Maximizing Recovery Weeks
Hello circus friends, and happy April! I’ve had a fairly busy spring break this past week, and I’m excited to head back to school for the last 7 weeks! It's kind of crazy that we only have 7 weeks left. We’re starting to prepare our final showcase, which makes the end of the year even more real. Our showcase is part of a week-long festival called "Hand to Hand" highlighting contemporary circus, so if you're planing on coming down for the showcase, you should consider staying the rest of the week for some other incredible circus, including Barcode Circus Company. For those of you on facebook, check out the event here!
This week, I wanted to do some research about how to maximize my time over spring break. I don’t know about you, but I often feel guilty when I don’t think I’m training enough. I know we're all doing an incredible amount of physical activity every day, and down time and sleep is just as important as training, but finding the right balance is the key. Seeing as we had the whole week off, I did some research on how to best use that time.
Rest Days vs Rest Weeks
Every training blog you read will preach the importance of recovery days, because they are crucial to giving your body the time it needs to heal. Training at any level is taxing on your body, and almost every fitness guru will tell you to give your body a day or two off a week. But when you're training 5-8 hours a day, 5 days a week, it's harder to find that balance.
One thing Circadium does well is acknowledge that recovery day. Classes are only 4 days a week, and we have Wednesday to either train, work on our weekly presentations, roll around on a lacrosse ball or foam roller, and most importantly, sleep in. We also have weekends off, during which we have access to the facility and can train if we want.
But we are also given a week long break twice a year. While most regular gym-goers don't need a rest week, athletes will often schedule recovery weeks every 3-8 weeks depending on how hard they train. If I wanted to maximize this time for recovery, I knew I needed to have a lighter week and take a break from strength training.
Understanding Muscle Recovery
Recovery days are more than just giving your body time to rest so you can push harder the next day. When you exercise, especially anaerobic exercises (muscle work), you're actually breaking down your muscle at the cellular level. That’s why you may feel sore after a hard day at the gym. Without getting too deep into science, myofibrils are tiny rod-like structures that make up muscle cells. These are what are torn during strength training, and what need protein to repair. The body repairs the muscle and makes it bigger, giving it more strength.
Recovery days are the perfect time for your body to rebuild that muscle, because it doesn't just fix itself over night. John Berardi, Ph.D. says that muscles take 7-14 days to recover after a hard workout, so occasionally giving your body a full week to prioritize that rebuilding is very helpful.
While most people are focused on muscle recover, bone health is also an important factor. Bone health is regulated in part by osteoprotegerin (OPG), a protein that protects against bone loss, and sclerostin (SOST), a protein that hinders new bone formation. A study done by Brock University in Canada found that the level of these proteins fluctuate based on training intensity. After analyzing blood samples from heavyweight rowers taken during their peak training weeks and their recovery weeks, they found that during intense training times, the athletes had lower levels of OPG and higher levels of SOST compared with recovery weeks. Their recovery weeks allowed the proteins that protect against bone loss to increase, and the proteins that hinder new bone formation to decrease.
So we know the importance of a rest week every so often. But what does that look like? Thankfully it doesn't look like sitting on the couch all week (because I think I would have gone crazy if I wasn't spending at least an hour a day being physical).
Active vs Passive Recover
First, there are two types of rest days, passive and active. Passive recovery means you are completely resting your body, and not doing any exercise. This kind of recovery includes time between workouts, sleep, days off, etc. This is great of short periods of recovery, such as a day over the weekend or midweek after a really hard exercise day. The other kind of recovery is active. This includes light exercise, such as walking/jogging, yoga, or light active flexibility, all things that will get you moving but won’t necessarily damage your muscle fibers. It can also include things to speed recovery, like foam rolling, heating or icing, and massage therapy (rolling on a ball, etc).
I've seen many fitness professionals recommend one passive rest day a week, which I believe is also good for your mental health. But when talking about a recovery week as opposed to recovery day, research has shown that active recover is much more beneficial. Having either a light week where you reduce your anaerobic exercise to half, or really just focusing on those active recovery exercises is the best way to manage that.
Diet is so critical, and recovery days aren't a time to slack. One pitfall I often struggle with during recovery is eating enough. When I go from training 5-8 hours a day to taking a day to just walk and stretch, I definitely eat a lot less food. I'm not burning as many calories, and I’m usually not as hungry either. While this is fine if you’re trying to lose weight, it’s not how to target muscle growth and strength gain.
Since recovery days are such a great time for your body to rebuild the muscle you've torn, you need to make sure you're providing it with the protein and calories to do so. Make sure you're still eating the same amount, and aim for a 3:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio during recovery to maximize promotion of glycogen re-synthesis. Make sure a cheat meal doesn't become a cheat day, because that won't give your body the macronutrients it needs to fully recover.
Drinking enough water is always important, but when you're not sweating all day, I find it easy to forget to drink enough. Make sure you're still drinking the same amount. Your body needs that water to repair the muscles.
Sleep will alway be an obvious one, but I have to include it. I know I don't get enough sleep regularly during the week, so I wanted to makes sure I slept enough (and a little extra) to try to make up for that.
So after a week of lots of active stretching, light cardio, and a some aerial training (I couldn't stop myself), I'm ready to head back to the last 7 weeks. I guess I should start to figure out when I'm going to squeeze in another rest day as we barrel towards May 29th. But for now, my meals are prepped, my work is done, and my house is clean, so I'm getting one last night of 8 hours of sleep.