The Foundations of Recoverability
With the sky rocketing popularity of high intensity training across the board in our fitness and sports performance industries that’s predicated on the “more is better” mentality, more than ever, athletes and fitness consumers alike are hitting the proverbial brick wall with extremely poor levels of recovery, leaving them at risk for high levels of fatigue, increased incidences of injuries and generalized systemic burnouts.
While many critics of the high intensity training model will quickly discern training as the origin of the problem our industry is facing head on, there may be more to the overtraining story than just those few hours a week that people are spending in the gym. The more athletes I coach and the more world class coaches and experts that I’m around, the more I strongly believe that our industry doesn’t have an overtraining problem, but rather a complex and multi-factorial under-recovering problem.
As with anything in life, you can only fake the foundations on which you stand for so long until your training, performance and lifestyle come toppling down on top of you. So it would be absolutely negligent of me as a fitness and medical professional not to start this resource by ensuring the appreciation for building strong habit formation around a holistic physical lifestyle that integrates training, nutrition and lifestyle together in a three pronged approach to recoverability, regeneration and optimizing performance.
The graphic above creates the perfect depiction of the multi-factorial process of recoverability. Each of the three elements (training, nutrition and lifestyle) revolve around and are dependent on each other to enhance the overall recovery process across the board. While training seems to be the common scapegoat for training related injuries, systemic burnouts and the development of a dysfunctional relationships with health and physicality, both lifestyle and nutritional factors must also be addressed in order to potentiate the ability for one to optimize this process.
No matter how dialed in your training programming and execution is, and how structured your nutritional strategies are, each of these two factors become highly dependent on one’s lifestyle, specially as it pertains to the stress cycle. You cannot out train our out eat poor sleep habits and constant lifestyle stresses which place a heavy strain on the CNS for extended periods. To the same point, it’s extremely difficult to maximize fat-loss, muscle gain or performance metrics without adhering to an objective and structured plan to fuel according to your specific goals and needs. If nutrition continues to be your Achilles heel, I highly recommend Precision Nutrition‘s resources for further habitual upgrades to your lifestyle and eating habits.
When we take a step back and look at the potential for enhancing the recover process in order to maximize training intensity, frequency and volume in order to achieve a goal or enhance a physical metric, first things must be put first. And in this case, sleep, stress, hydration, nutrition and mental/emotional well being cannot be overlooked or understated. In order to maximize the immense benefit of implementing the performance recovery system into your daily and weekly training protocols, it’s imperative that you have an honest an objective intake of current foundations of stress, lifestyle and nutrition.
If you can first improve upon these non-negotiable factors of lifestyle and nutrition, The Performance Recovery System (a portion of my 2-Day Pain-Free Performance Training System) will prove to be the most effective active recovery protocols you’ll ever use, hands down.
The Hierarchy of Regeneration and Recoverability
Aside from the foundational factors or lifestyle stressors and nutritional practices, intelligently programmed training provides the next biggest bang for your buck in terms of optimizing recoverability. Simply put, if your training program drive you down into the ground beyond your ability to repair with volumes, intensities, frequencies or methodology that is a mismatch for you, your goals and your needs, that is a program is a recipe for long term disaster. Remember, your nutrition and lifestyle play a synergistic role in recovery, but hopefully those aspects of recoverability have been enhanced by the time training becomes the focus.
As it’s been famously stated, you can only get better from a straining stimulus that you can recover from. So before you go seeking additional sources costing you time, money, and energy to enhance the recovery process, take an inventory of your current training status, stimulation and systemization. Smart training that is programmed according to your body, not someone else’s, just may be the best recovery tool that no one is talking about, and should be focusing on.
When in doubt, avoid the mistake of making a mental positive correlation between how hard you worked and how much benefit you got from training. Again, it’s worth reiterating that more is not better in training and beyond. Better is better. And even better than that? Optimization is the goal.
Only when your lifestyle factors, nutrition and training reach requisite levels will you truly be able to take full advantage of additional tools to spark the recovery process. But as the performance recovery pyramid below shows, we must be highly selective in our recovery modalities of choice for a multitude of factors in order to reap the ultimate benefit of expediting the recovery process.
This pyramid creates a great visual of the order of importance of each of the factors that play a role in expediting (or delaying) the recovery process. Note that lifestyle, training, and nutrition make up a majority of the pyramid, while active and passive modalities are found at the top. Even deeper, passive modalities are located at the top of the pyramid, which represent the least important of all the factors centered around the recovery process, yet they are commonly the first types of strategies that people use in attempts to try and spark recovery and regeneration.
