You’ve heard over and over that recovery is more than half the battle. Unfortunately it is the piece of fitness that gets most ignored.

Training gets all the attention- the results feel tangible and can be easily observed. With recovery, it can be a little bit harder to measure.

There are also so many recovery methods out there, and most of them are expensive or time consuming.

Not everybody has the time and resources to see a chiropractor, physical therapist, nutritionist, massage therapist, buy expensive equipment, technology & supplements that professional athletes have access to. Its no wonder recovery is ignored.

It gets overwhelming to determine what the right mix of recovery methods is for you as an individual. Nobody wants to invest time and money in recovery without seeing results.

That is why I have created this guide. Over the last 2 months I have been training 24+ hours per day for the CrossFit Games California Regional.

This level of training requires an extreme degree of attention on recovery in order to avoid injury and maximize the return-on-time spent training.

My Regionals team and I experimented with more than two dozen different recovery methods, and I will highlight the ones that make sense for everyone from the twice per week CrossFitter to CrossFit Games athletes.

This is a monster article, if you want a short article summary that only contains the actionable advice in this article, click the button below.

 

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NUTRITION

Nutrition will provide you the highest return-on-investment when it comes to recovery. It is also virtually free. You already buy and eat food, so all you need to do now is shift towards a more intelligent macronutrient ratio for crossfit and eat high quality foods.

Protein for Recovery

In my experience, unless you are coming from a bodybuilding or powerlifting background, your protein intake is probably inadequate for the type of training you are doing.

Research shows that for people engaging in about 1 hour of resistance training a few days per week, 0.85 grams per pound of bodyweight per day seems to be the sweet spot for muscle protein synthesis. In my opinion, 0.85 grams is the minimum protein requirement for people who do resistance training.

This protein prescription translates to about 110 grams for a 130lb woman or 155 grams for a 185lb man.

To translate grams of protein into a food equivalent, I took a picture of 5 oz. of ground beef in comparison to my hand. The portion of beef pictured contains less than 30 grams of protein. An equal sized portion of chicken breast contains 35 grams of protein.

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This means that a 130lb female needs to eat at least 1 pound of meat or seafood to get 110 grams of protein in a day, and a 185lb male needs to eat over 1.5lbs of meat or seafood per day to reach their 155 gram goal!

Eating enough protein can absolutely be done with real food, but I’ve found it to be pretty difficult for most people to accomplish. Especially if you eat out a lot, are traveling, or are just generally too busy to prepare all your meals at home.

If you are not getting enough protein from whole food sources, an easy solution is to add protein powder or bar supplements to your diet.

The amount of supplementary protein you should consume depends entirely on how much you need to reach your daily protein target. Don’t go overboard with supplements though, they should not make up more than 30% of your daily protein. Prioritize real food sources!

My favorite protein bars evaluated by their ingredient quality, sugar quantity (lower is better) and taste are:

  • Oatmega (contains whey)

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There are a few different types of protein powders that I recommend as well, each fills a different need.

  • Whey protein is a complete (contains all essential amino acids) and easily absorbed protein powder. Some people are sensitive to it and should avoid it.
  • Pea & rice protein blends are a great option for vegetarians, vegans and whey/dairy/lactose intolerant individuals.
  • Egg white protein is expensive, but an easily absorbed whey alternative
  • Note: Avoid Soy & Casein powders- they are cheap low-quality manufacturing byproducts that supplement marketers figured out how to sell.

Most protein powders will have 3 categories: concentrate, isolate and hydrolyslate (labeled “hydrolyzed”).

  • Concentrate is the closest to the whole food source and generally contains a negligible amount of fat and carbohydrate.
  • Isolates have been processed to isolate the protein and make it more easily absorbed.
  • Hydrolysis breaks the protein chains down into smaller blocks that are most rapidly absorbed.

All of these proteins are easily absorbed, and hydrolyzed isn’t necessarily the “best” just because it is most rapidly absorbed. The rapid absorption isn’t necessary outside the post-workout window and I generally use a concentrate or isolate in my morning green smoothies.

I like to add hydrolyzed protein to my post workout protein blend because of its quick absorption which helps shift the tide of your hormones towards recovery & rebuilding while providing a quick source of amino acids- the building blocks of protein- to your muscle.

