In a galaxy far, far, away, I was a rower at Gonzaga University. Rowing is a pretty brutal sport in the grand scheme of things. With the exception of a few weeks here and there, rowing is a year-round sport. Unlike a sport baseball or basketball, rowing is pure strength and endurance. To be a good rower means striking the (nearly!) impossible balance of being ridiculously strong and to have a cardiovascular capacity to boot. It’s like if you were to somehow combine a power-lifter and a marathoner into one body. It doesn’t make a ton of sense, but somehow it works. Thanks to all of these factors, rowing is exceptionally hard on the body. I graduated in 2012 and am still dealing with the repercussions of putting my body through the ringer. Fun times!
Because hindsight is 20/20, it’s really only been as I’ve gotten older (and maybe a bit less indestructible?) that I’ve started leaning into having a solid recovery routine. I can’t tell you how many times my rowing friends and I look at each other and go - man, I really wish I had known this in college!
Knowledge is power. Here are five of the things that I wish I’d known when I was a college athlete that I’m positive would’ve made my body feel 100 times better.
1. Quality of sleep is just as important as the amount.
I figured out pretty early on in my rowing career (quick, somebody, get me a Nobel Prize!) that being properly rested meant that I would perform better. I mean, it’s incredibly difficult to get amped up on the racecourse at 6 AM when you’re dragging ass. Because of this when I was in college I napped anywhere and anytime that I could. I napped on the gym floor. I napped on the table at my chiropractor. I napped for 15 minutes between classes. Despite napping whenever and wherever I could, it was rare for me to actually feel well rested. I constantly felt like I woke up from a funky night of airplane sleep instead of a good night sleep in my bed. And you know why? The sleep that I was getting wasn’t any good. Now, obviously, I know better. Fancy wellness people, I believe, refer to this as “sleep hygiene”, or trying to get quality sleep. For me this means things like maintaining somewhat regular sleeping hours, making sure I have a good mattress and pillow (back problems, am I right?), and that my sleep won’t be interrupted more than usual. In fact, to avoid interruptions, I sleep with a white noise machine to block out the sounds that come from living in an old house in a busy city. As much as possible, try to plan your sleep schedule around the best quality sleep that you can fit into your lifestyle.
2. Meal planning is everything.
Like most college students, I flew by the seat of my pants when it came to eating. This often left me feeling either stuffed to the brim or absolutely starving. As I got towards the end of college and began learning more about my personal nutrition, I began making some changes and planning out my meals. Meal planning isn’t quite the same as meal prepping.
You don’t need to go out and buy tons of Tupperware containers and a CrockPot, at least not right away. Instead, just start to plan out your meals. I like to look at my workout schedule and plan out the meals immediately before and after in a way that will make me feel nourished and able to perform. While this could mean that I whip up a big batch of something easy like quinoa and veggies for after heavy gym days, it can also mean simply being aware of a grocery store near where I’ll be that I can pop into to grab something quickly. I like to plan out about two meals ahead to keep myself from consuming meals that won’t make me feel 100% awesome and to keep myself from spending too much money on last minute meals when I’m starving. Know where your next meal will be coming from and the nutrients that it will contain to keep your body feeling energized. It’s absolutely worth it.
3. Hydrate or die-drate.
I didn’t learn until after my competitive days were over how much my body thrives on hydration, and how absolutely terrible it feels when I’m dehydrated. The analogy that I like to use here is being painfully hungover. You know what it feels like to wake up so dehydrated that it feels like your body is falling apart. How long does it take you to feel normal? Usually more than a few sips of water. Your body is like that all the time. You can’t rehydrate yourself with one cup of water and a pat on the back, it takes time. Planning out your hydration and staying ahead of the godawful feeling of being dehydrated will vastly improve your physical performance. And your life. I promise.
4. Stretch proactively, not reactively.
This one was really tough for me to learn. Essentially, know the main muscles that you are using regularly that might be more prone to injury and stretch them regularly, ideally before and after each workout. Your stretching routine should be at minimum 10 minutes long, and you should plan to hold each of your major stretches for at least 60 seconds to really start to get into the good part of the stretch. Don’t wait until you get injured to start stretching. It’s not worth it!
5. Rest days really mean rest days.
In the NCAA there are pretty specific rules about how often athletes can train each day, the length of practices, and necessary time off. Even with all of that information, I always tried to sneak in extra workouts to get ahead of my teammates. I would go to the weight room to sneak in a few extra lifts, pop in a quick run on the weekends, or go on a hike on Sunday with my friends. I thrived on being really active, so this made sense - right? Wrong. Rest days are really important. Now that I fully embrace my rest days I feel stronger, more energized, and am able to bounce back quicker. Pick at least one day each week that is truly a rest day- no hiking, no “quick” workouts, not even a few minutes of abs. You can walk your dog. That’s about it!