Many people are under the false impression that recovery is an inherently passive process, and can only be achieved through passive modalities. It’s no secret that our fitness industry is driven on the idea that supplements will provide a quick fix for any problem that you have, but it needs to be said that their efficacy is dependent on a solidified foundation of the pyramid below, and make up only 4-5% of all nutritional benefits as well. Whether it’s building muscle, burning fat, or optimizing recovery, it’s extremely short sighted to think that supplementation is a cure all for many of the problems and plateaus we face as athletes. They are not, especially if other red flag factors have presented below in the pyramid.
While supplements are nothing new in our industry, in the last decade, there’s been a surprising rise in the popularity of passive physical recovery modalities such as (but not limited to) float tanks, massage, soft tissue manipulation, chiropractic, muscle activation techniques, acupuncture, thermal agents, ice baths and a myriad of other expensive and highly theoretical agents that are geared towards alleviating pain, deactivating a strong sympathetic response to the neurological systems and improving overall recoverability. Not only will many of these passive modalities break the bank when they are utilized on a regular cycle or schedule (if they offer any benefits at all), but they also create a dependency model between the person and their perceived ability to recover.
Before you go spend your hard earned dollars on passive recovery agents such as supplements or therapy, and before you become dependent on a passive based modality to “get you feeling good” after hard training sessions, there’s a step that almost every person misses in this performance recovery pyramid. Yes, I’m talking about active self-sufficient modalities that are not only self directed, but they are absolutely free.
If you plan on unlocking longevity with your training career, you should truly not be willing to pay someone else to do work that you aren’t willing to do yourself. As physically active an autonomous human beings, there are simply just things that we need to be able to do ourselves, and self-maintenance and recovery is one of those things. Our goal is to be the keeper of the key which unlocks our abilities to manipulate the central nervous system to spark the recovery process on demand, not lay slave to another powder, pill or physio session. The power of recovery is literally in our own hands. It’s about time we actually use it.
Hitting the CNS Recovery Switch Post-Training
In order to tap into the potential benefits of active based recovery programming and systemization, we must first have an baseline appreciation for the two polarizing sides of the central nervous system, the parasympathetic and sympathetic systems, and their key roles in training, performance and recovery.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the key regulator of rest, recovery and regeneration. Common metrics associated with the PSN are lowered respiratory rate, heart rate, blood pressure and pupil dilation among many more, and an increased localized blood floor into systemic function of the gut and internal organs.
On the other side of the central nervous system spectrum we have the sympathetic response, which has become widely known as the “fight of flight” response where the body prepares to perform against threat or challenge. The physiological response during a sympathetically driven threat is polar opposite of the PNS, where the respiratory rate, heart rate, blood pressure all increase, while the pupils dilate and blood flow is syphoned to the active locomotive muscular structures to aid in movement efficiency.
While chronically high sympathetic nervous system activity has been closely correlated with increased fatigue, injury and burn out rates, it’s important to understand that a sympathetic based neurological response via training is not the problem, and is actually necessary to perform at the highest level. Where we get into trouble is continuously riding this sympathetic drive on red for hours, days, weeks or months at a time without the inability to downshift the CNS’s response back towards the parasympathetic side of the spectrum that’s commonly associated with rest, recovery and regeneration. Just as an engine in a car will eventually cease under such high intensity performances, so too will our body. Lets avoid burnout before it happens, shall we?
Our goal in the performance recovery system is to be the key regulator of your central nervous system so you can manipulate it’s response on will to perform at the highest levels while also recovering between competition and training bouts at record rates.
I like to think of this as riding the sympathetic wave to it’s peak, which should be maximal effort or exertion in the big performance lift of a day, then strategically down regulating the sympathetic nervous system with more of a parasympathetic emphasis so we can use that huge sympathetic response to make gains (bigger, stronger, faster etc) as fast as possible by starting to recover from it. Simply put, we only want to be highly sympathetic when it’s advantageous for our physical and mental performances, and the way we reach record performance levels is by polarizing the CNS’s response in the other times of the day with a parasympathetic emphasis.
The Performance Recovery System
If your goal is to expedite the recovery process with a results based process that is not only effective but repeatable, then the 5-Step Performance Recovery System is your ticket to success. Here are the 5 steps that create the synergistic recovery system:
- Global Soft Tissue & Self Myofascial Release Techniques
- Extended Bi-Phasic Positional Stretching
- Flow Based Mobility Sequence
- Low Intensity-Impact Steady State Energy Systems Development
- Positional Parasympathetic Breathing
Over the course of the next few sections, I’ll detail the use of each of these modalities including video tutorials, programming recommendations and executional performance keys to success. Here’s how to utilize each step in this recovery process and start recovering as strategically as you’re training to reap maximal results based benefit in the gym and beyond.
