If you’re training–not just getting sweaty three to five times a week, but actually training–you need to pay attention to your recovery.
Applying the appropriate amount of stress to the system (you) also dictates what type and how much recovery you need. What I most often see with my patients is training behavior that falls into two buckets: not enough training stimulus, which leads to little progress, or an excessive overload of training stimulus that makes any recovery method less effective.
When an appropriate amount of training stress is applied over time, you will find that putting in even a minimal amount of focused work on the areas you’ve trained or have recurrent problems with will create improvement in how you feel, move, and perform.
Basic Rules of Recovery
There are some universal truths in the recovery game: you have to sleep 7-9 hours a night, and you need to eat a whole-food-based diet composed of quality animal proteins, roots, tubers, vegetables, and healthy fats.
If you want to jump-start your recovery process after a hard training session, we know that a 4-5 minute cool-down will kick off the repair process by your body at the levels of the musculoskeletal and nervous systems up to 4 hours sooner than if you skipped your cool-down and recovery routine. Wonder why you can’t sleep at night after training? This might be the answer if you’ve neglected this part of your training.
That said, don’t ignore a problem that keeps coming back. If after about two weeks you’ve rolled, smashed, flossed, needled, and cupped the area you’re concerned about and it continues to need daily attention, it’s time to ask for some outside help. Also, if anything you’re trying to get feeling better through a recovery method starts burning, tingling, or going numb, back off.
Essential Tools for Recovery
Where do you start assembling your recovery tools? My base recommendation for everyone is a lacrosse ball, a foam roller, and a jump stretch band. We can get more sophisticated and expensive, but you can manage 95% of your usual aches and pains with these three pieces of equipment.
I sat down with Cooper Mitchell, founder of Garage Gym Reviews, who is an expert in testing and evaluating equipment. He and his team have personally used and researched thousands of pieces of equipment and have specifics in mind when it comes to recommending recovery tools.
Massage is a treatment as old as humanity itself. While some folks get squirrely when someone puts their hands on them, using one of these tools can be an easy method to harness the power of massage.
From a physical therapy standpoint, vibration therapy (VT) has been used for years to help people with a variety of muscle and neurological issues. What I love about so many of the massage guns on the market today is that they can replicate that treatment for a fraction of the cost of a whole-body vibration plate.
It’s useful to know that not every massage setting will help you recover. You’ll probably notice most products offer a variety of settings. In the context of recovery, you want a massage gun that can operate at a low setting, meaning the frequency (how often) and amplitude (how deep) needs to be lower. A massage gun that pulses quickly (high frequency) and feels like someone’s dropping a 2-pood kettlebell on your body will increase your heart rate, oxygen consumption, and skin temperature. Not exactly what you need when you’re trying to ramp down, though it would be useful as a 30-60 second intervention before you start training.
Our recommendation? The Theragun Prime. It can reach 16 millimeters into your deep tissue and has a highly customizable speed range. “The Theragun has probably the best range on the market,” says Coop. “You can use an app to select any speed between 1,750 and 2,400 percussions per minute.”
If you are looking for something a little more affordable, the team at Garage Gym Reviews suggests the Recoverfun Massage Gun Mini. It’s under $100 and has a range of between 1,800 and 3,200 percussions per minute. Though the Recoverfun may not have the most powerful motor, it is small and compact enough to keep in your gym bag.
Unless you’re still using a Walkman to pump your tunes when you train, you’ve probably noticed that foam rolls have become the recovery tool of the decade. Everyone and their brother will give you unsolicited advice on what foam roll technique “fixed” their back pain or helped their shoulder feel better.
No doubt that putting pressure on your stiff tissues with a roller, similar to using a massage gun, is beneficial. Let’s just make sure we’re not fooling ourselves and thinking that a 2-ounce roll of foam is going to “stretch” your tight IT bands.
