How I Recover from My Workouts

Mark Sisson - Paddle boarding at 60 Years OldWhen thinking about ways to improve your workout recovery, you might start by going back to this post I wrote a couple weeks ago and then doing the opposite of the recovery-impairing items on that list. So, if you’re trying to do too much in the gym in too little time, you should probably start doing less. Since nutrient deficiencies can contribute to poor recovery, you should eat plenty of those nutrients. And if stress is a huge recovery killer, it would obviously make sense to figure out ways to reduce and mitigate stress in your life. Easier said than done, right? Well, today I’m going to give you some concrete tips and techniques I personally use to improve my workout recovery.

Let’s jump right in…

As you know, I like to keep things simple. The days where I’d willingly and happily engage in extensive workout recovery plans are long gone. My entire workout “routine” is designed so that I don’t have to spend half my time recovering from my training. I can take care of most of my recovery passively – through getting good sleep every night, sticking to a Primal way of eating full of (colorful) plants and animal parts, avoiding stress when possible, and getting plenty of outdoor time. In other words, just doing what I already do as part of my daily routine is effective. But if I happen to conduct a particularly strenuous and challenging and/or long workout, I’ll often employ a few extra recovery tactics.

Although most of these suggestions will be familiar to you, I’ll bet you’re still not employing them as often or as effectively as you should. We have the tendency to neglect the simple, time-tested stuff in favor of the sexy, elaborate stuff, when the vast majority of people would be better served by the former. Without further ado, here’s what I do for recovery.

I Cool Down After Workouts

Warmups get most of the attention, and they’re definitely important if you’re not addressing your mobility and flexibility on a regular, ongoing basis, but I’m more keen on cool downs, which don’t get nearly enough attention. In fact, for workout recovery, cool downs are essential. Why?

It hastens recovery from the stress of exercise. An elevated heart rate is an indicator of a stressed state. A cool down period following exercise, meanwhile, lowers the resting heart rate by increasing cardiac vagal tone, a physiological marker for reduced stress. Since exercise is a huge stressor (that’s why it works!), recovering from exercise requires stress reduction, or normalization.

For nighttime exercisers, it helps you get to sleep after training. Parents, you know how small children who’ve just been playing need to wind down in order to fall asleep? Same thing applies here. A nice gradual cool down can lower the heart rate and “ease you into” a more sleep-appropriate physiological state.

Though research suggests that cool downs do not reduce delayed onset muscle soreness, I’ve had the opposite experience.

My “cool downs” aren’t very involved. Most times I’ll just go for a walk or a light jog afterwards, maybe with some light stretching. They’re always easy. Light jogs are very light. I’m not grinding out super tough stretches and staying in a painful spot; I’m touching the end range and pulling back immediately.

If the workout was a full-body affair (strength training, Ultimate Frisbee), I’ll do some sort of cool down “cardio” –  walking, light jogging, cycling, rowing. And then I shake things out: first by bouncing on the balls of my feet and letting my arms hang limp and bounce as they will all over the place and then by planting my feet, rotating my hips back and forth, and letting my arms flop all over.

There are no set guidelines here. Just cool down until you feel sufficiently relaxed with your regular heart rate.

I Immerse Myself in Cool or Cold Water

Cold water thermogenesis was all the rage a couple years ago, but athletes interested in recovery from their training have been employing cold water for decades. Contrasted hot/cold baths, ice water plunges, cold water immersion – whatever the exact modality, getting cold water all over your body seems to help speed recovery. A few of the latest examples:

Cold water exposure restores muscle contractile function and reduces soreness following simulated collision sports (in this case, rugby).

Both cold water immersion and hot/cold contrast therapy help restore force production following high intensity interval training.

Cold water immersion helps sprinters maintain their performance over the course of consecutive training days, according to a new study.

Cold water immersion helps basketball players recover from their games.

I’ve been using my pool, which I keep fairly cold (in the mid 50s in winter, warmer in summer), for workout recovery for several years now. Some people use full-on ice baths. Others stick to cold showers. They all work. I prefer the pool (or alternately the ocean) for a few reasons:

  1. It’s cold, but not too cold. I don’t dread going in, so I go in more often.
  2. It allows active recovery. In a bathtub, all I can do is sit and shiver. In the pool, I can do laps, tread water, run, and swim around.
  3. It’s sustainable. I’m not going to buy huge bags of ice every time I want to take a bath.