Step 1 – Global Soft Tissue & SMR Techniques
There’s an obvious time and place to utilize an acute focus with your SMR work in order to yield a more objective and transferable mobility or functional movement based response, but tapping into systemic regeneration during active recovery protocols isn’t one of those times.
I’ve written countless articles on the topic of how to intelligently program stealth and strategic SMR techniques into a general pre-training preparation routine like the 6-Phase Dynamic Warm Up Sequence, but lets be clear that this is a totally separate way in which to utilize the roller, or any other soft tissue directed tool for that matter.
Instead of precisely locating and treating neuromuscular trigger points in soft tissues to normalize the tone (via increased acute spontaneous electrical activity) of these regions with small and targeted oscillatory perturbations, we are going to course the entire tissue of some of the biggest muscles in the body and go after the “pizza dough roller” effect. Using larger passes anywhere from 6-12 inches at a time (or relative foam roller movement on the floor) you’ll be able to cover more area, and eventually come into contact with all major aspects of each superficial region you’ll be targeting.
I never thought I’d see the day where I was preaching rolling up and down on the quads and lats with reckless abandon, but after seeing marked success in the expedition of recovery with my athletes and clients using this global SMR method, I guess hell does eventually freeze over. Lets review some key points on how to reap the most benefit out of this global SMR technique:
- First, it’s important to prioritize the largest tissues in the body, which will have the ability to give you the best bang for your systemic recovery buck. The quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, pectoralis group and lats are the five key areas each and every athlete will include in their recovery programming. Forget about majoring in the minor tissues, stick with the big boys here.
- Since we are programming these global SMR techniques in a portion of the training session, recovery session, or stand alone recovery training day itself that is predicated on recovery, it’s essential that you spend some serious time on each of these tissues. Since the big five mentioned above are the largest, broadest and thickest muscles in the body, more than a half assed 30 seconds is needed to fully cover the surface area of some of these heavy hitters. Spend 2-3 minutes on each tissue, coursing from the most distal aspect of the muscle to the most proximal over that time period. Hell, spend as much time as you need, as there is no overdoing this aspect of recovery.
- As you’ll be spending some serious time down on the floor, ensure that the rest of your body remains in a relaxed state, and you are incorporating deep breathing techniques (covered in depth in step 5 of this recovery system) into your practice. Some of the most efficient ways to maximize recovery is by synergizing mechanics and systemic mechanisms together in a simple yet effective model.
This is the time and place to extend your soft tissue practice in terms of both depth and duration. Use as much time as you have available here and focus on coursing the big superficial muscles and allowing lymphatic fluid to move back up into central circulation for excretion from the body while also trying to actively contract some of the key muscles to place pressure down over the venous system, which again comes in direct contact with many of these superficial movers.
Feel it out, and remember, recovery and parasympathetic response is the goal, so make sure you aren’t putting yourself into worlds of pain on the roller, as pain is one of the most sympathetic responses known to man. If an elicited pain response is strong enough to stimulate a threat into the system, aka a sympathetic response, you negated any benefits from this modality in the performance recovery system, so ensure that you are strategic with your soft tissue skills, while modulating your system’s excitability with the most effective tool we have available to us, our breathe tempo and rhythm. With any parasympathetic directed technique, slow, controlled deep breathing strategies should be incorporated.
Key Action Steps:
- Target big superficial musculature
- Spend 2-3 minutes on each muscle
- Use global techniques with 6-12 inches of motion on roller
- Utilize parasympathetic breathing throughout
Step 2 – Extended Bi-Phasic Positional Stretching
Stretching used to be the most notoriously devalued technique in all of strength and conditioning. But thankfully coaches and athletes are getting smarter (again), making stretching a reemerging factor bring brought back into programming strategies and methods for some of the top athletes in the work because of one reason only; it simply works.
The re-popularization of this age-old recovery method begs the question, are coaches and athletes just riding a cyclic band wagon on stretching, or have there been some marked improvements to a pretty straight forward technique? Both, but the innovation is more captivating.
Simply put, people have been stretching “tight” muscles with the wrong intention, and seeing some pretty notable benefit not from the mobility and flexibility enhancement, but rather the regenerative mechanisms that take place by putting soft-tissues and joints through full ranges of motions strategically. Realizing that the incorporation of stretching into active recovery days to boost tissue regeneration is the first step, but the second step is actually improving the system of “stretching” for recovery.
