The Basics of Recovery

SupplementsNote from MR: Even though this is “Strength Month” here at RTS, we also know that it’s not just what you do in the gym, but what you do outside of it that’s important.

As such, Sol Orwell and his crew at are really doing good things with regards to supplementation and recovery, so when they offered up a guest post, I jumped at the chance.

Regardless of you end goal, improving recovery is never a bad thing. Here’s Spencer from….


Recovery is a broad term used to refer to the rate your body can recover from a large acute stressor, like physical exercise, or the accumulation of minor stresses, akin to those that build up from a long day at work. While recovery can be divided into physical and mental categories, the two tend to work together, since mental and physical stresses often coexist.

A person with good recovery will, regardless of what happens to their body (within reason), be able to return to baseline levels of readiness within a day or two. Poor recovery means that after a stressor occurs, the body takes much longer to return to baseline levels of readiness, or what you felt like before the stress occurred. If stress is frequent enough and recovery time is not adequate, you might end up in a cycle of poor recovery.

A person suffering from a chronic lack of recovery is usually just called ‘stressed.’ Their problem has to do with the amount of stressors their body is experiencing. For this reason, the process of improving recovery has a lot to do with de-stressing techniques.

Sleep and Environmental Stress

Sleep is the foundation of recovery, as long as there is no environmental stress. Since poor sleep sensitizes you to your environment, and your environment can independently (usually negatively) influence sleep, it’s easy to get stuck in a loop.

If these two factors are controlled, the majority of stress can successfully be avoided or reduced to a reasonable level. In this case, the impaired recovery, which would have occurred from the stress, is avoided.

Minimizing how your environment influences you is psychological, and a great reason to form good habits around handling stress. Supplements can help, but in a limited way. Adaptogens are a collection of anti-stress herbs. Don’t let the buzzwords throw you off, as some of these do work.

We don’t really know how adaptogens work, but a supplement can be classified as an adaptogen if, after preloading, the things that should occur during stressful events (anxiety, stomach ulceration, depression, reduced memory, elevations in cortisol) are either minimized or outright prevented.

While there are many adaptogens on the market, the major, best-researched examples are ashwagandha, rhodiola rosea, and panax ginseng. All three of these have sufficient human evidence for their effects.

Prior to supplementing anything for sleep quality, check the following off your list:

  • Do you sleep in an area with visible light? Any visible light may reduce the time it takes to fall asleep, with no further influence during sleep, due to your eyes being closed.

  • Do you sleep in an area with audible noise? Any noise can negatively influence sleep quality even when unconscious, since ears do not close during sleep.

  • Do you have anxieties and worries keeping you from falling asleep? If so, put your thoughts down on paper, so ‘future you’ can handle all the important stuff while you sleep.

  • Do you have caffeine or any stimulants too close to bedtime? If so, consider moving them back in the day.

Supplements for sleep are catered to one of two goals, either enhancing sleep quality (how restful a sleep is) or reducing sleep latency (how long it takes to fall asleep). Reducing sleep latency will enhance sleep quality per se, if you normally take longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep. If you fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow, focusing on sleep latency is redundant.

The most helpful supplement for sleep latency is melatonin. Ingesting this supplement can knock people right out, since melatonin is the hormone that mediates sleep latency. It is also a reference drug for insomnia. If melatonin is not your thing, lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), a sedative, can offer benefits for people suffering from intrusive thoughts or excitation, either of which would prevent sleep.

There are surprisingly few supplemental options for sleep quality, since most either lack sufficient human research (oleamide) or their preliminary evidence ended up being refuted by more recent and better controlled studies (valerian). The only lead we have right now is glycine, which appears to improve self-reported feelings of restfulness and well being, when subjects are evaluated after taking 3g an hour before sleep.

Sleep and Exercise

Poor sleep does not acutely influence much beyond hand-eye coordination in athletics, so while a baseball pitcher or a quarterback may feel the effects of a poor night’s sleep, it is unlikely that an average gym goer will ever feel these negative effects.

The negative effects of poor sleep are chronic in nature. It is rare for somebody lacking sleep to to be accurately able to pinpoint sleep quality as the crux of their problem, but it is common for people who have poor sleep to report feeling better after a month of corrected sleep.

Recovery and Nutrient Intake

Nutrient intake can be divided into two separate categories in terms of recovery: the micronutrient intake and the macronutrient intake. Micronutrient deficiencies can be corrected through supplementation, but complications in macronutrient intake require a dietary overhaul to correct.

Micronutrient intake does not influence exercise capacity and recovery very much, with the only exception being instances of micronutrient insufficiency. A lack of micronutrients impairs recovery by reducing levels of the hormones involved in recovery (zinc and testosterone), or by impairing sleep and muscle contractile function (magnesium).

