When someone is training, whether it be for an event or just to get in better shape, many hours are spent not only planning each days’ activities, but also in working towards a goal. Most athletes spend most of their time making sure that they get enough training hours into each week. A smaller number of athletes spend adequate time ensuring that their nutrition supports their training efforts (which is as equally important as the training itself). However, very few athletes give enough attention and respect to one of the most important parts of training: Recovery. Recovery is the glue that holds everything together. Without this glue, areas in the body will gradually become dysfunctional and begin to fall apart. Physical training, in any form, pushes the body to its limits. This causes the body to breakdown as limits are surpassed and the athlete tries to make improvements; as muscles and other soft tissues are stressed, as in training, they essentially breakdown and cause micro-tears in the muscle fibers. After training, the body responds by building that tissue up stronger than before to support such efforts the next time. This is how muscles become larger and performance is increased. Now, what happens if you put your body through the same physical stress before it has had time to recover? Essentially, you will be breaking down tissue that began the day at 90% instead of 100%. This means that by the time you are done training you will have once again broken down the muscle tissue, but this time to a greater extent since you were not 100% at the start of training. Now, the body is a remarkable machine that can adapt to many situations and learn to cope with many stresses. By no means does this mean that you have to be 100% rested and fresh before each day of training. However, if this scenario is repeated numerous times you can see how eventually the tissue will not be able to withstand the same levels of training. Soon the tissue will be starting the days’ training at 20% and little work can be done before the tissue fails and injury occurs. Recovery is a complex puzzle that requires more than just a little time off. Understanding the importance of recovery and how to implement it correctly into your training plan will not only boost performance, but it will keep you active and injury free. In my many years of clinical practice I have seen numerous athletes competing in a wide variety of recreational and professional sports. Those who pay attention to the various parts of recovery almost always do better in competition. There is a simple reason for this: improved recovery = an increased ability to train harder = better results! In my opinion, the success rates of training programs hinge on the things done when you are not actually training!
A few weeks ago I heard a great story about a lady’s return to health that made me both happy and frustrated all at the same time. While checking out at Nordstrom’s the woman that was assisting me took down my email address and noticed that ‘Dr.’ was in the spelling. She continued to ask what kind of doctor I was and when I told her I was a chiropractor her face lit up as she told me how her chiropractor was the absolute best and was the only doctor she currently uses. This, of course, makes me smile, but also begs me to get more information. The explanation of her return to health was really summed up in one sentence. She said, “Two years ago I was on 14 medications and now I am on none!”. 14 MEDICATIONS!!!!! It is almost difficult to believe that someone can continue to be handed prescriptions at a rate so high. She said that she finally sought out this chiropractor because she was not satisfied with the direction of her healthcare and didn’t feel right taking that many medications every day. This particular chiropractor took control of her care and in two years she lost 50 pounds and was able to eliminate 14 medications from her life! That is just plain awesome. Can you imagine the negative side effects that 14 medications have on your system? Not only each individual one, but there also must be some negative interactions between these meds. Now, this story is really not to say how chiropractors are the best thing in the world. This could have been any other healthcare professional, like a dietician, a naturopath, an acupuncturist, or even another medical professional. The point is that she was able to turn her life around so drastically and truly control her own health.
This really made me smile as I walked out of the store, but this satisfaction was quickly joined by a feeling of frustration. Clearing 14 medications from the system and returning the body to a healthy state is a massive victory, but it begs the question of how someone can possibly be instructed to take all these medications in the first place. Was this really the direction that her previous healthcare provider(s) thought was in her best interest?? Surely there were multiple medical professionals who each lent a hand in boosting her prescription numbers. And maybe even 3 or 4 of these medications were given temporarily and not meant for long term use. However, this would still leave the patient with at least 10 daily medications and potentially no planned date for ending their use. Unfortunately, this has become a common scenario in today’s healthcare system; partly because multiple doctors are used to control a patient’s health and partly because many medical professionals rely on medications as their primary tool for ‘health’. Luckily, this patient decided to seek out advice from another health professional whose goal would be to fix things without using a prescription pad. My hope is not that we eliminate the use of all medications as there are extremely useful and necessary in many instances. My hope is that we use them only when other methods fail to provide solutions or if the body just cannot sustain health without them. I’m sure there are many stories just like this, but probably even more people that COULD have stories like this if they decided to finally take control of their own health.
