The Key Chemical for Recovery You're Probably Ignoring (And How to Make More Of It)

Putting yourself in the right frame of mind will help you achieve better gains in the gym and will also improve your quality of life overall.

It's a simple formula: The quicker you recover, the more training volume you can handle.

Done right, greater volume/intensity of training results in bigger gains in performance.

Your workouts are only as good as your recovery. If you're not effectively recovering from your workouts, your performance will stagnate or decline.

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It's a simple formula: The quicker you recover, the more training volume you can handle.

Done right, greater volume/intensity of training results in bigger gains in performance.

Your workouts are only as good as your recovery. If you're not effectively recovering from your workouts, your performance will stagnate or decline.

Recovery is a neurological process. Your brain is the primary determinant of how effectively you'll be able to:

  • Repair broken down tissues
  • Relieve stress
  • Sleep

The brain is constantly analyzing and interpreting the environment you're in.

Depending on how it perceives the current circumstances, it will set your body in either a sympathetic or parasympathetic state.

A sympathetic state is the "fight or flight" branch of the nervous system. When you are in this state, hormones are released that increase the body's level of alertness and heart rate and push extra blood to our muscles. Our breath quickens, delivering fresh oxygen to the brain, and an infusion of glucose is shot into the bloodstream for a quick boost of energy.

We are often stuck in this sympathetic state when we should be recovering, which inhibits optimal recovery and makes achieving training progress more difficult.

A parasympathetic state is correlated more with recovery. This is the "rest and digest" branch of the nervous system. This state conserves energy as it slows the heart rate, increases intestinal and gland activity, and relaxes muscles throughout the body.

Therefore, if we want maximal recovery, the goal is clearly to achieve a parasympathetic state.

To best set yourself up for success and allow your brain to not interpret your environment as a potential threat, dopamine (the chemical released when you are happy) is a key driver for success.

We can talk all day about foam rollers, ice baths, special supplements and the like, but simply putting yourself in a happy, relaxed state more often will help you recover better.

It really is that simple.

We need to engage ourselves in activities that release dopamine. While that's easier said than done, here are a few easy ways to stimulate dopamine, and therefore good recovery.

Positive Social Interaction: Get together with people you genuinely enjoy being around. Socialize, laugh, dance—whatever floats your boat. Other than sleeping and eating enough, positive social interaction is probably the single best way to stimulate good recovery. Just limit alcohol, as that inhibits recovery dramatically. On the flip side, you want to avoid people who consistently put you in a stressed-out emotional state.

Exposure to Favorite Sights, Smells and Scents: Cuddle up in your favorite blanket with a nice scented candle. Go visit a nice place in nature. Get some sun (receiving exposure to sunlight is a well-known dopamine booster). Give your senses something to be happy about, and your body will reward you in kind.

Low-Intensity Walking: Low-intensity walking is the perfect form of active recovery. It's a great way to relieve stress while also speeding up several key recovery processes. Walking relieves anxiety and makes our brains operate more efficiently. Simply adding a daily 15-minute walk around the block or on a beautiful trail to your routine can do wonders for how you think and feel. Taking your dog for a walk is a great idea, as bonding with a pet has also been found to stimulate levels of this all-important chemical.

All of these activities release dopamine, relax the mind, and help the body feel comfortable and unthreatened. They'll also help make your life genuinely more enjoyable, so it's a win-win.

Along with proper sleep and adequate calorie intake, dopamine is a "big rock" of recovery. These are the things that will seriously move the needle. If you're worried about things like ice baths and foam rolling yet your sleep, nutrition and dopamine are not dialed in, you're missing the forest for the trees.

Take care of the low-hanging fruit before you worry about more expensive, time-consuming recovery modalities.

Photo Credit: AntonioGuillem/iStock

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Topics: MUSCLE RECOVERY | CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM