Amanda Vogel, MA, human kinetics, is a fitness presenter and writer with an expertise in social-media marketing for the fitness industry. She also reviews fitness gear, clothing, activity trackers and apps for her blog www.FitnessTestDrive.com. Amanda is IDEA’s Fitness Technology Spokesperson. Find her on social at @amandavogel on Twitter and @amandavogelfitness on Instagram.
Exercise Recovery on the Rise: Is It Part of Your Programming?
“Recovery” is one of the fitness industry’s newest buzzwords, but how it applies to exercise is often misunderstood. The fitness industry has traditionally treated recovery as the absence of activity, in the name of rest. Today, there’s a growing trend toward taking actionable steps versus simply taking time off.
This movement in the fitness industry (which is nothing new for elite athletes) is based on applying concerted and consistent recovery measures—foam rolling, stretching, light activity, sleep and more—to round out fitness programming. More fitness pros than ever are viewing exercise recovery as integrated with, not tangential to, clients’ (and their own) workout programs. The result is better overall performance and health.
Strategized exercise recovery is multifaceted. While some techniques like foam rolling and stretching are particularly popular, numerous options exist, as outlined below. What you promote might depend on both your clients and your philosophy.
Angie Burgin—owner of PureStuff Wellness private training studio in Seattle, Wash.—categorizes recovery in two ways. The first is muscular, relating to appropriate rest/recovery between high-intensity and/or high-volume workouts. The second category involves the central nervous system (CNS) and how recovery techniques can help clients reduce and manage overall stress, among other benefits.
Examples of Exercise Recovery Practices
Planned recovery for you and your clients might involve numerous and varied methods based on each person’s preferences, training schedule, fitness goals, daily pressures and responsibilities, and overall lifestyle. Your own training style and professional philosophy might also come into play. Here are common recovery techniques.
• Foam rolling (traditional and vibrating)
• Myofascial/trigger-point release
• Light exercise
• Mobility movements
• Yoga, Pilates, Feldenkrais, mind-body activities
• Epsom salt baths
• Hot/cold packs
• Massage tools
• Deep/mindful breathing
• Stress management
• Nighttime sleep
• Compression clothing and other recovery garments
• Chiropractic care
• Physical therapy
• Infrared sauna
• Hot/cold therapies
• Healthy eating
• Post-workout nutrition
“Depending on what the client is trying to achieve, I might suggest more specific muscle or CNS recovery,” says Burgin. “I have clients who work out with me only once per week and do home workouts twice per week, but not reliably. The emphasis I would put on those clients’ recovery is different than what I would suggest to someone who is training with me three times per week and also training for a specific race or athletic event.”
Burgin also urges her clients to try a variety of approaches. “In addition to movement/mobility, recovery days could include hydration, nutritional supplementation, infrared sauna, hot or cold therapies, vibration therapy, acupuncture, Epsom salt baths, floating, meditation and/or napping,” adds Burgin. However, she says these examples are not all necessary or effective for all people and should be individualized as needed.
“For one person, active stretching might be a good choice, while another might recover best by lying still with eyes closed in a quiet room,” says Beverly Hosford, M.A., a body awareness educator and founder of Andy’s Online Anatomy Program in Bozeman, Mont.
Sport performance coach Janice Hutton, M.A., extends recovery beyond anything to do with working out. She advocates for a comprehensive approach based on the stresses of everyday life, not just exercise. “In my program design, recovery is viewed from three primary elements: sleep, nutrition and self-care (body and mind),” she says.
“Nutrition and hydration that are managed and properly timed throughout the day provide the client with fuel for recovery and repair,” continues Hutton, chief operations officer with Shift Performance Inc. in St. Catharines, Ont. “Physical self-care—such as massage, rolling and/or yoga—brings fresh blood supply to working muscles to remove toxins and deliver nutrients for recovery. Self care of the mind through emotional awareness, stress management and mindset training helps clients recover mentally from a tough workout and manage the stress of their lifestyles.”
The goal of this type of comprehensive recovery plan, explains Hutton, is that her clients start their days “ready to perform at their best in all aspects of their life.” If only everyone’s day-to-day routine included such measures—many of us aren’t quite there yet.
Where Recovery Starts
Commonly, most people don’t pay much attention to recovery until they unequivocally can’t avoid it. Injury and burnout are common outcomes of neglected recovery.
“If a person continues to place high demands on the body and does not take the proper care of the tissue, breakdown and injury will occur,” explains Nicole Frost, co-founder and National Director of Training at Motion Stretch Studio in Austin, Texas. “It seems to be human nature to only start engaging in recovery techniques when we start to feel pain,” she says. “Why wait for symptoms to occur?”
People wait because they aren’t proactive. “Traditionally, recovery has been considered anything that repairs the damage or impact to the body or mind,” says Motion Stretch Studio co-founder Josh Crosby, based near Boston, Mass. However, seeking out recovery methods only when forced to is a reactive response. “This is only one dimension of healing and speaks to ‘after’ insult or injury,” says Crosby, a former professional ultra-endurance athlete, world champion rower and Ironman world champion competitor. Alternatively, a proactive approach involves practicing recovery on a regular basis, before injury happens.
