Written By: Kevin Cann
Charlie Francis is one of my favorite strength and conditioning coaches to have ever walked the planet. He was well ahead of his time in understanding that an athlete’s success does not only come from workouts, but from everything going on in their lives. He knew everything going on personally that would alter his athlete’s moods, he hired massage therapists and chiropractors that would report back to Charlie about the athlete’s muscle tone and current condition, he looked at his athlete’s nutrition, their financial status, and long before heart rate variability (HRV) was a sexy term he was monitoring how the athlete felt that day and how hard they could perform by looking at body language and the athlete’s demeanor.
Charlie’s athletes went on to set 32 world records and win 9 Olympic medals. When asked about coaching this is what he said “One has to thread together scientific knowledge and sport technique while listening to one’s own feelings and the feelings of the particular athlete in question-it is at this point that coaching ceases to be a science and becomes an art.” It is safe to say Charlie Francis was a pretty enlightened cat.
In my almost ten years experience as a coach I have learned that most people do not focus on recovery. Don’t get me wrong people will take a day or two off from the gym, but if they are not addressing specific needs they are resting not recovering. Recovery needs to start the second the workout ends.
When we exercise our sympathetic nervous system turns on and we get our fight or flight response rocking to smash some PRs in the gym. Research has shown that these sympathetic nervous system markers stay elevated for 3 hours after a heavy weightlifting session. The markers return to baseline in 24 hours and above baseline in 48-72 hours (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21273908 ). This research tells us a couple of things.
For one we need to make sure we put 48-72 hours between high intensity exercise bouts. The variables that come into play here are volume and intensity. When we are working at 90% or greater of 1RM it requires maximal activation of our type II muscle fibers. The ramping up process is actually what decreases our CNS battery. It costs more energy to turn on the gym lights and get them warmed up then it does to keep them on.
There is a big difference between 48 and 72 hours. The athlete that can recover in 48 hours will get more quality training sessions in then the other athlete. At the more elite levels this could make all of the difference in the world. So how can we speed up this process? I want the recovery to start immediately following the workout.
We need to do this by eliciting a response from our parasympathetic nervous system. Breathing exercises have been all the buzz around the fitness industry lately, but guess what breathing exercises have been used for thousands of years? Relaxation. How about we add in some breathing drills at the end of the workout to elicit that response from our parasympathetic nervous system? I hypothesize that this will cut down on the elevated sympathetic markers 3 hours post workout. I just started messing around with this and I don’t have fancy lab equipment, but we will see anecdotally.
Most of us, hopefully all of us, take a shower after we are done working out. Although, is showering after a workout paleo? What I am beginning to recommend to my clients is a magnesium bath instead of that shower after heavy workouts, or at least twice per week. Magnesium has a natural calming effect on the body. Magnesium actually plays a role in turning on our parasympathetic nervous system (http://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/abcs-of-nutrition/magnificent-magnesium/ ). Magnesium is also depleted during strenuous activity and increases the need for magnesium in athletes by 10-20% (http://www.steroidal.com/magnesium-athletic-performance/ ).
From there we need to make sure we are eating nutrient dense foods to supply us with the increased demands for both vitamins and minerals as well as carbs, yes carbs, and protein. Choosing sweet potatoes instead of pasta is going to be better for recovery. Any foods that elicit an inflammation response fires up our sympathetic nervous system.
We also need to make sure we are sleeping well. Sleep deprivation will throw off our hormonal circadian rhythms and disrupt the balance between our anabolic and catabolic hormones. Soft tissue work can be an important aid in recovery. It can help decrease muscle tone and improve healing time. It also elicits a response from our parasympathetic nervous system (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3091471/ ).
Another beneficial strategy to recovery is aerobic conditioning. Yes, I said eat carbs and do some aerobic conditioning in the same article, please forgive me. Our slow twitch muscle fibers (STO) actually utilize lactate for energy and can help us buffer out some of the nasty byproducts that accumulate during higher intensity training. This does not mean you need to go run a marathon the day after heavy training, but some light circuit training may be beneficial to speeding up recovery.
We put all of our effort into making gains in the gym. The gains are made by how well our body handles the stress of exercise, or recovers from it. It takes 48-72 hours for glycogen stores to be replenished and our CNS battery to be fully charged. The athlete that recovers in 48 hours will get a step ahead of the athlete that takes 72 hours. Put as much effort into recovery as you do your workouts and your gains will improve.