Following on from the last article, this is the second part to the series.
Last time we dealt with the impact of both nutrition and sleep on the various systems of our bodies. This time we’re going to take a closer look at the effects of our everyday movement and posture, along with our recovery protocols have on those same systems. Again, it is worth remembering that whilst we are breaking down the processes for the purpose of discussion, these approaches work in conjunction with each other, and their effect aren’t necessarily black and white when isolated.
Movement and posture
From the way we sit, write and type, to the way we walk, carry shopping and move furniture, our posture and movement is what dominates our days, especially when viewed from the perspective of the musculoskeletal system. I often tell participants in the GT Fitness CrossFit®️ Foundations Course that by working out for one hour per day, five days per week, that accounts for less than 3% of your week. Just let that sink in for a moment; even a pretty dedicated fitness enthusiast spends 97% of their time doing other, non-fitness stuff! It is therefore important that we recognise 2 facts; firstly that what we do outside of the gym has a far greater impact on our health than what we do inside it, and secondly that the prime function of the gym is to create healthier positions and movement patterns for our everyday lives. The Power Athlete way of summing this up is “we use weights to challenge posture and position”.
If we reframe our view of the gym, and the training we perform within it for a second, this begins to make much more sense. Set aside the adaptations the body makes when exposed to a carefully constructed fitness programme, and boil it down to its core purpose - to practice moving well! I fully appreciate that you aren’t likely to perform handstand push-ups whilst shopping for clothes any time soon, however, by stacking the elbows over the wrists to focus on initiating with the shoulder, by bracing the entire core and squeezing the glutes to keep the spine stacked, and by maintaining a neutral neck throughout the range of motion, we are ingraining vital postures and patterns of movement that transfer into any number of movements that we do perform regularly. The next step is to practice consistency, or put simply, perform each movement well every time we do it, not just with careful coaching and cues, before finally adding intensity. Intensity can come in various forms, such as increasing the load with which we can safely perform a movement, increasing the number of repetitions, or simply performing the movement under greater levels of fatigue. We use the maxim Mechanics - Consistency - Intensity to convey this on a regular basis. As with all movements though, they are simply transitioning between any number of static positions, and for some, this is where the most time needs to be spent. That said, much of this can’t be achieved inside the four walls of a gym. Whilst a gym can help you build the postural muscles and teach you good static positions, it can’t ingrain them thoroughly with the time spent in there. Most of us spend too long seated, be that at a desk, table or driving, and even longer slumped or slouched somewhere. These tips can help you break bad habits, and avoid niggling injuries caused through tightness in various muscles.
Switch to a standing desk. If this isn’t possible, conduct a full ergonomic workstation set-up and stand from your desk every 15 minutes for a minute.
Consciously straighten your spine whilst seated. Try to do this by squeezing gently your deep abdominals and obliques. Try not to rest your weight on the back of the chair.
When you stand, remember what you mother said, she was right! “Chest out, shoulders back.”
Sitting or standing, point your toes forwards. This is especially important for your accelerator foot!
If you’re reading, especially when seated, try not to round your neck over to look at your book or phone. Rest it on a stand so it sits where a computer monitor should.
Avoid fixed positions for long periods of time. Frequent movement helps not only your musculoskeletal system, but your circulatory system too!
We have dealt with sleep as a separate heading, so here we’ll look at everything else that constitutes recovery and look to maximise if, not only for your next training session to be more productive, but to improve your short and long term health. The first thing we will look at is food timing. We’ve spoken about some of the principles governing what you should eat, and how much, but not when. With regards to your training, I would recommend being fed for all activities. ‘Fasted Cardio’ (low intensity metabolic conditioning performed usually in the early morning, and after a period of not eating) is often prescribed to bodybuilders as they approach a show. There are mixed reviews as to its efficacy, but for our conversation, it serves no purpose. Starting your training with a lack of energy means you can’t perform as well, and are more susceptible to injury. That said, your food does want to be settled. Around an hour or two before your session is a good time to eat. Once it comes to the end of your session, we’re looking to aid the body and limit the damage caused by your training. A suitable carbohydrate source, usually higher on the glycemic index, and a protein source should be consumed within around an hour. This is primarily to replenish the depleted glycogen stores, a task with which protein assists. Whilst it is often postulated that protein should be taken very quickly to aid muscle repair, little protein is converted to energy during exercise and therefore pre-workout levels are usually sufficient.
