Written by Dr. Mike Israetel
In order for training to be effective, an overload must be presented. Training must be chronically harder, longer, and more demanding in some way as it progresses within months, years, and even at the career level. But while hard training is a must, it comes with one major side effect: cumulative fatigue.
Rather than just being synonymous with getting tired and out of breath after training, cumulative fatigue is composed of the additive effect of the little depletions, disruptions, and microtears that don’t heal 100% with each week of training. A very detailed examination of the causes and training-mediated forms of fatigue management can be found here.
As outlined in the article linked, in order for productive training to continue, fatigue must be managed by not getting too high too often, and being brought down when it does. To be sure, training-mediated methods of fatigue management work. Nothing can refresh quite like a deload or active rest phase. However, how often your fatigue gets out of hand, and thus how often you have to deload, is not set in stone. Managing your fatigue by non-training mediators can meaningfully improve performance and extend the length of time you actually spend training and progressing versus just trying to recover so you can even train at all.
On the other end of the spectrum, making poor choices in the non-training realm can not only prohibit a recovery advantage, but it can downright halt training progress. Some of the methods of fatigue management to be presented will be affecting and enhancing the training process while still others are downright bare necessities to benefiting from the basic training process.
So without further ado: A survey of the top methods of fatigue reduction outside the gym presented in three sections:
– Those that work well
– Those about which science is uncertain
– Those that don’t seem to work as planned or much at all
To the list!
Fatigue Reduction Methods that Work Well:
The fatigue reduction modalities presented in this section are the ones that almost certainly work and work well. They were chosen because they have three distinct advantages in their favor:
– They have strong support in the peer-reviewed literature.
– They logically align with our greater understanding of sport science and physiology.
– They have been used and sworn by in the real world for a long time and by a diverse group of athletes and gym rats alike.
When you’ve got all three, you know you’re on to something that really works. And our first – and easily most powerful – fatigue reducer:
Sleep is such a powerful fatigue fighter that it’s likely more effective than all of the other items on this list combined. In fact, if insufficient sleep is a chronic occurrence, it comes close to making even the best efforts on all other fatigue fighting lines null and void. Curiously, a likely major function of sleep in animals (including humans) is precisely to reduce fatigue. Yeah, you might be OK without that massage post-workout, but sleep is not optional.
Going chronically without needed sleep leads to all sorts of fun effects, including performance losses, technique execution difficulties, and profound elevations of cortisol and decreases in testosterone. Going without sleep has also been shown to do two things that are especially interesting: cause fat gain and later, weight loss (if depravation gets bad enough). Fat gain combined with weight loss is literally the fastest way to lose muscle. It’s a REALLY bad deal.
OK fine, sleep is good, no sleep is bad. Got it. What about some practical recommendations? How much is enough? Well, the average trainee seems to need about eight hours of quality sleep per night. But that doesn’t mean much, because you might not be the average trainee. We ALL know that guy who sleeps five hours a night and recovers just fine! Ronnie Coleman was supposedly in this unique group of athletes. So what’s the deal?
It seems that the best recommendation for sleep is: Get enough FOR YOU. Your training partner might need six hours of sleep, and your coach might need 10, but the only thing you need is enough sleep for your own physiological needs. How do you know you’re getting enough? The truth is: Unless you’re a little kid, you know.
If you wake up tired and get sleepy during the day all the time, you’re not getting enough quality sleep. If you feel A-OK without massive doses of stimulants, you’re likely fine. It’s always good to experiment with a bit more sleep if you’re OK to see if there is a benefit, but generally, it’s that simple. And the thing is, almost everyone KNOWS when they are sleep deprived. They know, but they say “my job is demanding” or “the stress keeps me from sleeping,” or they just love late-night TV and can’t quit the habit. And it’s OK to be sleep deprived now and again, but if it’s a chronic thing, it will have a large impact on your training results. That’s for sure.
Is it all right to party super late a couple of weekends a month? Of course! But if you’re under-sleeping five days per week, you might benefit from making sure you get the sleep you need … on a REGULAR basis.
Second to sleep, the most powerful fatigue fighter is food. Unlike with sleep, where getting enough is the ticket, with food, the more the better (to a point). The most profound fatigue reduction comes from a hypercaloric diet. If more calories are taken in than expended and weight is being gained, fatigue management becomes much more effective than otherwise. You’re able to survive and recover from training that seemed at the time to be near-impossible, ready to repeat it all merely several high-calorie days later.
