Although it may seem counterintuitive, you don’t get faster, bigger, or stronger during a workout. The main function of hard physical training is to break your body down so it can grow back stronger. Fitness gains come later, during recovery, and recent research is revealing that simply being sedentary post-workout isn’t enough: in order to maximize recovery, you must also relax your mind.
“More and more evidence suggests that stress is stress,” says John Kiely, senior lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire’s Institute for Coaching and Performance. “If you finish a workout and throw yourself into something that is mentally or emotionally taxing, even if you are seated with your feet up, odds are that you’ll still obstruct the recovery and adaptation process.”
Following a stressful workout, your body releases a cascade of biochemicals, including the hormone cortisol, which heightens physical and psychological arousal. Collectively referred to as the “stress response,” these biochemicals, along with an array of other systemic changes in the body, act as signals for positive physical adaptation, says Kiely. “You definitely want to trigger a stress response,” he says. “It’s the key to growth.”
But the stress response is only effective if it is acute. “Interfering with the natural stress response, particularly by prolonging it, is maladaptive,” says Kiely. “The brain and body will only dedicate resources to rebuilding if it doesn’t feel an emergency is around the corner.” In other words, rushing to work and cranking on a deadline report after a challenging morning workout may seriously mitigate positive physical gains. In fact, a new meta-analysis published in the journal Sports Medicine found that athletes are most likely to sustain physical injuries during times when psychological and/or social stress is high.
Stress, be it physical, emotional, or intellectual, is a highly subjective phenomenon, explains Kiely. “It’s based on how one’s brain and/or body registers something on a spectrum from benign to threat.” For example, one person’s hard workout may be another person’s easy day, and some may feel at ease during a high-stakes meeting that leave other uncomfortable and tense.
In order to get the most out of your key workouts and avoid injury, try to minimize anything that you might register as stressful afterwards, even if it is completely unrelated to your training. In an ideal world, this means avoiding other stressors until you’ve had a good night’s sleep, Kiely says.
Optimize Your Recovery
Your workout doesn’t end when you take your shoes off. Here’s how Kiely and Matt Dixon, founder of Purplepatch Fitness and coach of world-champion triathletes, recommend athletes avoid common recovery pitfalls.
- Don’t schedule key workouts on days where you are likely to experience additional stress. “You want to pad your hardest training with restoration,” says Dixon. For most people, this means avoiding training hard on days when you rush the kids off to school or finish a memo on deadline.
- Do what you can to keep your easy days easy. “For many athletes, an off day means a day on which I don’t train but I try to cram everything else in,” explains Kiely. “This completely defeats the purpose of the off day—recovery.”
- Monitor your environment. “Stress is contagious,” according to Kiely, “so try to avoid high-stress people and high-stress situations after key sessions.”
- Be willing to adapt your training schedule. “Athletes shouldn’t follow any program as a rigid plan,” says Dixon. “They should adjust and evolve the plan if life stress accumulates, and have the courage to train easy when life is hard.”
- Remember that stress is subjective: there is no one right way to recover. “At the end of the day, recovery is all about doing things that make you feel relaxed and at ease,” says Kiely. “For some this might mean skydiving or cramming for exams, but generally speaking, it means sleeping, reading, listening to music, watching a movie, or hanging out with friends—activities that you can do on a couch with your shoulders relaxed and heart rate low.”