Proactivity might encompass stretching or ironing out tight spots immediately after exercise. But recovery needn’t be relegated to workout time.
“In today’s high-paced, overconnected society, it’s important to recover from physical, mental and emotional stress throughout the day, so we don’t have to try and catch up later—when sometimes it’s too late,” says Hosford. “Not recovering from exercise is like not cleaning up the kitchen after cooking. You can do it later, but it’s somehow more messy and aggravating. In the case of the human body, some people may crash when they don’t recover from exercise on a regular basis.”
“It takes a longer duration and more money to recover than to prepare,” Frost points out. Her focus at Motion Stretch, a multistate studio chain, is to apply a method based on myofascial trigger-point release to multiple areas in the body (not just the point where a client might feel discomfort). The goal is to improve the whole body’s sustained resiliency through better flexibility, core strength and range of motion. The process is meant to be ongoing (i.e., proactive) for a variety of clients.
“Motion Stretch clientele are a mix of people, from high-performing athletes who want to prevent injury and enjoy longer runs, surfs or rides, to everyday people who live with nagging pain but don’t have to,” says Crosby.
“If your body is constantly under ‘stress,’ it can be difficult to achieve certain health/wellness outcomes,” argues Burgin. “Recovery behaviors are just as important to your health goals as the workouts themselves!”
Prevention is one important part of the recovery equation. However, experts are also talking about how recovery improves performance.
“The people who think about stretching as a performance strategy are the ones who get injured less often because they see preparation as part of recovery,” says Crosby. “When you do one, you also accomplish the other.”
For the Previous Workout, and the Next One
Frost likens recovery from a previous workout to preparation for the next workout—one supports the other.
“When you’re not talking about injury, preparation and recovery are somewhat interchangeable,” she says. “What you do prior to a hard workout should be performed afterwards as well. They are equally important.”
With that in mind, it’s time for health and exercise pros to treat recovery as a vital training tool, asserts Hutton. “Recovery primes performance,” she says. “The effectiveness of today’s workout is directly impacted by how we recovered from yesterday’s.”
To Hutton’s point, new research commissioned by the American Council on Exercise suggests that active recovery is essential to elevating performance. Further, focusing on planned recovery might help clients progress better than trying to accomplish improvements through training modifications alone.
Keep It Consistent
Just like with working out, good recovery requires more than sporadic involvement. Unfortunately, a lengthy-but-occasional stretch, foam roll, nap or yoga class doesn’t contribute much to recovery’s big picture.
“One-and-done techniques feel really good when you’re doing them, but they don’t actually add anything cumulative to preventing injury or increasing performance in other activities,” says Crosby. “Shorter, more frequent techniques give bigger dividends. The more it’s habitual, the better the results.” No surprise, consistency is key.
Imagine the option to either work out three times per week for an hour or work out for three hours once a week. Which would you recommend?
“I’d rather see someone do more, for less time, throughout the week, than have them focus on one major workout and think that will move the needle,” says Crosby. “It’s the same with stretching. More frequent releases are what allow your body to send messages to your brain for re-patterning.”
“Frequency always wins,” says Frost. “Doing one thing for a long time and then nothing for a long time cancels each other out. Doing something consistently equals gains.”
“Consistency in recovery plans is just as important as it is in exercise programming to be able to maximize the benefits of positive adaptation,” says Hutton. “For example, poor sleep may be acceptable for a single day or a few days, but once it becomes a chronic pattern, the body and the mind are not repairing adequately.” This is one reason why Hutton’s favorite recovery strategy is to evaluate sleep trends in her clients. “When training results get challenging, like with weight loss for many, having a closer look at sleep trends can provide major insights and action plans.”
Part of an Integrated Program
“If you use your body every day to perform activities, you must include care for your body with the appropriate tools and techniques,” says Frost. “Separating the two is like trying to separate food from a diet.” They’re pieces of the same puzzle.
What to say to clients who don’t see the value in discussing, tracking and ultimately practicing recovery techniques? Burgin suggests this: “All of it relates to your physical health, achieving your goals and creating long-lasting habits that result in overall health throughout your lifetime. You may be able to train for the race or the season or the event, but you will not truly gain overall wellness and health if you don’t regard all aspects of training, recovery and nutrition as essential.”
Then there are those intensity-driven trainers who find all that mellow stuff boring and unrelatable. It’s time for a perspective shift.
“I don’t just train a body for 60 minutes and then leave the rest, repair and recovery to chance,” says Hutton. “I view my clients as human machines that require proper stimulation for performance gains and proper recovery for physical and mental gains.”
Boiled down, adequate recovery helps restore the body for healthy work and play. “We work out so that we can live a vibrant life, and recovery lets us stay healthy and fit over the long term,” says Hutton. Let’s deepen our respect for the power of exercise recovery by recognizing that it’s as important as the workout itself.