Experiencing Fatigue and Poor Exercise Recovery?

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

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.

High Stress

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

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:
Magnesium,
Thiamin (B1),
Riboflavin (B2),
Niacin (B3),
Pantothenic Acid (B5),
Pyroxidine (B6),
Folate,
Vitamin B12,
Biotin,
Iron,
Copper,
Vitamin D,
Vitamin E,
Vitamin C,
Carotenoids,
Coenzyme Q10,
Selenium,
Zinc,
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. 

Next Steps

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.

Oat + Almond Chocolate Date Cookies

Dropping in quick with a delicious and nutritious treat to share. May, my favorite and birthday month, is whirling by too quick. I want to grasp late-spring and hold on to it for weeks longer. Bury my nose in the spring flowers. But alas, we move and run on.

I’m on for a longish Friday morning run once I hit publish on this recipe share, and will follow it with a full weekend of running before next week’s rest week. I’m all for the higher mileage weeks in spring and summer, and somehow the busy work and life weeks are lining up with the higher mileage running weeks. Not sure if that’s a good thing but it’s nice to have the lighter running weeks also be the lighter work weeks.

It’s some sort of balance anyway.

Related, just a teensy bit, to the running commentary above, I found out this morning that my childhood and teenage riding instructor/coach/mentor passed away in the last couple days. He was 92 and lived a full life of loving, encouraging, teaching, and leaving a lasting impression on so many — horses and kids/people. He will be deeply missed. By me certainly, but also by so many others.

Even though I’ve barely seen him in person the last few years, he is a person I think of often. That’s what happens when we have wonderful mentors. They leave an impression far beyond the period of life when we needed them for riding lessons or whatever it is, and weave their good-life-advice into our minds where it shows up at just the time we need it over the years beyond.

So even though I didn’t run regularly when I worked with him back then, his advice has often shown up in the way I handle a tough run workout or a bad result, and certainly in my work life with how I want the best for those I work with, and wonder about how they’re doing long after I’ve stopped teaching or working with them.

Those impressions that rub off and are pressed in.

Oat + Almond Chocolate Date Cookies, makes 12
These are a delicious quick treat to make and eat. They’re excellent for those who are active and want to enjoy snacks or treats that contribute to optimal athletic recovery rather than take away from it with excess refined sugars and flours. For the same reason, they work well for most when you’d love a sweet treat but are eating a gut healing/therapeutic diet or learning to eat with less processed dessert products. Note these are flour-free but not grain free.
Helpful Notes:
– Grind old-fashioned oats into a smaller texture by pulsing a few times in a food processor or coffee/spice grinder.
– For certified organic and gluten-free oats in the US, my preferred supplier is Edison Grainery.
– If you’re avoiding nuts, use sunflower butter or tahini and grind raw sunflower seeds into a “flour” using a clean coffee grinder.
– Purchase a good-quality dark chocolate bar and chop it into chunks. You’ll taste the difference over purchasing a lower-quality chocolate. For a list of good quality/fair-trade chocolates and which ones are better to avoid, see here.

1/4 cup / 37 g packed pitted dates (about 3 large dates)
3 Tbs. / 45 ml warm water
2 Tbs. / 27 g coconut oil
2 Tbs. /40 ml maple syrup
2 Tbs. / 14 g ground flax seeds
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup / 128 g almond butter (or another nut/seed butter)
1/2 cup / 50 g quick oats
1/4 cup / 28 g almond flour
3/8 tsp. baking soda
1/8 tsp. salt
1/4 cup / 35 g dark chocolate chunks, (chop a dark chocolate bar until you have 1/4 cup of chunks)

