Tempted to skip your exercise recovery plan after your workouts? We know it’s pretty common, especially if you’re in a rush to get to work or home to the kids after your workout. However, most experts agree that rest and recovery are critical for your physiological and psychological well-being and are a key puzzle piece to help you reach your fitness goals – whether it be in the gym, out on the road, on a field, or in the water.
So, what is exercise recovery all about, and why does your body need it to perform at its peak? To shed light on some of these key questions, we sat down with Performance and Rehab Specialist and Team Biokineticist for the Sharks Rugby Team, Jimmy Wright – who not only has more than 25 years of experience working in professional sports including rugby, swimming, surfing, soccer and athletics, but he’s also a passionate long-distance runner himself and certainly practices what he preaches in his daily life, having achieved personal best times (PB’s) in running across a variety of distances, including 15min for 5km, 32min for 10km and 72min for 21km. He also hits the gym three to four times a week.
Here's what Jimmy had to say about the importance of recovery…
The truth about exercise recovery
“As Nike co-founder and famous distance coach, Bill Bowerman said, ‘If you have a body, you’re an athlete’ and I agree with this statement. Yes, we’re all born with different abilities; some can run fast, some can endure, and some can throw or jump. The point is, your ability to move makes you an ‘athlete’, and as athletes, our bodies respond very similarly to training stimuli and therefore also everything that influences its recovery. Essentially, we all need ‘recovery’. The question is, what is it specifically that needs recovery?
Your body doesn’t know what you know. It’s just a very smart machine that has to get ‘human’ things done, and in some cases, some really tough things, often even just for survival. It recognises recovery opportunities and is magnificently geared to fixing itself, even to the point of upscaling its abilities for similar future efforts.
However, it’s important to note that recovery also looks vastly different for a rugby player compared to a cyclist, runner, wheelchair marathoner, swimmer or weightlifter. Nonetheless, we all need to help our bodies recover better after exercise and a little bit of knowledge and understanding will go a long way.”
So, exercise recovery is important then?
“Yes, recovery is super important! The fascinating thing about the human body or machine as I call it, is the fact that’s continually in a process of change and regularly upscales or downscales its chemistry, physiology, and anatomy, in order to accommodate the daily challenges you face.
The body doesn’t know gym, it only feels work, just as it doesn’t know rugby, it only feels the rigors of battle. The body doesn’t feel the joy of a personal best time (PB) in a marathon, it only feels the effort. So long as the activities don’t end up killing you, the good news is that your body will get better at handling those activities the next time you do them, essentially adapting, learning, and improving as it goes.
On the flip side, if someone who is typically active becomes really inactive, for whatever reason, their body will sort of ‘dial down’ its systems to the bare minimum needed for everyday survival. So, if you're spending a lot of time on the couch, it's not a healthy choice for your future well-being.
For your body to improve its chemistry, physiology, and structure, it needs a break from the activities that challenge it, like weightlifting, running, or cycling. The length of this break depends on which systems were worked hard.
For example, let's say you've been running for an hour and cycling for an hour. While the recovery process might look similar biochemically and physiologically, running for an hour is much tougher on your muscles and tendons because of the impact on your body from fighting gravity with every step.
The key point is, it doesn't matter which activity you choose; your body needs time to heal and adapt. How much time depends on what you do.
In a weightlifting session, it could take 36-60 hours for the body parts you trained to fully recover, depending on the specifics of your workout. But a dedicated long-distance runner who trains intensely and frequently might only need 2 high-intensity workouts in a week, with the rest of their sessions being lower intensity, and some of them can even involve activities like cycling or swimming instead of running.
This might help you better understand how strength and conditioning works, and how experts and coaches plan training for athletes.”
How does exercise recovery work?
“Before we look at what recovery is all about, it’s important to understand how the body perceives effort. The physical work that you do has both chemical and mechanical consequences for your body. During a specific effort, your body’s priorities, simply and firstly, will be survival; then secondary, to get the job done at the desired intensity, as efficiently as possible. All of this is regulated by your brain, in a conscious and subconscious way.
No matter which activity you do, or how much effort you put in (it could be your absolute best effort, several less intense efforts over a short period, or even a single, easy-paced effort spread out over hours), your body uses different energy systems and biochemical processes to get from A to B.
