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Recovery – The Limiting Factor in Performance

Performance Training Personal Training

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We live in a society of chronic low-level stressors.

Gone are the days, in which running from predators and hunting for food to ensure survival where just two in a handful of stressors we faced each day.

Instead, we encounter never-ending occurrences of stressors, related to our work, our social lives, relationships with family and friends, and the increasingly toxic environment we’ve created as a species.

Our lives have never been less threatening in terms of apparent risk to our immediate survival, yet stress has never played a bigger role in our lives.

For many of us, food has never been in larger quantities, more easily accessible, or often in poorer nutritional value than we find today.

Our knowledge of sleep’s importance and ability to regulate its quality has never been higher, yet we struggle to meet bare minimum requirements to maintain a semblance of sleep health.

To keep it short, as a species we are chronically under-recovered and over-stressed in our handling of daily life.

Paradoxically however, many of us make this seemingly bizarre decision biologically, to increase our levels of stress through high-intensity, sweat-inducing, heart-racing exercise, in the hope of somehow making ourselves healthier…

Aiming desperately to offset our genetic predisposition to avoid energy expenditure in favour of energy conservation at all cost.

We’re often living a lifestyle conducive to nothing but poor biological health.

What we often forget to consider however is that our physiological response to a stressful event is the same regardless of the stimulus that illicit it. We generate the same response (* though degree may vary…) to a physiological stressor, as we would to a psychological or social stressor.

We choose to compound our chronic low-level life stress with acute instances of high intensity training. As we tend to do as humans, we assume that more is better, and turn these acute instances into an additional chronic stressor as we ramp up the number of high-intensity session per week.

Stress, in acute situations, is positive to our adaptation and growth. We need it for survival.

Without it, we couldn’t perform anything that benefits from our ability to regulate our Central Nervous System (CNS) and its two channels of the Sympathetic (fight, flight or freeze) and Parasympathetic (rest and digest) response.

Yet we also know that chronic stress can have harrowing effects throughout the body. As Robert Sapolsky’s incredible book Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers illustrates, stress influences everything from our cardiovascular health, immune system function and memory all the way to our ability to reproduce, modulate depression and addiction.

Our perceived performance and physical appearance often comes at the expense of our biological health when it comes to fitness.

In preventing a positive growth promoting stimulator becoming a chronic, low-level life threatening stressor, our ability to recover is paramount to the discussion.

Many of us will be familiar with the term Inflammation.

Possibly when we’ve injured ourselves and seen the resulting swelling, heat and pain that results. In these situations, we enable our tissues to be protected and immobilised to begin the healing process. This type of inflammation in response to injury, is often only short-term in length, lasting days, weeks or possibly months, therefore acute.

Yet the long-term physiological effects of chronic low-levels inflammation is something we widely ignore.

When our bodies encounter a situation in which we appraise the stressors as threatening, part of the resulting response is the release of cascade of hormones in the body, the most widely recognised of these is the Glucocorticoid, Cortisol.

Part of our Sympathetic response to stress involves the use of Cortisol to prepare the body to respond. Cortisol floods the body with Glucose providing the energy needed, as well as also inhibiting Insulin to prevent the storing of the released Glucose, enabling immediate usage.

We further suppress non-essential bodily functions to aid within this immediate survival mechanism. Digestion, reproduction and our Immune System, amongst others, are no longer required, we therefore subdue these non-essentials to direct blood flow into more meaningful systems for survival, e.g. our Cardiovascular and Musculoskeletal systems.

Cortisol release also narrows our arteries and increase our heart rate, enabling the heart to beat more forcefully and faster to provide a greater supply of Glucose through the body.

Once the stressor has been resolved, hormones levels subside and return back to resting levels and allostasis is restored.

Or so it should…

Under chronically stressful conditions, i.e. long-term unresolved stressors, we don’t see this return to resting levels. High levels of Cortisol remain in the body long-term, as our ability to recover from the imposed stressors fails to arise.

Without a return to hormonal balance we still see suppression of these “non-essential” systems within the body in those that don’t support our immediate survival. As mentioned previously, our Immune System is a fundamental component of this.

Interestingly however, Cortisol in acute situations functions to reduce the levels of inflammation in the body. Helping to actually assist in the recovery process.

In chronic situations?

We see an ever increasing secretion of Cortisol and suppression of an Immune System that contributes to a host of issues that negatively impact our biological health.

Part of the process and an intended outcome of strength training and conditioning, is the resulting tissue damage that occurs creating the opportunity for adaptation and growth.

This damage to tissue triggers an influx of cells of the Immune System to dispose of the damaged cells, swelling the site, creating the inflammation we associate with exercise. In acute situations, this is a positive thing, as the body learns to adapt and grow in response to this micro-trauma. Developing greater tolerance to the imposed demands and increase physical capacities as a result.

Long-term increase in Cortisol, chronic suppression of the Immune System and deliberate tissue damage as a result of training, and we’re creating an environment in which a body CANNOT adapt positively.

When unchecked, chronic inflammation generates a series of destructive reactions in the body that damages cells and eventually leads to clinical symptoms of disease such as Obesity, Metabolic Syndromes and Type 2 Diabetes, to name but a few.