Zinc and magnesium are mentioned specifically because they are two of the only micronutrients known to affect recovery from physical exercise. Although neither is commonly deficient in sedentary people, their accelerated loss through sweat, paired with an insufficient dietary intake could mean insufficiency in athletes.

Vitamin D and K, on the other hand, are relatively common deficiencies that are not conclusively shown to negatively influence recovery from exercise.

Physical recovery is very closely related to not only overall energy intake, but also the availability  of the energy. While a diet conferring 3000kcal will provide more recovery than a diet containing 2000kcal, even if the calories and protein intake are controlled for, a higher carbohydrate intake usually outperforms fatty acids.

The former overall intake tends to wash out any benefits that comes from manipulating fatty acids and carbohydrates, so while somebody with a low caloric intake may find enhanced recovery and performance by switching to carbohydrates, this benefit may be removed by the consumption of a lot of calories.

Aiding recovery from a macronutrient perspective just refers to consuming more energy, unless it would impair fat loss attempts (from consuming more calories than needed), in which case a switch to carbohydrates from fatty acids would be prudent.

This assumes dietary protein is being consumed in sufficient levels for an athlete (1.2g/kg minimum). A lack of dietary protein is an independent impairment to optimal recovery, in a manner not related to energy availability.

Nutrient Intake and Exercise

The most important factor for most beginner and intermediate athletes is getting the food into your body. Timing doesn’t matter very much at this stage, and the amount of benefit you could experience from manipulating fat versus carbohydrate intake is minimal at best.

For more advanced athletes, especially those with lower dietary carbohydrates intakes, the timing of carbohydrates becomes more important not only in regard to performance but also recovery (referring to more than just glycogen replenishment).

In the instance of low dietary carbohydrate and high workload, pre-workout carbohydrate is significantly more effective than at other times of the day, although post-workout timing may have some benefit specifically for glycogen replenishment, since it would not be getting utilized as fuel during exercise.

Recovery and Illness

Everybody gets sick. It is possible to reduce both the frequency and duration of sickness with proper supplementation, and while it is an indirect way of promoting recovery (by preventing a negative stressor from occurring), it is definitely very helpful.

Though supplementing away your sickness is a great topic for discussion, don’t forget the most important thing: wash your hands frequently to reduce contagious viral infections.

Similar to how sleep is broken down into sleep latency and sleep quality, sickness can also be broken down into a few different elements. This is important because some supplements may only benefit one or two categories. Taking one compound blindly as an ‘immunity booster’ is a recipe for disappointment.

The different elements of illness are:

  • Sickness frequency, or how often you get sick.

  • Sickness duration, or how long you are sick for.

  • Sickness severity, or how bad the symptoms are.

Some people don’t get sick very often, but when they do, it hits them hard (low frequency, high severity and duration). Others get sick all the time, but to such a mild degree that it barely affects them (low severity, but high frequency). Supplementation for reducing sickness should be focused on the parts that matter to you.

Garlic seems to be one of the most promising supplements for reducing sickness frequency. It has been minimally tested, but its ability to cut sickness frequency in half has been noted twice in studies, and may extend to the food product itself. Unfortunately, garlic doesn’t do anything for symptom severity.

Honorable mentions include Pelargonium sidoides (African geranium), which reduces all three aspects of sickness. While it has only been sufficiently tested for its effects on acute bronchitis, Pelargonium sidoides shows a large degree of benefit.

It may extend to all viral infections, particularly of the throat, but whether or not this helps the common cold is yet to be tested. Vitamin C also gets a mention, but its reduction in sickness frequency and severity may only apply to athletes who are at risk for exercise-related immune suppression, with little to no influence on sedentary people.

Illness and Exercise

If you have an infectious ailment, don’t go to a public gym.

Any sickness can sap your strength. While reduced work capacity isn’t too harmful in the scope of a single day, if sickness occurs too often, it will impact the level of progressive overload that can be performed.

Sickness is almost always associated with higher energy requirements, yet also a reduction in appetite. This combination means that attempts to promote lean mass accrual via the diet are going to be hindered, since not only is a higher caloric requirement needed, but it is less likely you will want to meet these requirements.

Most of the problems with sickness, as it relates to exercise, are just the effects being ill has on the basics of exercise and recovery. Illness itself won’t weaken your bench press, but it will make proper diet and recovery that much harder.

About the Author

Dr. Spencer Nadolsky is Director of, where they collate scientific research on nutrition and supplementation.

Founded in early 2011, is an independent and neutral investigation into nutrition and supplements.


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  1. I’ve read about the benefits of adaptogens a few times, though I have actually never read about or heard of anyone’s personal experiences using them. Is there a most cost-effective adaptogen? Do they have different effects?

    p.s. I thought the article had valuable and useful information.

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