A staple recovery based stretching protocol that I program for my athletes that’s referred to as bi-phasic stretching. By utilizing both active dynamic oscillatory stretching with active static stretching in synergy together, you have the ability to expedite the recovery process which is largely dependent on lymphatic drainage and the clearance of byproducts and wastes from contractile tissue back into central circulation, similar to the mechanical and systemic properties of global foam rolling techniques covered above. But as anyone who has used this method will attest, the term “stretching” is truly relative to the execution at hand.
Here’s how Bi-Phasic Stretching works:
- Choosing a position to achieve an end range stretch of a targeted tissue, you will start the protocol off by oscillating in and out of end range for 30-60 seconds. These are small and strategic back and forth motions to extend the neural tone and resistance of the tissues being stretched to achieve a more authentic and extended end range.
- Without taking stretch off the system after the oscillation period has ended, you’ll hold an end range static stretch for 60-120 seconds, using the range you opened up with the dynamics.
Placing a priority on the anterior chain musculature that are susceptible to chronic posturally oriented tightness such as the pectoralis group and hip flexors, among many more, will produce the best results long term, but note that this technique can be used for all regions and muscle groups. As the goal of bi-phasic stretching is to actively mobilize the tissues and regions in a pain-free manner that sparks parasympathetic recovery, we must ensure that authentic range of motion, postural control and internal tension is placed through the chain to avoid force leaks, compensation patterns and unwanted movements during the stretching process.
More than anything, this type of stretching technique doubles down as isometric and low amplitude dynamic stability work of the entire body syncing up as an integrated unit tied together by internal spiral tension, torque and control. That’s why this type of stretching has such an amazing dynamic transference into foundational and compound movement patterning when utilized in the dynamic warm up sequence and beyond. As data is collected through micro movements and positional motor skills are enhanced, it becomes easier to transfer the stability from these new and novel position into more gross global movements.
Since many of these bi-phasic stretching positions are postural oriented and dependent on pillar (shoulders, hips and core integrating together as a functional unit) control, we must utilize minimum viable internal tension levels to stay in control of authentic positions while also being able to move smoothly and sequentially through the oscillations on the targeted region. Positional mastery can also be seen at the highest levels by maintaining controlled parasympathetic respiration in novel positions where a stretch is on targeted tissues. Where breathing is altered, positional mastery and control has not yet been met. And where breathing is altered, we are also at an increased risk of sparking up the sympathetic response, again negating any gains from this step in the performance recovery system.
Key Action Steps:
- Target large superficial muscles
- Incorporate extended oscillations and end range holds
- Maintain postural integrity and control
- Utilize parasympathetic breathing strategies
Step 3 – Flow Based Mobility Sequence
It should be noted that active recovery protocols and the performance recovery program system system should start with global SMR and smoothly transition to bi-phasic stretching through the major prime muscular movers in the body. These two modalities go hand in hand, as they create a synergy that is stronger than either of these modalities being used as stand alone techniques.
But remember, both SMR work and stretching are more largely passive in nature with not a whole lot of motor control enhancement or functional carryover, due to the goal of attempting to quickly blunt the truth sympathetic response to training. This leaves us with the necessity to piggy pack on top of the roller and stretches in an active way to remediate movement patterns and further enhance the neural inter and intra muscular coordination of the components in the kinetic chain.
If you’re like many of the athletes I work with, the last thing that you want to do after a training session or on an off day from the strength training is mentally check out and go through your corrective exercises and mobility drills from the last week’s programming. This has led me to gravitate my mobility based active recovery programming to larger catch all movements and programming them in a “flow” type fashion, largely from the influence of my fellow coaches and colleagues Max Shank and Clifton Harski, who serves as a master instructor for Animal Flow.
Catch-all flow based movements are exercises and patterns that target multiple areas of the body in one sequence, placing an emphasis on full body motor control recruitment as opposed to a more specific or targeted drill such as glute or lat activation for example. These catch-all movements also have the ability to be improved with locomotion and flowing through multiple reps of the same drill in alternating fashion. The best flow based patterns allow each joint and region of the body to express a full range of motion spiraling through smooth and articulate movements in order to unlock the inherent potential of the human body to sit ideally on the mobility-stability continuum. Devote 5-10 minutes of constant movement to this block.
The art and functionality of the flow based movement session fits perfectly into my idea of prioritizing what is important for active recovery protocols, training sessions and training days. Not only are we hard wiring functional movement capacity, but we are elevating the heart rate slightly and stimulating the active muscle pump of the body to aid in recovery, as well.
