The Post-Gym Secrets To A Better Body
Don’t listen to the gym bros. What you do away from the machines is as important as what you do on them
“Music is the space between the notes,” runs a quote attributed to the French composer Mr Claude Debussy. It’s sort of the same with fitness: if you want to fine-tune your body and make exercise more efficient, it’s time to consider the space between workouts. Think of a complete healthy body plan as having three pillars: exercise, nutrition and rest. Each has a vital part to play. When it comes to wellbeing, what you do outside the gym is just as important as what you do inside it. And while it may seem counterintuitive, more training doesn’t equal more gains. Without recovery, you can become exhausted and your muscles don’t get the chance to repair and grow.
The good news is that means you can take time off without feeling guilty. But that’s not to suggest rest days can involve scoffing cheeseburgers in bed while watching three screens. From eating properly to sleeping soundly and stretching generously, there are a few things you should do to make the most of recovery. Here are seven expert-recommended methods to ensure downtime doesn’t turn into wasted time.
We all have busy lives, with many activities and people jostling for our precious time, so it’s essential that workouts don’t take up more of it than they need to. Track your progress with an old-fashioned notebook, not your phone (the temptation to check emails and Instagram between squats is too great). Log weights, sets and reps. Don’t just show up and see how you feel. Plot your session with exercises that will keep working for you after you’ve left the gym (the so-called “afterburn” effect) – anything that involves big, vigorous movements, such as lower-body-upper-body supersets or Hiit training. Mr George Rose is a Tier X coach at the new E by Equinox in St James’s, London, who advocates maintaining variation and power. “Train with different stimuli on different days,” he says. “Don’t just always sprint, say, or lift really heavy weights. And whatever it is you do, keep the intensity levels up so your resting metabolic rate stays high throughout the next 12 to 24 hours.”
Forget the targets (for a while)
It’s important to introduce perspective to your plan. Nobody wants to become a gym bore, but the proliferation of information surrounding the fitness industry means it’s easy to fall into a black hole of confusing stats, ascetic diets and conflicting advice from fellow gym-goers (“more plates, more dates, bro”). Unless you are a professional athlete (we’re assuming you’re not), your exercise routine should be sustainable and your targets should slot in around your life, not the other way round. So on rest days, have some fun. Visit that lido you’ve always been meaning to go to for a stress-busting outdoor swim or take on a bike ride along the river with a pitstop at a decent café. Movement doesn’t always have to be intensive, “efficient” or tracked to be worthwhile.
Focus on fuel
We’ve all had our post-workout high interrupted by that machine-gun rattle of shaker bottles in the changing room. The idea we need protein straight after training is pervasive, but exaggerated. Ms Phoebe Wynn-Jones, a holistic sports nutritionist and movement coach, recommends a regular approach to eating during downtime. “Recovery days are all about the opportunity for your body to repair itself and rebuild strong, functional tissue,” she says.“Keep protein intake consistent (the same quantities you’re eating when you train) and base the rest around plenty of nourishing, nutrient-dense, plant-based foods full of healing micronutrients. Bright colours in natural foods tend to denote different types of antioxidants, which can enhance the healing process, so fill up on beetroot, broccoli, turmeric, ginger, lemon, brussels sprouts, carrot, pineapple and squash. They’re all excellent anti-inflammatories and sources of vitamin C. And go for healthy omega-3 and B vitamins from foods such as fatty fish, flaxseed and cauliflower.”
Sleep it off
Do sleep and the quality thereof have a direct effect on athletic performance? For Professor Colin Espie, co-founder of Big Health and creator of the Sleepio digital CBT programme, the answer is yes. “Good sleep delivers good daytime wellbeing, which affects energy, concentration and mood,” he says. “In terms of quality of life, no aspect of daily functioning is unaffected by sleep.” Missing it leads to fatigue, low vitality and that overwhelming urge to bodyswerve the gym. The point of a rest day is recovery, and the average adult needs a solid seven hours every night, training day or rest day, to stay in peak condition. Plus, well-spent time in the gym leads to well-spent time in bed. “Getting regular exercise helps improve your sleep,” says Professor Espie. “Fit people generally sleep better than those who are unfit, and some studies have found that the time spent in the deeper stages of sleep increases after exercise.”
Use your gym creatively
The path between the lockers and the weights room at your gym may be so well-trodden you can practically do it with your eyes closed. But next time, stop and look at all that other stuff your membership fees are also paying for. Using a foam roller on a rest day for 30-45 seconds on major muscles (hamstrings, piriformis, quads, for example) aids muscle recovery and improves mobility. A tennis ball can loosen up target points more intensively. A TRX suspension system isn’t just for punishing your core. Because it can unload bodyweight or add resistance to a stretch, it’s ideal for improving functional flexibility and mobility. And if all that active recovery just seems too active, studies have shown that an infrared sauna after training can assist neuromuscular recovery, as well as being pretty relaxing. Your muscles will thank you next time you’re staring down at that barbell.
Don’t stop moving…
Most experts agree that active recovery brings more benefits than passive recovery. In other words, incorporate some movement into your downtime as opposed to doing, well, nothing. “Active recovery is great,” says Mr Rose. “It allows blood to continue to flow to working muscles and doesn’t let the body cool down too much or return to homeostasis [a state of balanced rest]. I’d recommend it in between intense efforts, and on rest days, too.” So, don’t just crash out on a mat between sets. Jog lightly around the room. And instead of jumping on the Tube straight after the gym, a short walk will increase bloodflow around the body and reduce muscle stiffness. Swimming, or any steady cardio activity that doesn’t raise the heart rate too much, is an ideal rest-day active recovery exercise because it’s low-impact and works almost the whole body.
… And don’t beat yourself up
In a world where social media sometimes seems to exist only to make us envious of other people’s He-Man abs, it’s easy to feel like we’re just not working hard enough. But before you take up permanent residency at the gym, stop being so hard on yourself. “Overtraining can lead to fatigue both mentally as well as physically,” says Mr Nicholas Polo, a London-based personal trainer who specialises in fat loss. “If exercise is someone’s life, the last thing they want to hear is that they train too much. The key to avoiding overtraining is to think quality, not quantity.” A mindful approach to exercise means tuning out the noise, listening to your body, concentrating on the task in hand. Use rest days to focus on other things than training. It will help you get motivated when you’re back at the rack.