Depending on your exercise or training load, it’s sometimes “normal” to experience fatigue in the hours and days after a workout or strength session. But what about when you routinely feel fatigued, more than your normal or chronically? Or when you realize you’re not recovering from workouts as well as in the past?
There are many reasons why you might be more fatigued than ideal, or not recovering well from training. Below are a few of the most common.
Reasons For Excessive Fatigue and Poor Training Recovery
Sleep is probably the number one thing that can help you recover better from exercise and stressful phases of life. Typically, most adults need about seven to nine hours of sleep per night, but it’s not just the number of hours that matters. The quality and timing of sleep can be equally important.
Do you fall asleep after 10 pm, or closer to midnight or 1am? Or later?
If so, you’ve already missed out on crucial hours of recovery. This is because your body’s internal clock–it’s circadian rhythm–is programmed for what we’ll call the “night janitor” to come between the hours of 10pm to 2am each night. These are the hours that the brain and body does most of its deep cleaning internally. Just like at school or a workplace, if you work late and the night janitor shows up, they often say “I’ll come back later.” In this case, later means another day. Practiced routinely, and your missed hours or nights of deep cleaning and cellular repair start to add up, adding to your fatigue and poor recovery.
Stress, no matter whether it’s perceived or actual, wreaks havoc on your hormonal response and puts extra strain on your recovery process. Habitual high stress also often impacts sleep, causes anxiety, burn-out, depression, and excessive inflammation. Nutritionally, inflammatory foods are a major stress to the metabolic process and can be treated as “high stressors” at the metabolic level. See more about this below.
Overtraining can be looked at from a number of angles, but ultimately, it’s about too much stress and not enough rest. That’s an extremely broad way of differentiating it from the Stress category above or from the nutritional categories below.
Snacking all day / improper meal planning or amount
If you’re quite active, aim for four balanced meals with no snacking in between. Giving the digestive system time to rest by about four to six hours after each meal really supports its ability to fully digest the last meal before the body has to begin digestion again. This habit can go a long way towards enabling proper nutrient utilization and improved recovery.
Inadequate Macro or Micronutrient Status
Either an improper ratio or amounts of the macronutrients (Carbohydrates, Protein, and Fats), or of any number of Micronutrients can cause poor exercise recovery. The micronutrients that are most often implicated for chronic fatigue and poor workout recovery include:
Pantothenic Acid (B5),
and other antioxidants such as Glutathione, N-Acetyl Cysteine, and Alpha-Lipoic Acid.
As you can see, this is quite the list. Any one of these can be the cause of poor recovery. Some of these nutrients can be toxic if supplemented with more than is needed, or they can negatively impact the status of other micronutrients. So it’s always best to confer with an experienced nutrition professional before adding supplement nutrients to your regime. This also makes sure you get the right nutrients for you– and not guessing at what might help.
Poor Digestion / not absorbing nutrients from food
I’ve written extensively about poor absorption and digestion so I encourage you to learn more by reading other articles on this topic. But it’s safe to say if your digestion is compromised, which also may not be obvious to you, then you’re not going to be recovering well and will frequently experience fatigue as a result.
Excessive Ingestion of Inflammatory Foods
Think of inflammatory foods as anti-nutrients for the body. They take more nutrients to break down and clear from the body than they provide, and cause excessive cellular inflammation before doing so. Foods or beverages in this category include refined sugars, refined/processed grains, rancid oils, alcohol, ultra-processed foods (most foods that have more than eight to ten ingredients, or ingredients that you’d never add to the food from your pantry if making a homemade version), and in cases where you also have compromised digestion (which may not be immediately obvious), whole foods that can be inflammatory and difficult to digest for certain individuals, such as wheat, barley, spelt, farro, dairy products, nuts, soy, eggs, and fish.
Unfortunately, I am all too familiar with many of these personally, and have had whole training blocks and races thrown off by them. For me, the most common culprits are poor digestion and nutrient assimilation, micronutrient deficiencies due to poor digestion, and high stress. Additionally, the factors that can contribute to fatigue often work interchangeably and compound on themselves.
Within my nutrition practice, I specialize in endurance athletes and digestive imbalances. If you’ve struggled with poor exercise recovery or extra fatigue that you’d like to figure out, I encourage you to reach out to me for more personalized support.