The less food you eat, the more difficult fatigue management becomes. While a properly balanced isocaloric (maintenance) diet can definitely help with recovery, the further calories dip below maintenance, the more profoundly fatigue has a tendency to accumulate. With dieting, this is just fact of life and must be accepted. During fat loss dieting, that is precisely why making sure the other fatigue fighters like proper training management and sleep are in order. One of the most powerful – food – is no longer available in then needed quantities.
Calories are king when it comes to fatigue, but macronutrients matter too. And the most important of them? CARBS. That’s right, protein is not in its customary first place ranking this time. While protein builds and preserves muscle, carbs have a more profound effect on cumulative fatigue, mostly through their effects on muscle glycogen reserves. Low muscle glycogen levels literally turn up AMPk and other catabolic and fatigue-related cellular machinery. Low glycogen levels are in fact one of the most powerful single contributors to cumulative fatigue itself. Eating enough carbs to replete glycogen can go a long way in fighting fatigue. Additionally, ingested carbs have a tendency to lower cortisol levels, which is a great added benefit. While about 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight per day is a good start, carb recommendations are made by training and activity volumes:
– 1g per pound per day for light or off days (sets of 3-5 reps, typical peaking training for powerlifting)
– 2g per pound per day for moderate-hard days (sets of 5-10, typical powerlifting and bodybuilding training)
-3g per pound per day for super high volume days including multiple hard workouts per day (multi-sport, endurance sport, and CrossFit athletes at various phases)
You can go lower than these guidelines, especially when fat loss is the goal, but cutting carbs will eventually have negative effects on fatigue, so cut the least you can to still get the results you need.
Fats are important for various hormone production and thus have an effect on fatigue, though much more subtle. Generally, keeping essential fats above 10% in grams of your bodyweight in pounds is a good idea. Thus, if a 200lb individual chronically dips below 20g per day, this may cause more unwanted fatigue than necessary.
3) Relaxing/Fun Low-Stress Activities
Third on our list of powerful fatigue fighters, engaging in relaxing activities can be of great help. An old but quite profound discovery about the mechanisms of cumulative fatigue is that it is multifactorial. Fatigue can be accumulated from ANY kind of stressor – not just training. This means that fatigue can be added from the usual physiological stresses of gym training, but also from the caloric expenditure of daily activities, and even from psychological stressors. In the end, all of these sources of fatigue sum up to the total cumulative fatigue at any one time, and their negative effects on training are still expressed to some extent regardless of their source. Thus, being under constant psychological stress can overwhelm fatigue management, even if plenty of sleep, food, and other fatigue fighters are present. Yes, it’s possible that a stressful week of closing business deals at work can in fact impair productive training, even a week after those deals have closed and all is well.
In order to deal with the fatigue of sleep deprivation, we get more sleep. In order to deal with hypocaloric-generated fatigue, we eat more food. And in order to deal with training-induced fatigue, we take periods of easier training. In just the same way, fun and relaxing activities are a direct way to fight the fatigue that accumulates via psychological stressors. Going to the movies with your friends, taking a relaxing stroll through the park, or even watching multiple episodes of Clone Wars on Netflix as you stretch out on your secluded couch (my personal favorite) can go a long way in helping dissipate fatigue.
A word of caution; this is not a physiological license to party! The activities must be fun and RELAXING, not fun and draining (as the best parties tend to be). And, of course, we all have jobs and families and responsibilities which must be attended to, and we can’t just veg out when we’re not training. So what do we do in the real world? Well, two recommendations come to mind if you can’t actually increase your amount of leisure time but lifting results are very important to you:
a.) Choose to spend your leisure time wisely.
Instead of partying and drinking on your weekends, choose to spend time hanging out with friends while eating – or dare I say – using less harsh recreational drugs (marijuana comes to mind). Now, I don’t smoke and I hardly ever drink, but if you’re dead set on one or the other –drinking is the clear loser.
b.) Choose to react well to stressors
The act of stressing out, with the hormonal alterations, the anger and frustration, and the high heart rates is a relic of our “fight or flight” evolutionary past. Since you can’t beat up the copier and running away from work usually means they decide to stop paying you, neither reaction will get you far. Instead, try to cultivate an attitude of calm about your work and other stressors. Be calm, breathe, relax, do what you have to in order to do a good job, and leave the sweating and stewing to people that don’t train. You’re an athlete, and you’ve gotta recover, so conventional stressing is not for you!
