Scrolling through social media on health and fitness accounts, you’ll constantly see videos of booty-building workouts, crazy human physical feats of strength and endurance, and hear about the latest diets available. However, one thing that we don’t see mentioned as readily is recovery. It’s just not sexy.
This incredibly vital aspect of living a lifestyle conducive to good health is seemingly over-looked, often until it is too late. This is why people hit exhaustion, injury, ill health and only then start appreciating its importance. On the flip side of this equation, if you are recovering adequately your performance, strength and quality of life can be significantly enhanced. So, what can you do to optimize your recovery?
In order to find out, we spoke to Luke Leaman of Muscle Nerds who has been in the industry for 20 years and over 30 years training, both as an ex-competitive powerlifter and physique athlete. He has spent the past five years lecturing internationally and training trainers. Muscle Nerds as a whole, specialize in the teaching and training coaches, trainers, and the general population, as well as pro athletes. Their primary focus is on health before performance, which is a new, fresh insight into how coaching should be done.
Luke shared with us some key areas we can look at to enhance not only recovery but the overall quality of our health.
If you’re not getting enough sleep, then your body will not be able to recover adequately. Luke highlights some of the key side effects of not getting enough quantity or quality of sleep can induce. Lack of sleep can cause testosterone levels to drop, an increase in insulin resistance, and inhibit fuel from getting into cells so that they are unable to recover. Luke suggests using an app, for example, Sleep cycle alarm clock, or a fitness tracker to monitor sleep, as a great way to assess how much quality sleep you are really getting.
What many of us don’t realise is sleep issues can also cause elevated blood glucose levels, elevated cortisol, food cravings (especially for unhealthy foods).
Whilst trackers aren’t 100% accurate yet, they’re a great place to start. The Oura ring has been shown to be fairly accurate, but it’s also costly.
Luke stresses that main things to look for in regards to sleep are:
- going to bed at the same time
- waking at the same time
- waking without an alarm clock
- waking in close to the same position you fell asleep in (not rolling around)
- waking refreshed
While there are many fitness types that wear their disdain for cardiovascular exercise as a badge of honour, Luke stresses the importance of solid state cardio when it comes to recovery. A simple lack of cardiovascular conditioning can inhibit work capacity and the ability to recover. A good exercise program should have a solid balance between resistance training, and high intensity and low-intensity cardio. Luke suggests that front-loading a program with solid state cardio can help the body adapt to training, make fat loss easier and reduce stress in the later phases of the program when loads get heavier and the work gets harder.
The key thing he emphasizes is having balance in a program. “The Goldilocks principle…not too much, not too little, just right.”
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls the involuntary functions of the human body. Within this system, we have the parasympathetic (responsible for ‘rest and digest’) and sympathetic (responsible for ‘fight or flight’) nervous systems. Whenever one of these systems is activated, the other is inhibited. The sympathetic nervous system is active when we are under stress, and cannot differentiate between, for example, the stress of life-threatening danger, and that of an intense workout.
In fact, at the core of the Muscle Nerds philosophy is a term they coined, “Leastmode”. Luke elaborates, “While the majority of the industry focuses on Beastmode, we focus on earning your Beastmode. You have to Leastmode first, which means working on stress management and balancing your physiology.”
A useful way that Luke suggests we can monitor and assess just how stressed we really are, is using an app, like Instant Heart Rate, to track our waking heart-rate. Significant increases or decreases in our waking heart-rate can indicate when we are experiencing higher periods of stress.
Meditation is a great way to combat stress, and Luke recommends Headspace as a particularly good app to use for 5-10 mins of guided meditation per day, proven to alleviate stress.
Ironically another surefire way to alleviate stress is to also step away from the smartphone. Switching off/into flight mode can also relieve stress and anxiety.
Another side effect of being overly stressed is shallow breathing, which prevents proper oxygenation of cells, again inhibiting our bodies ability to recover. Luke suggests that we can use simple breathing exercises to help aid recovery by switching our body out of ‘fight or flight’ mode, instantly reducing stress levels, allowing oxygen to get to cells more effectively and also help us to get more sleep.
A resource he recommends for everything related to breathing is: http://www.buteyko.info/.
Having spent 20 years in the health and fitness industry Luke says one of the most common observations he has made is that most people aren’t getting enough vegetables and fruits in their day. He recommends that at least half of our plates (or around 2-3 fists per meal) consist of plant matter. To put it bluntly, without this, Luke suggests that we ‘don’t deserve meat’, as we won’t be receiving adequate fibre, antioxidants, and co-factors. He also says that if we are eating carbs and getting fat, this can be a sign we are pushing ourselves too hard and that it may be time to ease off the intensity of our workouts or address overall levels of stress. At the risk of demonizing carbs, he suggests that some people might need a higher fat, lower carbohydrate dietary setup for a while, however overeating fat can also cause insulin resistance.
Luke emphasizes the four most important factors in nutrition as being:
- Stress response
- Quality of food
- Quantity of food
- Timing of food
He recommends, that if you have issues with carbs, place them around your training, as training will increase glucose sensitivity, regardless of existing insulin sensitivity issues. Put simply, the carbs will be used by your body, rather than being stored as fat.
From our conversation with Luke it is apparent that one of the most important factors in recovery is balance. Or as he puts it ‘BALANCE BALANCE BALANCE!’; A balance of approach and intensity when it comes to exercise, a balance of food groups, and a balance between our stress (exercise, life) and sleep (complete rest). By taking a look at the key areas above, we may be able to super-charge our performance, or at least improve our overall picture of health and longevity.