Evidence suggests that full body immersion is the most effective cooling method and sprinting is the most responsive type of training.

I’ve Experimented with Compression Gear

A couple years ago, I tried compression garments following sprint workouts. I did this at the recommendation of the same friend who got me into cool water exposure. His general trustworthiness and the fact that it “just worked” was enough for me, but there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that compression gear really does improve exercise recovery:

Compression garments appear to reduce muscle soreness and improve subjective perceptions of recovery, according to a recent study.

Following a sprint and 3 km run workout meant to simulate a rugby match, players wearing compression clothing experience less muscle soreness 48 hours post workout and improved performance.

A 2013 meta-analysis concluded that “compression garments are effective in enhancing recovery from muscle damage.”

I’ve tried wearing compression tights both during and following a sprint session and grueling strength training session. I haven’t seen major improvements in recovery or soreness, but the research is interesting. I’d say it’s worth trying if you’re looking for an additional way to tinker with your own recovery.

I Work on Mobility and Movement

Even though collapsing into a slovenly heap on the couch might be a superficially attractive option after a really hard workout, don’t do it. You’re gonna regret it. Your muscles and the fascia that surrounds them are trying to recover from the day’s work. They’re trying to get their bearings. If you “recover” by sitting around, your muscles are going to get extremely comfy and established in those sedentary positions. Then, when you try to train again, you’ll need a lengthy and protracted warmup session just to feel somewhat normal and ready to move. Why go through that when you could just maintain a steady flow of movement throughout the recovery period?

Here’s what I swear by on a daily basis:

Lots of walking. You guys know this about me, but I really feel constant low-level movement is a major contributor to my workout recovery because it just keeps my body primed to move. Aim for 10,000 steps a day as a nice goal.

Frequent Grok squatting. I try to squat for at least five-ten solid minutes per day. Not all in one chunk, mind you, but distributed throughout the day. The Russian Baby Maker is a great way to start the morning and open up the hips, I’ve found.

A couple minutes of crawling. Slow, deliberate, lengthy contralateral crawling really seems to stretch everything out and make my joints feel right.

And if I really need to focus on mobility:

Search MobilityWOD for whatever body part or movement is ailing me, and then do that WOD.

Do some yoga. I’m not a regular, and probably never will be, but I’ve personally had great success fixing some nagging mobility deficits with yoga techniques. Yoga’s also a great way to reduce stress and improve sleep, two common impediments to workout recovery.

Of all that stuff, though, walking is probably the most profound.

I Do Some Self Massage

Although a legitimate deep tissue massage from a professional (or enthusiastic loved one) can’t really be topped, its beneficial effects on recovery can be emulated. Self massage, also known as self myofascial release, involves using an object (usually an external implement, but sometimes a knuckle, elbow, or knee) to break up adhesions/knots in the fascia/muscle. This “releases” the tissue and allows normal, full movement that was being limited by the adhesions. If you can’t move your body or get into the proper positions, you haven’t recovered from your workout and any future workouts will suffer. Here’s how I do it when my muscles need a release:

I foam roll. A formerly conspicuous dearth has recently given way to a steady stream of evidence supporting the use of foam rolling for increasing knee range of motion without decreasing strength, increasing hamstring range of motion without decreasing strength, reduced soreness after a hard workout, and even improving arterial function. In my experience, foam rolling is most effective on the upper back, the anterior and lateral thighs, and the calf. If the foam roller isn’t enough for you, try a PVC pipe or the Rumbleroller.

I use a lacrosse ball. More precise than the foam roller, the lacrosse ball is well suited for hamstrings, that area right above the knee cap, the hips, the glutes, and the scapular region. The RAD Roller is also great.

A good rule for self release is to find a sensitive spot and stay there until it stops being so sensitive, moving the joint through a full range of motion and oscillating back and forth on the spot. So, if you’re digging into the area above your knee cap with a lacrosse ball, flex and extend the knee while applying pressure.