4.) Compassionate Touching
Compassionate what? First I’m talking about smoking pot, and now I’m really off my rocker! Well, hold on a second. It turns out that compassionate touching is the standard sport science term for the recovery/adaptation modality of all forms of intimate human contact. This includes formal sport massage and runs the gamut all the way to what you were probably thinking when you first read the term, with all sorts of fun stuff like everyone’s favorite – cuddling – in between.
Why do we lump all these forms of human touch together? The most basic reason is that the literature can’t really tell their effects apart. Possibly outside of specialized forms of medical massage to treat injuries, many forms of compassionate touching seem to have an almost identical effect on fatigue. They all lower it substantially, but the source seems not to matter as much. So whether it’s a professional massage or a gentle back rub by your boyfriend, the effect in fatigue is substantial.
Man, it’s good news all around! Fighting fatigue means getting good sleep, eating lots of food, relaxing with friends, and then getting your back rubbed! Being an athlete rocks! Unfortunately, that about finishes up all of the really powerful fatigue fighters outside of the gym (and of course drugs like testosterone, but that’s for another article). Next, we delve in a bit to the fatigue reduction methods that MIGHT work, but we just can’t be sure of yet.
Fatigue Reduction Methods About Which Science is Not Yet Sure:
In this section of the article, there’s actually only one popular fatigue reduction modality. That’s because most of the other popular ones either work well almost for sure or almost certainly don’t. And of course there are lots of fatigue fighting modalities that we’re not sure about, but they’re not nearly as popular and widespread enough to focus on with our limited space for discussion.
1) Heat/Ice/Contrast (On Regular Basis, Non-Injury-Related)
For a very long time, athletes have attempted to manipulate the temperature of their bodies or various regions of them in order to accelerate the recovery process. Interestingly, this has expressed itself in the quest to expose the body to both extremes of hot and cold, as well as both in rapid succession! Developed methods for this include the steam room and sauna, ice water immersion, and contrast showering or exposure, where hot and cold are alternated.
While these methods have some promise, the research on them so far has been somewhat equivocal. As of now, there is just not the kind of positive data to really be convinced that these methods are truly effective and worthwhile to combat fatigue. Perhaps they really do work, but the balance of the evidence has yet to show this. Give them a shot if you feel that they work for you, but make sure you avoid taking these methods too far and causing more problems than you solve. More on that in our next section on recovery modalities that probably don’t amount to much, or worse, are negative in thief effects.
Ineffective or Deleterious Fatigue Reduction Methods:
While it pays to focus on recovery modalities that work, it also pays to avoid the ones that don’t, because not only can these methods be a waste of time, some can actually harm the adaptive process and contribute to MORE fatigue. Let’s take a look at the worst and most popular offenders.
1) Needless Stretching
Athletes have engaged in stretching in one form or another for about as long as formal sport competition has existed. And that’s not by chance, because stretching has very well-documented advantages. The primary benefit of stretching, which is kind of a no-brainer, is that it enhances flexibility. Performance in multiple sports is limited in some ways by flexibility, and a combination of static and dynamic stretching can go a long way in improving sport-specific flexibility.
But for all of its benefits, stretching has its limitations. No matter the claims to the contrary, there is no convincing evidence that stretching enhances the recovery process. As a matter of fact, there is some reason to believe that the extra tissue disruption of serious attempts to become more flexible via rigorous training may actually slightly impede the adaptations signaled by other forms of training, including strength training. Essentially, not only does stretching not seem to promote recovery in any meaningful way, it might hamper adaptation itself. Stick to stretching to enhance flexibility if that quality is needed in your sport, but don’t rely on it to enhance recovery.
2) Hot Tub and Sauna Extremes
Hot tubs and saunas may promote recovery, especially if they are relaxing. However, some athletes take these modalities too far and actually end up making the situation worse. Exposure to high temperatures for excessive periods of time causes three distinct problems for the recovering athlete:
a.) Acute Fatigue
Exposure to high temperature can be acutely fatiguing. Disruptions to the body’s systems and the attempts to regulate and cool them is energetically taxing. It also generates high levels of stress hormones. Even if the fatigue of hot temperatures does not accumulate, acute fatigue disrupts the process of dropping already accumulated fatigue, which by definition impedes recovery.
b.) Homeostatic Disruption
Not only does exposure to high temperature for extended periods cause acute fatigue, there is some reason to believe that it contributes to cumulative fatigue as well. Saunas and hot tubs taken too far increase the body’s temperature for prolonged periods, and this higher temperature actually causes homeostatic disruption. Such disruption takes multiple body systems outside of their normal ranges, and must be reset after the heat exposure. This is energetically costly, and adds up to whatever cumulative fatigue was already in place before the heat exposure. Now the body has to deal with even more fatigue, which is going to take longer and/or tax the physiology harder. This, of course, makes excessive saunas and hot tubs a very poor choice for fatigue reduction.
