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4 Big Mistakes that Clients Make with Recovery

Being consistent with workouts is a critical component to making progress. If clients are consistent and diligent with workouts but don’t see progress, there may be another issue. These workouts may be the perfect routine for strength, power, hypertrophy or endurance but there's no guarantee a client will recover from these workouts.

Learning Objectives:

  1. Learn the signs of incomplete recovery
  2. Understand the difference between catabolism and anabolism
  3. Optimizing recovery with post-workout meals
  4. Understand the interaction of proteins and carbohydrates in post-workout nutrition
  5. Learn the impact of hormones to post-exercise recovery 

There are a few telltale signs that clients aren't recovering efficiently after workouts. One sign is excessive soreness. It’s normal to be sore after a new leg routine or a high volume of intervals on the bike. Although If a client continues to be sore after the same exercise routine, that equates to sub-optimal recovery. A second sign is a lack of motivation to hit the gym. For instance, if an endurance client is lacking the motivation to meet for their cycling or swimming session then it’s imperative to look at their recovery methods. A third sign is a loss of appetite.  When a client is exercising consistently and hard, the appetite tends to increase.  If there is a sudden drop in appetite, it’s critical to look at what a client is doing after an exercise session to ensure they fully regenerate after exercise. 

Whether it’s swimming laps in a pool or taking a boot camp, all exercise is catabolic in nature. The physical activity is breaking down tissues. This catabolic process is in muscles as well as ligaments and tendons. Imagine a camera within muscles, ligaments and tendons. On a microscopic level, this camera would show tissue being broken down during exercise. Recovery begins once this catabolic process is halted. Switching to an anabolic state is what recovery is all about. Most clients fail to focus on flipping the anabolic switch or even worse, they mistakenly do things that keep the catabolic switch on.  

4 Big Mistakes Clients Make with Recovery

1. Waiting To Eat

Delaying a meal after exercise is the biggest mistake that clients make with post workout nutrition. There is a narrow window of opportunity after a workout.  Think of your muscles as a sponge. Before a workout, the muscles are full of nutrients, similar to a sponge soaked with water. During a workout, nutrients are slowly being used to fuel the workout. It's very similar to squeezing water out of the sponge. At this particular time, the muscles are like a dry sponge ready to soak up nutrients. Take advantage of this window of opportunity. Don't wait to eat!

2. Not Eating Enough Protein

This second biggest mistake is not eating enough protein. Weight training and other forms or resistance training damages muscle tissue (Paul et al., 1989).  When it comes to recovery, protein is the absolute first priority. The word protein comes from the word proteios meaning “of first importance.”  Proteins are broken down into amino acids (AA's) and AA’s are the building blocks of muscle tissue.  In particular, branch chained amino acids (BCAA’s) are amino acids that help facilitate recovery and reduce muscle soreness after exercise (Jackman et al., 2010).

Not only is muscle recovery important but connective tissue recovery is critical as well. In addition to being the building blocks for muscle, AA’s such as glutamine are the building blocks for glycoaminoglycans (GAG’s) (Speight et al., 1978). Think of GAG’s as food for the joints. Eating protein post-workout will help aching muscles but also those aching joints. Make sure to have a serving of protein after your workout to flip that anabolic switch.

3. Avoiding Carbs

Many clients are carb phobic. They avoid carbs like the plague. It’s been drilled into their heads that carbs will go straight to their waistline. This is true to a certain extent. There are two issues at hand. First, the type of carbohydrate makes a massive difference. For instance, if a client is sucking down Big Gulps and is a junk food connoisseur then carbs will go straight to the waistline.

Second, the consumption of carbohydrates is activity dependent. If a person is a couch potato then eating carbs can make them fat. Think of the earlier example of the sponge. The muscles of a couch potato are similar to the sponge full of water (i.e., muscle glycogen). Since a couch potato doesn’t exercise, there’s no depletion of muscle glycogen. In this circumstance, the muscles have no possible way to absorb any carbs. Even if healthy carbs such as sweet potatoes, rice and other starches are eaten, there’s no place for them to be stored in muscles. Therefore when carbs are eaten, there is a spillover effect and many of the carbohydrates become stored into fat cells.   