As we stated earlier, our perceived performance and physical appearance often comes at the expense of our biological health.

Our capacity for growth and development is therefore entirely dependent upon our ability to recover.

To recover therefore, we need to learn to manage stress and control inflammation within the body to allow for positive system adaptation.

Recovery should be viewed as a multifaceted strategy.

We have multiple methods in which we can assist in our ability to control both inflammation and stress. In the subsequent portion of this Insight, we will consider the impact that Nutrition, Sleep and our Training can have on recovery, as well as strategies that can be implemented to improve our current approaches.

Nutrition 

The influence that stress may have on our nutritional decisions has been widely discussed in our Insight into Stress, Appetite and a Search for Allostasis, however we are yet to explore the impact of Nutrition on inflammation.

What we consume on a daily basis has a direct influence on the level of inflammation we have within the body. There exists a categorisation of nutrients that are either Pro-inflammatory or Anti-inflammatory in their effects.

One of the most widely recognised pro-inflammatory contributors, is an excess of calories.

Calorie excess stimulates adipose (fat) cell growth. Due to the metabolic activity of adipose tissue, we see the production of a variety of hormones, proteins, cytokines and macrophages which all increase this pro-inflammatory effect through various mechanisms.

Ensuring calorie intake appropriate for the individual and their metabolic demands is one of the simplest ways of influencing inflammation through nutrition.

In a similar vain, excessive carbohydrate intake has further been linked to the diseases associated with chronic inflammation. Carbohydrates from low glycemic sources may contribute in reducing the associated effects of inflammation from nutritional intake. An excess of both trans-fatty and saturated-fatty acids have also been attributed to playing a role within the inflammatory process.

Yet much of this we already know… calorie excess, high carbohydrate, high saturated fat nutritional strategies are a health risk, and as is widely understood, should be avoided.

On the anti-inflammatory side, much has been made of the effects that Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids has on inflammation, whether this is directly from lean sources such as Fish, or through supplementation.

However, a much simpler expansion is to consider the role that approaches such as the Mediterranean Diet as a template for management of inflammation.

High in fruits and vegetables, all with anti-inflammatory properties, increased fish consumption, limited to moderate red meat intake, wide use of legumes, nuts and whole grains, this approach highlights not only simplicity, but its clear superiority over our Westernisation of nutritional and impact on biological health.

For a starting point on a sound Nutritional Strategy, take a read of our insight, Nutrition – Laying the Groundwork.

Sleep

Sleep is the cornerstone of recovery.

We all recognise the value that a good nights sleep can have on our physical, psychological and emotional state. It forms a foundational part of how our body synthesises and adapts to the daily demands and stressors we’ve placed on it.

But how many of us can honestly say we have a strategy in place for ensuring the optimisation of this vital component?

Yet we seem happy to spend money on high-end supplements, equipment and clothing that we presume will aid in our recovery?

Sleep is a relatively unknown phenomenon, much of the research available is truly in its infancy in terms of understanding what’s exactly going on during the process. Yet what is well known, is that sleep is not a characterless process. We know that there are phases to sleep, as we move between shallow, deep and REM (Rapid Eye Movement). Not only are there phases, but structure to the process, moving between a cycle of activity from shallow through to REM and back up again. We’re also aware that levels of brain activity also differs between the phases as we cycle back and forth with some favouring more sympathetic brain activity, other phases, more parasympathetic.

In relation to our management of stress, it is during these periods of slow-wave sleep that we see suppression of our sympathetic nervous system and a decrease in levels of Glucocorticoids such as Cortisol. In essence, this is our recovery phase.

However in periods of sleep deprivation, in which we don’t spend sufficient time in slow-wave sleep, we fail to reach this period of sympathetic suppression. Glucocorticoids don’t go down and we awake as stressed as when we fell asleep.

This pattern feeds into a habitual loop, as lack of sleep increases Cortisol secretion which in turn influences our ability to get to sleep, and so on…

Having a strategy that enables the tracking of our sleep and provides methods to promote greater sleep quality are vital in ensuring recovery.

Assessment of sleep need not be a convoluted process.

Many of our clients at IFT keep training diaries in which sleep is a component part of their wellness assessment, with quantity (no. of hours) and quality (1-5 scale) are monitored. This ability to reflect not only on the previous nights sleep, but on the time periods leading up to sleep, has been an important tool in gaining a greater appreciation on this underestimated component of recovery.

It has further enabled from a coaches perspective, a greater knowledge of the client and the day-to-day handling of chronic stressors. This has created a more adaptable coaching environment that meets the client where they are on that specific day.

For example… Client A has recorded 8 hours of sleep at a score of 4 on a 1-5 scale, for a combined total of 32 (quantity x quality). We know the likelihood of sleep being a limiting factor on that days performance is potentially unlikely.

Client B may only have 4hrs, at a low quality score of 2 for a combined total of 8. We can strongly assume that sleep deprivation may play a contributing factor on the outcome of that days session. We may need to consider amending volume/intensity or changing the session completely to take into consideration the fact this individual is no doubt under recovered.