We are gaining a better understanding of how myofascial massage works at a muscular and nervous system level. If you can manage to breathe normally (meaning a full inhale and full exhale breath) while you’ve got a tight muscle on the foam roll, you will notice a progressive relaxation and desensitization of that tight muscle. You haven’t magically “released” your muscle tightness, but you have told your brain, by owning your breathing and being able to relax over the roll, that it’s OK to let that muscle relax.
Don’t make this more complicated than it needs to be. A basic foam roller from Amazon can be an effective tool to assess the quality of your muscle tissues. Normal muscle tissue doesn’t hurt to compress. If you find that’s not the case, stay on that hurting spot and try to alternately tighten and relax that tight muscle over the roller as your breath: inhaling when you tighten it up, exhaling when you let it relax.
If you can’t breathe and relax over the roller, you’re doing yourself very little good.
If you do want something a little more intense than the typical smooth foam, Coop says the Rumble Rollers are effective. They feature firm bumps that act almost like thumbs digging into deep tissue.
I use jump stretch bands when we’re trying to resolve someone’s joint-level restrictions. I primarily use resistance bands during warm-up, but if you’ve done typical static stretching to try to open up a tight hip or shoulder joint and you’ve made little to no progress, adding resistance band work to your recovery routine could do you some real good.
Think about mobility in three categories: muscles and connective tissues, joints, and the neuromuscular system. When we use resistance bands to improve our shoulder or hip range of motion, we’re addressing the specific joint mobility needed for a movement like a squat or bench press. If you struggle with squats or lunges, a great place to introduce resistance bands is in mobilizing the front and back of your hips in a lunge or half-kneeling position. Actively working against resistance to improve your positions helps hardwire those new ranges of motion into your brain and body.
Coop has a few pointers when it comes to picking the right resistance bands:
- They are highly susceptible to UV rays and will break down quickly if exposed often, so be cautious of leaving them outside.
- Going cheap means a higher risk of them snapping in use; bands from companies like Rogue are reliable.
- Many resistance bands are made of latex; if you have an allergy, make sure you find a latex-free option.
Electronic Muscle Stimulators
The one additional recovery tool that has helped my patients and me overcome injury and recover faster, as well as increase performance in the gym, is an electronic muscle stimulator. Nowadays, there are many of these on the market, ranging from around $30 to hundreds of dollars. They feature pads–electrodes–that you attach directly to your skin to stimulate the nerves around your muscles.
Both Coop and I like the Power Dot. The versatility of this product as a rehab and a performance tool goes beyond anything else in the tech category of recovery methods that I’ve used. With multiple programs for performance, recovery, and pain relief, the Power Dot allows the user to take a good crack at improving their recovery and performance.
In general, Coop advises, look for a device that is easy for you to use with a legible display. “And don’t forget to factor the cost of replacement pads into the price, because the electrodes wear off over time,” he says.
Coop & Dr. Tim’s Takeaway
I strongly believe that recovery is essential for everyone. People training hard especially need to take rest days and recovery routines seriously in order to perform their best.
“You don’t need an arsenal of recovery tools, but the right equipment really can make a difference between feeling ‘just okay’ and feeling your best,” says Coop.
TRAINING: Power Athlete Warm Up Series
TRAINING: Power Athlete Iron Flex Program
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BLOG: Breath as the Driver to Stability-Part 2 by Dr. Emily Splichal
Tim received his Bachelors of Arts in Exercise Science from the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 2004, and his Doctorate of Physical Therapy from Southwest Baptist University in 2010. He has worked with the Titleist Performance Institute, the IMPACT concussion group, MovNat, and The Ready State in his professional career. Currently owns and operates a performance-based physical therapy practice, Restore/Thrive, with his wife in their home garage gym in Overland Park, Kansas, and became a Power Athlete Block One Coach in September 2020.
Dr. Cummings utilizes his PT background and the Power Athlete Methodology to optimize performance, reduce injury risk, and rehab his clients and athletes through movement assessment, coaching, and individualized program design.
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