Fitness is a fickle business: Today’s hot new celebrity-endorsed workout is tomorrow’s Tae Bo. It’s true Billy Blanks is still alive and roundhouse kicking his way into homes across the world thanks to the internet, but the public’s response to his patented blend of martial arts and aerobics isn’t quite as enthusiastic as it was back in the late 1990s.
If I were to wager on The Next Big Thing in fitness, my pick wouldn’t be a workout or a piece of equipment. It’s the stuff that happens between sessions – the recovery process – that’s about to get its moment in the spotlight.
Smart lifters know that gains happen outside the gym. The lifting, sweating and grunting all serves to tear apart the muscles and stimulate a series of internal responses that lead to repair and growth. By prioritizing recovery protocols such as meditation, massage and cold-water therapy, you can enhance the body’s innate healing response, ensuring those hours in the gym aren’t all for naught.
Recently in New York I stumbled upon a new facility called ReCover that’s devoted entirely to ... you guessed it, recovery! Their list of services reads like something out of science fiction: hydromassage, zonal air compression treatments, CVAC atmospheric pressure system, infrared sauna. The price for all this? Monthly memberships start at US$299.
What happens in New York usually makes its way to Toronto. I give it six months before we see something similar to ReCover here in Hogtown. In the meantime, there’s plenty you can do either at home or with the help of trained professionals to maximize your recovery.
Clear your mind
The practice of focusing one’s mind to reduce stress and achieve mental clarity dates back to between 5,000 to 3,500 BCE. Once the realm of hippies and artists, meditation is being hailed by high-achieving athletes, CEOs and academics as an essential key to their success.
Now there are all sorts of meditation apps to guide DIY searchers and seekers through the process, including the ever-popular Headspace. A company called Muse has developed a brainwave-sensing headband that communicates with your phone via an app to supposedly enhance the meditation experience.
The Muse headband plays a starring role in the newly opened Mindset Brain Gym in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood. A studio devoted entirely to meditation and mindfulness, Mindset offers group classes that cater to specific needs as well as a solo “stillness pod.” I took part in a group class as part of a media preview, and while the fancy Muse headband didn’t work for me (something about not sitting still enough, I was told) I did leave feeling recharged and ready to kick butt (FYI: you can participate with or without the headband).
Roll with it
Of all the ridiculous phrases in the lexicon of trainer-speak, self-myofascial release (SMR) is my favourite. Ever used a foam roller or a massage stick? That’s SMR.
Some lifters are religious with their foam rolling, spending upwards of 20 minutes mashing every inch of their body before even stepping onto the gym floor. This is overkill. Five to 10 minutes will suffice. I focus on my back, butt and hamstrings. Famed strength coach Mike Boyle offers a handy how-to guide in his excellent book New Functional Training for Sports.
The effectiveness of foam rolling as a pre-lifting aid is inconclusive, but it does feel good to hit those knots in the upper- and mid-back on days when a trip to the massage therapist’s office is out of the question. Lacrosse balls can do the trick too, if you have a masochistic streak.
Cold water morning
My favourite recovery method is also the least high tech – I take a brief cold shower every morning and after every lifting session. Once I’m all fresh and clean, I crank the cold water to the max and do my best to remain calm for 30 to 60 seconds. And yes, I do this even in the winter.
The use of cryotherapy chambers as a recovery aid is gaining popularity thanks to proponents such as podcaster/comedian/martial artist Joe Rogan and extreme athlete “The Iceman” Wim Hof. Regular folks, though, may be reluctant to fork over $60 to spend a few minutes standing inside a steel drum that’s been flooded with liquid nitrogen vapour. Cold showers are cheaper.
The benefits of cold water therapy are huge. Circulation improves, inflammation goes down, muscle soreness is mitigated. On top of that, once the water stops, your mood skyrockets. The greatest benefit, though, is the mental toughness that cold showers build. After starting your day off with some deadlifts and a cold shower, there’s nothing that can bring you down.
Finally, remember this: Recovery isn’t just one thing. It’s a collection of protocols that complement one another, from eating the right foods at the right times to getting enough sleep at night. Simply put, recovery is what we do on our days off from training to ensure we’re at our best the next time we lift.
Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator at the Toronto West End College Street YMCA. Follow him on Twitter @mrpaullandini.