If over time, we see a reoccurring pattern of sleep deprivation, we have intervention strategies that may assist in creating a more calming sleep environment. For example…

  1. Spend More Time Outside: we’re animals genetically designed to spend periods of time outdoors, enjoying the calming effect and health benefits of sun exposure. Even on a cloudy day, the light provided from being outside is 1000’s of times more powerful than being confined indoors. Get outside and reap the benefits.
  2. Caffeine Curfews: consider avoiding excessive caffeine throughout the day and aim to end all consumption 4 hours before sleep
  3. Limit Alcohol Consumption: Amongst other negative effects, Alcohol limits the capacity for us to enter into slow-wave sleep cycles and increases the secretion of stress hormones such as Cortisol. 
  4. Creating a Pattern of Sleep/Wakingaiming to develop some continuity in the time in which you sleep and wake will assist the body in regulating its systems to allow for optimal sleep conditions.
  5. Ban Blue Light in Bedrooms: Blue light such as that emitted from phones, tablets and televisions has a stimulatory effect on our brains. Try to limit exposure 1 hour before sleeping and opt for a more natural light source through activities such as reading a book.
  6. Use Controlled Breathing Techniques Prior to Sleep: activities that have a focus on controlled breathing, specifically prolonged exhalation, have the ability to promote shifting of our nervous system towards a more parasympathetic state through an increase in Vagal Tone and suppression of sympathetic activity. Simple Apps such as Headspace provide guided mediations that can be easily utilised prior to sleep. The addition of Postural Restoration Institute exercises is a powerful promoter of parasympathetic activity through respiration. For more on the topic take a look at the following Insight – The Importance of Breathing in Movement
  7. Invest in Blackout Blinds or an Eye-Mask: light from external sources such as street-lamps can be a challenging issue in brightly lit areas. Simple cost effective methods such as an eye-mask can greater assist in reducing this light exposure.
  8. Monitor Heart Rate Variability (HRV) on Waking: a measure of the cardiovascular influence on the Autonomic Nervous System. This provides an indicator of the recovery of our Cardiac system and subsequent level of sympathetic and parasympathetic activity. We currently use the app Elite HRV to monitor morning readiness..

* HRV will be the topic of its own Insight in the upcoming weeks. Make sure to check back in to discover more on how it can improve recovery.

These are just some of the approaches we currently recommend at IFT to maximise the ability that sleep can have within the recovery process.

By having clients monitor and reflect on both quantity and quality of sleep, whilst simultaneously providing strategies to promote greater sleep hygiene, we aim to create an environment that restricts this potential limiting factor.

Training

We all aim to get stronger, fitter, healthier and leaner.

But as we’ve discovered, high-intensity exercise comes at an inflammatory cost.

When it comes to acute stress and inflammation, we know the body can adapt, recover and become more effective in response to the same stimulus. That’s training 101.

But we must allow for this recovery to take place…

Long-term training at high-intensities is a huge contributor to chronic inflammation. This builds an environment in which performance plateus, and injury and illness become very real prospects. Our management of training load therefore becomes a crucial component of recovery.

In our attempts to regularly train at high intensities (eg. 90-100% effort) we often leave ourselves short on the required intensity for development due to our long-term under recovery preventing our ability to truly perform at the levels required.

Our perception of high-intensity may actually leave us more in the realms of 80-90% actual effort, not enough of a stimulus for change, but a large increase in unmanaged training stress and inflammation.

We therefore quickly stagnate in training due to our poor management of training intensity.

Regardless of whether we’re training for Hypertrophy, Strength, Power, Conditioning or Skill Development, we need to limit the number of high intensity days we have within a training week to enable greater management of training stress and inflammation.

When we subsequently have to perform at high-intensities, not only can we maximise our efforts, but we can recover sufficiently to perform at increasingly higher levels.

  • For an in depth look at management of training load, and some excellent recommendations, take a look at Conditioning expert Joel Jamieson’s article on the topic, here.

The adage of more is better could not be more detrimental to performance gains, than when it comes to high-intensity activity and resulting inflammation.

For many of us, an increase in lower intensity activity could possibly be an ideal addition in promoting recovery and greater performance gains.

Our aerobic system has the vital characteristic of assisting in our Vagal Tone function, our ability to shift into parasympathetic (rest and digest) states. Markers of inflammation are significantly lower in individuals with high aerobic capacity.

Including low-intensity activity that develops oxidative qualities is an exceptional means of promoting recovery post-session and during regeneration days.

For more on the influence of the aerobic system on our training, take a read of the following InsightThe Oxidative System and Strength Training.

In so many ways we have the ability to not only the impact that our physiological training stress has on our body, but also how our chronic low-level stressors effect our ability to recover and develop. Yet whilst we’re quick to address acute symptoms of stress and inflammation, we fail in our understanding of how to deal with chronic symptoms.

Whilst a workout or training session may last 60mins in duration, the effectiveness of the stimulus will be decided by the remaining 23 hours in the day.

Whether its for performance, health or general wellbeing, recovery is often the limiting factor in our development. We can all benefit from applying what we now know, with our simple recommendations, to create a strategy that works for us individually.

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