Exercise stresses our bodies, which is the whole point—taking on a little extra stress makes us stronger in the long run. But we also need to be able to recover from that stress to make use of it. So what do you do if it feels like your workouts are beating you up? The first step is to make sure that you have your recovery basics covered.
We’ll discuss what those are below. But don’t forget that fatigue isn’t always a matter of under-recovering. Sometimes fatigue is to be expected, especially if you’re ramping up toward a big goal. No marathoner ever says “I feel great!” when they’re four or five weeks out.
On the other hand, if your workouts seem like they should be easy but aren’t, it could mean that your routine isn’t actually a good one for you. A good strength training program, for example, doesn’t just ratchet up the weights forever; once you get past the “newbie gains” stage it should have plenty of easier days or weeks to recharge you so you can keep going.
But even with those factors in mind, you’ll still get the best results from your workouts—whatever they might be—if you have your recovery dialed in. So let’s look at what that involves.
First up is food. It does two important jobs in recovery: It provides raw materials for building muscle (and other tissues), and it provides energy to fuel those processes and to sustain you through the rest of the day.
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Protein is probably the first thing you think of when it comes to eating for recovery. Make sure to get enough, whether you are gaining, losing, or maintaining your weight; the amount should stay fairly high in all three cases.
Next up we have carbs. Carbohydrates, which include starches and sugars, are your body’s preferred source of energy during workouts. If you don’t have carbs available, your body can keep going by burning fat, but you won’t perform as well and you’ll feel pretty awful. (You can adapt to training without carbs, somewhat.) So if you’re feeling fatigued during your workouts, make sure to eat some carbs before or during them.
Another big factor is just getting a healthy diet: Are you eating vegetables? Fruits? Getting at least some fats, instead of trying to go so low-fat you’re missing out on this essential nutrient?
Finally, we have the total amount of food you’re eating. If you’re eating in a slight deficit—say, 300 calories less than what you’re burning—you’ll probably recover just fine. But if you’re undereating, you’re likely to find yourself feeling fatigued in and out of workouts, and you might be sore more often than if you were fueling yourself properly. In extreme cases, this becomes RED-S, or relative energy deficiency in sport.
Sleep is important for recovery, and you already know that from daily life. If you don’t get a good night’s sleep, you’ll have a hard time with everything the next day, from your workout to just your ability to focus.
If you feel like you’re having trouble with recovery, one of the first steps you should take is getting an extra hour in bed every night—maybe more, if you know you’re already not getting enough.
By the way: Sometimes people will look for sleep hacks and shortcuts, but you don’t need to overthink it. The things that help you get better quality sleep are also the things that help you get enough sleep. Try this guide to sleep hygiene to get started.
You’re probably not surprised that food and sleep are important, but there’s another factor that is also huge when it comes to recovery: work capacity.
The more work you do, the more work your body can handle. That’s the basic idea here. If you’ve never exercised before, and you do three 30-minute sessions of easy cardio in a week, you’ll probably be a lot more tired than usual. Your body isn’t used to working that hard.
Sometimes people will interpret fatigue as meaning that they should back off, but then how will you ever teach your body to get used to a new stress? A better approach is to do slightly more work than you were doing before, allow your body to get used to it, and then add a little more. The difference between a person who gets exhausted from a few easy jogs each week, and the person who speeds through five miles every morning before breakfast, is really just that the second person has put in the time to work up to it.
So don’t fall into the trap of assuming rest is the same thing as recovery. Keeping up some easy activity even on “rest” days is a great way of building your ability to handle more work, which in turn means recovering easily from the work you already do.
The other stuff we think of as “recovery” is not nearly as effective as the things discussed above. Food, sleep, and work capacity are the big levers you can pull. Do not spend a single moment fretting about whether you are doing enough massage, stretching, warming up, cooling down, taking vitamins and supplements, heat, ice, and all the rest.
If something in that list seems to be working well for you, by all means keep doing it. There may be benefit in some of them; scientists have not been able to determine whether massages, for example, are good or neutral for recovery. It may depend on the type of massage, or on how you measure recovery.
The flip side is that if something doesn’t seem to be helping, you should probably quit. Some of the things we do for recovery actually have evidence suggesting that they do the opposite. Cold therapy, anti-inflammatory supplements, and pain relievers seem to make us feel better in the moment while interfering with long-term muscle growth and recovery. So when in doubt, stick to the basics.