I Train by Playing as Much as Possible

A big part of workout recovery is mental. Workouts are, well, work. They’re hard. People fear them. They dread them even as they “know” it’s for their own good. This makes a workout a mentally stressful endeavor that you feel obligated to undertake, as if a choice is being made for you. That’s an awful feeling – helplessness – that has been shown to increase stress.

Play, on the other hand, is fun. You look forward to it. You willingly choose to play. You’re happy to do it. When I can obtain a training effect through play, I’ve won. When I can get my sprints via Ultimate Frisbee and my core and balance training via stand-up paddle boarding or slacklining, I couldn’t be happier. (Some of you have asked for recent photos of me following my 60th birthday last month. The photos in this post were taken after an hour and a half paddle session in the Pacific Ocean near Malibu a few weeks back.) These activities are still physically demanding, yes, and they still require physical recovery, but I’ve nullified the mental stress that often accompanies a grueling workout. Since general stress places a burden on our recovery capabilities, this leaves me more resources to devote to physical recovery from training.

Mark Sisson - Paddle boarding at 60 Years Old

I don’t follow all these all the time (well, accept for the post workout cool downs and the play one – I am always trying to figure out new ways to train through play), so don’t think you need to find a cold body of water every day, buy a full body compression garment for every day of the week, spend every idle moment with a lacrosse ball embedded in your glutes, or eschew all furniture to perpetually work on your mobility in order to recover from your workouts. These are merely tools to be employed as needed, and that work for me personally.

That’s all I’ve got for today, folks. Hope you found it helpful!

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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75 thoughts on “How I Recover from My Workouts”

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    1. Finnish Sauna: hot as you can take it, then jump in a freezing cold lake/river…lay out on a towel in the sun: feels like you just had a massage. It can’t be beat.

      1. That sounds very refreshing just from reading it here. Great by Mark on how to cool off after a work out.

    2. I started recently (the past few weeks) post workout at the gym doing stretching in the sauna. Feels great to me, kind of a scaled down version of the Hot Yoga stuff to my mind. My flexibility is poor and I want to work on that and the heat penetrating my aging, aching muscles and bones feels great, and for some reason the sweating feels therapeutic. However, from reading Mark’s article seems like I’m not doing the opposite of what I should be doing (I do finish with a cool shower but I’m sure that does not count).

      1. seems like “I’m doing” the opposite. My kingdom for an edit button on Mark’s Daily Apple comment forums. OK, I don’t have a kingdom, but it would be nice LOL.

  1. Mark–I’m looking at the picture, and I’m not seeing any wet spandex OR chained flotilla of boats behind you…are you slipping up?

      1. I found a bird’s egg in the grass yesterday while walking to the probation office, it was very near where I found a turtle egg a year ago on the way to the office, needless to say I ate it, it was almost all yolk.
        And I chased it with a can of beer, cheers!

    1. It would be even more impressive if it was nighttime, and Mark was reading Hemingway on the paddleboard with sunglasses.

      1. I just got out of jail recently, tomorrow I’m supposed to get welfare and I’m going to search for some Angostura bitters

  2. I bought myself a foam roller last weekend – I can’t believe I waited so long. It was only £9 and I get to roll around on the floor like a happy baby.

  3. 1upTreadmill sauna 😉
    seriously though this would keep you too hot right? Hot treatments like hot tubs / springs or saunas might be counter productive post workout, but they must have their place somewhere.

    1. I had heard the lacrosse ball before but also frozen golf balls to massage the bottom of your feet after runs.

  4. I’m only trying to recover from being the mismanaged genetic masterpiece that I am but still I ordered some lacrosse balls.I experience frequent headaches and neck pain and I have a spiked massage ball and large hard rubber high bouncer currently but this looks like an affordable addition to my cheap easy therapy that buys me some relief.

    1. I’d suggest you buy a book teaching trigger point therapy as its likely trigger points causing the issues. You’ll probably get rid of the pain after a few sessions. You’ll probably find the pain is referred pain from trigger points in other muscles.

