The human body operates most efficiently when it is in balance, or has achieved a state known as homeostasis. As such, optimal recovery means that all body systems have returned to the state they were in before exercise (homeostasis). However, for most avid exercisers, exercise recovery is a limiting factor. The better you can recover, the sooner and better you can train. The process of recovery (regeneration) gets less attention than it should. Every person should have a systematic plan that includes recovery activities on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis. The following are simple tools that you can implement to help your body recover better between exercise bouts.
After exhaustive exercise, don't stop and rest immediately. You can speed up the removal of lactic acid from your muscles by continuing to exercise at a low intensity for 10-20 minutes. Cooling down can help reduce the feeling of stiffness that often occurs after a workout and is especially important if your next training session or event is scheduled a few hours later.
Static stretching before exercise puts you at risk for damaging the very tissues you are trying to protect and as such should be avoided. Research has shown that stretching causes lengthening of the tendinous fibers within the muscle-tendon unit. Such lengthening causes the tendon (or passive) component to lose much of its shock absorbency, thus, placing the muscle fibers at greater risk of trauma. However, stretching after exercise may help minimize muscle soreness and may even help prevent future soft tissue injuries. Thus, before activity, more active-type stretching routines that promote range of motion and increased blood flow are recommended. Conversely, after exercise, the emphasis should be on passive or static stretching to allow the muscles to relax and return to their resting lengths.
The muscles are primed for quick restoration of their carbohydrate fuel reserves (glycogen) immediately after exercise, so don't wait too long to start eating foods and drinking beverages rich in carbohydrate. Fruits, energy bars, and sports drinks all contain large amounts of carbohydrate. From a nutrition standpoint, post-exercise is one of the only times where you want to be consuming high-glycemic index foods for they will stimulate a quicker release of insulin and, thus, carbohydrate storage in the muscles. Ideally, these fuels should be consumed as quickly as possible upon finishing your exercise session.
Most forms of exercise lead to the breakdown of proteins within the muscles. This breakdown-repair process stimulates the muscles to rebuild and become stronger. Moreover, some of our muscle proteins continue to be broken down during the recovery phase after exercise. For a faster buildup of muscle proteins during recovery, include a small amount of protein in the foods you eat. Milk, cheese, eggs, whey protein shakes, sandwiches, nuts (almonds, walnuts) and energy bars provide carbohydrate and protein. Look for easily digestible protein sources (such as the ones listed above) following strenuous exercise. Avoid saturated fats.
Replacing lost fluid is crucial to the recovery process. Having adequate fluids within your body promotes the removal of toxins and waste from your muscles. Top off your supply of fluids by drinking before exercise, continue to hydrate every 15 or 20 minutes during a workout, and replace any body weight lost during exercise by drinking while you recover. Remember, 1 L of water is equivalent to 1 kg of body weight. Therefore, if the difference between your pre- and post-exercise weight is 1.5 kg (3.3 lbs) you would want to rehydrate with 1.5 L of water to bring your body fluid back to homeostasis. Before, during, and after exercise, the rule of thumb is that if you’re thirsty, it’s too late! Therefore, be sure to have a water bottle throughout the day to sip on. On a daily basis (at rest), the number of ounces of water you should be consuming should equal half of your body weight (in lbs). Thus, if you weigh 200 lbs, then you want to be drinking 100 ounces of water (almost 3 L).
Your body loses water and minerals - mostly sodium chloride, some potassium - when you sweat. Drinking water alone during exercise and recovery will make it difficult to replace body fluids rapidly because much of it will pass through the kidneys to become urine. Replace the salt along with the water to counteract dehydration. If you have to compete again within a few hours, consider sports drinks that contain water, sodium chloride, or fruits such as bananas which are high in potassium. Add extra salt to foods at mealtime if you are susceptible to cramps. Consider using condiments, sports drinks, and fitness waters instead of salt tablets.
Inflammation, swelling, and muscle soreness are possibilities following strenuous exercise. To minimize the effects, consider cold packs around joint areas, alternating cold and hot whirlpool baths, and the use of specially designed magnets to speed the exercise recovery process. Light massage is also a good option for promoting toxin removal from the tissues and reducing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). A study by Hilbert et al. showed that a 20 minute massage 2 hours following exercise helped to reduce the intensity of soreness 48 hours post-exercise in subjects who underwent 6 sets of maximal eccentric hamstring contractions. Minimize foot contact with the ground. Engage in light activities that increase blood flow while not taxing the nervous system. Swimming, cycling, walking, and light jogs are alternatives, but minimize foot contact with the ground.
There is plenty of evidence to show that lack of sleep can have an adverse affect on training and competition. You might get by for a day or two with inadequate sleep, but it will catch up with up sooner or later. If you haven't monitored your sleep habits already, determine how much sleep you need each night to ensure full recovery. It's not eight hours for everyone - could be less, could be more. Then try to establish a routine that will allow you get what you need to perform well.
Sleep is divided into 1.5-hour time cycles. If you can time sleep cycles in increments of an hour and a half (1.5 hours, 3.0 hours, 4.5 hours, 6.0 hours, 7.5 hours, 9.0 hours), you have a better chance of waking up refreshed. The idea is to awake at the top of the cycle instead of at the bottom. And don't dismiss the power of a 20-30 minute nap during the day. The journal Sleep highlighted a meta-analysis done on studies looking at the effects of sleep deprivation on performance. The researchers found that overall sleep deprivation strongly impairs human functioning. Moreover, they found that mood is more affected by sleep deprivation than either cognitive or motor performance and that partial sleep deprivation has a more profound effect on functioning than either long-term or short-term sleep deprivation.
Also be aware that overtraining can impair your body’s ability to fully rest and regenerate. A study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise revealed that female swimmers who trained excessively showed a higher incidence of sleep disruptions.
In summary, there are several measures that you can take to better your exercise recovery between exercise sessions. Remember that a combination of the several of the aforementioned tools should be implemented for best results.
Yuri Elkaim, BPHE, CK, RHN
Creator, Fitter U
Safran, M. et al (1989). Warm up and muscular injury prevention: an update. Sports Medicine, 239-249.
Hibert, J. et al (2003). The effects of massage on delayed onset muscle soreness. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 37: 72-75.
Pilcher, J & Huffcutt, A. (1996). Effects of sleep deprivation on performance: a meta-analysis. Sleep, 19(4): 318-326.
S. Taylor et al. (1997). Effects of training volume on sleep, psychological, and selected physiological profiles of elite female swimmers. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 29(5):688-693.
About the Author
Yuri Elkaim is a world-renowned fitness, nutrition, and weight loss expert. He is the creator Fitter U and Treadmill Trainer, author of Eating for Energy, and the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for men's soccer program at the University of Toronto. His trademarked 12-week Fitter U iPod workout program has been helping thousands of people around the world get in shape and lose weight fast without the cost and inconvenience of hiring a trainer. Go to www.myFitterU.com now to get your FREE Fitter U workout and "How to Get Fit and Lose Weight Fast" report!