Mastering recovery

Martin Pet, Sport and performance psychologist, Lead expert Lifeguard

Top athletes know the secret: the more you train, the more you need to recover. There are those who associate taking a break with laziness or shirking one’s duties and many even feel guilty about relaxing. But no one can go on doing more and more ad infinitum. None of us is exempt from switching off to take good care of ourselves, especially when the pressure is high. This simple truth can be a life-saver.

We may recognize the need to take breaks, but there is a difference between taking a break and taking an effective break. Switching off from the laptop to check the text messages in your phone is an example of a non-effective break. Your body, mind and emotions continue working as hard, only using another screen. Training your recovery muscle is an art. Let us look at what makes it successful.

Prioritize your breaks

Treat your daytime breaks, away from desk and screens, as you would an important meeting. You are effectively meeting with yourself – could there be anyone more important to meet?! Try the following:

  1. Set break-out times in your daily agenda.
  2. Set the alarm clock as a reminder.
  3. Ask a housemate to remind you that you committed to taking regular breaks.
  4. Turn off screens when break time is due. An open screen is an invitation to continue working.

Reward yourself for recovery moments you take; a small treat, a self-hug, a delicious cup of coffee or tea, just to tell yourself “well done!” for taking a few moments away.

Recharge physically

Being continuously busy means we continuously press the gas pedal of our autonomous nervous system (called the sympathetic nervous system). It is the part of our nervous system that keeps us on our toes, constantly alert and vigilant for any potential threat. Long ago those threats were physical – a prowling lion or a tribal warrior with a spear. These days they are the short deadlines, the endless emails or the constant change of direction that threatens our peace and balance. By physical recovery we therefore mean finding effective physical ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, that part of the system that moderates stress and takes care of our relaxation.

Thus, physical recovery is about using our physical body to counter-balance excessive stress. Here are some tips for effective physical recovery that supports the body’s relaxation response. All the tips can be implemented in our home-work environment:

Prioritize your sleep

Sleep is our number one recovery mechanism. Through sleep we recharge on all levels – physical, emotional and mental.

  1. Go to bed one hour earlier.
  2. Switch off all screens at least one hour before bedtime. 
  3. Maintain good sleep hygiene: dark and quiet room, cool bed, no screens in the bedroom.

For more ideas, check out our extended content at

Move to discharge stress

We mostly think of our body as a harbinger of stress – tight shoulders, painful neck, heavy head. However, our body is also a wonderful tool for discharging stress, if used mindfully and with consideration.

  • Go outside for a breath of fresh air, even if it is for five minutes on your balcony.
  • Go for a longer walk in nature whenever possible. A park or garden near your home would be perfectly suitable.
  • Stop once an hour for at least one minute of movement: sprint on the spot, do some squats or sit-ups or hold a plank position. One minute every hour? Surely, we can all do that. And one minute is better than none.
  • Check out the ‘7 minute workout’ app to operate all your gross muscles and work out a bit of sweat in 7 minutes net, in your work room and without any equipment.

For plenty more ideas, check out our extended content at

Eat to support your body

Choose foods that promote physical calm and reduce or avoid those that over-stimulate.

  1. Keep caffeine levels moderate, the equivalent of max 3-4 cups of coffee a day (caffeine is also found in black tea, chocolate, Coca Cola, sports drinks and in a number of medications).
  2. Reduce consumption of added sugars in sugary foods and drinks – cakes, cookies, desserts, soft drinks – especially in the evening. Regular consumption of added sugars can cause enough blood sugar fluctuations to keep you awake at night and sleepy during the day.
  3. Enjoy a relaxing cup of herbal tea during the day and/or before bedtime. Chamomile, lavender and Valerian root teas are good examples.

For more ideas, check out our extended content at

Recharge mentally

While physical recovery is mainly aimed at the tangible body, mental rest and recharge is concerned with allowing the rational, thinking part of your brain an occasional rest and recharge. Here, activating the relaxation response means training your thinking mind (often nicknamed ‘the monkey mind’) to reduce brain wave frequency.

While taking a break, engage in a non-mental activity

  • For example, drink a cup of tea or coffee slowly and mindfully, enjoying every sip, without reading the paper or checking anything. Just enjoy your time with your cup.
  • Take a short break to listen to some music you love, whatever makes you feel good or helps you calm down.

Give your eyes a break and stare out the window

Eyes are the only external part of your brain, and they are hard at work the whole day, concentrating on the object of your work.