If you haven’t bought into the flow sequences quite yet, and are more analytical and results based oriented with your programming, there is another option for this step in the performance recovery system protocol.
Choosing 3-4 catch-all movements using 8-10 reps per side and cycling through this “circuit” a few times that targets your weakest functional areas and rolling through a continuous progression of reps and sets for 5-10 minutes beats the hell out of just another boring corrective exercise, and also provides a low level cardiovascular benefit. Keep these fresh, as catch all movements were meant to stimulate neural learning in new positions and stabilization patterns. Novelty is king when re-educating your movement patterns, keep that in mind when you want to mentally check out of your next training session.
It should be reiterated that during each step in the performance recovery system, we must place a key emphasis on avoiding elevation of any of the key vital metrics in a sympathetic based response. This includes flow based mobility sequencing as well. Neuromuscular expert Dr. Chad Waterbury recommends that throughout the active recovery training process, the heart rate must stay within a true recovery zone, and never spike in order to maintain and optimize recoverability. As we’ll touch upon in the end energy systems development section, each individual should have a customized recovery zone heart rate that can be easily calculated using Maffetone’s formula (180-age).
Though each athlete and client will have individual zones and needs based on obvious differentiation in cardiovascular abilities, body types, skill sets and a host of endless variables, we can simply ensure that relative fatigue in the system down by passing a “talking test” throughout any steps in this process. If you can talk freely without huffing, puffing or staggering your words, you’e passed. Keep this in mind as you get the urge to make your recovery a competition.
Key Action Steps:
- Goal of moving as many joints through full range of motion as possible
- Spend 5-10 minutes in constant movement
- Focus on slow, deliberate controlled movements
- When in doubt, use your corrective exercises on repeat
Step 3X – Neurological Re-Charge Training
You may be wondering why the next step in the recovery protocol has a “3X” in front of it. Simply put, this is the ONLY step in the sequence that is optional according to when you are utilizing this system in your training for the enhancement of recovery. As we’ll review below, there are three major ways to benefit from this system in terms of ideal times to program for maximal benefits, but if you are choosing to program a “cool down” recovery strategy directly post-training, you can skip this step and move straight into Step 4, which focuses on energy systems development. But for secondary recovery workouts and off day recovery based programming, this step will be an absolute staple.
Before you discount this step, you must know that neurological re-charge training is maybe the single most powerful mechanism to spark neurological recovery of the CNS and beyond via a strategic active training protocol. The original Neural Charge Training was pioneered by my friend and brilliant performance coach Christian Thibaudeau nearly 10 years ago, but just recently has it become a staple step instead my performance recovery system protocol. Since utilizing it regularly with myself and my athletes, secondary active recovery and off day training has never been more effective, period.
While there are many in depth resources on the topic of stimulating neurological recovery via active agents (many written and by Chris) the basis of the method is centered around the utilization of explosive and excitatory training methods to replenish neurotransmitter balance that are usually decreased via hard, heavy and intense training bouts.
Through the utilization of explosive barbell lifts, medicine ball throws, tosses and slams, plyometrics, jumps and literally an endless possibilities of tools and training exercises, the central nervous system can literally re-charge itself back to optimal levels in order to become better prepared for a future training bout or competition.
When in doubt for exercise selection using this method, place a focus on concentric only or concentric emphasized movement training methods that limit mechanical fatigue of tissues due to the lack of an eccentric lengthening phase, but also are able to tap into higher threshold motor unit coupling for the most benefit possible. But the biggest struggle with this method is that it’s almost TOO effective, which may be the reason why this amazing technique has not yet become mainstreamed.
In our Western society, the notion of “if some is great, more is better” also creeps into the fitness and sports performance spaces. But a key tenet of effective explosive based recovery drills is a low total training volume needs to be utilized in order to re-charge the neuromuscular and central nervous systems without adding to any further fatigue.
Keeping training volumes low here regulated by total rep counts between 25-50 highly focused explosive reps with full rest between bouts and a total time of training in this block under 20 minutes will ensure that we actually spark recovery, not pigeon hole it. It’s also pivotal that vital metrics are not spiked here, as you’ll be at the greatest risk to leave the recovery zone due to the explosive compound nature of these movements. This is the reason that I recommend COT methods that are programmed for single repetitions with maximal rest between bouts so stress and fatigue does not accumulate over the course of this recovery step in the system.
Mental imagery and focus can also play a key role in the ability for an athlete to remain in the recovery zone during even explosive bouts that take full advantage of the force equation to recalibrate the central nervous systems’s neurotransmitter balance. That means a relaxed mental rehearsal of explosive based movements and an instant downshift after each rep is necessary to yield maximal benefit from this technique. While training on the nerve has been shown to increase excitability in the nervous system to over perform in power, strength and even endurance competition we must again fight the urge to become sympathetic.
