Recovery on a Budget

There are tons of recovery options available to athletes and active people, especially with today’s technology.  Athletes can spend their non-training time in a hyperbaric or cryotherapy chamber, spend as much on supplements as many families spend on groceries in a month and buy all kinds of gadgets and gizmos on Amazon that are supposed to help speed exercise recovery.  Whether or not these things actually work is a different topic. The point is, we can spend a lot of money optimizing our performance. But what about the low hanging fruit, the freebies or cheap options? A recent conversation with a friend brought up the topic of “Recovery on a Budget,” and I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit since.  Every athlete is different and recovery methods vary not only by sport, but by individual. Many runners swear by yoga, but try getting a power lifter to do a yoga class in order to improve their recovery!

Below is a list of recovery options I recommend incorporating into your training regimen. Some will cost a little bit more than others, but they all fall into the category I call “Recovery on a Budget”.

My Top Free Recovery/Performance Boosters:

  1. Sleep- what some call the ultimate performance enhancer plus, it’s FREE!  If you aren’t sleeping, you can do a lot of other things right and not see any gains in your health and fitness.  Sleep needs vary by person, but most athletes need a minimum of 7 hours to optimize performance. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but odds are you are not the exception to this rule.  It’s funny how many people think they are simply because they are able to reduce their sleep hours with no immediate detrimental effect on the body.  I admit, I’ve been there, and I’ll be the first to tell you that I have tried to get by on 5-6 hours of sleep every night. I’ve gone weeks averaging 4 hours of sleep a night and over used caffeine to compensate.  That pattern is a recipe for disaster – please don’t make the same mistake!
  2. Breathing Techniques- also free!  I just finished a book called The Oxygen Advantage by Patrick McKeown, which I highly recommend for anyone interested in improving their performance.  He presents the idea that most of us over breathe.  By improving our carbon dioxide tolerance, we can actually improve performance.  I’ve been working on this for the last 2 weeks and have found it to be helpful.
  3. Mediation, Mindfulness and Mastering your Mental Game – closely related to breathing techniques.  Some athletes have great body awareness, others, not so great.  Regardless of which of these categories you are in, mindfulness can be a good practice to improve recovery as it can help to create a little more “space” between your emotions and your body’s performance.  It can be helpful to your performance to separate the mental roller coaster most of us follow throughout our days from our performance. The best summary I have found on this topic and the primary reason for me including it on this list is a book called The Mindful Athlete, by George Mumford.  I had to read it 3 times to grasp some of the concepts, but it’s been worth the effort.  Another great book on this topic is The Brave Athlete by Simon Marshall, PhD and Lesley Patterson
  4. Active Recovery- still free!  Most athletes are familiar with this concept.  Basically, many athletes and active people have two modes, resting and red lining.  They go from being sedentary all day, then push their body to max capacity during their workouts.  Most experts agree that it isn’t ideal to try to cram all of your daily activity/movement needs into one hour.  That’s better than not moving at all, but ideally, we would maintain a light to moderate intensity activity level throughout the day.  On our days off, that can mean an easy hike, a bike ride or even just running around playing with your kids (I think kids are the ultimate exercise ninjas and naturally do what most of us should strive for during our days).
  5. Ice Baths or Cold Showers- yep, still free!  I know this one is debatable.  Some say they don’t do any good at all while others swear by them.   Personally, I like doing cold showers, especially in the summertime (who needs to take a cold shower when it’s 20 below outside?!?!).  They can be especially useful at the end of the day to drop core body temperature, which can be helpful to induce deeper sleep (refer to #1).  I don’t think you need to spend 20 minutes shivering to get a positive effect. Even 5 minutes can be helpful. For more info on this topic, Google Wim Hof (he also has some interesting breathing techniques)
  6. Anti-Inflammatory Diet- technically not free, but it’s likely money you’re going to spend anyway.  One of the most pro-inflammatory things you can do for your body is feed it processed foods, especially refined sugar.  The pro-inflammatory effects of sugar are second only to lack of sleep (see why that’s #1!?). Most athletes know that they should follow a diet that is low in processed foods and refined sugars, but it’s worth noting that it isn’t simply a weight management tool.  If your body is inflamed, it won’t recover as well from training; it’s too busy fighting off the inflammation created by your diet. Plus, who wants to train hard when they feel lethargic and achy?