Ultimately, the goal of any sport is to get either bigger, stronger, or faster, or a combination of these. While this seems obvious it is beneficial to take a careful look at just how we achieve this so that we can improve each stage. When simplified, there are really four basic steps to get these results:
Stage 1: Put the body through a training stress
Stage 2: Remove stress from the body
Stage 3: Allow the body to adapt and grow
Stage 4: Improved ability for your body to handle that specific training stress
While this is a very simplistic version of how the process occurs, it is basically how we do it. Most people would look at this and say “No —-, sherlock!”. However, they never really take the time to dissect this. The old-school (and unfortunately still fairly prevalent) thought process is focused almost completely on Stage 1. You get better simply by training harder and longer. While training duration and intensity does play a key part in improvement, it is by no means the only factor. In fact, many times this ‘train harder’ mentality is what promotes injury and decreased athletic performance. Instead, athletes should be focusing more of their attention on Stage 2 and Stage 3 in order to really maximize the Stage 4 process of getting better at their sport. While on the surface this seems fairly easy, it actually becomes a very complex conversation when trying to analyze how to best remove all stressors from the body. You must remember that the body has to deal with all stressors, not just the loads from training intensity. So, the times that you are not actually training does not mean that you have completely removed all stress from your body. Stress comes in many forms and can be present in either physical, chemical, or emotional states. The physiological responses from the body are exactly the same whether you are running from a tiger or getting verbally slaughtered by your boss. Both put the body through stress and make growth much more difficult. For example, the Type A businessman (or woman) whose stress levels are constantly elevated everyday never allows his (her) hormonal system to calm down. The problem with this is that the body’s high-stress hormonal environments are designed to be catabolic (breakdown of the body) rather than anabolic (building up of the body). So, remaining in this high stress state never really allows the athlete to fully experience Stage 3. Not only does this stunt growth or improvement, but it actually puts the athlete at a high risk for overtraining, which is shockingly common. Let’s also say that this person does not sleep very much either, given the hectic work schedule and emotionally stressful position. If an athlete is not sleeping very many hours or is unable to sleep consistently through the night then his/her ability to recover from workouts is dramatically reduced. Sleep is really where our bodies are allowed to regenerate and grow. Growth (or getting bigger, stronger, faster) can only occur when the body is given the proper environment to do so. I could go on and on about various examples that hamper an athlete’s ability to really maximize Stage 2. However, to keep this article from becoming too lengthy I’ll just list some for you. Here are just of few of the other things to consider when trying to maximize stage 2 and your attempt to ultimately get bigger, stronger, faster:
- Improve sleep quality and duration
- Avoid all processed foods and added sugar
- Normalize hormone levels to avoid catabolic (breakdown) environments
- Eat enough foods and a wide variety of them
- Ensure inflammation (external and internal) is minimized
- Supplement the body with key ingredients to ensure growth is maximized
- Utilize stress-management techniques
- Avoid prescription medications if possible (consult your doctor first!)
- Maximize physical recovery through self-practices and/or soft tissue therapy
- Normalize functional movements to ensure training is not providing excess stress
- Listen to your body! Know when rest is the proper answer for the day
- Track resting heart rate or HRV to avoid overtraining
- Include recovery practices WITHIN your training plan as if it’s part of your training
The reason that these, and others, are so crucial is that if not addressed they not only don’t allow Stage 3 to happen effectively, but they also begin to really limit how effective Stage 1 can be. We all know that you must train hard in order to get better. However, if not done properly the harder you train, the worse the potential injury! Train smarter, not harder. You’ll be surprised how big, strong, and fast you can become if you really pay attention to the ‘other stuff’.
Inflammation is the root of all evil. In fact, we know that it’s a part of every disease process known to man. The tricky thing is that it can be caused by many different things within the body and if it is present it dramatically hinders the body’s ability to perform properly and recover efficiently. Inflammation can come from overuse, trauma, gut dysfunctions, food sensitivities, improper eating patterns, hormone dysfunction, and many other things. The trick is to figure out if there is inflammation
present, what various things are causing it, and what strategies are needed to eliminate it.
Unfortunately, most people only think of inflammation in situations where they can see visible swelling. A sprained ankle, for instance, creates obvious swelling and the damage is apparent. If the ankle were to stay swollen for many months it would make you concerned and wonder why it wasn’t healing. You would probably then take appropriate steps to seek medical advice in order to determine why the swelling remains and what to do to eliminate it. However, inflammation can be present in your body and causing damage without any obvious signs. This can be the worst kind because it goes for months, sometimes years, undetected and causes continual irritation and destruction. One of the most common causes of systemic inflammation is gut dysbiosis. This is basically just a dysfunction or imbalance of the gut environment. There are many things that can cause this, but all of them cause gut irritation and increased levels of inflammation. Some common things that cause gut inflammation are chronic medication use, food sensitivities, chronic constipation, viruses, excessive bacterial growth, infections, inefficient enzyme production, alterations in acid production, as well as many others. What’s concerning about this list is that many of these are very common. Most people don’t consider GI symptoms like bloating, constipation, diarrhea, etc., to be anything serious. The reality is that these symptoms are telling you that something is wrong! And if these are causing inflammation then your ability to recover from workouts and the stressors of life is drastically reduced.
Another common situation that we see in our office is the dysfunction of the adrenal gland. The adrenal gland is responsibly for many hormones, but most notoriously for cortisol, known as our ‘stress’ hormone. When cortisol is dysfunctional it can not only promote inflammation, but it can also cause problems with sex hormone function and your body’s ability to regulate blood sugar effectively. These things can further lead to promotion of inflammation. Since our collective stress levels have never been higher in the history of mankind, this is an important area to normalize in the body. Especially for athletes, whose use of cortisol is increased due to the stress of training on the body. Training, by nature, creates inflammation on its own, so it is important to know if your ability to handle and recover from that stress is diminished. In summary, we all know that inflammation is a problem when it is allowed to continue excessively in our bodies. What we need to realize is that there are many things that can cause inflammation that don’t signal us to a problem as clearly as a sprained ankle. Uncovering and eliminating other more subtle areas of inflammation allows your body to recover faster and more efficiently. After all, recover is simply the name of the game! Improve recovery ability and you can train harder and longer!