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How to optimize your recovery

You killed your workout, but did you kill your recovery?

There’s nothing better than that feeling after you dominate some heavy lifts in training. With the next training day coming up quickly, how can you optimize recovery to prepare your body to do it all over again? Nutrition, supplements, sleep and stress management all play key roles in how your body will respond to the demands placed on it during training. By improving the non-gym activities, you can maximize your performance in the gym. 

What nutrients do your muscles actually need?

The cells in our bodies require different nutrients and chemicals to function properly. For muscles to contract, they need certain electrolytes (sodium, calcium, potassium) and other substances created in the body. We can help support our system by replenishing these molecules by what we eat following a workout. 

Protein should be at the top of every resistance athlete’s priority lists because the amino acids contained in protein are the same molecules that build our muscles. Prioritizing 30-40g of high quality protein after a training session helps foster improved muscular recovery. You can use a protein supplement like whey protein isolate or you can eat some chicken or turkey – lean meats are best after training as fat slows down the metabolism of the meal.

Carbohydrates are key! Carbs get broken down into glucose (aka energy), and when we have an excess of glucose it gets stored in the muscles as glycogen. These muscle glycogen stores fuel your training sessions, so it’s important to replace what was lost after you leave the gym. Eating your carbs and protein together leads to improved storage of glycogen in the cells – whether that’s your basic chicken, broccoli and rice or adding a banana and frozen berries to your protein shake. Don’t skip on your carbs, most resistance athletes benefit from 60-100g of carbs following a training session. 

The final, and most powerful nutrition nugget is water. Hydration is vital to the breakdown and absorption of everything I’ve mentioned so far. Aim to drink at least 90-125 fluid ounces of water every day – maybe a bit more if you live in a super dry climate or if you’re in a location where you sweat all day. Drinking water will help your recovery and it might even make your skin look a bit brighter.

Life Choices for Recovery

The other main component to recovery is what you do with the other 22 hours that you’re not in the gym each day. Prioritizing sleep is the most fundamental life choice you can make to improve your recovery. Our bodies produce a lot of different chemicals and hormones while we are sleeping that help with cellular regeneration, muscle growth and brain function. Strive for 7-8 hours of sleep every night – most smartphones have settings that help encourage this by blocking notifications and dimming the backlight. Check your settings and start using this feature to optimize your sleep time. 

Oftentimes I see recommendations for reducing the amount of stress in your life, but let’s face it that’s usually not possible. BUT we can work on how we respond to and manage that stress. Things like journaling, meditation, breath work and talking with a trusted friend or counselor all help our body process the stress in our lives. Just like you prioritize your training schedule, be sure to block off time to participate in some of these activities to help manage your body’s response to stress. Our emotional state impacts the physiology of our bodies and too much stress can impair how our bodies recover from training.

Supplements for Recovery

When it comes to supplements, the bigger the claim the more likely it is to be a scam. However, there are times where supplements can improve your recovery and they might be worth the investment provided you’re already doing a great job with the nutrition and sleep parts of recovery. It is important to purchase supplements from a trusted brand, and make sure the products are NSF certified if you’re competing in a league that does drug testing. Here are three recommended supplements, backed by science, that can help with your recovery.

Protein Powders: Look for a product  with minimal sweeteners, fillers and artificial ingredients. While there are some differences between whey, vegan and plant-based protein powders, additional protein will help your recovery so find one that works for you and your budget. 

Creatine Monohydrate: This supplemental form of creatine increases the amount of creatine kinase in your body – a compound necessary for muscle contraction. By increasing the amount of CK available, research demonstrates improved muscle contraction, muscle mass and muscular endurance. Typically you’ll start with a loading phase ingesting 20-25g per day for 5-7 days, followed by maintenance of 3-5g per day for up to three months. The loading phase may be omitted, but it will take up to four weeks for circulating levels of CK to increase. 

Electrolyte Mixes: These can be helpful particularly if you live and/or train in a hot and humid environment. Look for a mix that has minimal sugars (unless you’re also wanting some carbs), no artificial colorings or flavorings and has an optimal GI absorption ratio.

In Summary

Following the trends on IG and the recommendations from your lifting buddies at the gym can get a bit overwhelming. You don’t need to buy all of the products claiming to boost your recovery x10 – most of their claims aren’t true anyways. Focus on the basics: Eat lean protein and complex carbs after you train. Drink water. Get enough sleep. And stop stressing about the rest of it because that’s only going to slow down your gains! 

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