  5. Can’t decide if I’m a monkey or a mouse, but I definately experiment on myself and know what works.

  6. Hi Mark,

    I read about cold showers, cool water immersion some time ago, and I am trying to do it. I fight myself physically for shivering some times but I am mostly psychological concerned not to get a cold or even worse a pneumonia.

    How much time after finishing a full 30-40 minutes full body workout should I attempt plunging into some cool/cold water (supposedly I follow your advice and take some 5-8 minutes cooldown).


    1. You don’t get a cold or pneumonia from cold water, you get them from coming into contact with the viruses that cause them.

      1. actually, there is research that getting chilled, for someone who has already been exposed to a virus, can make the difference between whether your immune system can successfully fight it off or coming down with the cold/flu, etc. Just another factor along with stress, nutritional deficiencies, sleep status, etc. that influences or immunity or lack therof.

        1. Hi guys,

          Totally agree with you that cold water exposure makes you better agains viruses.

          Still I am concern about the body transition from 37 degree Celsius to 15 degree in a matter of 10 minutes. 1st contact with water and start shivering, isn’t this a body reaction to something it doesn’t like/suit very well….

  7. I do a hot cold shower as often as I can after a workout. The gym I train at doesn’t really have a cold option ( I know this is weird I think its broken haha)

    I am a big foam roller and lacrosse ball user. I use the trigger release technique for a lot of the built up knots I get.

    Another key thing that I use is going through deep range of motion drills after a workout. I usually have about 5-6 exercises that I go through that involve the back, shoulders and hips.

    1. Wow, never heard of anybody call themselves ‘a big foam roller’ before…LOL!

  8. You’re my dad’s age…so this is creepy — but you are HOT!!!

    1. lol, The man I shared a cell with in jail this time was named Mark and he was just about my dad’s age. We played lots of scrabble and tied in one game. He introduced me to Islands in the Stream by Hemingway.

  9. How long would you suggest waiting after a workout to hop in a cold pool? Should I be concerned with cramps or blood pooling?

    1. Oops, someone already asked this above…I’ll wait for the answer.

  10. I love my rumble roller! I have a few lacrosse balls but don’t use them all that much…I probably should!

    I want to try paddle boarding!

    1. hey see the other posts: tape 2 lacrosse balls, no need for the cool RAD roller

      1. The rumble roller’s different though– it’s like a foam roller with big stubby teeth! Not always comfy* in use but it really works, especially for large muscles like glutes, hams, & quads.

        *never, actually!

  11. Excellent advice here Mark.
    I’m a big fan of moblity work and the lacross ball is amazing for targeting localalized soft tissue trigger points and restrictions.
    Crawling…another outstanding option with countless benefits (although I usually do prior to a session, instead of post training).
    And, the cold therapy (in almost any form) is excellent especially after high demand physical training.
    Great options here!

  12. Light yoga, cold showers and lots of foam rolling for this gal! I keep saying I’ll take a dip in the seriously freezing cold Atlantic, instead of the shower, but I’ve yet to work up the courage:)

  13. Mark, have you tried Thai Massage yet? I’d be more than happy to offer you a session – it’s like “lazy man’s yoga” because I will put you in many passive yoga positions as you lay supine then prone. You feel the energizing benefits and stretching/lengthening too.

    In NY so definitely when I travel West Coast or when you visit East Coast 🙂

  14. Hi Mark and thanks for all the info. I just finished your 7-day ‘course’ on fundamentals. I’m slowly incorporating changes into my life; at the moment having great difficulty eliminating rice (having it almost every other day) and sandwiches (basically the only thing available at my cantene that doesn’t came wrapped up from a factory).

    On the subject of recovery, I remember reading an article (not on MDA) a few months back discussing the various recovery and adaptation processes that occur after a workout of heavy resistance training. In particular, it discussed the various time scales of each process, ranging from ATP restoration which takes seconds to lactic acid clearing in the order of hours to processes taking weeks. At the moment I’m working out 3 times a week and feel fully recovered between workouts, so although I shouldn’t be concerned about all these processes, the scientist inside me wants to know!

    The problem, however, is that I can’t find this article again! Is there any chance you can shed some light on this for me and other readers?

  15. Instead of the RAD roller, you can just tape two lacrosse balls together with athletic tape. It may not look as cool but my guess is that the result is very similar.
    I use that and a single lacrosse ball on over worked or injured areas and believe it really works.

