When thinking about exercise of any sort – running, resistance training, yoga, participation in a sport or other physical activity like dance or the martial arts, it’s easy to get lost in the act itself and lose sight of the toll it takes on your body. Even doing something as results driven as lifting weights, the focus is on working harder to try to obtain a desired goal. While pushing your limits is important to creating a result, never forget, that what actually CREATES the result, isn’t the work, quite the contrary, it’s allowing your body to properly recover from what you’ve demanded of it. So what exactly is ‘recovery’? Its such a broad term, what’s going on in your body during recovery, and how do we know the best way to help our bodies recover?
Why Bother To Worry About Recovery Anyway?
Think of recovery as maintenance on your body. If you heard a grinding sound coming from inside your car, you probably wouldn’t drive it without taking it in for service, and if you did, you wouldn’t be very surprised when it broke down and stopped working.
Your body is no different, when you place it under stress and demand performance, you’re tearing down the muscles and fibers that allow it to work. When you lift a heavy weight repeatedly, or run miles and miles, you’re actually damaging your muscles and joints. Your body then uses the nutrients that you provide it with to rebuild itself stronger or more flexible than before. This rebuilding is the visible result that we see when our bodies develop larger muscles, or the ability to run further or faster than before and it happens during the recovery phase of our exercise program.
Believe it or not, you have a recovery phase already built in to whatever form your exercise takes, it’s just that most of us don’t really think about this phase as much as we do the training / performance phase. If you didn’t, well then, just like our car example, your body would break down. The difference is, our bodies aren’t as black and white as our car example. There are a lot of gray areas, including chronic – but not performance stopping injury or in most cases, inferior results.
So if you want to maximize the results of your exercise AND avoid injury, then taking the recovery phase seriously is just as important as making it into the gym in the first place.
So How Do We Recover From Exercise?
There are a lot of ways that people use to enhance their recovery. From supplements to altering the physical environment through heat or cold therapies, but what is the best way to recover? In a word? Sleep. As you may recall from my post on sleep, I HATE telling you this. I am such a night owl I may as well sprout a beak and feathers, so it pains me to say that sleep is the #1 thing you can do to recover from exercise and maximize the results from all your hard work.
In addition to allowing our bodies time to repair themselves, when we get proper sleep, our bodies produce human growth hormone (HGH). In fact according to tuck.com:
“Experts estimate that as much as 75 percent of human growth hormone is released during the first period of Stage 3 sleep – about an hour after you first fall asleep.”
So what does that mean to you? Well, they go on to say:
“Human growth hormone (often abbreviated HGH or hGH, or simply GH for growth hormone) is an important part of the body’s endocrine system…The hormone is a complex protein produced by the pituitary gland in the brain, and in addition to promoting growth in childhood, it helps maintain healthy bodily tissue even during adulthood. The pituitary gland releases growth hormone non-continuously – the release looks like a pulse. Human growth hormone promotes a healthy metabolism, enhances your physical performance, and may even help you live longer.”
Sounds like a pretty good reason to me, someone come shave my feathers.
What Else Works?
As I said above, there are a lot of things that people do to aid in their recovery, but only one other thing has as much of an impact as sleep, and that’s:
Proper Nutrition. This is why competitive bodybuilders are so focused on their macros. Making sure that your body has the proper amount of Carbohydrates, Proteins and Fats it needs ensures that it has the materials it requires to rebuild itself during the recovery process. Protein is especially important to aiding in muscle recovery, but healthy carbohydrates and fats are essential to replenishing energy and supporting cell growth.
But what about…
Icing And Cryotherapies. According to an article published in the Journal of Sports Medicine in January 2012, Ice may not be the best option for recovery or aching muscles. While ice or cold therapies decrease pain and swelling from injuries, research has proven no performance or recovery benefits. In a nutshell, cold doesn’t seem to cause muscles to heal or recover faster than if the muscle is left untreated.
Heat Therapies. So what about heat therapies such as saunas, jacuzzis or steam rooms? Heat dilates blood vessels, helps with relaxation and increases blood flow, all of which help to reduce pain. However I was unable to find any data that heat actually helps the muscle rebuild / recover quicker.
Foam Rolling. While I found loads of information about foam rolling and how much it can help with mobility and increased range of motion, I couldn’t find anything definitive (lots of claims though) about it helping with actual muscle recovery. Since true recovery involves the rebuilding of the muscles and tissues torn down through exercise, I think foam rolling falls into the categories of cold and heat therapies. It may help alleviate soreness (after gritting your teeth through a foam rolling session), but I don’t think it actually speeds recovery.
Float Tanks. I could find no conclusive evidence that float tanks cause any increase in exercise recovery. However, a Swedish study (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4219027/) showed that “Stress, depression, anxiety, and worst pain were significantly decreased whereas optimism and sleep quality significantly increased for the flotation-REST group.” Because of the increase in sleep quality, I could see where float tank therapy could increase recovery time. However, for my money, naps seem like they’d be a lot cheaper, and is a strategy employed by N.B.A. players. (https://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/07/sports/basketball/07naps.html)
Supplements. OK, So if nutrition is so important – what about supplements? There’s a LOT of information – and I think misinformation – out there on supplements. If I’m honest, I take protein, BCAA’s and creatine supplements, but do they really help speed recovery? Do they increase the effects of your workouts? The initial research I found from the Journal of Exercise Science & Fitness indicates no:
“Our results indicated that protein or carbohydrate supplement after exercise that caused mild muscle damage did not facilitate muscle recovery in adequately nourished, healthy young men.”
The broader question this paints in my mind is what’s the impact of supplementation on overall results – not just recovery. That’s something I plan to dig into deeper in another blog post down the road. Maybe I’ll save myself some money every month.
So Wrapping This All Up…
With all of this outlined, at the end of the day, anything that helps your body feel better after a tough workout can’t be a bad thing, and it seems like there’s plenty of conflicting advice out there. Whether it’s a placebo effect, or just something that seems to work well for you, I wouldn’t shy away from it, but if you really want to help your muscles recover quicker, and maximize the effects of your training, get your sleep and diet in check and let me know how it works out for you!
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