Remember, when the goal is recovery, more is not better, better is better. And that comes with pristinely dialed in prescriptions that are in line with the overall goal of expediting the recovery process in order to be able to train harder, longer and heavier in the days to come.
Key Action Steps:
- Explosive concentric only (or emphasized) movements
- Low total volume of work under 50 reps and 20 minutes duration
- Full recovery between training sets
- Extremely high focus on intensity and execution
Step 4 – LIISS Energy Systems Development
High level athletes and lifters scoff at the idea of doing any form of steady state cardiovascular training, let alone the lowest level activities such as walking, biking and counting down the seconds on pretty much every other type of exercise machine on the cardio deck.
It’s true that cardio isn’t sexy, and doesn’t directly make you sexy. I get that. But from a regeneration and recovery perspective, low-level steady state cardio can minimize joint stress, improving daily activity levels on a day away from the gym, and still tapping into your cardiorespiratory system to aid in central systemic based recovery. The low hanging fruit should never be overlooked, especially when ones ability to recover becomes the determining factor for overall results.
There are a multitude of benefits from treating your active recovery programming as ways to hit the light switch on your central nervous system to start recovering right away. Nutrition can also play a key role in recovery here as well. While there are many different options in terms of post-workout nutrition, utilizing well timed carbohydrates and easily digestible protein sources during more extended LIISS bouts will aid to spark the recovery process and fuel the next day’s training. This is a technique that I’ve been using with my athletes for years with great success.
By placing this active recovery day into the post-workout window or the otherwise “off” days from training, we have the ability to burn more calories on an otherwise sedentary day, but also doing so with very low central nervous system or mechanical fatigue to the body. But that being said, to ensure that this active recovery day doesn’t place highly tuned athletes into a caloric hole for the day, and maybe even the week. It doesn’t seem like much, but placing an additional 30-90 minutes of LIISS energy systems development will most likely necessitate an increase in calories over the course of the week.
This is especially important if you choose to extend the aerobic based energy systems training for more than 30-45 minutes, as many of us do on off days. The last thing we want to do during a strategically programmed active recovery day is to cause fatigue, and the proper nutrition and variations of aerobic work will keep this from happening.
More than just enhancing cardiovascular and cardiorespiratory health, low intensity steady state cardio has the ability to strengthen and solidify a base of cardio function that every athlete depends on in order to enhance the recovery process not between training days, but also between repeat training bouts in a single session. When the foundations are set on the CV base, the advantages of continuing a locomotive practice which incorporates reciprocal patterning of the lower and upper extremities working in unison together around a dynamically stable core unit are clear.
The work of Dr. Stuart McGill has shown the power of walking on mitigating lower back pain and symptomology in as little as 10 minutes a day. This has become a main driver in our recommendations that our athletes walk 10 minutes a day as a non-negotiable way to spark recovery, protect against lower back pain and enhance cardiovascular function. No, it’s not sexy, but it’s effective, and one of the only “non-negotiable” that actually will continue to stand the test of time in our industry.
Aside from base walking, my go to activities to elicit a heart rate in the recovery or zone 1 range (customized to the athlete or individual via the Maffetone’s formula 180-age referenced above) of 100-125 bmp are hiking, biking, and even the dreaded elliptical. The goal here is to keep joint stress to a minimum, burn a few calories, fuel up, and prepare for the workout ahead. Turn your switch down to low, and just know, the more strategic you with your recovery efforts, the better you can let it rip in your training in the days to come.
Key Action Steps:
- Prioritize low impact methods such as walking
- Stay in a recovery or zone 1 heart rate under approximately 120 bpm
- Make part of non-negotiable daily routine to get 10+ minutes of walking in
Step 5 – Parasympathetic Positional Breathing Strategies
Optimizing training, no matter if your goal is to get as big as possible, as strong as possible, or just to have a more high performing physique, is all about monitoring your training loads and ensuring proper recovery between sessions. But many times, our focus lies solely on training, forgetting about the all-important process of recovery in order to actually regenerate from the training stress itself.
So how to we recover quicker to train harder and train at higher frequencies? Sure, nutrition, hydration, and stress all play an obvious role, but what about the time it takes us to shift from a sympathetic based CNS response in training to a parasympathetic based response that allows the recovery process to start doing it’s work?
That intermediary period between your last set and the time where your CNS comes down off the sympathetic bender it’s currently been on for hours in the gym needs to be minimized. And one of the most effective methods to do that is by implementing recovery breathing as the last “exercise” in the sequence of the day before you ever leave the gym.
