I recently attended a clinic on endurance sports performance. There was a simple concept one of the speakers referred to that I thought was I nice way to look at our health outcomes, whether you are training for a marathon or just trying to lose a few pounds.  It is the 3-Legged Stool model. This model has been used for many ideas, but it works well with athletic performance or health outcomes.  Think of a 3-legged stool.  What would happen if you were sitting on it and one of the legs broke? The three legs are essential—working together to support what rests on top. Here’s what the performance model looks like:

3legged stool

The three legs are Work, Nutrition, and Recovery. Let’s quickly look at each, and why they are so important.

Work. Think of this as the total volume of exercise you get each week. This can be measured in many ways, including:

  • Number of exercise sessions
  • Total minutes
  • Total distance (cardio) or volume (resistance–total amount of reps or weight lifted)
  • Type of exercise (i.e. cardio, resistance, yoga, etc.)
  • Ratio of intensity levels: Light/Moderate/Vigorous

Obviously the type, intensity, and amount of work you do on a consistent basis affects our fitness level and overall health and wellbeing. Our bodies are phenomenal at adapting to different workloads, especially when we progress slowly and consistently. Psychological and physiological adaptations are the name of the game, and are the result of the stimulus of our workload.

Nutrition. To do work, there must be fuel. The food we eat and the liquids we drink are the fuel. Carbs, protein, fats, and the vitamins and minerals they contain work to bring fuel and essential nutrients to every system in our body. Without proper nutrition and hydration, having enough energy to sustain a consistent workout schedule is tough. Also, nutrition has a direct link to the 3rd, and often overlooked leg, recovery. Good nutrition leads to quicker recovery. For more nutrition tips, read Cristin’s articles, and start with her 6 Nutritional Tenets.

Recovery. Or rest. As I said before, this leg is oft neglected. When I was talking about the importance of work, and how the stimulus of work leads to adaptations in our bodies, it is critical to understand that these adaptations happen during recovery from exercise, not from the exercise itself. In other words, exercise doesn’t get us in shape. In fact, on the contrary, exercise (especially vigorous exercise) temporarily brings us down. Hard work can deplete our energy stores, cause damage on a cellular level, and tax our neuromuscular system (brain-body connection). Imagine doing a hard workout, and upon completion, having a coach say, “OK, let’s do that whole thing over again.” You wouldn’t be happy. A fight might ensue.

So, we don’t get in shape when we exercise. We get in shape when we recover from exercise! As I said earlier, nutrition plays a big role here. But sleep is super important as well. Good rest leads to quicker recovery. Other avenues for speedy recovery include things like compression type clothing, proper cooldowns after exercise sessions, and easy or restorative exercise days which might include activities like yoga, swimming, or walking. Finally, a nice cheap method is our good pal ice. Ice heals. The old physical therapy R.I.C.E method still works well today (Rest. Ice. Compression. Elevation).  But of all these things, sleep is probably the most important to recovery.

If you analyze your 3-legged stool, is there a leg that’s a weak link, or just missing altogether? Is this weak leg affecting your performance or desired outcome? Is poor nutrition and/or lack of recovery compromising all the hard work you’re putting in? If so, focus more energies toward those weak legs. Create a “stable stool” for yourself, and watch the results follow. The following formula works!

Work + Good Nutrition + Recovery (repeat over and over and over) = The Results You’re Looking For


One thought on “The 3-Legged Stool Model for Optimal Health

  1. Reblogged this on Montana Moves & Montana Meals and commented:

    After a nice Sunday run yesterday, I took a few minutes to stick me feet into an adjacent creek for a brisk ice bath. (Post-workout ice/cold has an anti-inflammatory effect, by the way.) As I sat and shivered, I of course turned my thoughts to the importance of recovery. This is a repost from 2014, but I thought as the weather gets better and better, and many of us (myself included) change our modes of exercise and up the volume, recovery needs to be kept in the front of our minds! Don’t get caught this spring on a 2-legged stool!

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