Recovery and nutrition – completing the trinity of the pillars of performance.

Recovery - pillars of performance

“Earn your Beastmode by laying the foundation of stress management, energy system balancing, and nutritional balancing. You have to Leastmode before you can Beastmode.” Luke Leaman – Muscle Nerds.

In a previous post, I spoke about stress and the importance of managing stress not only in the pursuit of better results in the gym but also to maximise health and longevity. I touched briefly on maintaining a balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system.

Managing stress forms one pillar of the holy trinity of things that we can do outside the gym to once again maximise results in the gym but also make us healthier in the short and long term. The two other pillars are recovery and nutrition.

The reason the I have called them pillars are because they form the basis for long-term success. They are the foundations of what we are trying to build and we all know that shaky foundations do not make for strong structures.

Often we see trainers offer programmes that promise fast and stunning results sometimes they succeed in delivering those results, however more often than not these results are short-lived and can sometimes be detrimental to our health.

Obviously, there is a time and a place for such programmes, but often the first exposure that any of us get to these are paid for and targeted Facebook ads telling us that we can go from 0 to 100 in 12 weeks if only were super motivated, hardworking and willing to put in the grind.

The problem with this is there is scant little time for proper recovery with the focus often being on sessions that are super intense with no time for working on improving energy systems and building the cellular apparatus needed for optimal adaptation exercise. In addition to this nutrition often takes the form of caloric restriction rather than putting in place strategies to make sure that we follow a high quality, nutrient dense way of eating.

The reason for this is that these programs are primarily concerned with rapid changes in physique often in dropping weight/body fat. We’re often sold “drop a dress size in 4 weeks”, or “get ripped abs and bigger arms in 8 weeks”. From a marketing point of view, it makes good business sense. How many of us, even those of us who regularly attend the gym or play sport, only start to pay real attention to how we’re training when we are 8 to 10 weeks away from a holiday? Or a wedding? Or the summer is coming, the weather is warm and we want to look good.

What are the three pillars of performance?

Because of this urgency to get into shape, it makes it very difficult for these programmes to take into account the 3 pillars of stress management, recovery and nutrition. This leads to any gains made disappearing often very quickly and as is often the case more than just a reversal of the gains but actually ending up with a worse physique a few months after the programme has ended. Worse than this though, going through this process, focusing on high volume and intensity of work and low calories and little focus on recovery and stress management can cause some serious damage to our health.

In the last blog, we talked briefly about general adaptation syndrome, the process which occurs when our bodies can no longer positively respond to a stressor that is placed upon it. Exercise is a very positive way to place stress on the body. However, to get the best from it we need to make sure that we can get the positive response that we desire we need to make sure that we provide the best physiological and psychological environment for this response to take place. If we can do this then we can expect to get strong, long-lasting results and improve health. If, however, we cannot provide this then we can generally expect to have poorer quality or shorter-lived results and we may see poorer health outcomes from our endeavours.

So what can we do to ensure that we provide the best environment for our results to flourish?

We can ensure that we pay attention to the three pillars of stress management, recovery from exercise and nutrition. There are a number of things that we can do to support each pillar.

Pillar #1 – Stress management

Here we are looking to control the amount of stress put on the body to keep it within manageable levels. We can do this by:

  • Diaphragmatic/ deep controlled breathing
  • Exposure to cold
  • Taking a good quality zinc supplement
  • Stretching
  • Meditation
  • Massage
  • Relaxation exercises
  • Singing, chanting or gargling
  • Laughing
  • Taking a gentle walk
  • Yoga
  • Tai chi

Pillar #2 – Recovery

Ensuring that you recover effectively from exercise is key to building your body’s tolerance to stressors. Ways in which you can effectively recover are:

