Hustle for the muscle: rise and grind. No pain, no gain. These are things we hear all the time, and out of the gym, they have become hashtags—#Noexcuses, #nogymnoproblem. We live in a culture of perpetual self-improvement, where downtime is considered unproductive.
However, in fitness, "recovery" (the rest time between your exercise sessions) is essential if you want to achieve your goals. Many gym enthusiasts will ignore the advice to "recover just as hard as they train" – as they are under the illusion that all your muscle gains and weight loss occur in the gym. It doesn't not, my friend. It takes place outside of the gym.
No doubt some of you are laughing and patting yourself on the back for your lifelong approach to "recovery" and that you've had it right all along. It's been so long since you've broken a sweat that when you do, you think something is malfunctioning. But for those who believe that taking it easy for evermore is what I'm suggesting, you couldn't be more wrong. Striking a balance between challenging our bodies with exercise stress and letting our bodies recover from that stress is the key to getting stronger, faster, and leaner.
Let's look at what exercise does to our bodies first, then talk about how we can efficiently recover from bouncing back more muscular, leaner, and healthier.
When you begin to exercise, your nervous system tells your muscular system to get moving. Your heart starts pumping more blood, you breathe in more oxygen and expel more CO2, your connective tissues kick into overdrive, and your nervous system acts like an air traffic controller—monitoring every movement. Your eyes and the vestibular system work overtime to keep you balanced and standing upright through intense movements.
The harder you exercise, the more these systems must work. Did you know that hard-working athletes' bodies can shunt almost 40L of blood around their working body parts and organs every minute? Imagine the concerted effort of every system in your body to pump that much blood while moving you through space and breathing at the same time. It's an Olympic-level physical feat.
With all this blood pumping around your body, more endorphins are released, making you feel great. They are what give you your "high"—your runner's "high" or feeling behind a happy "sweaty selfie." This post-exercise excitement is what motivates you to come back to the gym again.
Understandably, once you find something that makes you feel great, you want to repeat it. You may find yourself booking another HIIT class, or a long run with your buddy at 5 am. However, this is where we have to acknowledge our body's natural sweet spot, so exercise keeps feeling good. Movement is primarily positive stress on the body. But exercise stress itself is not the cause of your muscle gains or whittling waistline is coming from—it's from your body's ability to bounce back from the stress.
Imagine that you just got chased across the savannah by a hungry lion and scuttled up a tree to safety. The lion got bored and wandered away. When the stress disappears, your breathing slows down, your heart starts pumping more slowly, and your body is taken off "high alert." You fist pump the sky in victory - you made it out alive! Every cell feels alive and is suddenly sparkling. Once the celebration is over, you can begin your recovery, where your heart rate and breathing return to baseline, your body relaxes and rebuilds, and as a result, your body will be a little stronger and faster.
Now, let's imagine that you escaped the lion and scuttled up the tree; the lion stayed at the bottom, stalking, waiting for you to come down. Your body remains on high alert. You're not out of danger yet; you feel anything but celebratory and become snappy and irritable. Being on high alert for so long deteriorates your body, and your tense muscles begin to cause pain. Your intestines threaten to revolt as your digestion is impacted by the high-stress level. You're less focussed, and you're one swift move from injuring yourself. This illustrates what happens when you keep pushing yourself to respond to intense stress in the gym. The continual intensity can also lower your immunity, and your sex drive and ability to sleep are relegated to a mere footnote in your priority list.
When you get to this stage, most people say that you've "overtrained," but more and more, people recognize that it's more accurately called "under-recovery." So what is the right balance of exercise versus recovery?
Prioritize 15-30 minutes of relaxing activity each day. Find time to focus on deepening your breath and clearing your mind. You can do this while listening to relaxing music or a meditation app at lunch during your morning commute.
Match your nutrition to your exercise requirements. If you're planning on exercising intensely that day, ensure that you eat adequate carbohydrates to fuel your workout. The last thing you want during a workout is shaky and depleted of energy -that's when injuries happen. As high-intensity exercise priorities carbohydrates as a fuel source, eating an adequate number of whole grains and millets, fruits, and vegetables throughout the day is essential.
Mix it up, and don't engage in high-intensity exercise every day of the week. A runner shouldn't plan back-to-back intense runs, and a gym-goer shouldn't plan back-to-back intense days. A rule of thumb is if you're training one system hard one day, train a different one the next. This may be a high-intensity session on a Monday and a long walk or swim on a Tuesday. A good personal trainer can create a plan for you that modulates and monitors these peaks and troughs to see the best results from your body.
Finally, remember, nothing is lost by listening to your body and taking a day out from the gym. If your body says "stop," you have my permission to pop some headphones on and go for a leisurely walk—#nojugements.
Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight-loss coach.