Recovery: You're Doing it Wrong
(+ how to do it right)
Welcome Players! February is the greatest month of the year. Feel free to disagree, just don’t tell me because my mind has been made up for a long time.
Why is February the greatest month?
Well, for one, it’s because every year my friends and I take a trip to Colorado to go skiing. I actually go snowboarding but some of my friends are skiers and I never quite understood if it’s proper to say “going snowboarding” or “going skiing”, so I just use them interchangeably.
Anyways, over the past 5 years snowboarding has become one of my all-time favorite sports. I only get to go one week out of the year (for now), but it’s a trip I look forward to for 365 days as soon as the last one ends.
We rent a cabin close to town, cook meals at home, go into town for a dinner or happy hour or two, and spend the majority of the day on the mountain and the rest of the night chilling and hanging out. It’s a perfect time.
I would love to tell you more about my trip, but that’s not what I’m writing about today.
What I want to show you, is how a highly active vacation leads to “recovery”, and would be the exact opposite of the influencer bullshit that has inundated the media-space over the last few years.
Here’s a screenshot of my 90-day rMSSD (an HRV metric), and my RHR:
There’s a couple things that stand out so I’ll address them first.
No I don’t track my HRV when I’m away on vacation or for personal trips. The reason is simple: when I travel I’m looking to disconnect and do my own thing, living life in the moment as it comes.
Some days I’m drinking alcohol, or spent all day doing activities, or am eating as much delicious food as I can. All these things of course will affect my HRV.
But what they won’t affect is my decision to keep the days planned activities or not. I’m not going to cancel a tour or a day snowboarding just because my HRV is low that day.
So if knowing the HRV metric isn’t going to affect my decision making, then I don’t take it all! I know my body well enough after tracking my HRV daily for over a year, and I’m not going to learn anything new about it by measuring on vacation.
The next thing I want you to notice is how my morning measurements compared the 1st day after vacation was over (today), vs. what they were before it started.
My resting heart rate measured 80 (!) the day of leaving, which is not a good sign at all. And yet it measured 50 (!!) the first day back.
Similarly, my HRV measured less than 30 the last day and nearly 140 (!) upon coming back.
And before I tell you why that’s a very good sign of me being recovered, what’s even more important is the context surrounding these numbers.
On my ski trip, I slept at > 10,000ft of elevation. I spent 4 days back-to-back snowboarding for 5+ hours a day, sometimes more.
I covered nearly 150 miles and 50k feet of elevation changes, while still working out one day and eating copious amounts of food, healthy and unhealthy alike.
I also drank a few beers, stayed up late, and otherwise did not subscribe to a consistent sleep schedule.
And of course the 4 hour flight and tons of time spent traveling to different cities before finally getting home for the 2nd half of the Super Bowl… it was quite a day!
If I had just told you what I was doing that week and not already shown you my HRV scores, you’d probably think I needed a vacation after my vacation!
How does that make sense then, that during a week of high-intensity activity with habits that would normally negatively effect my HRV, my resting physiology metrics are the best they’ve been in months?
Because everything you know about recovery is wrong.
This next part is going to dispel a lot of myths, and if you get personally offended then you should probably re-evaluate your beliefs before blaming me for tearing them down.
First off recovery is not something you can do. Recovery, literally, is the absence of activity.
The term “active recovery” is an oxymoron and although it has good intentions behind it, is not actually what’s going on.
There is also no physiological possibility of any acute treatment or modality that “recovers” you while doing it. There are however a few select modalities that can allow for better recovery to take place at a different time - if they are implemented correctly.
So what is Recovery then?
Recovery is this magical place where our body regenerates itself and its’ ability to tolerate stress.
You see our body has a very complex system for how it balances “go” and “stop”. The reason we can get amped up to run a race and relaxed enough to fall asleep is because of this complex interaction between the “go” and “stop” systems.
Technically they’re called the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, and I’ve written about the intricacies at depth in the series on HRV (which you can find here) so we’ll keep it simple with the go and stop systems for now.
What’s important to understand conceptually is that both of these systems are running all the time. It’s not like driving a car where you’re either pressing on the gas or the brake and using them interchangeably to control the speed.
Think about the go-stop relationship in your body less of like 2 individual pieces, and instead think of them like a faucet pouring water into a bucket that has a hole at the bottom.
Filling up your bucket with the faucet is the stop part of the system, and the hole that empties that bucket is the go part of the system.
If the hole gets jammed and no water is draining, the bucket will overflow! Uh oh!
And if the faucet isn’t working, regardless of how well the drain is working the bucket will be empty! Another uh oh!
