Strength training puts a huge demand on your body, so if you’re doing it frequently you’ll want to incorporate some rest and recovery strategies.
I’ve teamed up with Dr SALTS+ to look into the how and why of recovering from strength training, so you might want to read on if you’ve had a tough workout today!
The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems
I’ve written about stress and exercise before from a more hormonal point of view, but this post is mainly going to cover the nervous system and how that affects our recovery. We have an automatic nervous system which controls unconscious processes like breathing, of which there are two parts: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), or our “fight or flight” system, and our parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), which promotes recovery within the body.
How the nervous system relates to strength training
The sympathetic nervous system provides the speed, power, and fuel we need to do strength training, and diverts our internal resources to the parts of the body needed to fight danger (or, in our case, lift a weight). Ever noticed that once you start working out you don’t need to go to the toilet?! That’s because your SNS has diverted resources from there!
The parasympathetic nervous system, however, promotes recovery by sending resources to the organs, digestive system, endocrine system, plus muscles are repaired and made stronger. It’s said that the more time we spend in the PSNS, the healthier we are.
Hopefully you can see why it’s so important for us to relax after a hard strength workout, but how can we give our PSNS the best chance to recover our bodies?
Take an epsom salt bath
I usually take one Dr SALTS+ bath a week either after working out hard or on a Sunday night when I want to relax and reset for the week ahead, and I feel ace afterwards, but what’s the actual science behind it?
A couple of interesting facts I found out about epsom salts: it was discovered 400 years ago in Epsom, Surrey, and despite being called ‘salt’ it’s a completely different compound from table salt. It’s extremely bitter if you eat it, so it’s much better going into your bath!
Many attribute the benefits of epsom salt to the levels of magnesium, although it’s difficult to prove that it passes through the skin into the body – our skin is a large, porous organ so I wouldn’t rule it out, but more research is required. You definitely do feel a lot better after an epsom bath, though, which can be attributed to the relaxation you feel when you’re in there. Relaxation breeds recovery, as the more relaxed you are, the more dominant your PSNS will be.
If you suffer from conditions like psoriasis (like me) then epsom salts really improve the surface of your skin by sloughing away psoriatic scale, which in turn I’ve found can reduce stress from preventing worry about your skin!
Run a nice hot Dr SALTS+ bath, light some candles, read your book, and prepare to feel raring to go for your next heavy weights session.
Eat enough, including protein
Yep, even what you eat can have an effect on your PSNS. Amino acids are essential for calming the nervous system, so ensure you get enough of them by eating a variety of protein sources. Eggs, chicken and beef are complete proteins, so have all the required amino acids, and if you don’t eat animal products then a combination of legumes like beans, lentils, and peanuts with grains like wheat, rice, and corn will work. Having a wide variation of fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds will ensure you have all the vitamins and minerals for your nervous system to work properly, and keeping hydrated will prevent your body from becoming overly stressed too.
During rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep it’s your sympathetic nervous system that’s dominant, but when you’re in non-rapid-eye movement sleep, it’s the PSNS. It’s difficult to do anything to manage which sleep stage you’re in but what we can manage is how relaxed we are before bed and how much sleep we get. Your body will get used to a bedtime routine, so set a bedtime you can stick to most of the time and read a book instead of looking at your phone later at night. Raising your skin temperature by taking a bath then going into a cool bedroom is also said to help you drift off faster.
It might seem counter-intuitive to move when you’re feeling sore and under-recovered, but hear me out: low-intensity aerobic exercise can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, hence promoting recovery. What’s aerobic to me may not be aerobic to you, but a general rule is that your active recovery should be low-impact, like swimming or a rowing machine, you should feel like you’re working at 50% effort and be able to hold a conversation as you’re doing it.
Stretching and foam rolling
You might feel like you’re stretching out tight muscles, but it doesn’t exactly work that way. I’m sure you’ve guessed by now – stretching increases activity in the parasympathetic nervous system, but if you’re already sore from strength training, you want to be careful how you stretch to prevent any further muscle damage. Warm your muscles up a little (perhaps by your low-intensity movement) then do some shallow stretches, or perhaps use a foam roller. Again, foam rolling may not work the way you think – there’s a theory it works by reducing the “danger” signals that travel up the spinal cord to the brain as opposed to literally rolling out knots.
Whatever makes you feel truly relaxed – whether that’s playing with your kids, cuddling your pets, or having a massage – is going to help stimulate your PSNS, but it’s good to have a recovery routine in place to give your body as much opportunity as possible to recover ready for your next training session.