And for those of you who do not have an extra 5-15 minutes to devote to this entire system, I’d highly recommend that parasympathetic positional breathing be your modality of choice to quickly reduce the sympathetic drive that is riding high after training as evidence has shown that in as little as 13 minutes of mindful breathing drastically improves recoverability via the parasympathetic response.
If you find yourself jacked up for hours after training followed by a huge crash, this recovery breathing strategy is going to be a game-changer for your ability to recovery along with living a more normal existence away from the gym that doesn’t involve the continual shakes.
And in the worlds of legendary powerlifter Dave Tate of EliteFTS, “post-training parasympathetic breathing is literally the most effective method I’ve ever used to instantly aid in recovery. Better than any supplement or recovery tool on the market and it’s FREE.”
What happens to people, especially those who train in the mornings is that they spark a sympathetic response in their training, and never come back down from it. They stay highly heightened all day until their system finally fails and they crash hard. While this can be limiting to recovery, it can also be a huge limiting factor to strength, muscle, and performance plateaus as well from the glass ceiling this neurological and systemic state places your body into routinely.
In a matter of 3-5 minutes after training in this last block, we can avoid punching the gas on your CNS for hours after your training session has ended. Sure, you’ll initially feel like a bit fluffy at first lying on the ground alone with your thoughts with your eyes closed while others pound away at the iron. But when you turn around in record time with higher energy and more dynamic capabilities under the bar, you’ll quickly see that 3 minutes is some of the best time you’ll ever invest in the gym.
I picked up the positional recovery breathing from legendary strength and conditioning coach Buddy Morris years ago, who has championed this simple yet highly effective technique throughout the NFL and other high performance sports. Want a buy in? If it’s good enough for pro athletes who make a living based on the performance of their bodies, it’s probably good enough for you. Here’s the basics of how to simply execute recovery based breathing without having to check yourself into a meditation or yoga class.
The foundation of the sympathetic recovery breathing technique has a large focus on the position and setup. We want to position your body to make it as easy as possible for a few key things to happen to help spark recovery in multiple facets of physiology.
First, we need passive positioning of the arms and legs to ensure proper centralized drainage of lymphatic fluid. Second, we need to ensure that the spine remains in a relatively neutral position to reduce the threat response to the body. And lastly, we want to make these positions as comfortable as possible, again all for the goal of reversing the CNS response from training.
Here’s exactly how I setup my athletes for recovery breathing after each and every training session to spark the recovery process before they ever leave my watch:
- Lay on your back with the head resting on the ground.
- Elevate the legs to above heart level with knees slightly bent.
- Elevate the arms up overhead.
- Close eyes and relax the body reducing any tension of stress.
*A quiet area of the gym away from music or noise is preferable
From this position, you should be able to relax every single muscle in your body to allow a fully passive response to take place. From here, we will focus in on only one single movement, that of your breath.
Start off by using this set parasympathetic breath rhythm and tempo:
- Inhale 3-4 seconds
- Hold at Top 2-3 seconds
- Exhale 6-8 seconds
- Hold at Bottom 2 seconds
The main focus with the tempo of the breath is about slowly inhaling and exhaling under control. Since most athletes and lifters have trouble slowing down, especially while in the presence of the iron, using specific tempos can be very useful when initially adopting this recovery breathing strategy.
Inhale for 3-4 seconds fully, hold for a few seconds at the top of the breath, and then really focus on extending the exhalation to around 8 seconds. We want this tempo to be slow and controlled, but also habitual to the point of being passive. The last thing we want to do during recovery breathing is to stress about exact numbers of the breath counts, so you have an excuse to chill and zone out a bit on this one.
The time of recovery breathing is about turning off the sympathetic switch before we leave the gym, so techniques such as positive mental imagery can absolutely be synergized together out of this position to really get the most out of these few minutes. Set your iPhone timer for your prescribed duration in order to avoid checking the clock, and just enjoy your time on the floor in celebration of the ball busting work you just put into the weights.
How do you know it’s working? You should feel an instant calming sensation throughout your body after you are done with a round of this. If you’re struggling to get a positive response, revert back to the corrective exercise based Crocodile Breathing, and refine your skills. And if that doesn’t work, use your training buddy as your personal psychologist and work out your issues that way. For more in depth assessment, testing and corrective systemization of breathing, I highly recommend THIS resource from coach Brett Jones of the Functional Movement Systems.