The goal then is to balance how much water is coming in to the bucket with how much is leaving the bucket.
Rephrased for humans, the goal is to balance how much energy you spend with how much energy you create.
If you are out-spending your energy you will be left with an empty bucket! Or if you don’t find ways to spend that energy effectively you will be left with an overflowing bucket.
The stop part of the system is what re-fills your energy supplies. When the parasympathetic system is exerting it’s influence (remember it’s not a one or the other relationship, it’s a balance between which one is flowing more, or exerting it’s influence more, than the other) then your bucket is being filled with water.
The rest and digest system is named for a reason, as that is where our energy is created. And when I say created, I mean turning the calories we get from food intake and converting them into powerful sources of ATP that we can then use to spend any way we see fit!
The go part of the system, the sympathetic system, is the hole at the bottom of the bucket. The bigger things we do that require more energy, the larger the hole is and quicker our energy-supply drains.
The fight-or-flight system is named for a reason too, and the actions and effects of this system (such as release of adrenaline in high-pressure situations) allows us to be ready for max-intensity moments at any moment.
The problem arises when either of these systems is too active for too long.
All gas no breaks leads to a crash eventually.
All breaks no gas leads to going nowhere.
But adjusting speed in tune with the road and accelerating or decelerating as necessary to stay in position - now that’s how you win the race.
Ok, back to my snowboarding trip.
I may have spent 4 days being way more active than I usually am. Snowboarding is a lot of work. But for me that activity was re-charging my energy supply, not expending it!
Being away from work, away from the city of Miami, having so few obligations and responsibilities, getting to enjoy the mountain environment and do one of my favorite activities with some of my closest friends - the things that you would assume are draining my bucket are actually FILLING it!
That’s what makes HRV such a unique and powerful metric. It is not a number that can be linearly extrapolated based on events alone. The context of those events is the most important piece!
Yes, poor sleep, nutrition, and too much high-intensity activity can lower acute HRV. But they pale in comparison to being in a state of pure peace, relaxation, and fulfillment!
The context of my trip, even though I was doing more activity, sleeping worse, eating less healthy… is that all those things were done in a stress-free environment allowing me to actually feel better than before!
With this context in mind, it’s actually quite easy to reconcile how my HRV was back to proper high’s and my resting heart rate was at new low’s for the past 3 months.
Ask your favorite influencer whether or not I “recovered” over that week and who know’s what answers you’d get.
PS. Please don’t take any advice from influencers…
They don’t even know what recovery is!
Recovery is a state of parasympathetic influence (the stop system filling up the bucket) that over enough time allows for regeneration of energy supply so that the body can be exposed to stress with positive adaptation.
(read that sentence again) ^^^^
Recovery does not just seclude itself to one part of the body either.
Physical, Mental, Spiritual well-being are all equally important for overall recovery.
High physical stress + low mental stress? Not recovered.
High mental stress + low physical stress? Not recovered.
Low mental + physical stress but lacking sense of purpose or community? Not recovered.
I could list a thousand different combinations to prove my point but I think you get the idea.
Recovery is a state where your body is truly in parasympathetic influence, which means a state where you feel safe, loved, calm, vulnerable, and free.
Only when you have alignment of all three parts of your being is recovery truly optimized.
It’s one reason that no sauna or ice bath could ever possibly be considered to improve “recovery”. The act of getting in either of them raises your heart rate! The opposite of recovery!
Now can those two things improve recovery at another time, like when you sleep? Sure of course it can. But so can a thousand other things.
What’s important is that you understand that recovery is not something you do.
Recovery is a state that can only be achieved by properly accounting for your stress, or controlling how much energy you spend, and by making sure you are doing things that make you happy and/or relaxed, ie. making sure your faucet is turned on and the water is flowing.
The real magic happens when you are able to find that thing that you can expend energy on, and in turn it makes you feel fulfilled!
That is where a pure balance is struck, a term we often call “passion”. You know, when you could do that thing all day for days on end and never get tired of it. Where it’s the first thing you think about in the morning and the last thing you think about before going to bed?
That passion is the incredible result of spending energy on something that gives you more energy in return! Magical indeed!
And so my friends, my message to you this week is to take a good hard look at what your perception of recovery is.
Would you have assumed that after 4 days of non-stop snowboarding I would be more tired than ever and have my “recovery scores” in the dump?
Or do you now understand that after 4 high-intensity days, I was actually recovering by being in a place of peace, both physically and mentally, by doing something I love with people I appreciate.
If you understand that, than you are well-equipped to work on finding what it is that gives YOU peace.
When you do, you’ll never need to think about the definition of recovery again.
- Trainer 01