure when you are trying to succeed. The sweet spot for me is knowing I’m there, I’m in the game.

    Good article! I’d like to see Mark tackle the “what if some of those factors just aren’t negotiable right now” scenario. Which ones are the most necessary, and which are the most expendable?

    Tony wrote on August 22nd, 2013
  15. Would you recommend taking a ZMA supplement (usually intended for deeper sleep) after a workout to combat Zinc and Magnesium deficiency?

    Mike wrote on August 28th, 2013
  16. Ironically I just started taking zinc and magnesium supplements a few months ago, so at least I’m on the right track.

    Lillian wrote on September 1st, 2013
  17. For client’s to achieve optimal exercise performance, the personal trainer and fitness professional needs to be proactive in planning recovery into the training program.

    Dangerously Fit wrote on September 5th, 2013
  18. I really appreciate the use of the word “thrice” in this post.

    Amanda wrote on September 11th, 2013

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