Simplicity 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!