Carbohydrates for Recovery

Carbohydrates are not the devil! Especially for athletes who do high-intensity exercise and strength training. Carbohydrates are actually key to recovery.

The important detail is getting the type and timing of your carbohydrates right.

If you are training multiple hours per day with weightlifting & gymnastics strength components, you need to be consuming a lot of carbohydrates.

If you exercise for one hour or less per day, you will not need to consume very many carbohydrates.

Here is a good rule-of-thumb to determine how much carbohydrate to eat per day- eat one gram of carbohydrate per pound of bodyweight for each hour you train in a given day.

  • A 150lb female training for 2 hours would eat 300g of carbohydrates.
  • A 200b male training for 1 hour would eat 200g of carbohydrate.

To translate this quantity of carbohydrates from grams to food, 200 grams of carbohydrates is the equivalent of 4 cups of cooked white rice.

The intensity at which you train, your goals and carb tolerance will also factor into your daily totals but this is a starting point.

Type and timing of carbohydrates is also improtant. You will want to consume low-to-mid glycemic load carbohydrates like fruits, vegetables & legumes outside of your training “window” (the 1-2 hours before, during and after training).

In the meals that immediately proceed your training, you should be eating the bulk of your day’s carbohydrates from high-glycemic sources like white rice, potatoes, plantains & grains.

If you are training for over 1.5 hours per day, you should also add a high glycemic carbohydrate supplement during training.

Consuming the high-glycemic liquid carbohydrate supplement is a key recovery strategy that my team, clients, and I have found to be quite effective.

Studies show that consuming carbohydrates during intense exercise reduces inflammatory markers, muscle damage, improves nutrient delivery to the muscles and spares muscle protein degradation.

All it takes is a 6% carbohydrate solution, which is 30 grams of a carbohydrate supplement dissolved in 16 oz. of water.

I recommend a 50/50 blend of non-GMO rice-derived Maltodextrin & Dextrose. I personally get mine from truenutrition.com because they allow you to easily create custom powder blends, have high quality powders, and low prices.

Vitamins & Minerals for Recovery

You lose a ton of electrolytes to sweat, vitamins and minerals get used in the energy production process to sustain exercise, and free radical formation is high during exercise so your body is constantly fighting to mitigate cell damage with its own antioxidant stores.

When looked at from this perspective, it makes sense that if you exercise it is a necessity that you consume enough micronutrient (vitamin & mineral) dense foods.

  • Antioxidants like vitamins C & E protect your cells from free radical damage.
  • B-vitamins are critical to both energy metabolism and the synthesis of steroid hormones like testosterone.
  • Minerals like magnesium, zinc & iron have numerous roles from energy production to nervous system function

The easiest way to cover your micronutrient bases is to eat one colorful salad per day with some fatty fish like salmon and/or hard boiled eggs.

This salad should contain a base of dark leafy greens (iceberg lettuce doesn’t count), and include red, yellow, orange, purple/blue fruits and vegetables to make sure you are getting a variety of vitamins, minerals and beneficial phytochemicals (plant-based nutrients).

If you don’t have time for a salad a greens & fruit smoothie and eggs is a reasonable alternative meal.

You can also add a scoop of whole food green powder to your smoothie or in water each day to help cover your nutritional bases. Note that a green powder is not a substitute for eating fruits & vegetables, it is a great addition.

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Trader Joe’s makes the most affordable organic greens powder I have found available. The product is called Trader Joe’s Super Green Drink and can be found in their supplement aisle.

REST & STRESS REDUCTION

Sleep

Sleep is important for recovery because it is a time when muscle rebuilding occurs and anabolic hormones, such as growth hormone, are released. Research shows that lack of adequate sleep leads to increased stress hormone (ex. Cortisol) levels and decreased steroid hormone levels (ex. Testosterone).

Getting good sleep gives your body time and resources to repair, while getting inadequate system breaks your body down and effects your nervous system’s ability to perform.

Conventional wisdom holds that 8-10 hours of sleep is the ideal quantity, but quantity is only a piece of the sleep puzzle.