To move or do any physical activity, your muscles need energy. This energy comes from various biochemical reactions in your body. These reactions are like a chain – one action leads to another. So, for every action your muscles take, there are several more actions happening behind the scenes to provide the energy needed to get the job done.
Following an activity, your body does a ‘stock take’ of all stress that’s been applied during your effort and does what it needs to do to return it to its pre-stress state of equilibrium.
The stress your body undergoes as well as the environment you’re in when you’re active also affects how quickly and efficiently you can bounce back and recover.”
The first stage of exercise recovery
“Recovery is all about getting your body back to its normal state, and it involves both biochemical and mechanical processes. When you stop exercising, your body starts working on this. It tries to get your blood pressure, heart rate, and core temperature back to their usual levels as quickly as possible.
How fast this happens depends on how well-conditioned you are – athletes in good shape tend to recover a little faster. External factors like the weather conditions - and how much water you've lost through sweat also play a role in your body’s ability to recover well. So, the goal is to cool down your body to its normal temperature and get your hydration and body weight back to where they were before you started exercising (more on this later).”
The second stage of exercise recovery
“At this stage, your body is looking to restore depleted muscle and liver glycogen stores, which should be achieved by targeted and well-timed carbohydrate, protein and fat intake. In other words, you need to put back some of the key nutrients your body lost throughout the exercise session to support the recovery process.”
The third stage of exercise recovery
“After you've replenished your essential glycogen stores, your body starts addressing the physical strain on the specific body parts that got the most stress during your sport. This stress depends on the kind of sport you're into and involves factors like the force, how often you do it, and how long you do it.
- If you're a road runner, it's about how your tendons, muscles, and bones cope with the repetitive and long impacts of running.
- For a trail runner, it's similar, but you might also deal with more muscle damage from downhill running.
- A rugby player faces trauma from multiple collisions and high-intensity efforts.
- If you're a cyclist, it's mostly about muscle damage and the strain your body goes through while spending a long time in the saddle. Each sport has its unique demands, so your recovery plan needs to focus on what your body specifically goes through.”
The fourth stage of exercise recovery
“The fourth and final part of recovery is all about recharging your mind, and how much mental recovery you need in this stage is unique to you. The truth is that your ability to recover mentally can have a big impact on how your body bounces back, and this is also partly influenced by chemicals and hormones in your body.
So, this leads to the question of, ‘What do you personally need to recover?’ Before I suggest recovery strategies to athletes, I always ask them (and myself) this question. It helps us figure out where to focus our efforts and time.”
What are some misconceptions about recovery?
“Recovery isn’t simply a box of activities that needs ticking after a workout or a race. Rather, recovery is a well-thought-out and deliberate effort to bring your body and mind back to a balanced state and ready for the next challenge.
Recovery is not simply stretching, a yoga class, a hydrotherapy workout, or a massage. It’s not even an ice-bath or a sauna sweat-out, and it’s not just about taking a protein shake or rehydrating effectively. Although all these interventions are helpful, if you ignore the science behind your recovery, you could be missing the target.
Because the process of recovery is heavily influenced by your hormones and individual makeup, some of the things you do might actually work against your recovery efforts (and without even realising it). For example, taking an ice bath can cause an increase in cortisol – the stress hormone. Similarly, sitting in a sauna can work against your rehydration efforts.
Put simply, recovery is all about how you live and think. It's based on what you know, what you've experienced, and what you want to achieve. The most important and scientifically supported ways to recover are:
- Eating at the right times
- Taking the right supplements
- Getting enough sleep.
These basics need to be in place before considering any other recovery methods.”
A good exercise recovery strategy
“At the end of the day, the best recovery programme is the programme that focuses on health, long before exercise or performance becomes the goal. This is the reason why, in my professional dealings with athletes over the past 25 years, I’ve moved away from the idea of ‘high performance’, and embraced the concept of ‘healthy performance’.
No performance is possible, or sustainable without a healthy body and mind and high performance isn’t sustainable for life, but healthy performance is. Many professional athletes fall into the trap of becoming sedentary and suffer from poor health within a decade of retiring from their sport.
They’re generally tired - both physically and mentally! A switch to healthy performance prevents this, as a professional athlete sees the bigger picture of life, and not just the short-term dream of a championship. So, if the focus is healthy performance, the best recovery programme starts at home, with sleep and effective nutrition, and it’s worth getting expert advice to optimise these two recovery giants.
