Once upon a time, I learned the importance of utilizing my rest days. I have not, in the time since, lost strength, become small, or lost motivation or dedication. In fact, quite the opposite! I’ve prepped for 4 figure contests and won my bodybuilding pro card, and competed in two powerlifting meets, securing a national ranking for a time. If correlation is the same as causation, one might say that rest and recovery has done me a hell of a lot of good!
Of course, rest days are not the only reason for these accomplishments, but they sure have played a significant role. As my training progresses, my lifts get heavier, my competition gets to a higher and higher level, I find myself contemplating the role of recovery once again, and finding that prioritizing and ensuring my body’s ability to recover from the stressors I place on it is essential to my continued success. While there are any number of methods that can help with recovery, there are a few key things I have found that have taken my recovery, and therefore my training, to the next level.
This one is simple. Drink. Enough. Drink water. Drink BCAAs. Drink Crystal Light. Drink coffee. It all counts- just drink. I feel like a bag of smashed assholes when I’m dehydrated- I drink about 0.75 to 1oz/lb of body weight each day, though your requirements may be lower. If you’re thirsty: drink. I carry a 32oz insulated Kleen Kanteen with me everywhere. Muscles love water. So do skin and eyes and intestines and everything else about your body.
“But what about hyponatremia, Stephanie?”
You have to drink so much blasted water in order to offset the balance of sodium and other minerals in your blood. I mean, you have to actively be trying to get water drunk. Don’t be stupid.
Soft Tissue Work: Active Release Techniques and Massage
I found myself a bodyworker. I might put him on the same tier of love that I place my husband and my dog. Chris, of Live Unbroken here in San Diego, has taught me an incredible number of things about my body- how certain muscles take over to accommodate for a weakness elsewhere, how a muscle adhesion (that’s bodyworker for what the rest of us call “knots,”) can hinder my lifts significantly, and how tight muscles can actually pull your bones and other muscles out of the planes they are supposed to be in. He’s been a game changer during powerlifting season, when I collect big knots in my hips that hinder my squats, and in bodybuilding season, when my upper back and chest turns itself into a mangled yarn ball of muscle fiber. I’ve advocated for sports massage previously, and still do, as a method of recovery, but the addition of active release techniques to my own recovery toolbox has made a world of difference.
Active release is essentially a form of massage in which you are an active participant. During a massage, you passively lay on a table and are manually manipulated by your bodyworker. During active release, however, you are a part of the excitement. This isn’t a full body rubdown for relaxation, after which you moan and stretch and thank the magical hands who have blessed you with bliss and coconut oil. No. This is you and your bodyworker- fully clothed- having a discussion about what’s going wrong. Chris does a movement assessment based on what I tell him- squats are bugging me? He wants to see me squat, then twist to either side, then touch my fingertips behind my back, what do I feel? Is there a difference between my right side and left? Ok. Let’s get to work.
He uses these movement assessments and pointed questions to decide wherein the problem lies, before deciding on his approach. He will tell me how to position my body and then what motion I will be doing, before creating a pressure point directly in a knot.
Real talk: it sometimes hurts like a bitch.
By moving the muscle around this point, however, it releases the adhesion using the point and the muscle itself- like finding the end of the yarn and tracing it back through the knot, rather than just pulling wildly on it- focused pressure to release the specific tension and the motion that it is hindering. This can include things like flapping my arm like a bird to release my serratus, laying on the massage table and doing a push-and-twist motion with my arm above my head to release a spot in my sub-scapula area, or laying on my back and dragging my foot from flat to straight out to release my psoas. This often results in shortened breaths, sweating, sometimes cursing… And ultimately relief. I’m not a fan of the “pain equals gain” mentality, but I trust Chris to inflict just enough to help. We often do combo sessions of ART and massage together, to make sure the right muscles are receiving the right attention for the greatest possible optimization of my body. I’ve never left his office feeling less than stellar- like every bone and every muscle is put back where it belongs. I may not be RELAXED, like after a Groupon deal Swedish massage, but I feel FIXED. This is not about relaxing- this is part of my training, and an incredibly important part, at that.
And if I can’t get in to see Chris, I have some tools at home to do a little maintenance myself- two lacrosse balls, a large massage therapy ball (this thing is bae, my go-to, my ride or die, my main), a yoga block, and a knee-high sock (to put the to lacrosse balls in and make a “peanut.” Chris ends each session by sending my home with homework that he’s taught me to maintain myself from falling to absolutely pieces between appointments.
DO IT! @cutekatiebug ・・・ Do you have TIGHT HIPS? Does it PINCH or HURT when you SQUAT? Give this a try! 👉🏼ACTIVE ROLLING 👈🏼 – HOW TO: Place the ball on the side of your hip (target the TFL) and move the bottom leg into flexion and extension. This muscle has a lot of functions and gets easily angry if you do a lot of hip exercises and cardio. Then sit on the ball with it on the outside edge of your glute (glute medius/minimus) moving your knee back and forth to the side of your body. Make it uncomfortable but not painful; get those deep layers and hunt for tight/sore areas. Spend about 2-min per muscle. Rolling with movement (active rolling) has improved my mobility, pain, and recovery TREMENDOUSLY. Improving these things is one of my main goals for my off season! – If you live in the San Diego area and want to try a professional ACTIVE RELEASE THERAPY session, I highly recommend @liveunbroken 🙏🏼 I am going twice a week and it has made the BIGGEST difference. Perfect for athletes and high-stress individuals like myself. Plus Chris will give you AT-HOME EXERCISES like these to practice and learn on your own!
