It’s a question I get quite a bit, and it’s a really good one. How to tell when you’re fully recovered from a big workout, event, or even night on the town?*
I’d like to offer one simple metric: You feel springy. Back to this in a moment.
Let’s start, with why you should care. In short, overtraining tends to lead to a host of overuse problems, not the least of which is you’re doing something degrading that’s not even that fun anymore. The breakdown of your soft tissues is not being matched by a subsequent recovery, so you end up more broken than when you started. Ah … bummer.
And there’s already a pretty good rule of thumb out there for how to avoid this: you’ve recovered when you’re not sore anymore. In general, that means resting a day or two after moderate workouts, sometimes three or four (or more) for really blasting ones.
However … different tissues in your body are going to recover at different, sometimes wildly different, rates. Like have you ever heard that you can work your abs every day? The tissues surrounding our organs are, in general, pretty well perfuse with blood, and thus recover pretty quickly. It also makes sense when you think about how quickly our trunks need to be able to adapt to our environment: lots of bending, lifting, twisting (ideally anyway, right?).
This becomes less and less true, in general, the more we get into connective tissue dense areas of the body like the forearm and hand (which just so happens to be a very common location for overuse injuries, not just in athletes like rock climbers, but athletes sitting at a desk performing 1000’s of repetitions of keystrokes, i.e. a lot of us). Connective tissue regenerates more slowly than muscle tissue.
An overt soreness tends to be a good indicator for the still-recovering state of some, but not all, the tissues of your body. So now we’ve got lots of different tissue types recovering at different rates, and even having a different feeling to them during recovery. As in: muscle soreness is but one indicator of an incomplete recovery. Lack of elasticity is another.
All of your tissues share the properties of strength (i.e. contractile ability and tensile strength) and elasticity. And likewise, both strength and elasticity are part of that breakdown and regeneration cycle that is a workout and its recovery.
Thus, feel for a “normal” sense of springiness in your tissues, joints, body, being—however you want to think about it—and you’re tuning into a pretty good indicator for both strength and elastic, i.e. a full, recovery. Perhaps you’ve noticed this before?
My experience has been it’s something that intuitively makes sense to a lot of us, and has since we were kids, though we can over-intellectualize when to do what exercises and get away from a very innate, natural way to tell when we’re ready to go again.
It’s the reason why, for many of us, walking is a better intro-to-fitness than running, where we might land with a thud with each painful stride. Slowly build that elastic capacity in your feet and legs, and the process is way, way more enjoyable!
As always, I’d be curious to hear your experiences, whether they match this theory or not!
*Of course, muscular degradation from a big workout is a pretty different mechanism than, say, eight whiskey-gingers still working through your liver. That said, the functional question remains the same: is your physiology back up to a relative 100%? How’s the spring in your step?