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Balancing Work and Recovery


Americans glorify the idea of hard work. Want to be smart? Work hard in school. Want to be rich? Work hard in business. Want to be fit? Work hard in the gym.

There’s certainly value in this ethic. Giving your best effort is always going to lead to better results than half-assing it. And it would be pretty darn awesome if all we had to do to be our best in every area of life was just buckle down and give it as much grit and sweat as we can muster.

Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way.

We’ve talked about the importance of recovery before. The idea of recovery basically boils down to this:

Exercise makes you weaker and slower. It is the recovery process that your body goes through after exercise that makes you stronger, faster, and healthier.

So what does this mean in relationship to our discussion about hard work? It simply means that the more hard work you put in at the gym, the more you need to recover in order to make gains.

In other words, while you can’t get results without hard work in the gym, you also can’t get results without an equal amount of effort spent on recovery.

Let’s illustrate this concept with a series of bar charts.

To make things easier, we’ll think about exercise and recovery as tangible items that we can accumulate or create certain amounts of. We accumulate exercise by, well, exercising: doing a WOD, going for a run, lifting weights, etc. We accumulate recovery by doing things that help our body rebuild from the stresses of exercise: sleeping, eating good food, getting a massage, etc.

In an ideal situation, you accumulate slightly more recovery than exercise:

Screenshot 2014-10-29 11.58.34

Slightly more recovery than exercise = Gains!

In this situation, your body is stimulated to improve itself by exercise, and you have sufficient recovery to overcome the negative effects (energy expenditure, muscular fatigue, etc.) of exercise, with some extra left over to make improvements (building more muscle, improving endurance, etc.). This is the situation you want to be in, as it allows you to make gains in health and fitness.

Many people get stuck in a situation in which recovery and exercise are equally matched:

Screenshot 2014-10-29 12.00.43

Equal exercise and recovery = Stasis/stagnation

In this situation, you have sufficient recovery to overcome the negative effects of exercise, but you don’t have any extra left over for your body to use to make itself more fit. In this situation, you’re not unhealthy, but you’re also not making any gains — performance metrics and health markers would be stable and unchanging in this situation.

When people are in a situation like the one above, where they are exercising but not making gains, they usually assume that the solution to the problem is to exercise more. This would lead to a situation like this:

Screenshot 2014-10-29 12.01.38

More exercise than recovery = Fatigue, fitness loss

In this situation, you are exercising more than you are recovering. This puts your body in a state of “recovery debt,” in which it is not able to fully replenish the energy expended by exercise. This state of affairs can continue for a little while, as your body makes up the difference by harvesting energy stored in your body in the form of fat and other tissues. But eventually your body will begin to break down.

This situation, in which you exercise more than you recover, can be beneficial for short-term weight loss. However, the metabolic changes that this state creates actually encourage your body to store more energy — which means that spending a lot of time in this situation actually tells your body to break down muscle and store more fat.

The opposite situation, in which you recover significantly more than you exercise, would look like this:

Screenshot 2014-10-29 12.02.39

Significantly more recovery than exercise = Weight gain, health problems

In this situation, you’re exercising very little and recovering quite a lot. This is the situation in which the vast majority of Americans currently find themselves: Mostly sedentary, but eating a lot. In this situation, your body is getting too much recovery. Since your body has nothing productive to do with the extra energy, it stores the energy as fat. The metabolic changes that your body undergoes when in this state for an extended amount of time lead to things like obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

So what have we learned here? If we think about accumulating exercise and recovery in proportion to each other, then the possible solutions to our health and fitness challenges become more apparent. If you’re exercising a lot, but not losing body fat or getting stronger, then you’re probably over-exercising and could see improvement by doing less exercise and/or doing a better job of sleeping, eating, and engaging in active recovery methods such as yoga or massage therapy. If you’re making gains, but they’re slow, perhaps you should bump up your recovery by adding a few more calories to your daily food intake.

The exact application of this way of thinking will vary based on your unique situation, but it’s universally true that when making decisions about how to get fitter and become more healthy, considering your exercise regimen in relationship to your ability and willingness to recover is infinitely more valuable than only considering exercise.


End Note: If you were to chart your “exercise points” and “recovery points” each day, you’d find a substantial fluctuation in their daily amounts, and significant differences in their daily balance relative to each other. The ideas we’re talking about above relate more to long-term trends than a specific prescription for every single day. When we program our workouts, we have days and weeks when our goal is to completely overload your ability to recover, and we also have times when our goal is to let your body over-recover (aka “supercompensation”). This is why it’s important to show up and do the work every single day — we’re trying to “wave” these periods of over-exercise and over-recovery in order to stimulate specific adaptations (improvements) in your fitness. If you don’t show up every day, then you miss out on part of that long-term stimulus, and your results won’t be as good as they would be if you came to class more often. So no matter whether you’re tired or sad or lazy or stressed out — come to class every day! You’ll be glad you did.

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