As with all things, science has pushed our quest for health and athletic achievement forward, and because of this, we can train harder and smarter. Here’s what science says…”
“Your body is made up of billions of cells, tasked to do a variety of jobs. These cells all have a shelf-life, and once they’ve done their time, they need to be replaced. Like anything that requires building, there’s a need for solid building materials.
To rebuild the human body, cell by cell, day by day, food has to enter the equation. What you eat, becomes your body, as all cellular material comes from the food you eat and the liquids that you drink. This is fascinating, and simultaneously thought-provoking! Your body is essentially the machine you get to drive and live in. So, as an athlete, it’s worth diving in and increasing your knowledge around nutrition.”
If you’re not sure what type of nutrition plan you should be on, it’s a good idea to go and see a nutritionist or dietician and get the right advice.
Choose the right supplements
“When we talk about nutrition for athletes, we can't ignore the topic of supplements. They've become a big deal in the world of health, wellness, and performance. But this has also brought a lot of confusion about what to choose, especially for professional athletes who are concerned about safety and reliability.
You've probably seen those supplement labels with bold claims, or the bigger the container, the more appealing it seems. And if it tastes great, it must be good, right? Well, not necessarily. It's important to know that no supplement can ever replace real, wholesome, and well-prepared food. However, the right supplement can complement your food to help you recover better and fill any nutritional gaps.
So, what should a good supplement look like? In my view, it should come from real food sources. The ingredients should be organic, and anything used to enhance the taste should be natural.”
Always read labels carefully and opt for supplements with fewer artificial ingredients or none at all.
Get adequate sleep
“The next big recovery giant is sleep. While most of us enjoy sleeping, we simply don’t get enough of it. Our modern world is full of distractions that keep us active and awake. Things like TVs, smartphones, and computers not only entertain us late into the night but also mess with our body's natural circadian rhythms that help us sleep. On top of that, our busy social lives and the schedules we need to juggle for our kids can make it hard to get the rest we need to perform at our best.
To get the right amount and quality of sleep, especially if you're an athlete, you need to have a solid plan and take intentional steps to make it happen.”
What recovery plan do you follow?
“Here’s my personal recovery strategy that I use to optimise my recovery…
I activate my muscles and hydrate. Personally, as a rule, I don’t use pre-training formulas or energy drinks. I’m an intermittent faster and I train and race in a fasted state (max 10km).
I make sure to rehydrate with electrolyte formula and continue with hydration.
I then make myself a protein smoothie consisting of:
- SPORT Rx Vanilla Caramel Protein
- Full cream yoghurt
- Fresh berries
- Half an avocado
- 1 scoop of SPORT Rx Creatine Rx
I do some light movement including dynamic stretching and gentle loading through range (I focus on areas and joints that generally feel stiff).
- I enjoy breakfast or brunch as soon as I feel like a meal. This typically includes max 20g of protein such as meat, fish or eggs, a carbohydrate like egg noodles or couscous, vegetable carbohydrates in a green veggie juice and a fruit.
- If at home, I take a 30–60-minute nap if possible.
- I continue with hydration including lemon water.
- I then take my SPORT Rx Superfoods Rx which includes plenty of superfoods and an important pro-biotics blend.
- I snack as the day progresses and enjoy things like nuts, hard cheese options or biltong
- I do a light zone 2 effort for 40 minutes, for me that means off my feet on a bike and I limit the effort by monitoring my heart rate, followed by light resistance training and more mobility exercises. If this session isn’t done on the same day, it’s my session of choice the following day.
- A while later, I’ll have a SPORT Rx Chocolate protein shake.
My evening/early morning routine:
- For dinner I generally eat what I like but keep the carbohydrates clean.
- I continue with hydration. My choice of drink is sparkling water with lemon, and/or lemon, ginger and honey.
- My aim is always to have lights out by 20:30pm and I rise and shine at 04:30am.
- After waking, I hydrate with a glass of water with lemon and half a teaspoon of SPORT Rx Creatine
- I take half a daily dose of branch chain amino acids (BCAA’s) 30 minutes before training.
- Regular massage
- Ice baths
- Normatec compression to legs.”