Whether you are training for an endurance race, weightlifting meet, the CrossFit Games, or life in general, your ability to quickly recover from your most recent training session has a direct impact on the quality and results of your next training session. The faster you can recover from a workout, the faster you are able to begin your next workout and be able to put quality effort into it. Recovering quickly will provide your mind and body with the opportunity to work harder during your next session, thus providing the necessary stimulus that will result in subsequent physical adaptation and strength gains. If you are constantly training in an under-recovered state, you risk overtraining or plateauing on the progress you have been making.
Being fully recovered and ready to train does not just simply mean an absence of muscle soreness. It means that both your muscles and central nervous system have adapted to the stress that has previously been placed on them. In other words, if you are no longer sore from a previous training session, but you still feel lethargic, or you cannot produce the muscular force expected in a certain exercise, or you can’t seem to get that heart rate up to where it needs to be for your interval training session, your body and central nervous system have not fully recovered and you would be better off using that day for active recovery instead of a half-ass workout.
Here are some tips to help you maximize your recovery time, which starts the second you finish the last rep of your workout to the time you begin your next one. Experiment with them and find new methods that work for you.
1) Post-workout Cool-Down and Elevation
The last thing you want to do is finish your workout and then go home or to work and sit on the couch or computer desk and let your muscles and joints get all stiff and saturated with metabolic waste that has accumulated. After you catch your breath from your challenging workout, this is the first opportunity you have to make the greatest impact on your time to recovery. Take 3-5 minutes and do a slow cool-down pace row, bike, or run. You want to avoid going straight from 100% intensity down to 0 in an instant, and rather gradually decrease your heart rate while doing some easy aerobic exercise immediately after your primary workout. Doing this will begin the recovery process by bringing blood flow and nutrients to the muscles while flushing them of accumulated metabolic waste such as lactic acid. If you cannot accomplish this cool-down period and you need to leave the gym rapidly, consider the following method to enhance your recovery later that day when you have the time. Find a wall, lie on your side, and scoot your butt up against it. Then roll over on your back and elevate your legs onto the wall so that they are creating about a 90-degree angle with the floor. Achieve a very slight bend in your knees and relax in this position for 5-10 minutes. If you are a runner, a good rule of thumb is: for every mile you run, stay in this position for 1 minute (e.g. 5 mile run = 5 minute leg elevation). When you are ready to come out of this position, slowly roll to your side again and stay there for a couple minutes until you feel like you’re ready to stand up. You don’t want to stand up immediately after you have been draining your legs. Check out the picture below to see what the recovery position looks like.
2) Post-Exercise Anabolic Window (aka. “Window of Gains”)
You may or may not have at some point heard of the Post-Exercise Anabolic Window, otherwise known as the “Window of Gains” or the “Window of Opportunity”. This is the 30-minute window that begins at the cessation of exercise where you can take advantage of increased cell permeability and insulin sensitivity and jumpstart the recovery process (Poole et al 2010). Without venturing too far into the weeds of physiology, what you should know in regards to this window is that ingestion of protein (e.g. whey protein powder, meat, etc.) and a high glycemic index (GI) carbohydrate (e.g. rice, potatoes, etc.) within 30 minutes of exercise will enable your body to build muscle and replace depleted energy stores more effectively at a higher rate, and will go a long way in ensuring you are recovered enough for your next workout. A review article of several previous studies shows that this ingestion of protein immediately after exercise is more effective in inducing muscular hypertrophy (i.e. increase in muscle cross-sectional area) than if ingestion was postponed (Poole et al, 2010). The same article shows that ingestion of a high GI carbohydrate source immediately following exercise resulted in a large rate of muscle glycogen synthesis as compared to a low GI carbohydrate source (Poole et al, 2010; Kiens and colleagues, 1997). What does this mean for you? Eating fast digesting sources of protein and carbohydrate as soon as possible after cessation of exercise will result in a faster recovery time and an increase in muscle mass, provided that you continue to eat an adequate amount of those macronutrients throughout the day. However, don’t freak out if you do miss this window. Other studies show that ingestion of adequate amounts of macronutrients throughout the day is more important than timing (Schoenfeld et al, 2013). My final thoughts on this topic are that if you choose to delay your macronutrient intake for a couple hours after your workout, you will ultimately reduce the amount of total macronutrient intake throughout your day, which will result in a longer time to recovery. That means you are under-recovered for your next workout. You’re better off at least getting in that 20g of protein powder right away and starting the recovery process than not taking anything in at all.
3) Cold Water Immersion and Dry Air Cryotherapy
If you’re like most people, you probably don’t like the thought of being cold. You’d rather be on a warm beach in a tropical climate sipping an umbrella drink or cuddled up on your couch in your favorite blanket binge-watching shows on Netflix. Yes, I like that feeling too and I’m not trying to take that away from you, but if you’re serious about maximizing your recovery from that previous training session you may want to devote a small amount of that post-exercise time to some cold water or air. Now, let’s examine why I am suggesting this.