  • Cardiovascular exercise – This type of exercises helps us to recover from exercises in a number of ways including by improving delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the muscles that we use during exercises. Increased mitochondrial density and efficiency in energy production and removal of waste products of exercise.
  • Adequate sleep – when we are asleep levels of protein synthesis (providing that there is adequate protein available) is increased as are the secretion of several important anabolic hormones including testosterone and human growth hormone. In addition to this sleep is the time when brain cell restoration occurs. A general rule is that we should be getting between 8 and 10 hours sleep every night.
  • Engage in active recovery – take some time to engage in other activities outside of the gym whether this is going for a walk, going for a swim, doing yoga or tai chi or even a sauna, playing sport too can help but you must be aware of the intensity of the activity that you’re undertaking because if it is very intense you’ll need to find further ways to recover.
  • Stretching – post-workout stretching can be a very useful tool to help us to recover from exercise, however if you have the time I would recommend leaving the gym spending time to relax and allow your nervous system to begin the switch from sympathetic towards parasympathetic functions and stretch a little later, this should help to get a better experience with stretching.
  • Building de-load weeks and active recovery days into your programme – taking time to look at your programme and building in times of lower exercise intensity or total volume will help to give your body the break that it needs to improve recovery. Likewise planning active recovery sessions as mentioned above will also aid in recovery.
  • Soft tissue massage – massage has been shown to aid recovery and also improve muscle function and muscle/ joint injury outcomes.
  • Optimum pre and post exercise nutrition – making sure that you make the right nutrients available to your body to aid in recovery this includes adequate levels of protein and carbohydrates to repair and grow muscles and replenish glycogen levels, also specific minerals to ensure proper function of the nervous system.

Pillar #3 – Nutrition

Often when we begin exercise programmes we tend to focus on eating for a specific goal and this means the management of calories, either we want to be in a caloric deficit in order to lose weight or we want to be in a caloric excess to gain mass.

This however only tells part of the story. Much more important is making sure that the foods which make up those calories provide us with the optimum levels of nutrition that we need to both stay healthy and also to meet our goals.

If we only focus on calories or the idea that “if it fits your macros” (IIFYM) so contains the right amount of protein, fats and carbs for your chosen plan then we potentially miss something big from our diets.

It is beyond the scope of this blog to go into the details of different eating plans and how they should be approached (this will be addressed in future posts) but below are some nutritional basics that we should look ensure any way of eating that we undertake.

Protein – perhaps the most important of the macronutrients and one that we should build our diets around.

  • Protein is essential for muscle growth and production of hormones and enzymes and antibodies.
  • Between 1.8 and 4 grams of protein per kilogram of body mass per day.
  • Animal-based proteins (meat, fish, dairy) are complete proteins – which include all essential amino acids, ones which we cannot synthesise ourselves and are essential for muscle growth and repair.
  • Plant-based proteins are largely not whole proteins and lack at least one essential amino acid. This often means that plant-based protein sources need to be combined to provide whole proteins.

Fruits and vegetables – not a macronutrient but a whole food group! Guidelines are changing from 5 portions per day to 10, but perhaps the number of portions that we should aim for is as high as 15.

  • Rich in vitamins and minerals that are vital for many functions within our bodies.
  • Contain as many as 800 phytochemicals, ones that we don’t even have names for but we know we are much healthier when they are contained in our diet.
  • High in fibre which is important for keeping our gut healthy.

Fats – for a long time fat, especially saturated fats, got a negative press, research has now reversed much of this and shown that fats are an essential macronutrient.

  • Saturated fat is essential for the maintenance of cell walls and the production of hormones including testosterone.
  • Omega 3 fatty acids are responsible for many functions within the body, DHA is found in high amounts in the retina of the eye, the brain and in sperm cells.
  • ALA is an essential fatty acid and must be consumed, and comes mainly from seeds such as flaxseed.
  • DHA and EPA are found in oily fish, they may play important roles in the prevention of a number of diseases.
  • Omega 3 and 6’s are examples of polyunsaturated fats. Along with monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats are important for cardiovascular health as well as many other functions within the body.

Carbohydrates – the bodies preferred energy source during high-intensity exercise, carbohydrates are turned into glucose as we digest them. Glucose is the preferred energy source of the brain and is stored in muscles and the liver as glycogen where it can be used to provide energy for exercise.

  • The best sources of carbohydrate come from unprocessed sources including fruits, vegetables, tubas and whole grains.
  • Carbohydrates that come within a fibre matrix take longer to digest than more simple carbohydrates and may provide added benefits over the energy that they deliver.
  • Whole fruits are better than fruit juice or smoothies.

Energy balance – total calories are important and how they are apportioned between the 3 main macronutrients, protein consumption should remain a priority, while levels of fat and carbohydrate intake may vary without having an impact on overall energy balance. Just make sure you get enough fruits and veggies!

If you’re not sure where to get started, whether it’s managing stress, recovery or nutrition we can help. We provide programmes to help with weight loss, muscle gain and overall wellbeing. Contact us today to talk more about a healthier lifestyle.


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