    1. that is what I have, I use it daily
      the first pair I made was with tennis balls, which work, but the lacrosse balls are much better.
      I experimented with 2 baseball balls, but they are too hard and you feel the seams

  16. I am also a walker and live in an area where I can walk to the grocery store, produce market, gym. My experience with warm up and cool down is walking to and from the gym. If by chance I drive to the gym I pull out my mat and do some stretching. Have not tried the foam roller or lacrosse ball yet but will definitely be purchasing them soon. I’ve discovered that at 56 parts of my body hurt more and longer after prolonged workouts so I have cut back and just walk more. I live in Washington so paddle boarding is very limited up here. Would love to try it though for the core.

  17. I do all of the above, but I also chase my post workout exercise with a healthy dose of BCAA. I was curious if you had any extra thoughts or comments on that one Mark? Looking forward to Lake Tahoe!!

  18. Can’t really disagree with any cool-down method mentioned. Lacrosse ball, foam rollers, I dig them all. Add in some static stretching before bed on hard strength days, and I’m set.

    I tend to workout earlier in the day, so I keep my post workout meal pretty lean, but the thing that slaughters any other recovery method (nutrition-wise) for me is a dose of cholesterol before bed on training days. Red meat, milk, eggs, whatever. Can’t say it will work for everyone, but I won’t do without it anymore. Soreness be gone.

  19. The rumble roller is the best, I spent money in several cheapo rollers and ended up with two rumble rollers: the big one (blue) (I keep it at home) and the small one (black) which I keep at work.

  20. lots of active stretching exercise video demonstration. also, how to use the lacrosse balls and flossing with compression bands. Dr. Kelly Starrett is a rock star in Crossfit when it comes to mobility. I used his techniques and it greatly improved my squat and deadlift range of motion.

  21. I’ve been using foam roller on hamstrings and it’s just OK – gonna try your lacrosse ball suggestion. Thanks!

  22. I’ve been taking warm showers followed by cold showers nightly for 30 years. Feels great!

  23. Love a cold swimming pool. I live in Queensland so it’s all relative! My pool is dosed 6 monthly with magnesium sulphate or chloride, to soften the calcium deposits on the cell. I like to think the Mg concentration is enough to soak in. Always finish a shower with cold too.

  24. Mark — your pictures at sixty are inspiring. This look could become a societal norm. Imagine everybody at sixty looking something similar! Sixty would be an age we could look forward to. Ours would be a society to envy –yet we’re written off as a fat society.

  25. Still stuck on a pool in the winter! Pools here are cold in the winter also- we call them ‘ice rinks’. 🙂

  26. Korean Spas are the best. There’s a great one in Northridge (LA area) and a good one in Santa Clara. I have doubled down on my pre-WOD mobility efforts and it has paid off in the form of no more over-use injury. I keep a green elastic band (purchased at WalMart sports section) & stretch with it. Plus, I am here in NY on a job and my only transpo is a cheap mountain bike, so active recovery is part of everyday and it also is paying off. Cheers!

  27. Really enjoyed this article..Always looking for suggestions on how to recover after a good intense workout. This articles touches on everything important!! Thank you!

  28. Mark, you look like Frank Zane in that picture. Absolutely shredded.

    Walks, the indigenous people squat, crawling, cold showers, and lacrosse balls all work for me on recovery. Glad to see I’ve been on track.

  29. I don’t usually bother with cold showers/baths after workouts at home… but when hiking (in the summer/fall) if there is a stream near the trailhead I always sit in it for a while and soak my legs for 10-15 minutes (usually numb feet gets me out). I always have knee pain the day after a hike – except for when I do this!

  30. Walking. That’s it. I’ve tried all the fancy recovery stuff and some of the other stuff listed here (yoga/stretching, ice, etc..), but nothing comes close to just taking a relaxed walk for me. Nice to know that something so simple is all I need to do!

  31. Jeez, Mark, you look like you have gained a lot of muscle yet managed to say lean or even lean down as you have aged. Quite a feat.