  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Place the pitted dates and warm water in a food processor or blender and soak for at least 5 minutes.
  • Add the coconut oil and maple syrup to the dates and water and blend until smooth. Then transfer the mixture to a small mixing bowl.
  • Add the ground flax and vanilla, along with the almond butter. Stir until mixed well.
  • Stir in the remaining ingredients until well combined. I haven’t tried it yet, but in enjoying some of this last batch, I’ve decided that just a little finely diced candied ginger added to the mixture would be a truly excellent addition. Try it if you think so too. :)
  • Drop the dough by tablespoons or using a cookie scoop into 12 equal portions on a baking pan and bake for 10-14 minutes, depending on your pan and oven. These will be a little softer at first, but will also stay softer for a few days compared to other drop cookies.
  • Let cool on the pan for a couple minutes before transferring to a cooling rack.

chocolate energy bars, 2 ways: coconut mocha & chocolate, peanut butter + sea salt

chocolate energy bars, 2 ways: coconut mocha & chocolate, peanut butter + sea salt

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When I first changed my diet fairly drastically by removing gluten and then dairy, I did so with a totalitarian “whole foods only” frame of my mind. It was back in 2012, sort of at the onset of the gluten-free fad, when all sorts of new gluten-free processed foods were really starting to become mainstream. If I were going to be eating almost vegan and free of “normal flours,” I thought, I was going to do it all the way. I did not purchase or try gluten-free baked goods or vegan cheese.  If the ingredient wasn’t in basically the same form I could find it in nature, it wasn’t something I ate.

But there was also a double standard because I was really into baking then and still had a strong taste for sugar, so there were exceptions. Namely, I went through a phase of being obsessed with figuring out how to bake bread, pizza crust, desserts, etc. free of gluten and then dairy as well. Even though I don’t bake a lot anymore, and my flour cupboard generally gets much less use than ever before, I’m thankful for that baking phase because when I want it now, I have some really good staple recipes to draw from and the basic science of whole grain gluten-free and vegan baking down.

 

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These days, I’ve ventured into a way of eating that is a little less rigid than it was then–or perhaps it’s rigid in a different way and I can’t quite see it. In any case, I’m okay with a little more processing making its way into my recipes and meals. I began that because I recognized rigidity and eating perfectly is a hallmark of my disordered eating behavior. So recognizing that and doing something about it is why I started eating tofu and tempeh on an occasional basis. It’s why I nearly always have nutritional yeast in the pantry now, though I don’t use it super often. It’s why I made myself a big batch of Valentine’s cookies that were exactly what I wanted and then proceeded to eat the entire batch over the next two weeks, each day asking myself if I actually wanted a cookie, or perhaps many cookies, and each day eating exactly how many I was desiring. It’s also why I began to warm a little more to the idea of protein powder.

It turns out too that I might actually need more protein in my diet. Despite the general consensus (in the plant-based nutrition community anyway) that almost no one in the US actually needs more protein, I’m one of the few that might actually gain from eating more of it–for a couple of different reasons that have nothing to do with generally avoiding animal products but still add up to: providing our bodies with the right amount and types of foods is personal, and definitely not a constant. Adding more protein to my diet, strategically, is a current experiment I’m running. I’m not entirely sure it is necessary or will have the effects I’m looking for. But the protein powder is an easy way for me to adjust my eating patterns without making a drastic dietary overhaul.

 

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I want to mention too, I’m sharing these bars purposefully during #NEDAwareness week. If you aren’t familiar with NEDA, it is the National Eating Disorders Association and February 26-March 3rd is a week of increased advocacy about eating disorder recovery and awareness. If you’ve been visiting this space for some time or have read my About section, you’ll know I struggled with the eating side of that equation for several years, sometimes still do, and have since been doing much of the mental side of recovery more recently. Probably similar to many who have struggled with disordered eating behavior, I did not have much in the way of emotional support in the early years following reaching a restored weight. In fact, I often received, and still do to some extent, a lot of push-back about coming to a way of eating that works for me, and there were many individuals who really pushed me into stressful situations around food, for the sheer fact that they were completely unaware of my history or that struggling with food is about much more than a desire/dislike for eating too little or too much. And it is the part that tends to linger on. Often quite invisibly.

NEDA’s theme this year is It’s Time to Talk About It. As NEDA has stated:
It’s time we take eating disorders seriously as public health concerns. It’s time we bust the myths and get the facts. It’s time to celebrate recovery and the heroes who make it possible. It’s time to take action and fight for change. It’s time to shatter the stigma and increase access to care.

