3 Things Everyone Gets Wrong About Recovery, According to an Exercise Physiologist
Repeat after me: Rest days are not laziness.
You have to be a semi-professional athlete to try CrossFit. Shaving makes your hair grow back thicker. At this point (hopefully!) you know these are both big 'ol untruths.
Well, as a certified strength and conditioning coach and exercise physiologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery's Tisch Sports Performance Center in New York City, there are a few more myths I'd like to add to your repertoire, and they are all about exercise recovery.
Below, I bust through these prevailing exercise recovery myths and share some #truthbombs instead.
Myth: Rest days are for lazy people.
On the contrary, rest days are a necessary part of every active human's exercise schedule. In fact, when people ask me how I PR'ed my marathon last fall, the answer is easy: I tell them "I took more rest days".
Seriously, the weather conditions weren't "better", the course wasn't "easier", I didn't do keto, or tweak my diet, it wasn't my shoes, or leggings, or fitness tracker. The reason I achieved a personal best for the marathon is that twice a week (instead of just once) I took a rest day. And I mean full-blown REST day, not an active recovery day. I didn't run. I didn't swim. I didn't take a hot yoga class. I just did, well, other non-fitness things! And that didn't make me lazy—it made me a better athlete. And the same can be said for most athletes who start implementing an adequate number of rest days into their training regime. (See more: How One Runner Learned to Love Rest Days).
So, how do you figure out how many rest days you need per week? Typically, people need two rest days every week. But it varies from athlete to athlete because, generally, the more high-intensity workouts (i.e. HIIT, boot camp, interval sprints, CrossFit) you do per week, the more rest days you need. (Did you know it's possible to do too much HIIT?).
Have a trainer take a holistic look at your training intensity, type, duration, and frequency to give you a general recommendation. Then, tune into your body for signs you need a rest day like prolonged muscle soreness, moodiness, loss of appetite, bad dreams or restless sleep, and reduced performance. (See more: 9 Signs of Overtraining).
Myth: You can cut corners on sleep.
Quite the opposite. Sleep isn't just an important part of exercise recovery. It's the M-O-S-T important part. (BTW, sleep is also the most important part of a weight-loss journey.)
When you exercise, microscopic tears are created in the muscles, and sleep is when the bulk of the repair process happens, which is an imperative part of muscle adaptation and of getting stronger/fitter/better and staying injury-free. (Related: Is It Bad to Do the Same Workout Every Day?)
Lack of sleep also lowers our Human Growth Hormones (HGH) levels. It's because HGH plays such an imperative role in muscle repair following exercise, healing after an injury, and building muscle mass that some people take to extremes, such as dope with a synthetic form of HGH to speed up recovery. While I'd never encourage doping (plus, it's forbidden by the World Doping Organization), one very legal thing you can do is getting an adequate amount of sleep to ensure sufficient HGH levels.
The sad fact is that more than one-third of Americans are self-sabotaging their own fitness efforts by not sleeping enough. Not getting enough sleep undermines your work in the gym, increases your risk for injury, and slows your reaction time—which is particularly detrimental for field and ball athletes. (Related: The Only 4 Exercises You Need to Be a Better Athlete)
If you're someone who routinely gets only five hours of sleep and thinks that's enough to get you by, I challenge you to get seven to nine hours of sleep every night for two weeks and re-evaluate how you feel. And if you acknowledge you could use a little more time snoozing, I encourage you to really start prioritizing sleep because otherwise, you're undermining your own training. (Related: 4 Ways To Boost Your Recovery Even More While You Sleep).
Myth: Recovery should be high tech.
While some of these workout recovery tools can help release your fascia and muscle tension, and increase circulation, they cannot literally repair your muscles or boost your HGH levels the way sleep can. Again, there's no substitution for sleep. (These are the best and worst sleeping positions for your health.)
That said, if you are already getting the recommended amount of sleep per night (yay!), sure, go ahead and give some of the high-tech recovery tools a try. These tools might make you one to five percent more recovered, but they certainly aren't a substitute for the science-backed methods of recovery.
My bottom line on recovery:
Exercise recovery isn't just a good night of undisturbed sleep. It isn't just a 10-minute session with the Theragun. It's not even a rest day. It's all of these things combined. It's a consistent and ongoing process. And it's something most people could benefit from spending a little more time on. Try making it your 2020 goal and see what happens. I have a feeling your muscles will be happier than you ever thought possible in years prior.