I don’t like to leave anything up to chance, so I track my sleep quality using a free iPhone app called “Sleep Cycle”.

Not only does sleep cycle give me a sleep “score” and a graphical representation of my movement throughout the night, it provides me with actionable information about what factors negatively or positively impact my sleep.

Over the past year, I have meticulously tracked my sleep data and have found what negatively & positively effects my sleep quality. Note that these are the factors I have observed, and are not necessarily universal truths. They do give you a starting place for self experimentation, however.

My sleep is positively affected by:

  • Meditation in the morning
  • Taking a rest day from exercise

My sleep is negatively affected by

  • Exercising after 5pm
  • Drinking Coffee after 2pm (see the section below on coffee curfews)
  • Drinking Alcohol at night (but not when I’ve had day drinks)

I have also found that by creating a consistent in-bed time and wake up time, I will get a consistently higher sleep quality score and feel mentally clear the following morning.

Download the free Sleep Cycle app, or use a wearable device like the Jawbone, FitBit, Beddit, etc. to start tracking your sleep and experimenting with ways to improve your sleep quality.

Napping & Meditation

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I usually sleep well at night but on days where I am training twice, my energy levels and mental clarity take a nose-dive in the early afternoon when I am trying to get work done. I could caffeinate the feeling away, but this just prolongs the inevitable.

To help combat the inevitable afternoon crash (which seems to be ubiquitous) while making sure that you are maximizing your return-on-time invested in fitness, you have two options: nap and meditate.

Research shows that meditation is anabolic, lowers stress, and can improve the sleep you get at night which is why it is a great alternative (or addition) to napping.

Here are two apps to help you get started:

  • Power Nap monitors your movement and wakes you up in 20 minutes or before you enter deep sleep, whichever comes first. It also has longer napping options.
  • Headspace is a mediation app that has a free trial of ten 10-minute guided meditations that are woo-woo free.

Caffeine Curfews

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Its no secret… I love coffee.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a coffee habit, but poorly timed (or too much) caffeine will hurt your sleep quality and recovery from training.

During training for CrossFit Regionals I would often rely on coffee to kick my ass into being productive when I was exhausted from training, but I did set some boundaries. I established a strict “coffee curfew” at 2pm and allowed myself no more than two cups per day.

On days where I broke my 2pm coffee curfew it resulted in a later bedtime, lower quality sleep, and a disrupted circadian rhythm the following night.

Consider this, caffeine has a 5-6 hour half life. This means that if you drink a 16 oz. coffee at 4 p.m. you will still have the equivalent of an 8 oz. coffee flowing through your body by 10 p.m.

I don’t know about you, but I can not sleep after drinking a cup of coffee!

If you like to drink caffeine and want to maximize the anabolic effect of sleep, work backwards from your bed time and set your own caffeine curfew. Whatever your target bed time is, subtract 8 hours and that is the time that you should be completely finished consuming caffeine for the day (including stimulant based pre workout).

PHYSICAL RECOVERY

Exercise to Recover – Active Recovery

During high intensity exercise, metabolic waste products build up in the muscle and can continue to cause damage to the muscle even after you have stopped exercising.

The key to “flushing” these metabolic waste products is blood flow. Next time you do a workout that you just know is going to leave you feeling sore for two days try the following:

  • Row, bike, etc. at a conversational pace for 10 minutes immediately after the training session
  • Instead of taking a full rest day, try adding a 30-40 minute low intensity work out to your day. Swimming is my personal favorite! Just make sure to keep the intensity level less than 70% of your maximum exertion.

Exercise to Recover– Deload periods

A deload period is when you give your body an opportunity to recover from the fatigue accumulated from training hard for weeks on end. It is a major component of any intelligent training program.

During an effective deload period, you are not resting, rather engaging in some form of active recovery and lifting loads at 50-65% of your one-rep max.

Two studies done on college athletes compared the strength & muscle size gains of one group training continuously with that of a group taking three week deload periods.

In the first study, one group trained continuously for 15 weeks while the other trained for six weeks, took three weeks to deload, and then picked up their training for the remaining six weeks. The researchers found that the deloading group made the same strength and muscle size gains as the continuous training group over the 15 week study.