The next area of recovery we’re going to talk about is stretching. Unfortunately myths from the 80’s still float around telling people to stretch prior to working out. This is simply bad advice, and static stretching should be completely avoided pre-workout, and at any point when the muscles are cold. A gradual progression of pulse raising movements such as skipping, running, cycling etc, should be followed by movement patterns linked to those you are preparing for. This should then be followed by more specific intensity matching, for example, building weight in a lift towards that required, or running short sets at your planned running pace. As for post workout, this is where we’re looking for static stretching. At this point, the length of time for which you hold a stretch will determine how well it works. Before we get to that though, we need to do a couple of other things. When you body is screaming at you, especially if your (insert sore body part here) is full of lactic acid, we need to work to flush that out. A steady 2-3 minute cycle, jog or similar is a great way to avoid blood pooling, help disperse waste products, and more gradually return the heart and breathing rates to normal. This flushing of fresh blood to the area is the first stage in the healing and repair process after the oxidative stress suffered during the workout. After this, you could do far worse than hop on a foam roller for a few minutes to start breaking down adhesions caused by training.Now we’re ready for some static stretches. We’re looking at 30-90 seconds for these, the higher end of that for bigger muscles and muscles groups, which will begin to instigate a recovery response in the parasympathetic nervous system, along with helping to return the muscle(s) to its rested state. Another thing we need to consider at this stage is breathing; we want to be breathing nasally, and drawing the breath into the belly using the diaphragm, not into the chest. Good posture, seated or standing, will greatly aid this process. The goal here is to return the breathing to a normal rate as quickly as possible, i.e. where your breathing movements are almost invisible, NOT to breathe deeply!
Once your breathing is under control, you can pick a recovery breathing cycle of your preference, mine being a 4 second nasal inhale, with an 8 second exhale for 4-5 rounds. To further promote recovery at this point, and drain excess lymph, which can inhibit recovery, try raising your arms, if they’re suffering, or legs after squats or sprints, above heart level for a while. Make sure that this is the later stage of your recovery as lying down too soon after your workout will have far more negative effects.
The above listed methods are great for before and after training, but won’t serve us very well the rest of the time. For this, I recommend 3 principles to be ready to perform, all of the time:
Active recovery. The day after a heavy workout, or on rest days, get outside and move. A hill walk, a steady jog, a bike ride or some friendly sport or adventurous pursuit are all great ways to flush the system through and ease any aches and pains from training.
Avoid junk food after serious physical efforts. I know this ruins the pizza after completing your 10k run or Tough Mudder theory, but think about it; your body is at its most depleted, and therefore its most vulnerable. It need nourishment! Not only will the right macronutrient balance give your body the fuel back that it need, but a good balance of vitamins and minerals will top up your immune system, among other things.
Stretch. If you have specific movement restrictions, work on them. Get warm first, and then hit some stretches. Save this for recovery days, or evenings after a morning session at the gym has worn off. A great way to do this is with Yoga, Tai-Chi or simply your personal preference of low intensity, low impact mobilising movements.
Whilst not strictly just for recovery, the final aspects I’ll mention are cold and heat exposure. These exposures can and will improve various aspects of your health. Whilst the supplemental article ‘Upgrade Your Immune System’ goes into more detail, the crux of it is that the body becomes better adapted to changes of temperature, and therefore less susceptible to the possible ill effects of a change. Additionally, cold exposure promotes brown fat growth, which has wide ranging health benefits, including a turbo charged metabolic rate.
These recovery protocols can be implemented into your routine really simply, yielding noticeable results. Quite simply, time your food around your training, check the composition of your meals, avoid sitting still for too long, and expose yourself to uncomfortable temperatures once each day. Most of these are habit changes, not the introduction of something new, and therefore once they are a part of your routine, should take up no extra time.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of the methods discussed in this article, or any of the series, by adding your comments and questions below. Look out for the podcast series which dives into each of these articles a little deeper, for more information.