Let’s start with Cold Water Immersion (CWI). This method involves submerging a large portion of your body in cold water. How cold? Studies vary in the temperature of water that is the most beneficial to elicit the recovery response we desire, but the most beneficial range of temperatures appear to be 41-59 degrees Fahrenheit (Bongers et al, 2017). This can be accomplished by turning the faucet on your bathtub to cold and throwing in a couple big bags of ice from your local gas station. Once filled, jump right in or slowly submerge yourself up to your waste, take some deep breaths, and relax for 10-15 minutes. Sounds fun, right? Once you’re done, you can return to the couch and resume watching Game of Thrones knowing that your body will have received some pretty awesome recovery benefits. CWI has been shown to reduce the onset of muscle soreness 24-96 hours post-exercise, also known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), through mechanisms that reduce secondary muscle damage caused by the inflammatory response from initial muscle damage due to exercise (White et al, 2013). Cardiovascular and neuromuscular benefits have also been noted, which include:
- Reduced blood flow to the skeletal muscle resulting in decreased potential for it to swell
- Increased cardiac output and venous return due to constriction of the vessels near the compromised muscles, which allows for a quicker return to baseline activity of the heart and faster clearance of metabolic waste products induced by exercise
- Decreased conductance of electrical signals from the brain to the damaged skeletal muscle, resulting in a decrease in muscle spasm and pain signal
Finally, if you want to take this stuff to a whole new level, there is Dry Air Cryotherapy. This method involves standing in a chamber with dry air cooled to temperatures around negative 200 degrees Fahrenheit, such as the one shown below.
Your whole body is exposed to these temperatures except for your hands and feet (for which you wear gloves and booties) in order to protect them from cold injury. Typical sessions last from two to four minutes at a time. Recovery benefits are the same as CWI, with one study actually showing an increase in maximal muscular strength ranging from 5.6% to 12.6% in test subjects 24 to 120 hours after exposure (Bongers et al, 2017; Costello et al, 2015)! If you really want to geek out on this stuff, another study that exposed highly trained athletes to dry air cryotherapy for 5 days during normal training showed an increase in anti-inflammatory interleukin-10 and a decrease in the pro-inflammatory interleukin-8 and interleukin-2, all substances of the immune system, which resulted in a decreased exercise-induced inflammatory response (Bongers et al, 2017; Banfi et al, 2009).
I have used both of these methods throughout my time training as an endurance athlete and I can say from experience that the effects are profound. Keep in mind that Dry Air Cryotherapy tends to be on the expensive side, and regular exposure is more effective than a single session, but if you want to give it a shot then by all means go for it! There are increasingly more practices that have this new technology and I encourage everyone to try something at least once. On the other hand, if you’d like to give the ice bath or cold shower a try, I’ve used this method a lot more frequently and although the initial shock can take some getting used to, it is a cheap and effective way to enhance your recovery. Give it a shot. You may just be surprised with the results.
4) Compression Gear
I’ll close this post out by introducing you to the benefits of compression gear. A mechanism in the physiology of the human body known as ‘muscle pump’ exists in order to overcome the force of gravity and to return blood from the lower extremities to the heart (Kenney, 2015). There are one-way valves located in the veins of our cardiovascular system that are compressed by the surrounding muscles, which facilitates this action by preventing back-flow of the blood as it travels up towards the heart. We can enhance this phenomenon by wearing compression gear during and after our training sessions. Studies have indicated trends that show wearing compression garments, such as socks just below the knee or full leg-length tights, during the recovery period between exercise sessions can help reduce DOMS, blood lactate levels, and overall performance recovery between exercise sessions (Beliard et al, 2015). Compression gear such as this has grown in popularity over the recent years. I’ve worked with and trained alongside athletes that swear by it and some who say it’s not that big a deal and doesn’t do much. In my experience as an endurance athlete and avid CrossFitter, when it comes to training and maximizing the short time I have to recover, I like to use every possible method available to me in order to enhance my recovery. Compression socks, tights, and arm sleeves have indeed had a beneficial effect on my recovery time. If you find yourself sitting a lot or traveling frequently, this is probably a recovery method you will want to look into. In my opinion, there’s nothing worse than sitting in a car or plane for longer than 30 minutes knowing that I’m reducing the blood flow from my lower extremities. At the very least, compression gear will help limit that deleterious effect while you travel. If you’re active throughout the day, this is even better news for you. More movement and compression mean faster recovery.
Train hard, recover harder.
1) Chris Poole, Colin Wilborn, Lem Taylor and Chad Kerksick (2010) The role of post-exercise nutrient administration on muscle protein synthesis and glycogen synthesis. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 9, 354-363
2) Kiens, B., Rabern, B., Valeur, A.K., and Richter, E.A. (1990) Benefit of dietary simple carbohydrates on the early postexercise muscle glycogen repletion in male athletes [abstract 524]. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 22, S88.
3) Brad Jon Schoenfeld, Alan Albert Aragon and James W Krieger (2013) The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 10:53
4) Coen C. W. G. Bongers, Maria T. E. Hopman, and Thijs M. H. Eijsvogels (2017) Cooling interventions for athletes: An overview of effectiveness, physiological mechanisms, and practical considerations. Temperature, Vol. 4, No. 1, 60–78
5) Gillian E White and Greg D Wells (2013) Cold-water immersion and other forms of cryotherapy: physiological changes potentially affecting recovery from high-intensity exercise. Extreme Physiology & Medicine, 2:26
6) Costello JT, Baker PR, Minett GM, Bieuzen F, Stewart IB, Bleakley C. Whole-body cryotherapy (extreme cold air exposure) for preventing and treating muscle sore-ness after exercise in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2015): CD010789; http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/ 14651858.CD010789.pub2
7) Banfi G, Melegati G, Barassi A, Dogliotti G, d’Eril GM, Dugue B, Corsi MM. Effects of whole-body cryotherapy on serum mediators of inflammation and serum muscle enzymes in athletes. J Therm Biol 2009; 34:55-9; http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jtherbio.2008.10.003
8) Kenney, W. L., Wilmore, J. H., Costill, D. L., & Wilmore, J. H. (2015) Physiology of sport and exercise. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics
9) Samuel Beliard, Michel Chauveau, Timothée Moscatiello, François Cros, Fiona Ecarnot and François Becker (2015) Compression Garments and Exercise: No Influence of Pressure Applied. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (2015) 14, 75-83