Recovery: The secret to great performance

Written by BITE Contributor Dr. Jay Rook

BITE coach Catharine Adams recently authored a post in our social group exposing her struggles with burnout. It’s something that affects us all — no matter how positive you are, or how much you love something or something, there is ultimately a time where it is just too much. When you reach that point, one of two things happens. Either the proverbial bough breaks, or you recognize the situation and are able to regroup, reframe, restore and rebalance.

The concept of balance is a beloved one in both my day-to-day life and my medical practice. I love that BITE Nutrition is anchored and rooted in “B”alance. Balance and recovery are two of the most fundamental parameters in athletic performance. But unless you are a professional athlete, they are probably the most overlooked, underappreciated and poorly applied concepts in the fitness world.

In a friendly match leading up to a World Cup Qualifier (can someone say “real football”?) pitting Venezuela against the US Men’s National Team in Utah, the US coach explained that the match was part of a greater scheme to help the team acclimate to higher elevation. Their qualifying match against Mexico was to be played at 8000 feet above sea level in less than a week. He also mentioned that the training staff incorporated very specific nutrition, hydration, sleep and recovery protocols to optimize the players’ fitness and endurance. At a professional level, recovery has become an increasingly important concept as coaches realize that in its absence, even the best nutrition and fitness regimens will fail (at best) or become seriously harmful.

However, most of us are not professional athletes, and I see an increasing number of older athletes who fear that missing that PR, being fatigued, feeling soreness or being too tired to “hit it” means he/she is getting old (gasp!) or losing the edge. 40 is the new 20, and we see that fear of growing old in the current athletic trends (think Crossfit, Spartan, and bootcamps as compared to jogging, racquetball and jazzercise in the 80s).

Overtraining is a real and very common phenomenon. Without proper rest and recovery, the hard work you are putting in won’t get you results and might do you harm. How do you know you’re overtrained? See if any of these symptoms fit the bill:

  • Declines in endurance or performance
  • Ankle, knee and back injuries (due to muscle imbalance)
  • Increased resting heart rate
  • Decreased fat burning
  • Carbohydrate intolerance with subsequent storage as fat
  • Increased appetite and craving sweets
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Irritability
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Hormone imbalances
  • Withdrawal from activity, competition, or other things you enjoy

Recovery is a complex strategy that involves nutrition (pre-, during and post-workout), hydration, sleep (quantity and quality), and most importantly, time away from the activity to restore balance between your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and allow proper healing and adaptation. A Nutritional Behaviorist friend of mine said it well:

“Overtraining is the stealthiest culprit of plateaus and minimal gains.”  Tweet This!

In the same way that changes to body composition require modifications to nutrition to manipulate our metabolism, maintaining and improving athletic performance requires interval changes. This ensures that we remain healthy and optimize our training.

Heart Rate Variability (HRV) Monitoring

A great tool to monitor recovery and general wellness is heart rate variability testing. There are a variety of different devices out currently – Elite HRV and ithlete use a smart phone app that connects to a chest strap or finger sensor and requires once-a-day testing. Devices like Whoop are worn all day long. These devices measure the variability between heartbeats to measure how recovered you are.

For most of us “weekend warrior” types, this can be a challenge because the HRV app may recommend a rest day when it’s the only day you can get in a long run or ride for the next week. Information is only as good as what you do with it, but the consequences of ignoring this valuable data are real. As I often tell patients (and myself), it will be difficult to reach your full potential if you’re not taking recovery seriously.

Whether or not you use this technology to monitor your training and recovery, understand that if you don’t have a team of trainers directing your training, nutrition and recovery (like a professional athlete), you need to be proactive with your own wellness. I find that participants in activities like Crossfit and bootcamp tend to be overly reliant on their trainers or the programming for their holistic well-being. The fact is that many of those trainers have difficulty understanding and applying recovery for themselves and their athletes. As Catharine wrote, it’s important to make yourself the priority and be sure to build in periods of rest and recovery. In the long run, your athletic endeavors and life in general will be much improved.

Dr. Jay Rook is the Integrative and Athlete Wellness physician with Heritage Life Fit/Heritage Victor Valley Medical Group in southern California. He provides nutrition and fitness oriented primary care to athletic-minded individuals aged 18-64. He also offers integrative, longevity and non surgical injury therapies as a sub-specialist with a focus on athlete performance and recovery. Read more

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