    Speaking of leaning down, an article published the other day in one of my local papers in Korea talks about how it is possible to eat junk food and still lose fat. It was an interesting read, especially if you like ice cream. If you scroll down the page you can find it near the top. Look for “As Heat Wave Continues, Could Ice Cream Help You Stay Cool, Lose Fat, and Feel Happy?”

    Judging by the photo in the article the author looks like he is in decent shape. I searched him and it looks like he is involved in ice hockey in Korea, so i suppose he is not only interested in looking fit but also being fit.

  32. Yoga and the RumbleRoller have worked well for me. I’ve noticed tremendous improvements in my recovery.

  33. I know Feyenoord FC’s (Dutch soccer league) coaches don’t bother with cool downs after their sessions, as they state it’s not a technique that’s proven to work, but they’ll certainly do the other things.

  34. I’m trying to get some sun exposure, if available, after an intense workout. Although grounding may help with recovery.

  35. My daughter tried stand up paddle boarding this year in Michigan, and loves it. She’s 10 and looks like she’s been doing it her whole life. It just came to her so naturally.

  36. I have used a STICK from Intercell in Atlanta to warm up and cool down my muscles for over 15 years. I sell them to 90% of my patient to manage their soft tissues and protect their joints. I am generally ‘one set wonder’ in my personal workouts, however some of the sets are significant. I like to do 100 to 200 squats standing on top of a ‘Swiss ball’. This is great to keep me in shape for downhill skiing. Before I do the squats I roll the stick on my quads, calfs, adductors, glutes and low back (I do the same before tennis matches). After the squats my legs are ‘cooked’ and shaky. I roll same muscles for 5 minutes, when done I feel as if I have done nothing! I advise my patients to use Bosu half balls instead of full balls as I do.
    I had one female soccer patient that used the STICK before and after soccer practices and games. She played every second of every game of her college career! After college she hurt an ankle and a knee in rec soccer as she didn’t stick do to time constraints. She got back on it and has been injury free for 2 years. The STICK is gentler than foam rollers and you can get to more tissues.

  37. Great article with some great suggestions and things are quite obviously working very well for Mark!

    Only thing I would add is that many in science (even very eminent professors) seem to speak about recovery and adaptation as if they are one and the same – THEY ARE NOT. This is important.

    On that theme, I’m not a fan at all of cold water therapy at all. It may feel great but from the perspective of adaptation I’m not convinced that it is a good thing; in fact, I think it is a bad thing, as do do some contemporary researchers. Unless recovering from serious injury, we have absolutely no need whatsoever to be inhibiting post-exercise inflammation. This process is actually necessary for adaptation and is not a genetic defect of 7 billion people. Post-exercise, cold therapy in many ways inhibits inflammation. I think that this is a scientific area that really needs to get out amongst the masses because the volume of ice baths that are being thrown around amongst both the elite and recreational masses is alarming.

    It is only the cold aspect of this article that I think it truly open for debate. I love this blog, and know that Mark is quite big on adaptation too, and just wondered what his thoughts were on this?

  38. Appreciate the thorough article, and might I say you are looking mighty ripped Mark – very impressive! I’m only 33 now, but will be working hard to look like that in 30 years 😀

  39. Workouts can definitely be strenuous and sometimes it takes a lot to bounce back but doing so is definitely very important. I love that this is a firsthand account of what you do rather than a plan for someone that you’ve never personally tried. It’s also great that you’ve included surveys and statistics to back up your information. Thank you so much.

  40. “I’ve been using my pool, which I keep fairly cold (in the mid 50s in winter, warmer in summer)…It’s cold, but not too cold. I don’t dread going in, so I go in more often.”
    I won’t go near my pool until the water reaches 90 and even then I cringe getting in! We had a rainy summer so I only got in once during the summer. Too cold!

  41. I do a lot of self massage too, but I usually have to wait 40 minutes to an hour in between sessions.

  42. Great tips. Another one from a german doctor (Jentschura) : take a bath, cold or warm, you decide, but with a cup of BAKING SODA in it. Soak in for at least 45 min (the longer the better). It will neutralize the lactic acid and other acid that your muscle produce, and your body eliminates through your skin and your sweat. This will greatly help with recovery and soreness.