On the other hand, if a client exercises then muscles can become depleted (Tesch et al., 1998). The reality is the body needs carbohydrates after an exercise session. As you eat the carbs, blood sugar goes up and the body produces insulin to manage the blood sugar. Insulin is a storing hormone. The blood sugar is stored as muscle glycogen that aides in recovery. Insulin after exercise is very beneficial towards recovery. Insulin stores glucose into muscle and has been shown to be very anabolic. In fact, research shows it’s as anabolic as hormones such as testosterone, growth hormone and insulin like growth factor (Fryburg et al., 1995). 

It’s all about timing. Make sure to train first then enjoy your carbs to flip the anabolic switch.  

4. Drinking Coffee Post-Workout

On any given day, a coffee shop will have cyclists and runners having a post workout cappuccino or latte. This may seem like a great way to end a workout, but, hormonally, it’s the absolute worst drink to have post-workout! 

As with any exercise, there's a hormonal response that occurs. Since exercise is a stress to the body, a hormone called cortisol is produced to handle that stress. When it comes to functions in the body, cortisol is a jack of all trades. It's a great hormone because it gives energy during a workout as well as manages inflammation. Cortisol is catabolic in nature; it breaks down muscle. That's fine during a workout but that's not ok post-workout. 

Cortisol is not the only hormone that is produced. For example, during a resistance training session, testosterone is produced along with cortisol. Testosterone is an anabolic hormone and cortisol is a catabolic hormone. The higher the testosterone/cortisol (T/C) ratio, the faster the recovery process (Urhausen et al., 1995).  

Lowering cortisol is the best way to promote a beneficial T/C ratio and switch the anabolic switch. Cortisol levels drop after training but having an espresso post-workout is similar to injecting cortisol and telling the body that it's still at the gym pumping iron. Having a cup-of-joe with a buddy post-workout is leaving the catabolic switch on. So, have the meeting at the coffee shop before the workout and enjoy a protein shake after the workout. 

Training is important but if your client isn’t recovering, then a workout is useless.  It’s important that clients schedule training appointments to be consistent with workouts. In the same way, educate a client that scheduling a post-workout meal is essential for recovery. Have a client drink a protein shake or eat a whole food meal after their exercise session. This meal will provide the raw materials for the body to recover within muscles, joints and the hormonal system. Taking advantage of this window of opportunity will have your client fully recovered and raring to go for their next session!


Fryburg DA, Jahn LA, Hill SA, Oliveras DM, Barrett EJ. (1995). Insulin and insulin-like growth factor-1 enhance human skeletal muscle protein anabolism during hyperaminoacidemia by different mechanisms. J Clin Invest ;4:1722-9.

Jackman SR, Witard OC, Jeukendrup AE, Tipton KD. (2010). Branch-chain amino acid ingestion can ameliorate soreness from eccentric exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc;42:962-970.

Paul GL, DeLany JP, Snook JT, Seifert JG, Kirby TE. (1989). Serum and urinary markers of skeletal muscle tissue damage after weight training exercise. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol; 58:786-790.

Speight G, Handley CJ, Lowther DA. (1978). Extraccellular matrix metabolism by chondorcytes 4. Role of glutamine in glycosaminoglycans synthesies in vitro by chondrocytes. Biochim et Biophys Acta;2:238-245.

Tesch PA, Ploutz-Snyder LL, Ystrom L, Castro MJ, Dudley GA. (1998). Skeletal muscle glycogen loss evoked by resistance exercise. J Strength Cond Res;12:67-73.

Urhausen A, Gabriel H, Kindermann W. (1995). Blood hormones as markers of training stress and overtraining. Sports Med; 20(4):251-76.