  • Give your eyes a break by gazing out the window without focusing on anything in particular.Feel the tiny muscles under the eye relax.Gradually allow your vision to expand, taking in a wider angle from right to left. Keep your gaze diffused (not focused).Allow your thoughts to roam freely; simply keep your gaze non-focused and your face muscles relaxed.

Take a short breathwork or meditation break

Focusing on your breath for a few minutes or following a short, guided meditation can do wonders for a tired brain. Both methods help reduce brain wave frequency and restore mental calm.

  • If you’re unfamiliar with such exercises, try a guided breathing session such as this one (1 min) or this one (3 min).
  • Or try a short, guided meditation such as this one (3 min) or this one (5 min).
  • You may want to explore the many popular apps for meditation, breathing and mindfulness, such as Headspace; Calm; Stop, Breathe and Think; or Insight Timer (the latter is free). They all offer free trial sessions, so you can experiment before committing yourself.

For many more ideas, check out our extended content at

Recharge emotionally

Emotional recovery literally means feeling good about yourself and about life. When the going is good, this might be your natural state. But does it still feel this way when you are stressed and under pressure? Consider some of the following tips for helping your body release some ‘feel good’ hormones.

Accept your emotions

This is the ‘Number One’ rule in the book of emotions: all emotions are valid, and they all have their place.  You cannot heal a physical wound if you do not recognize it, and the same goes for emotions and feelings. Emotional recovery therefore means accepting that you are feeling emotionally unwell (if that is the case), instead of trying to pretend that you are absolutely fine. Acknowledging and feeling your negative emotions in full will help you process these emotions better.

Leverage your social support

As we said in the Connect block of the program, we humans are social animals. We cannot, nor should we have to deal with everything on our own. Restore your feel-good factor by

  • Seeking the company of people you like and enjoy, whether family or friends. Even a video call with a loved one can do wonders.
  • Keep away from people who criticize, judge or belittle you. If they make you feel bad about yourself, they are not going to help you keep your spirits up.
  • Initiate contact with people who can listen well, and/or make you laugh and appreciate life. Here we stress the point of initiating the contact rather than passively expecting others to do it. If you are in need of a feel-good social hug (live or virtual), make it happen.

Use your body to feel good

As the famous saying goes, “a healthy mind in a healthy body”; a static, rigid, tired body is likely to cause more pain than joy. Kick up some endorphins or serotonin through any physical activity that you like and enjoy. Some suggestions include:-

  • Go for a run, cycle or a long walk out in nature.
  • Make time for any other physical activity you enjoy and can still practice, such as gardening, cleaning or dog walking.
  • Put on your favourite music and ‘shake your groove’ – dance, jump or simply move as if no one is watching (the likelihood is that no one is watching!).
  • Sing along with your favourite song (or five).
  • Take a long shower or a hot bath. Add magnesium salts to your bath for deep relaxation and a fantastic night’s sleep.

Make time for ‘Me time’

‘Me time’ is a period of time, short or long, when you can relax by having time all for yourself and doing something you truly enjoy. The important thing here is the emphasis on joy, on doing something because you like doing it, not because you think you should or must do it. There is nothing like time alone, spent doing something you love, to recharge your batteries, whether physical, mental or emotional.

‘Me time’ can be extra challenging when you have a young family on top of a fulltime job and weeks of lockdown. It is nonetheless essential for mental wellbeing. However social we may be, we all crave moments of privacy, when we can engage with no one but ourselves.

‘Me time’ can include any of the above activities, and here are a few more ideas for you:-

  • Unplug from all electronics and read a book or a magazine.
  • Create something, just for fun. Draw, write, sculpt, bake a cake, colour in a colouring book. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s the act of creating that’s important here, not the end result.
  • Indulge in your favourite hobby, even if for a short while. There’s nothing like a hobby we love to make us forget about the world outside.
  • Learn a new skill. These days you can learn (or at least begin to learn) many new skills via YouTube films. Stretch yourself and learn something you always wanted to do.
  • Take a nap – the real, proper thing, in bed, bang in the middle of the day. Put eyeshades on and earplugs in, snuggle up in bed and leave the world behind for an hour. Depending on your living situation, this could be a big – and rare – treat.

Get the downtime that you need – you deserve it

Effective recovery is all about quality downtime – time during which we are out of action or unavailable for the normal go-go-go of daily routine. The harder we work (whether at our job or in our private life), the more quality downtime we need to recharge ourselves on all levels.

To make your recovery moments work for you, make sure to prioritize these breaks, and get the most out of them by mindfully choosing how to use this precious time. No machine can work continuously without a break, and this is all the truer for the delicate machine we call the human body.