In the second study, the first group trained continuously for 24 months while the other did six weeks on, followed by a three week deload, then six weeks on, one more three week deload, and finished with six weeks of training. The researchers found that even with two three week deloads over 24 weeks, the deloading group still made the same strength and muscle size gains as the continuous training group.

In my opinion, the deloading groups will be stronger in the long run because they will have less training time missed due to injury and burn out.

I know this all sounds terribly convincing, but the type-A people I work with never commit to deloading. Flip the switch! A deload is how you will get ahead!

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Here is exactly what to do:

  • Every 4th or 6th week, put a deload in your calendar.
  • Go to the gym on the days you normally would.
  • Move through the lifts/exercises that you’ve been working on at 50-65% of your 1-rep max focusing on speed and technique.
    • Or, learn a technical skill/movement.
  • Do active recovery work instead of intense conditioning workouts.

Eat the same amount of food during a deload week as you would during an intense week. This is the period of time when your body is recovering and adapting, you must give it the nutrients it needs to repair and strengthen!

Variety Periods

I like to plan deload periods within a training cycle but I like to use variety periods in between cycles.

During a variety period you completely change your focus for a few weeks. The idea is to get some variety in the training stimulus, and make progress in a new area while allowing your body to recover and adapt from the previous training cycle.

Variety periods not only helps the body recover, but serve as a mental & emotional deload as well.

During my current post-regionals variety period I will spend two weeks doing rock climbing, acroyoga, trail running, and mobility work.

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Next time you achieve a goal or compete after a long training cycle, take 1-2 weeks to completely change up the stimulus and explore some fun and novel ways to move your body.

Foam Rolling & Massage

A major part of recovery is your subjective experience of improvement in muscle soreness. If you don’t feel that your muscles are recovered and ready for your next training session, you will not get the most return-on-time invested in training.

Although research is limited on the mechanisms that make foam rolling & massage effective recovery treatments for athletes…they are popular for a reason.

Whether it is increased blood flow to effected areas, or a physical manipulation of the muscle and fascia that leads to a decreased perception of muscle soreness, if you feel better after massage and foam rolling…do them!

During regionals training I was getting weekly massages. If I can’t get a sports massage I prefer Thai massage because:

  1. It’s cheap at $40-50 per hour
  2. Those little ladies can go deep using their feet, elbows and knees to work the heck out of spots that need attention.

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In addition to massage once per week (on a rest day), I spend about 20-30 minutes making animal noises on a foam roller during my recovery day and another 5-8 minutes on training days.

This combined course of action over the last 8 weeks has helped me feel recovered and even objectively improve range of motion in movements like overhead squats.

For somebody training a “normal” amount each week, I would suggest at least one massage per month and a weekly date with your foam roller. Put them in your calendar or you will never form the habit.

TECHNOLOGY

Electric Muscle Stimulation

I will give my endorsement to a placebo if it works. Recovery is as much about your subjective feeling and mental state as it is about physiological processes.

As long as you have rest & nutrition covered, it can’t hurt to add a little bit of technology into your recovery strategy mix.

I use an electric muscle stimulation machine, and find that 80% of the time I feel better after using it.

The machine I use is called the Compex Edge and looks like a handheld video game console from the 90’s with a few wires hanging from it.

When you place its electrodes on a muscle that feels sore and turn on the machine, an electric pulse causes the muscles to contract at a programmed frequency, drawing blood into the muscle and allowing you to passively, actively recover (quite the paradox).

I love this unit because in addition to making me feel better, I can use it while working (I’m actually doing it at the time of this writing).

The Compex is user-friendly but costs $249 and up. My chiropractor and physical therapist both have units, and so do multiple people at my gym. Compex also sponsors most of the CrossFit events I have been to in Southern California. There are plenty of companies springing up with user-friendly EMS units like the Power Dot, and established brands like the Marc Pro. There are plenty of ways to try the treatment for yourself without having to buy a unit of your own!

Normatec Boots

Normatec boots look like hockey goalie pads (see picture below) and they WORK. I first heard about them on the Ben Greenfield’s podcast.

I decided to try them out after the delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) from a leg brutalizing training session set in, and within 20 minutes of treatment I felt like my legs were light as feathers.

