Examining the 4th Element: Proper Rest & Recovery

Thu. March 13, 2014 12:00 AM
by Michael Elder

By this point, we all understand that seeing physical results requires strict work – both on the gym floor as well as in the kitchen. There is no way we can possibly build muscle or burn fat unless if we are performing regular aerobic exercise and strength training, as well as following a healthy and regimented diet. These have always been the three pillars of success in seeing physical results. But many people are shocked to discover that there is also a fourth element: proper rest and recovery. This is quite often the most over looked component in a fitness program and yet it is crucial to seeing results. Therefore, I would like to dedicate this article to this very important but often neglected necessity.

Let me be clear: proper rest and recovery means getting an adequate night's sleep. By "adequate" I mean a good seven to eight hours of sleep each night. The hard work that is performed in the gym requires this recovery time to repair the "good damage" that was done to your muscle tissue during your workouts. Resistance training causes microscopic tears in your muscle tissue. It is therefore very important to "rebuild" that muscle tissue by incorporating adequate amounts of lean protein into your diet. This process is called protein synthesis and it occurs while you are sleeping. This is what causes our muscle tissue to not only repair, but also to grow. Therefore, we see physical results. If however, you are not getting adequate sleep, it is very difficult for protein synthesis to become complete. Physical results are then hindered.

But there is also another problem that can occur with sleep deprivation: the stress hormone cortisol can build up in your body. Cortisol is dangerous because it has a catabolic effect on muscle tissue. Basically, this means that it can "eat away" your muscle tissue. Obviously, this is not an ideal situation. After all, we want to build muscle, not lose it. It can also have a significantly negative impact on your metabolism. By "metabolism", I mean the rate at which your body burns through food (including fat). Where does this happen? In the muscle tissue itself. Therefore, if we have less muscle tissue, we not only lose mass, but our fat burning capability will be destroyed, causing significant weight gain. Again, this is not the ideal situation.

Despite the fact that proper rest and recovery are so important, I find that many people struggle with getting adequate amounts of sleep. Insomnia can be your worst enemy when you are trying to increase your fitness level. Therefore, I have included some tips to help those who do struggle with this:

  1. Limit caffeine, particularly in the afternoon and evening.

  2. Limit alcohol, especially before bed.

  3. Try to eliminate tobacco use as nicotine is a stimulant.

  4. Don't use a computer, cell phone, or a handheld device in the 90 minutes before bedtime.

  5. Limit television viewing before bed.

  6. Lower the temperature in the house or bedroom before and during sleep.

  7. Take a hot bath 90-120 minutes before bed.

  8. Use the bed for only sleeping and lovemaking- that's it!

  9. Keep afternoon naps early and brief.

  10. Eat 3-4 hours before bed and avoid heavy meals.

  11. If possible, protect your sleep from intrusions. Ear plugs can help with this.

  12. If you can't fall asleep after 30 minutes, get out of bed and perform a task until your body and mind begin to feel tired.

  13. Meditate or listen to soft music.

  14. Use blackout curtains to block light.

  15. Invest in reliable and comfortable mattress and pillow.

Stress in and of itself can also cause cortisol to increase in the body. Therefore, if you have a high stress job, or are experiencing challenges that are increasing your stress level, I highly suggest beginning a meditation practice. Just sitting and breathing for 10-20 minutes a day can have an incredible impact, not only on decreasing your stress levels, but also on decreasing the cortisol levels in your body.

Poor sleep, or lack of sleep, doesn't just cause problems for your fitness level; it can also impair cognitive function. Many people have reported not being able to remember things and having difficulty performing simple tasks. There is a definite link between sleep deprivation and many psychological disorders. Other common symptoms of chronic poor sleep include irritability, memory loss, high blood pressure, diabetes, overall fatigue, headaches, and muscle aches.

Fortunately, sleep medicine has come to the forefront in recent years. There have been many advances which cover an array of problems from insomnia to sleep apnea. If you suffer from sleep related problems, you may benefit from organizations such as the American Academy of Sleep, a professional society dedicated exclusively to sleep medicine. Recent research has shown that sleep disorders and chronic lack of sleep have reached epidemic proportions.

Sleep medicine focuses on the human aspects of sleep and utilizes neurology, clinical neurophysiology, internal medicine, psychology, psychiatry, sleep technology, pediatrics, neurosurgery, and dentistry. Treatments for sleep disorders range from relaxation techniques, medication, and use of seasonal affective disorder lights- something I'm sure a lot of us have been using during this brutal winter! There are many options besides medication for improving sleep and thereby ensuring proper rest and recovery.

Improvements in fitness and sports performance depend on a combination of several factors, including exercise, nutrition, hydration, and personal growth. With the emerging evidence of the importance of adequate rest and recovery, sleep must be considered a key part of any training program.

The bottom line, folks- there is hope! If you suffer from sleep deprivation, please consider utilizing the tips I mentioned above. If you have a chronic sleep condition, you may need some clinical intervention. You have worked too hard in the gym to let sleep deprivation keep you from accomplishing your goals. As someone who has suffered from sleep deprivation, I can attest that these tips and treatments work. So don't give up.

Its past my bedtime- gotta go! Thanks for reading.

Be healthy!

Michael Elder has been working as a fitness professional in Chicago for the last fifteen years. He comes from a background in gymnastics and is certified as a personal trainer through the American Council on Exercise (ACE). He can be contacted directly through his website,