Normal hydration is an important part of the homeostatic state of the body. All body processes occur in a fluid medium, and proper hydration has been linked to the normal operation of nearly all body functions. On the other hand, dehydration had been shown to negatively affect a host of functions, including recovery of fatigue levels. Hot tubs and saunas are used by lifters to intentionally dehydrate before a weigh in, where lifters understand and accept that high temperature and dehydration will cause quite a bit of fatigue. Given this understanding, it’s quite a mystery why some of the same lifters think that under different circumstances, the same overheating and dehydration processes are a net positive on fatigue, instead of a net negative.
There is a distinct possibility that hot tubs and saunas are in fact restorative, but the dose is the key. With training, while very light training promotes recovery, hard training adds accumulated fatigue. With hot tubs and saunas, a similar effect is possibly occurring whereby short, intermittent heat exposure stimulates recovery mechanisms but prolonged intense exposure just adds more fatigue. Short, several minute exposures to raise body temperature paired with cool down periods may be an effective fatigue fighter, but long periods of immersion – especially when you physically start to feel tired – seem to cause more problems than they solve. Additionally, hydrating before, during, and after hot tub and sauna sessions likely has a much more positive effect on recovery than a lack of attention to it does.
3) Jogging to Reduce DOMS
For as long as humans have engaged in planned and intentional training for sport, they have struggled with the effect of muscle soreness. Soreness, particularly delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), can be uncomfortable and interfere with hard training. It reduces force output for those working with weights and reduces flexibility for those working at extreme ranges of motion. Thus, for as long as training has been practiced, athletes and coaches have been experimenting with ways of reducing or eliminating DOMS.
One of the ways in which athletes have noticed DOMS can be mitigated is via low intensity cardio. Especially bodybuilders have noticed that a brisk walk or light jog of 20-30 minutes duration after training (especially leg training) can go a long way into reducing the eventual intensity of the DOMS that arises the next day. Track and field athletes have noticed a similar process when they engage in a cool down after hard training.
While light cardio can in fact help recovery, not all of the effects are positive. As a matter of fact, light cardio may be enhancing recovery at the expense of adaptation itself. That is, while doing light cardio can limit DOMS and allow you to train harder and sooner, it may have the side effect of limiting how much muscle you grow or how much strength you gain from that very training. Light cardio interferes with training adaptations in three primary ways; intercellular signaling, nervous system adaptations, and metabolite flushing.
a.) Intercellular Signaling
Intercellular signaling is a major component of muscle and strength gains. Heavy resistance training activates a variety of intercellular messengers, one of the primary being mTOR. mTOR is the central regulator of muscle growth and fiber type transitions in muscle cells, and quite literally turns on the muscle growth process after training, at least in very large part. However, cardio training activates an opposing pathway called AMPk. This pathway leads to endurance adaptations like mitochondrial biogenesis, but literally blocks the activation of mTOR. Thus, the very same cardio that reduces DOMS may actually directly reduce muscle growth and strength improvements that weight training is supposed to stimulate.
b.) Nervous System Adaptations
Weight training and cardio not only effect muscle tissue, but the nervous system as well. Training with heavy resistance changes nervous system function to allow it to maximally contract the muscle and allow for the production of highest forces. On the other hand, cardio training optimizes the nervous system into the direction of sustainable, small, repetitive forces. In reality, the nervous system cannot be the best at both actions, so some tradeoff of one is made when the other is trained. Thus, light cardio may actually interfere with maximal nervous system adaptations for high force outputs. … Hardly conducive to best results in the strength sports.
c.) Metabolite Flushing
A small but significant percentage of total possible hypertrophy is caused by metabolite accumulation. When hard training is performed, especially with higher reps, metabolites such as lactate flood the muscles being used and the vasculature around them. The very presence of these metabolites seems to signal hypertrophic processes (possibly mTOR) to some extent. Metabolites don’t cause the majority of the hypertrophic response (high workloads with heavy weights do that), but they may account for up to 25% of possible muscle growth in a training program.
