Friday, May 4, 2012

Fitness Is...


The concept of rest and recovery are finally starting to gain some traction in the CrossFit world.  More and more top athletes have acknowledged the importance of icing their muscles between workouts, taking days off, and even de-loading their bodies between cycles of training.  For many though, these ideas remain abstract concepts without organization or purpose.  You may have heard that you should ice or do some active recovery, but don’t really know what that means or how to really go about it.  The following is the cliff’s notes on what to do, when to do it, and why.

Corrective Exercise
This includes any sort of mobility work, band flossing, foam rolling, lacrosse ball trigger point seeking, or general range of motion improvement.  These types of activities are most effectively employed in preparation for a workout or activity.  Attacking tight hip flexors right before you leave the gym to go sit in your car or at your desk and re-tighten them isn’t pointless, but it’s damn close.  If you only have a finite amount of time in your schedule then using it effectively is critical.  Creating space in your joints and balance in your muscles should be a pre-workout activity because it will improve your performance.  That’s what most of these exercises are designed to do anyway.  Now, there’s nothing that says you can’t work on your gristly spots before bed or at any other time of the day; I’m just saying if you had to pick the perfect time to do it, before your WOD is it.

This includes static stretching, limbic release, and anything designed to relax your soft tissues or impart a permanent change in flexibility or range of motion.  These methodologies are best employed following a workout or as a dedicated session in themselves.  Flushing your system of toxins left over from the chemical process of muscle contraction is a must if you’re serious about limiting soreness and speeding your recovery post-workout.  The most basic form of this practice is the age-old “cool down” that every P.E. coach you ever had made you do some variation of.  Low intensity activity designed to slowly lower your heart-rate and prevent blood from pooling.  This also includes foam rolling or light massage designed to remove any adhesions between your muscles and fascia, and calm your central nervous system in general.

This includes taking ice baths, salt baths, or using ice packs for local treatment of sore areas.  The fastest way to heal a minor injury (tendonitis, sprain, soreness, etc) is to circulate nutrient rich blood to the affected area.  Icing is super effective at accomplishing this because your body’s first response to lower tissue temperatures is the send blood to the area to re-heat it.  This means that without any additional strain to the injury/sore spot you have forced your body to send the nutrient rich blood it needs to heal itself.  Expanding on this practice by using the contrast of hot and cold to play with the dilation of your blood vessels only heightens the effect.  Salt baths work a little differently because they help replenish the body’s mineral levels.  The most popular and effective method for this is to use Epsom Salts.  These salts are a great source of magnesium and have significant anti-inflammatory effects. 
The appropriate time to do ice or bath is post workout or between workouts.  In a sense, it can serve the same purpose as the flushing techniques mentioned above but without the added impact of continued exercise.  Hence, it makes the most sense to utilize it when the body’s tissues need it the most—when they are inflamed.

Rest Days
This is self explanatory, but a short paragraph iterating why we should do this is warranted.  Breakdowns in muscle tissue take 36-48 hours to heal, yet Crossfitters love to train so much that we often ignore this basic need to recover.  We invent solutions and rationalize our way around the simple fact that our bodies will not improve unless we give them time to heal.  If you’re about to argue that you alternate movement patterns from day to day, let me stop you.  Unless you are separating upper body/lower body between days (which I know you’re not because you wouldn’t be reading this blog if you did) you most likely are using your hip and shoulder joint every day you train.  “But wait, I did pullups day 1 and presses day 2, so I pulled day 1 and pushed day 2.  That’s balanced right?”  Wrong.  Even though you primarily used your lats and biceps day 1 and your shoulders and triceps day 2, you still torqued the shit out of your shoulder joint two days in a row.  No muscles work independently of each other so arguing that because the main movers were different means you “rested” is absurd.  Why do you think every bodybuilder has tendonitis and ligament damage?  They think in terms of muscles rather than in terms of joints. 
Further, it’s not just your soft tissues that need to bounce back after a tough training day.  Your central nervous and endocrine systems take a beating doing what we do.  Never taking rest days leads to elevated cortisol levels (a condition that if made chronic can lead to all kinds of problems) and a dullness that limits your ability to focus and put forth full effort.  There’s only so much tread on your tires and taking a day off after you put your body through the wringer isn’t too much to ask.

De-Load Weeks & Active Rest
Every 4-6 weeks you should be taking a week off.  What????  Yes, even YOUR body needs an extended break from training.  Maybe your muscles don’t feel like it, but your tendons, ligaments, and even your endocrine system can really use the break from time to time.  Everything in the universe operates in wavelike periods and training is no different.  You need to account for your body’s need to lull.  Now, how do you de-load?  There are plenty of ways to take advantage of a week without your typically high intensity training regiment.  The first way is to employ active rest.  This term is thrown around a lot, but misunderstood most of the time.  The operative word here is still REST.  Going for a 5 mile run is not active rest.  Going for a 5 mile walk would be.  You want to avoid elevating your heart rate too much and definitely not put any serious strain on your joints or connective tissues.  Light stretching, corrective exercise programs, low impact activities like biking or swimming... these would all be appropriate.  Another way to attack a de-load week is to play some sports for fun.  Games that aren’t too hard on the body are ideal—think golf, large group volleyball, paddle boarding, playing h-o-r-s-e, etc.  This is a way to keep your body moving, which is key, but not require it to dip into its energy reserves.  Yet another way to pass the time during a de-load week is to practice a skill or set of skills.  Don’t go doing 30 muscle ups for time every day and call it skill work, but practicing hand balancing for a few minutes here and there during the course of the day would work just fine. 
It should be mentioned that you will feel the effects of your de-load week the first couple days afterwards.  The negative - your conditioning will take a little hit, but rest assured it will bounce back quickly.  The positive - your strength will invariably go up and your body will feel amazingly fresh.  You will also get injured far less often. 

Remember, fitness is a long-term game.  Dialing in your recovery isn’t going to win you the CrossFit Games or magically make you lose 20 lbs.  But ignoring the body’s need to recover will absolutely prevent you from having the opportunity to do either.  Not to mention the opportunity to continue training late into your life.  Think about it.


  1. Thank you for the excellent article Blair! Great knowledge!

  2. Awesome post! Sharing with the members of our box. Thanks Blair!

  3. Always a pleasure reading your "Fitness is.." posts. All the best for regionals, Blair.

  4. Great blog and post. I have been writing similar things on my VERY new blog for women Crossfitters
    I am glad to see Crossfitters are realizing recovery is important too.

  5. Recovery is key to progress. In this area as you say, chaos tends to prevails. Those who can dial in recovery following some rational scheme will see progress even further. Well said!

    This weak I will be posting a spanish translated version of your article in my blog and will mention you and this site in a link. If you think i shouldnt, please let me know.

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  6. Bravo! Excellent perspective. ~j

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