Now, to the low cost things.  Most of them are supplements of some sort.  Let’s face it, we can spend tons of money on supplements without ever really knowing if they are doing any good.  I tried to select things that are well researched and cost effective, though admittedly, some are more expensive than others.


My Top Low cost Recovery/Performance Boosters:

  1. Beet Juice- stimulates production of nitric oxide, which increases vasodilation and, subsequently improves cardiovascular efficiency.  One serving (8 oz) immediately prior to exercise is adequate.
  2. Baking Soda (Sodium Bicarbonate)- acts as a buffering agent to reduce acidity within the muscles, thus improving lactate threshold and, subsequently, improving performance.  The only caveat here is that baking soda can create significant digestive problems. Start low and gradually increase your intake if you desire and, please, don’t try it for the first time on the day of an event you’ve been training for over the last 3 months!
  3. Caffeine- an old stand by.  Athletes have used caffeine to enhance performance for years.  A word of caution- more is not better. You don’t need to consume a large coffee followed by an energy drink chaser to experience the performance enhancing benefits.  Depending on your caffeine tolerance and bodyweight, 100-200 mg of caffeine is generally adequate. Also, if you work out late in the evening, sleep should be a priority, so if consuming caffeine interferes with your sleep, I’d recommend foregoing this performance booster.  There is some debate on the mechanism by which this works, but the one that makes the most sense to me is that it reduces perception of effort because it is a central nervous system stimulant. Regardless, caffeine in any form- tea, coffee or supplement- can improve exercise performance.
  4. Melatonin- now to the supplements.  Melatonin is a safe, non-habit forming sleep enhancer, which can be especially helpful for those of us who have a difficult time getting to sleep. I may have a personal bias towards this one as I have seen a tremendous improvement in my performance and recovery since adding it to my supplement regimen.  For years, I dealt with sporadic, poor sleeping patterns until I decided it was time to try something different. I became much more dedicated to a sleep pattern, allowing 8 hours rather than 4-6 each night for sleep and started taking melatonin and it was a total game changer for me. This is one that I don’t think is right for everyone, but if you have trouble sleeping, it may be worth considering, especially if you try other things like minimizing screen time an hour before bed and developing a consistent sleep routine, without results.  It’s also worth noting that as we age, we naturally produce less melatonin, which could be one reason we often develop difficulties with sleep with age. How much melatonin you should take depends on your body and response. Some experts recommend up to 28 mg, which is considerably more than most people take, especially since it often comes in 1, 3 or 5 mg capsules. One strategy I’ve seen recommended is to take 3-5 mg about 90 minutes before bed, another 3-5 mg 30 minutes before bed and another 3-5 mg at bedtime. This is supposed to mimic the body’s production of melatonin as the day goes on and it seems to work well for most  people I recommend it to. This strategy has given me the best results as well.
  5. Creatine – regardless of age or sex, Creatine is an excellent supplement option.  For years, it has been recommended to “load” creatine, taking 5 grams 2-4 times per day, but especially if you are using a quality product, this loading phase likely is unnecessary.   Creatine is available in capsule or powder form, with powder generally being more affordable. Creatine works by replenishing ATP stores in the muscles, thus improving the work capacity of the muscle.
  6. Magnesium – an often forgotten exercise recovery option.  On a cellular level, Calcium is necessary for muscle contraction and Magnesium is necessary for muscle relaxation.  If you’ve never supplemented with Magnesium before, beware as taking too much at once can cause considerable stomach upset.  You may be familiar with the laxative effects of milk of magnesia?  Well, it’s primarily the Magnesium in it that causes that effect, so start at a low dose and increase slowly.  There are certain types of Magnesium, which are less upsetting to the GI system, but they generally are more expensive.


I realize that supplements aren’t free, so they may not be an option for everyone, but I wanted to include some low-cost supplement options on this list because they can make a difference, IF you are covering the other bases.  You can’t out-supplement a bad diet, as they say.

Regardless of whether you are on a tight budget or have endless funds to spend on your exercise and recovery, I think these options are worth consideration.  Give them a try and see what impact they have on your performance!

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