I cannot stress this one enough. Sleep is easily the best thing you can do for your own recovery, and sadly one of the most neglected. Too busy too busy can’t sleep, right? What a waste of my hours.
Go the fuck to sleep.
Sleep is when your body takes all of the stressors in your day- including any training you did- and recovers from it. This is when you repair and build muscle. This is how you truly get rid of fatigue. Caffeine and BCAAs are no substitution in terms of the muscular and mental recovery benefits of sleep. Put down your phone- you can scroll Instagram in the bathroom at work tomorrow. Turn off the TV. Take the dog for a walk and just relax for a bit, then head to bed with a clear head, ready to just sleep. Don’t bring your computer to bed- but maybe bring the dog. Even an extra 15 minutes each day will add up- that’s almost two extra hours of recovery time each week, and it costs you nothing! Even the busiest person can carve out that quarter of an hour if they want to, and if they are truly going to make an effort to recover better.
Sounds stupid, huh?
Go for a walk. Not a run. Not a jog. No- a walk. Bring the dog, your kids, your significant other, your coworker, or your Pokemon Go. Walk to the post office or to work or to meet a friend for coffee. It feels incredible! Your body was literally built for walking, you silly bipedal simian, so let it do that! We spend so much time in a seated position, lazing about, that we get all tensed up- upper backs hunched, core all crunched up, hip flexors contracted, and cumulatively, it feels just terrible. You might not even realize how terrible it feels because it’s just so “normal!”
Walking is a pretty easy way to shake some of this off- point your face forward (as opposed to down), pick your chest up, get your hips under your ribcage, and stretch those legs out! You’ll find a new spring in your step after just a couple of blocks. With your muscles all warmed up and working together, your bones feel less creaky and cramped, the dog is less wiggly, you’ve hatched a few eggs- everything is awesome! I make time for two walks a day, right when I wake up, and one just before bed because Fritter loves to accompany me and I love to explore my neighborhood, and it’s helped me to reduce muscle soreness and stiffness significantly, allowed me to work on my posture (an area of focus for me right now as I work to correct my anterior pelvic tilt), and it helps me to clear my head, allowing for a pleasant, quietly active transition from the stressors of my day to bedtime (which helps me to fall asleep and stay asleep better!), and then in the morning, from sleeping to awake and productive each day. As an added bonus: I never have any trouble hitting my step goals anymore- I start my day with 2000-3000 before the sun has even peeked out! Of course you don’t necessarily have to dedicate 30 to 60 minutes of every day to walking, even a short walk around the block at lunch should help you shake out the sits a bit- but I can almost guarantee you’ll find yourself wanting to keep on walking after a few days of implementing it- it just feels so damn good!
I’ve said it a thousand times:
Yes, sometimes you’re cutting. Sometimes, if you’re a competitor, you’re on contest prep. But these should not be permanent statuses. If you’re on a permacut, FUCKING STOP THAT. The Sisterhood of Perpetual Deficit Eating is a cult of which you want no part, my friend.
Without launching into another tirade on under fueling, a topic on which I could rant and plead and chastise to no end, I will simply remind you that life exists outside of scale numbers, that your weight and waist measurement are not numbers that define you or that hang on a scoreboard above your head like an advertisement or as public assessment of your fitness or worth, and that calories are not the enemy. I will remind you, gently, that a diet should be sustainable for a lifetime- if you cannot see yourself doing exactly what you are today in five, ten, twenty years it is probably not the right approach- and that carrying a scale around with you everywhere is, well, not, forever. I will ask you to pay attention to our body- if it is hungry, if it is weak, if it is binging, if it is clinging to fat for dear life, if it is not performing its biological functions… Maybe you should listen to it.
You only get one body- treat it kindly.
Fuel it properly for what you’re asking of it each day, and it will pay you back by rising to the challenges, and by feeling better, by properly recovering using the nutritional building blocks you have provided for it. Regardless of what sort of nutritional methodology that you find to be best for you- high carb, low carb, vegetarian, gluten-free, whatever- just eat enough (though some approaches are arguably better or worse approaches depending on your lifestyle). Choose largely foods with nutritional value that your body wants and needs- yes, you can get protein and fiber from a delicious bar, but there’s something to be said about a steak- a food that contains protein- and vegetables, and how your body processes these things and utilizes micronutrients synergistically to fuel, heal, and optimize your body, as well.
For more on this topic of nutritional optimization, I found this podcast, the first in a series of three that discusses an international organization position stand on nutrition and athletic performance to be a lovely listen.
For real, take your rest days.
You’re not hardcore for hitting the gym every day, and, in fact, you’re probably your own gains goblin. Take a damn rest day- take a walk, get a massage, go to bed early, cook a nice dinner, maybe take a bath, if you like that sort of thing (I don’t- I’m bored before the tub is even full, but I won’t judge you over you cover of bubbles). You can give your body a little break without losing your gym-cred. I won’t tell anyone, I swear. Tomorrow, you’re going to feel really, really good.