While many of us make a big effort ensure we exercise consistently, it’s important to remember that exercise is only one facet to improving health, fitness and wellbeing. The benefits gained from our exercise sessions is determined by our recovery so what we do after exercise can be just as important.
To understand how to recognise when exercise might be too much and the concepts of overtraining or overreaching (that bit just before overtraining) we need to understand homeostasis, stress and recovery.
The US National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) defines these as:
- Homeostasis is a state of balance within the body that occurs when the variables in a system (eg pH, temperature) are regulated to keep internal conditions stable and relatively constant.
- Stress is a stimulus that overcomes (or threatens to overcome) the body’s ability to maintain homeostasis. Stress related to exercise can be physiological (eg muscle tears, dehydration, pain) and chemical (eg blood imbalances of acid-base or oxygen-carbon dioxide). Other types of stress are environmental (eg cold, humidity), psychological (eg finances), emotional (eg fear, anxiety) and social (eg interpersonal conflicts).
- Recovery is the body’s process for restoring homeostasis.
We’re designed to handle stress, adapt to it, and become stronger.
Recovery following the physiological stress of exercise enables an adaptation response, restoring homeostasis. This is a healthy response and it’s how we get the gains we’re looking for when we exercise. When you pair exercise with inadequate recovery over time, homeostasis is compromised along with immune function and the chance of injury, illness and overtraining or overreaching increases.
So what can we do to help recovery?
- Active recovery. ‘Recovery’ doesn’t have to mean no activity at all. Active recovery, or low impact, low intensity, movement or exercise can help tissue repair by promoting blood flow without further stress on the body. If you’re sore or tired from strength training, a walk, gentle bike ride, or yoga class could help circulation and recovery.
- Sleep. This is the most obvious one – when we sleep, our body makes growth factors and hormones that help muscle and cell repair and recovery. The amount of sleep we need can vary but most of us need around 7 to 9 hours a night.
- Nutrition. The food we eat provides us with what we need to repair muscles and help recovery – we literally are what we eat. With that in mind, we should be choosing lots of whole foods with a balance of carbohydrates, protein and fat and minimising processed foods to help our body repair well.
Its important to learn to listen to your body and know the difference between being unmotivated to exercise and being too exhausted to exercise. Learn to recognise when you need to allow time to rest, recover and heal.