You know about the importance of rest days, but did you know that you should be recovering from your workouts every single day? An expert explains how it’s done…
Until recently, the conversations around exercise were led by a ‘go hard or go home’ mentality, with the belief that it takes thrashing your body in order to see results. Thankfully, the importance of recovery has made it to the mainstream recently – perhaps due to the increase in lockdown injuries or a general interest in self-care.
Whatever the reason for more of us wanting to look after our bodies, it can only be a good thing. Learning how many rest days to take and how to spend your days off working out means you can maximise your training while reducing your stress, a win-win.
One woman who understands the importance of that is Team Great Britain Olympic weight lifter, Sarah Davies. She weight trains five days a week, completing three and a half hour sessions, so her recovery days are vital to her.
“I have one active recovery day, where I still go into the gym but work on my physio and accessory work – basically doing all of the smaller exercises that I find are really boring to do but keep my body working,” she says. “Sunday is a complete rest day, when I don’t do much other than go on a walk – I definitely don’t go in the gym.”
While these days off are non-negotiable, Sarah says it’s the recovery practices she does every single day that are the most important for her.
Foam roll and massage
Every day, Sarah puts aside 30 minutes to foam roll or use her Myomaster massage gun. “I work on my full body, starting at the top and working down to the bottom, but in weightlifting the key focus is on the lower body. The quads, hamstrings and glutes can get really tight due to how much we squat, and if you don’t keep on top of them, you tend to get a lot of knee pain. I spend a lot of time rolling or massaging those out,” she says.
Foam rollers and massage guns use precise pressure to release knots in the muscles in a similar way to massage but without the therapist, so they’re perfect to look after your muscles during lockdown.
When it comes to stretching, her go-tos are simple but effective moves to target those lower-body muscles. She shared her three favourites poses to stretch the glutes, quads and hips that she does after training or to unwind in the evening.
- Kneel on the floor in front of your sofa or a chair.
- Place your right foot on the floor so your knee is bent at a 90° angle.
- Place your left foot on the sofa, toes down, and try to keep your left knee on the floor.
- You should feel the stretch through the front of your left thigh. Play around with foot placement and angles to see what feels best for you.
- Repeat on the other side.
- From a high plank position, take your right knee to your right elbow and your right foot to your left hand.
- Place your legs down onto the floor.
- Lean forwards over your right leg to feel the stretch through your right glute and hip.
- Repeat on other side.
- Sit on the floor with your legs stretched out straight in front of you.
- Open your legs into a straddle position, as wide as is comfortable.
- Bend at the hips and bring your stomach towards the floor. Don’t collapse through the chest, instead keep your back straight as you lean forwards.
Nutrition is also a key focus for her to help rebuild, repair and grow the muscle tissue. “Getting enough protein is paramount because otherwise my body can’t repair the muscles. But I’m not strict – people expect me to eat like Arnold Schwarzenegger and have dozens of eggs and three whole chickens a day. I just eat homemade food, but am conscious of the quantities to make sure I eat enough.”
While post-workout nutrition is important, Sarah also touts pre-workout meals as part of her holistic approach to recovery. “If I train on an empty stomach I feel so lethargic, so it’s very important for me to time my food around my training and have some good energy in my body.”
She also doesn’t believe the hype around muscle-building gimicks, choosing instead to focus on “health supplements, such as vitamin D, fish oils and a multivitamin, just to make sure I’m getting everything that I need. I sometimes use a little bit of protein powder, just for convenience, and a little bit of creatine as well to help with recovery. But generally, I try and get everything I need from my food.”
Sleep and downtime
You can’t workout if you’re tired, and you certainly can’t recover properly without a good snooze. “The way I see it is in order to train like an athlete you need to recover like a baby,” Sarah says. “A baby spends a lot of time doing not very much and gets a lot of sleep because that’s what the body needs to recover and grow,” she says.
Despite what you might think, it’s not during the actual workout that the muscles get stronger. It is actually during sleep when the body repairs the tears from training that the body repairs the tears from training and the muscles gain strength.
Even if your sleep is down to a T, Sarah says it’s important to generally allow yourself downtime. “The average person who really wants to push themselves in a session probably also has a full-time job, maybe they’ve got kids, and there’s a lot of stress. It’s really important to set aside that time to actually allow your body to de-stress and recover, because if you just keep pushing yourself beyond your limits you’ll start to see injuries occur,” says Sarah.
Ultimately, taking time to stretch and sleep may not be the most exciting part of your training programme, but it could be the most important. “During a session, you’ll be sweating and your muscles will ache, so you’ll feel it working. But during recovery time you don’t necessarily get that immediate response from the body, which is why people think it’s OK to skip it,” agrees Sarah. “Without keeping on top of recovery every single day, you might not be able to nail your workouts.”
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Images: Pexels / Sarah Davies
Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).