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A misunderstood element of exercise

Published April 30. 2011 09:00AM

Simple. Crucial. Chameleon.

Those were the words I first listed as I tried to determine whether or not recovery from exercise was a suitable topic for this week's column. When I added "Universal," the decision became a no-brainer.

Whether you're a fair-weather exerciser who's exercising again now that the weather's better, a high school athlete trying to peak for the postseason, a senior citizen battling Father Time, or an absolute exercise junkie who never misses a workout, recovery is equally important. Yet it may be the most misunderstood element of the entire exercise process.

The reasons: recovery is not governed by a single factor, some factors are not quantifiable, and some are especially elusive to control.

For instance, eating a proper diet, something that can be insured because it can be clearly measured, of and by itself will not insure recovery. Getting the proper amount of rest, something that can be insured because it can be clearly determined, of and by itself will not insure recovery.

That's because other factors, like limiting negative stress and engendering a positive attitude, are just as important to your body being ready for the next round of exercise and they can't be quantified. Add the ebb and flow of family commitments, work commitments, and your mood at the moment into the equation, and you can see why recovery between bouts of exercise for many people is hit or miss.

But it doesn't have to be for you if you observe rather than judge your body.

Let's assume that you've been lifting weights for the last six weeks and you're pleased as punch because you've been able to increase the amount of weight or the number of repetitions after every single week. You're eating well, getting more sleep than you have in years, but it still happens one day.

You're expecting to do 10 reps on the bench press because last week you did the same amount of weight for eight and that's been the pattern an increase of two reps a week if you don't increase the weight. But the barbell feels really heavy from the first rep and you struggle to do six.

What's up with that?

That's a pretty good question because it could be nothing or it could be everything.

Sometimes after periods of success it's easy to forget just how hard you worked to get there. You get mentally complacent. You expect not only to progress but also for it to become easier because of your prior success.

When it's not easier, you rush to judgment. You decide "I just don't have it today," or "I must really be overtrained."

It's quite possible that all you need to do is refocus, get a bit more intense, and you'll bench press that weight 10 times.

But on the other hand, if you really were mentally ready and your muscles have a different feel instead of what I call a "surface soreness" you have a "deep ache" you may not be fully recovered physically.

In that case it's folly to increase the amount of weight or reps performed during that workout. But that doesn't mean you have to hit the showers early.

What that means is that you now use the workout as a form of recovery.

This is something professional bicyclists have done for years and the concept can be applied to any other athletic endeavor. Professional cyclists know that a full day of rest and no riding doesn't promote recovery as well as a session of easy pedaling.

Whether it be a 150-mile bicycle race, bench pressing maximum weight, or jogging three miles after a three-month layoff, damage is done to muscles during exercise. The muscles involved in the movements suffer micro-tears. By doing the activity that created the micro-tears easily the next day, you increase blood flow to the damaged muscles and expedite healing.

Cyclists do this by taking a "bike walk," a ride where they decide to pedal slowly and use only the easiest gearing. Done correctly, it's as effective as a massage.

A weightlifter could do the same by reducing the amount of weight used by half, increasing the reps a bit, and focusing on getting a good stretch throughout the entire motion. Running is a bit less forgiving, so runners may have to take a walk unless they have access to a pool that designates a lane for running in place.

While engaging in the exercise easily is the best way to expedite healing, physical healing may not be the only thing an over trained athlete needs. Just like physical stress, mental stress is cumulative.

Often a day or two or three away from exercise is not what the body needs, but rather what's best for your mind.

Unfortunately there's no way to know absolutely if something as dramatic as a three-day break is what your mind needs or what your mind wants. Determining the one from the other, however, is essential if you want to recover from exercise optimally.

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