These boots are truly amazing tool with one major downside: they retail for a cool $1600 and up. Your best bet to try them is to find a sports clinic that has them.

If you’re in Los Angeles we have them at the Prehab2Perform clinic in Paradiso CrossFit!

SUPPLEMENTS

Creatine

Creatine is one of the most well-researched, safest supplements out there and plays a major role in performance and recovery.

The energy system that your body uses for intense, high power movement actually utilizes a molecule called creatine phosphate to regenerate energy.

When you train at a high intensity and/or with weights, the creatine stores in your muscles are depleted. Five grams of supplementary creatine monohydrate per day will help you perform better in a subsequent training sessions.

Meat, eggs and fish are dietary sources of creatine which is just another reason you should focus on getting as much protein as possible from real food sources instead of supplements!

If you are a vegetarian or vegan CrossFitter, creatine supplementation has also been shown to improve cognitive function in people who do not eat animal-based foods.

Adaptogenic Herbs & Ashwaghanda

Adaptogens are substances that improve the body’s biological response to stress.

Adaptogenic roots such as ginseng, ashwagandha & licorice, herbs such as holy basil, and mushrooms such as cordyceps & reishi have been used in traditional Chinese & Indian (Ayurvedic) medicine for millenia.

Adaptogens can be used for resistance to fatigue during training periods, and I personally used them as a part of a protocol to overcome adrenal fatigue back in 2013.

Ashwagandha is an adaptogen I have used over my last two training cycles to prevent dipping back into adrenal exhaustion. After doing extensive research, I had to know if my subjective experience with the root fits the research claims.

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Studies on ashwagandha not only support its ability to improve the body’s stress response, but showed that it can improve performance measures like VO2 max (the gold standard for conditioning), maximal strength, muscle size, and decreases in muscle damage from training.

Most of the research is specifically done on an extract called KSM-66, which happens to be the main ingredient in most ashwagandha supplements you will find on shelves (or Amazon).

If you want to experiment with ashwagandha try taking 300mg of the KSM-66 extract twice per day while the sun is out.

Natural Anti-Inflammatories

Inflammation is an issue for athletes. It is also an issue for your everyday CrossFitter. Between dietary sources of inflammation, the inflammatory response to exercise, chronic inflammation from old injuries and more an anti-inflammatory supplement or two can do wonders for recovery.

I will detail the two I have found to be the most effective, and that are supported by robust research.

Research supports that fish oil has an anti-inflammatory effect at doses 4 grams and above. The studies that do not show an anti-inflammatory benefit to fish oil were done with doses at or under 2 grams.

The key as a consumer is to find a fish oil source that has a high concentration of EPA & DHA, and that doesn’t taste or smell overly fishy.

If you experience an intense fishy odor when opening your fish oil supplement container, or if the taste/aftertaste is particularly fishy, the oil is probably rancid and should be discarded.

I have found that there are a few companies that provide a high quality, high potency, and minimally fishy tasting oil. These brands include SFH, Original Nutritionals, Nordic Naturals and Carlson’s.

Curcumin is also a well researched potent natural anti-inflammatory, and provides some potent antioxidant effect as well.

Research supports the anti-inflammatory benefits of curcumin- which is extracted from the turmeric root.

Research also shows that 1 gram of curcumin divided into two dosed per day is effective in alleviating symptoms of osteoarthritis in middle-aged population (40+ years old). It is also shown to be as effective as 2g of acetimenaphen (tylenol) in pain reduction. These studies are questionable because of pharmaceutical company conflict of interest BUT my observations of middle-aged client’s experience does seem to support the former claim.

My suggestion is to combine 4 grams EPA & DHA from fish oil with one 500mg dose of curcumin for optimal

The Most Effective Recovery Mix

If you want a bulleted summary of this article that only includes the actions I have outlined in this article, click below!

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This will make it easy to start adding recovery habits one-by-one so that they stick.

My recommendation is to start at the beginning of this article and adjust your nutrition habits. Once those become second nature, layer in one habit from each section (you can skip the technology if it isn’t available to you) every month.

Experiment, see what works for you and stick with it!