I couldn’t agree more. In the interest of keeping it really real for just a moment more, a few of you know I started writing even a little more personally about my continued recovery process in this last year. My general theme has been using that space as an online journal to completely lay out what I’m working with because writing and releasing it beyond me is immensely helpful. It has been the most intensely scary and sometimes challenging writing I’ve done. It has made me feel incredibly embarrassed and ashamed of the beliefs and views I hold on to. But acknowledging those challenging feelings has helped me to release and slowly grow beyond them as well. This is all to say, feel free to catch up with me there. And if you find that you, or someone you care for, is struggling with what might be an eating disorder, please reach out to someone. It ended up making all the difference for me.    

 

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Now, I’m sharing these energy bars because I think of them as my recovery snacks. I tend to eat granola/energy bars in the mid-mornings or mid-afternoons on a fairly regular basis and generally I make my own. I designed these with the idea of eating them after a run to kickstart the recovery process when a larger meal isn’t coming super soon. So they have more of the suggested endurance recovery carbohydrate to protein ratio of 3 or 4:1. But I also find I can handle a portion of a bar 30-45 minutes before a hard effort too with no problems. And because of the slightly higher protein content, I also have been using them whenever I just need a snack in general since they are a slightly better option right now than my old stand-by of mesa sunrise and almond milk.

I recognize these are specialty bars, designed for a specific person and purpose. But if you like the idea of a Coconut Mocha or Chocolate Peanut Butter Bar that is delicious and nutritious, these might be for you too. If you’re not overly concerned about needing more protein, there are options for alternatives as well.

 

Peanut Butter, Dark Chocolate + Sea Salt Bars, makes 8
1/2 cup (100 g) peanut butter
6 (100 g) pitted Medjool dates
6 Tbs. (50 g) hemp protein powder*
1/4 tsp. sea salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
2 tsp. (10 ml) raw honey or maple syrup
1 1/2 cups (50 g) crispy rice cereal, gluten-free if necessary
2 Tbs. +2 tsp. (40 ml) water
1 square (10 g) dark chocolate, broken into chunks
additional sea salt for topping

  • Puree the peanut butter, dates, hemp, salt, vanilla, cinnamon and honey in a food processor until completely combined.
  • Add cereal and 2 Tbs. water and pulse a few times more until it just comes together. Add a little more water as needed. Then stir in the chocolate chunks.
  • Turn out and press into a 8×8-inch baking pan, or something of similar size. Then, sprinkle with a few shakes of additional sea salt, and gently press in. Chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes, and then cut into individual bars, store, and eat as needed. They will last in the fridge for at least two weeks with no change in texture/consistency.

Coconut Mocha Bars, makes 8
1/4 cup (50 g) cashew butter
2 Tbs. (10 g) coffee beans, finely ground
1/4 cup (30 g) shredded unsweetened coconut
6 (100 g) pitted Medjool dates
6 Tbs. (50 g) hemp protein powder*
1/4 tsp. sea salt
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. (5 ml) coconut oil
1 Tbs. (15 ml) maple syrup
2 cups (65 g) crispy rice cereal, gluten-free if necessary
2 Tbs. + 2 tsp. (40 ml) water
2 squares (20 g) dark chocolate, broken into chunks

  • Puree the cashew butter, ground coffee beans, coconut, dates, hemp, salt, vanilla, coconut oil, and syrup in a food processor until completely combined.
  • Then add the cereal and 2 Tbs. water as needed. It should come together easily when you pinch the ingredients with your fingers. Add a little more water if needed.
  • Then stir in the chocolate chunks.
  • Turn out and press into a 8×8-inch baking pan, or something of similar size. Chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes before cutting, storing or eating.

*Notes: For a hemp protein alternative, try another plain plant protein powder such as pea or rice, or use the same quantity (by weight) of hemp, sunflower, or pumpkin seeds.