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How to optimise recovery after training

When we exercise our bodies sustain micro-damage. This is normal and needed, but also the reason why your recovery period after a bout of exercise is so important. If you get it right, your body will repair itself stronger than before. If you keep on pushing your training and don’t implement good recovery habits, all of this micro-trauma will add up and cause an injury.

In this article:

  • What happens in the hours after exercise?

  • What is needed for a good recovery?

  • Summary of useful recovery techniques

Here's the video of the livestream I did on this topic in the Sports Injury Group:



What happens in the hours after exercise?


As mentioned before, exercise causes micro-trauma in your bones, ligaments, muscles, tendons and joints. This micro-trauma is the trigger that tells your brain to repair your body stronger.


In order for your body to repair it has to:

  1. get rid of all the damaged cells and waste products that was formed during your exercise session and

  2. replace the damaged cells with new, stronger ones that can cope with more exercise than before.

The end result is a body that is now stronger than before you did your last training session!


What is needed for a good recovery?


Inflammation

Inflammation is an important part of your healing process. Your body uses inflammation to get rid of all the damaged cells.


I’ve often heard of people taking anti-inflammatory drugs e.g. ibuprofen after exercise to take the muscle soreness away and allow them to train again. There are several reasons why this is a bad idea:

  1. By decreasing your inflammatory response, you may be blunting your body’s response to exercise. This means that you may not get the same strength gains from a training session as you would have done without taking the tablets!

  2. If you have to take pain medication in order to train, it’s a clear sign that your body has not repaired the damage from your previous session. You will give yourself an over-use injury if you do this often.

  3. This type of drug can affect your kidney funcion if you use it too often.

Cold water immersion e.g. ice baths is also a popular method that athletes use to recover from exercise, but it’s important to understand that they aren’t always the best choice. They too can decrease your inflammatory response.


There’s research that shows that if you take an ice bath regularly after every strength training session you do, you may actually blunt your body’s ability to build muscle. But at the same time there’s evidence that shows that if you take an ice bath after a hard training or competition session, it allows you to perform better the next day.


So what should you do? The current advice is to use ice baths when you need them. If it’s important to perform well the next day (e.g. multi-day races), take one. If you’re looking for more long term gains from training, don’t take them too regularly.


Ice baths should also not be too cold. Between 11 and 15 degrees centigrade seems to be the optimal temperature.



Circulation

Your blood carries nutrients and oxygen to your cells and it’s quite obvious that good circulation is important for recovery after exercise.


Compression socks helps to improve your circulation by helping your blood flow back up your legs to your heart. They have been shown to decrease fatigue as well as the amount of muscle soreness you feel after exercise (DOMS). Athletes who use compression socks have also been shown to recover their strength, power and endurance quicker than athletes who don’t wear them.


An active recovery (e.g. jogging or gentle cycling) is often advocated after training as it is thought to improve you circulation and help you get rid of things like lactic acid. The research has found that it does help your lungs and heart recover more quickly, but that it doesn’t have any effect on things like lactic acid or DOMS.


Lymph drainage

Your lymphatic system is a network of “veins” that run through your body, but instead of blood it has lymph fluid running in it. All the waste products that your cells produce during normal life and exercise are removed via your lymph system.


Compression socks have also been shown to improve your lymph drainage. Wearing them can speed up your recovery because it helps you get rid of the waste products from exercise more quickly.


There is strong evidence that both massage and foam rolling after exercise can decrease the pain you feel from DOMS. It’s not quite clear why this work but some researchers think that it is due to increased lymph drainage.


Food

Your body can only repair the damage caused by exercise if you provide it with the building blocks it needs. These include protein, carbohydrates, fat, minerals and vitamins.


Exercise nutrition is a complex field and there is no one-size-fits-all. What you need and when you need it will all depend on your own body, the type of exercise you do and what your aims are. For that reason I’ve decided to only provide a few basic principles that should benefit most people.


You should already be getting all your minerals and vitamins if you’re eating a balanced diet that includes all the main food groups and stay away from processed food.


Your total calorie consumption is very important, but not for the reasons you may think. People tend to associate calorie counting with weight loss, but there is strong evidence to suggest that you can cause yourself injuries like stress fractures if you train very hard and (on a regular basis) don’t replace the energy (calories) you use. This is often most relevant for athletes who do high volumes of training e.g. endurance athletes and triathletes.


Protein is the main building block for muscles. The current research suggests that you’ll gain the most from eating protein if you can do it within the 2 hours following an exercise bout.


Did you know that protein can also help endurance? Research has found that eating protein after exercise increases your mitochondrial proteins in your cells. Your mitochondria are the batteries of the cells and they have a direct impact on how well your muscles can use the oxygen that’s available to them. Read more about how to best use protein here.


Athletes who consume high protein diets also seem to have better immune systems than ones that don’t.


Carbohydrate intake during and after sports has become a hotly debated subject over the last few years with some athletes preferring to follow very low carb and high fat diets while others are sticking to more traditional higher carb diets.


From what I could find by looking at the current research it still looks as if the quickest way to restore your muscle energy stores is still by eating a carbohydrate rich meal after exercise. How much do you need? That will vary depending on your body size, training session and ultimate goals.


In general I'll advise that you steer clear of any refined carbohydrates unless you have to compete again in a couple of hours.


In summary: Make sure that you eat a balanced diet and time at least one of your meals within 2 hours after your training session.


Rest

It should be clear by now that your body needs rest after exercise in order to restore itself. Plan your days. It’s not a good idea to go walking around town for several hours if you’ve just completed a long run.


Several studies in the last few years have shown that getting enough quality sleep is a very important part of recovery. This is the time that your body uses to repair. Not only does a lack of sleep affect your mood and brain function, but some studies have shown direct links between lack of sleep and an increased risk of getting injured.


Most adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep. The problem is that hard training can affect the quality of your sleep. There are plenty of things that could help you sleep better e.g. limiting screen time, watching how much caffeine you use, not eating too late at night etc.


Summary of useful recovery techniques


  • Rest & Sleep: This is very important.

  • Compression socks: They can help recovery by improving circulation and lymph drainage.

  • Ice baths: Yes and No. These can be useful depending on your specific goals for that day.

  • Food: Eating a balanced meal within 2 hours of exercise will give you best recovery results. How much you need of what will depend on your body, training type and goals.

  • Massage/foam rolling: Can reduce the amount of DOMS you experience in the days following exercise.

  • Active recovery: This can help your lungs and heart recover quicker.

  • Stretching: This can help you regain your flexibility and range of motion. It does not have any effect on DOMS.

Let me know if you have any questions or consult me online via Skype to get a diagnosis of your injury and a bespoke treatment plan.

Best wishes

Maryke


About the Author

Maryke Louw is a chartered physiotherapist with more than 15 years' experience and a Masters Degree in Sports Injury Management. Follow her on LinkedIn or ReasearchGate.



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