Because metabolites stimulate growth with their very presence, it has been shown that higher levels of metabolites present for longer seem to cause more growth. This is the basis of the training modality known as KAATSU, or occlusion training. By restricting blood flow away from a trained muscle, the metabolites summed up during that training hang around for longer and potentially stimulate more growth.
And here lies the problem with doing light cardio immediately after training. By increasing blood flow to the muscles in which metabolites have been generated, those same metabolites are now more rapidly flushed out of the area. Because this flushing reduces the total exposure of that area (and those muscles) to growth-stimulating metabolites, a potential reduction in training effect occurs. If you want the most muscle size possible, it’s probably good to keep metabolites around, rather than flushing them out ASAP.
Practically, light training absolutely encourages better recovery while enhancing and not detracting from adaptation. The best way to ensure that these positive effects are expressed is to keep the light training sport-specific (runners should do light runs, lifters should do light lifts) and keep the sessions far away from the hard training sessions. For example, benching three times per week means you might bench heavy on Monday and Friday, but keep Wednesday as a lighter recovery session. You would not just slap the Wednesday session right after the Monday session. Lastly, some athletes will knowingly and intentionally sabotage some adaptations in order to gain others. For example, soccer players will sacrifice some small amount of leg hypertrophy by performing a cool down after their practice. However, this allows them to recover faster and practice more times during the week, which has a positive effect on their soccer skill and repeated sprint ability. The sacrifice in leg size is more than worth the tradeoff. But if your goal is maximal size and strength, be wary of processes that reduce adaptation to promote recovery, of which our next and final “bad recovery strategy” is perhaps the perfect example.
4) High Dose Anti-Inflammatories
If we step back and think about it, anti-inflammatories are quite an impressive medical and scientific achievement. Here we have drugs with very few serious side effects that both reduce pain and have a profound effect on reducing inflammation. By reducing inflammation, these drugs can restore normal function and performance to nagging joints and muscles, allowing athletes to come back to practice and play that much earlier.
But unfortunately for all of their major benefits, anti-inflammatories have some small but significant drawbacks. One of which is their interferences with adaptation, both in injury healing and muscle growth.
High doses of anti-inflammatories have been shown to reduce the muscle growth expected from an organized training program. Not all the studies show this, but enough to have us really concerned. Additionally, high doses of anti-inflammatories have been shown to actually delay injury healing, which is arguably even worse news! So what does this mean? Does this mean that using ibuprofen in any amount is going to surely destroy our training gains while giving us the illusion of recovery? Not quite that bad, but some caution must be taken.
A reasonable recommendation is to follow the following four precautions:
a.) Only use anti-inflammatories when you have to.
If you can ice or rest without interfering with training too much, try that first. If that doesn’t work, a course of anti-inflammatories can be considered. Basically, anti-inflammatories should not be a “first resort.”
b.) Use the minimal dose/duration that accomplishes the desired effect.
If 600mg of ibuprofen twice a day brings down the inflammation, why bother with 2,000mg? Definitely don’t skimp on the doses and duration and not get the actual inflammation to come down, but don’t just blast it for no reason.
c.) Do not conflate a lack of soreness for actual recovery.
This is a big one. If you’re chronically super sore and the soreness isn’t going away with just a couple of days rest, this may be an indicator of overreaching (a precursor of overtraining) and needs to be dealt with via an actual reduction of fatigue, not a masking of it! Once on anti-inflammatories, you may notice a reduction in soreness, but this does not mean a reduction in damage and fatigue in this case. Continuing to train in such a state may mean poor results, stagnation, and higher injury risks. Unless it’s a minor wear-and-tear injury, anti-inflammatories may not be the answer.
d.) Try not to make anti-inflammatories a regular ingredient of your training process.
If you need anti-inflammatories just to be functional enough to train, you might either be old, worn down from years of hard training, or just doing something kind of stupid. The first two are very legitimate reasons to have anti-inflammatories in your regular arsenal. The last one is not. These drugs do not actually bring down fatigue, and if your training and lifestyle factors are not bringing it down, THEY are the ones that need improvement. More anti-inflammatories to mask this issue will get your crappy results, backsliding, or even worse: hurt.
The first part of any attempt to manage fatigue needs to start in the gym. Light days and rest days, deloads, and active rest periods are a big part of this process. Once you’ve got your training properly managed, using the fatigue management concepts detailed here (and possibly avoiding the ones that might not work) can help you handle more volume and intensity in your training, which will almost certainly lead to better results!