What do you think of when you hear the word recovery? In the context of exercise and fitness, you may imagine stretching, or getting a massage. While all of those can be helpful and have their place, I call those the “minors”. Often, I see people playing in the “minors” vs. the “majors”. When put that way, I think we all agree that our interest is piqued by the ability to play in the “majors”. So, what does that mean?
When it comes to managing pain and injury, exercise, and challenging our fitness goals, there are some major components we should be focusing on before we bring the minor components into play. These are things that help at a systemic level and create positive changes in our global health. In turn, we can recover better, heal more quickly from injury, and make the gains we’re yearning for.
The majors involve sleep, nutrition and hydration, stress management, and movement. Notice there are no passive things here; nothing that you must have someone else do to you. No massage tools, or other expensive pieces of equipment. What it does involve is commitment and consistency – and that’s the hard part! These are integrated into your lifestyle, and things you do day in and day out. When we create those habits, recovery is part of life; and at this point, the “minors” may give you an extra boost when needed.
So, what are the differences between the majors and minors? Things like massage, stretching, cupping, tape, and foam rolling can feel good. They may help decrease sensitivity or symptoms for the short term; however, what they are not doing is creating long term change. They don’t break up adhesions or tissues, they don’t prevent injury, and their effects are short-lived. This isn’t to say they don’t have a place, but it shouldn’t take up as much space as it often does.
On the contrary, the majors make long-term changes. When we get adequate sleep (7-9hrs of quality sleep per night) our tissues physically recover and adapt to the stresses we’ve taken on. Our brain recovers and solidifies neural pathways we are forming or changing. When we consistently miss out on this sleep, we see detrimental long-term effects related to chronic disease and mortality risk.
When we have nutrition dialed in with the right amount of caloric intake, protein, carbs, and fats while avoiding things like sugar and alcohol, our tissues have the resources to rebuild stronger than before and have the energy to perform the tasks we have in front of us. Without this, we see depleted reserves of energy, decreased tissue and bone quality, and sometimes even changes to our hormonal and adrenal function. Alongside solid nutrition, aim to drink ½ your body weight in ounces of water every day! Simply increasing your water intake can make a huge difference in how you feel and perform.
We’ve talked about stress management a bit on social media and in previous blogs. Stress is a broad term and captures everything from physical stressors to non; essentially, anything that disrupts your homeostasis. Consistent and prolonged stress can have a negative impact on our body’s ability recover from stress, on tissue quality, on sleep, and on many of our own behaviors (I’m probably not the only one who reaches for those chips or ice cream when I’m feeling stressed out!). Of course, we can’t control many of the things that add stress to our lives; however, we can control how we respond, cope, and live alongside those stressors! These strategies can help control our body’s response when facing such stress, ultimately lowering the levels of stress hormones. When we’re not addressing and managing the stressors in our life, things like massage, foam rolling, or cupping are simply a band aid for the time being – kind of like the ice cream!
The last major component I mentioned is movement. Movement doesn’t mean formal exercise necessarily. I often like to talk about it in the term “movement snack”. Essentially focusing on integrating frequent movement bouts into your day – whether that’s walking, a yoga flow, hopping on a bike, or stretching. Simple movement like this can be one of the best forms of recovery as it increases your heart rate enough to get blood and oxygen flowing through those recovering tissues, provides your brain with positive reward chemicals and gives it a break from attending to your work and daily tasks; and probably leaves you more productive too! This is especially important for those folks who work from a desk, and then ask their body to go all out during their morning or evening workout class!
All this to say, I definitely enjoy a massage now and then, and I agree that it feels great to roll something out on a foam roller… I definitely enjoy my chips and ice cream now and again too. While these minor recovery tools can be helpful, the majority of one’s effort and time should be placed on the majors; because without these, the minors can only do so much, and are not sufficient enough to help you toward your goals, improve your health, or prevent injury or overtraining. Most folks I work with have goals related to lifelong health and longevity, and playing in the majors is what will get them there!
Reflect on where your behavior stands relative to these major and minor tools. Can you make simple changes to help yourself in the long term? It’s all about the long game, and that’s the game we like to play! Let us help you do the same!
Elle Carlson, PT, DPT
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Elle Morgan, PT, DPT