Key Action Steps:
- Position the body for success on back or stomach
- Focus on slow and deliberate tempo of breathe
- Prioritize a calm and quiet environment
When To Utilize The Performance Recovery System
Unlike power, strength and hypertrophy training, recovery based training protocols cannot be over trained. For a majority of athletes, the more dialed in active based recovery that takes place, the better. But since the effectiveness of the performance recovery system depends on consistently investing focused time and energy into your daily routines, we must define the most optimal times to use this system in order to maximize recoverability while minimizing time invested in the actual process itself.
There are three main ways to effectively and efficiently program the performance recovery system to yield maximal results in recoverability:
- Post-Workout Window
- Secondary Daily Recovery Training Sessions
- “Off Day” Active Recovery Training
Over the years, implementing this system into the post-workout window has shown to not only have the greatest carry over to blunt the sympathetic response of training in record time, but also the best adherence due to programming theses strategies under the eye of a coach, trainer or rehab pro.
After the last set of the day, simply devote 5-30 minutes (depending on the time available) to programming parasympathetic directed modalities in strategic order of the 5-Step Performance Recovery System. If you only have a few minutes to invest into parasympathetic recovery, breathing should be prioritized above all other modalities due to the quickest centralized benefits. For our athletes, positional parasympathetic breathing has become a non-negotiable due to the sheer effectiveness of this protocol.
The second way to program the performance recovery system sequence is to implement secondary daily recovery sessions. If your athletes or clients are training in the morning, place an active recovery based protocol into their daily routine during mid-day or at night. Ensure that this sequence is programmed at least 4-6 hours after the primary training has ended. If your athletes are training in the afternoon, this protocol is extremely effective to use as a pre-bedtime routine in order to bring down the CNS response to double up on recovery via these active modalities plus better quality sleep cycles.
Finally, there should truly be no off days when an athlete or client has a goal in mind. Whether the goal is fat-loss, hypertrophy, sports performance or general fitness, enhancing these physical metrics are dependent on optimizing recovery. That means that at a bare minimum, athletes should be utilizing this performance recovery system once during their off days with 10+ minutes of low impact-intensity steady state cardio placed into the 4thenergy systems development step. For those who have more time or want to draw out their ESD a bit, up to 45 minutes of recovery zone or zone 1 heart rate work can still aid in sparking the recovery process.
If you are like me and want to derive as much data as physically possible on yourself and your athletes to ensure that you’re seeing notable and objective benefits from the performance recovery system, I highly recommend Joel Jamieson‘s heart rate variability systems, BioForce HRV and his latest project, Morpheus, both of which I’ve personally used with a great deal of success.
How To Start Using The System Right Away
Below is an example of a generalized 5-Step Performance Recovery System protocol that can be manipulated to fit any of the three major recommended ways to maximize recoverability:
- Foam Roll – Quads / Glutes / Hamstrings / Pecs / Lats – 1 minutes each
- Bi-Phasic Stretching – Quads / Glutes / Hamstrings / Pecs / Lats – 1 minute each
- Full Body Corrective Flow – Reciprocating World’s Greatest Stretch – 5 minutes
- LIISS ESD – Incline Treadmill Walking – 1o minutes
- Recovery Breathing – 90-90 Supine Positional Parasympathetic Breathing – 5 minutes
Again, it’s important to appreciate the power of the system is the blueprint which allows athletes and coaches to customize, as a results based “one size fits all” program very rarely exists. Using this system as a means to regulate the CNS response to training while also aiding in the overall recovery process will be a game changer for your athletes. But I highly recommend that you use techniques within the system itself that you are both familiar and highly successful with from past experience.
Implement this system by starting slow, and building time and emphasis little by little over the course of a training block. But from my professional experience over the last decade using these parasympathetic modalities to spark recovery, once you get a taste of the results, aka you’re able to train harder, more frequently and at higher intensities, the buy in factor to using this system literally on a daily basis will be strong. Here’s to smarter and more strategic recovery for more effective training.
About The Author
Dr. John Rusin is an internationally recognized coach, physical therapist, speaker, and sports performance expert. Dr. John has coached some of the world’s most elite athletes, including multiple Gold Medalist Olympians, NFL All-Pros, MLB All-Stars, Professional Bodybuilders, World-Record Holding Powerlifters, National Level Olympic Lifters and All-World IronMan Triathletes.
Dr. Rusin is the leading pioneer in the fitness and sports performance industries in intelligent pain-free performance programming that achieves world class results while preventing injuries in the process. Dr. John’s methods are showcased in his 12-Week FHT Program that combines the best from athletic performance training, powerlifting, bodybuilding and preventative therapy to produce world-class results without pain and injuries.