Exercise is stress.
Whether you’re lifting weights, running, cycling, swimming, doing bodyweight exercises or simply going for a vigorous walk, exercise is an imposed stress for the purpose of initiating changes in the body. It’s important to understand that exercise is the process of applying a stress, giving the body the time and ability to adapt to that stress is the real secret to getting results from your workouts; for example strength training applies mechanical force to muscle fibers causing desired changes like improving tone or increase size. The important part comes AFTER the workout with HOW the body adapts to the applied stimulus.
If you want the best results from your exercise program, then it’s important to have a specific strategy for what you do AFTER your workouts to help ensure that the stimulus has the desired effect. Yes, high intensity exercise can help burn more calories and heavy resistance training can provide significant benefits like burning fat or increasing strength but doing too much high intensity exercise too frequently will not allow the proper time for your body to rest, recover and replace spent energy or rebuild new muscle tissue.
Too much exercise and not enough rest or proper recovery strategies could lead to overtraining. If you’ve ever experienced a lingering illness, an injury that won’t heal or can’t fall asleep even after a hard workout then chances are you might be experiencing the results of TOO MUCH exercise; having the proper recovery strategies can help you avoid these issues and keep you on the road for getting results.
Just like an exercise program is specific to the individual, a recovery program should be designed to meet the needs of your workouts. It’s important to note that recovery doesn’t just mean just taking time off to rest. Following a high-intensity training day with a low-intensity workout can actually help the body recover quicker from the hard workout. Runners and weight-lifters both need recovery but each will have different strategies and techniques based on the exercises performed. A few specific recovery strategies include:
1. Heat and cold treatments
There is a reason why many health clubs have saunas and whirlpools, the heat from these relaxing environments can actually help promote post-exercise tissue recovery. The heat from a sauna or hot tub increases the body’s circulation which removes metabolic waste products such as hydrogen ions while carrying oxygen and other nutrients necessary to help repair tissue used during the workout.
Another less comfortable but extremely effective option is the use of cold treatments. Ice baths, ice packs, cooling vests or special chairs with pockets for ice packs are all examples of different options available for applying cold treatment. One benefit of cold treatment is it can help cool down the body’s core temperature which is essential when exercising in hot weather or when playing in tournaments that will have multiple competitions on the same day. A second benefit is that it can reduce inflammation and promote healing in tissue that was used during the workout. The cold from the application of ice to a sore muscle or joint brings more blood to the area which brings nutrients and oxygen to help promote healing. Heat or cold, which ever you prefer, can each be used to help promote recovery from a strenuous workout. If you don’t want to spend twenty minutes sitting in an bath tub full of ice then using a new cryochamber, while a little more expensive, could help increase the speed of recovery.
2. Post workout nutrition
Proper timing of nutrient intake relative to exercise can promote glycogen replacement and protein re-synthesis. When you exercise, especially high intensity interval training or heavy resistance training, your muscles expend energy and experience physical damage to protein filaments of the muscle fibers. Recent research in the field of nutrient timing suggests that WHEN nutrition is consumed relative to exercise may be more important than WHAT is consumed.
After exercise the body needs to replenish energy with carbohydrates and repair tissue with protein. Having a post-workout snack or drink with a proper ratio of carbohydrates to protein can help with both needs. The carbohydrates will refuel energy needs as well as increase insulin levels which helps to promote the post-exercise utilization of protein for muscle repair. The proper nutrition is especially important after high intensity exercise which can promote the release of the muscle-building hormones: Testosterone (T), Human Growth Hormone (GH) and Insulin-like Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1). Refueling your body with the recommended nutrition within the recommended time frame will help your body to effectively use GH, T and IGF-1 to repair and build new muscle tissue. Research indicates that having a snack or drink with a 3 – 4 : 1 carbohydrate to protein ratio within thirty-to-forty-five minutes post exercise can help you recover from the day’s activity and get ready for tomorrow’s workout.
3. Flexibility, massage and other tissue treatments
Many fitness enthusiasts understand that it is important to start a workout with dynamic flexibility exercises and cool down with static stretching. However optimal recovery for the myofascial network goes beyond simply stretching and should include techniques for improving tissue extensibility (the ability of separate layers of muscle tissue to slide across one another) using foam rollers, sticks or even massage from a professional therapist. The goal is to apply appropriate pressure to the muscle tissue to improve circulation and reduce the opportunity for inelastic collagen fibers to develop in stress points which can limit tissue extensibility. If you run out of time at the gym then it’s a good idea to have the equipment at home so you can do some tissue work in the evening while relaxing in front of the TV.
Using a foam roll, a massage stick or even a tennis ball doesn’t take long and can actually be a good way to wind down the day and prepare for a good night’s sleep. One of my favorite new products for recovery is the GRID Vibe, a vibrating roller by Trigger Point that massages the muscle while the pressure of the rolling reduces tightness.
Your body produces most of the T, GH and IGF-1 needed for tissue repair during the deep REM cycles of sleep. If you are planning a high intensity workout then it is important that you have the ability to get a full night’s sleep to allow your neuroendocrine system to play it’s role in the recovery process. If you have a busy period of work, travel or family obligations then you should adjust your exercise program accordingly and do low-to-moderate intensity workouts until you can return to your normal sleep patterns which can support higher-intensity exercise stimulus. If you normally love hard-charging workouts then the short-term drop in intensity might not feel like you’re really exercising, but your body will appreciate your lowering the physical stress-load. The danger of too much exercise without proper rest and recovery can lead to injury or illness both of which could keep you out of the gym for lengthy periods of time.
5. Periodizing Your Workouts
The process of scheduling phases of higher and lower intensity workouts is known as periodization and was developed specifically to maximize the recovery process for athletes preparing for a competition. The general idea is that the intensity of a workout program should increase gradually over time and peak with the hardest workouts coming 2-to-3 weeks before the start of competition, this will allow the body to rest before a competitive season begins when the levels of physical stress will be at their highest. This form of periodization is called linear because the progression of intensity gradually increases over a period of weeks or months. If you’ve ever prepared for a long-distance race then you’ve probably followed a linear periodization plan which gradually adds a couple of miles per week allowing your body to adjust to the work required to complete the longer runs.
A second form of periodization, known as non-linear, is structured in a way that alternates between higher and lower intensity days within the same week. In a non-linear plan Monday might be a high intensity strength-training day with free-weights, Tuesday a low-intensity aerobic-training day, Wednesday a moderate-intensity bodyweight workout, Thursday a high-intensity anaerobic interval workout, Friday a rest day, Saturday a high-intensity strength day and Sunday a low-to-moderate intensity aerobic training day. If you’re really sore have a hard training day or competition then a low-intensity workout the following day can be one of the strategies to help you recover and start feeling better right away.
NOTE: Both linear and non-linear programs recommend taking a few days off every few weeks to allow the body to fully rest and recover from the stresses of the workout program.
6. Compression clothing
If you’re an active exercise enthusiast you’ve no doubt noticed more people wearing compression clothing while working out and you’ve probably noticed ads for wearing compression clothing AFTER a workout. Guess, what…it works! Wearing compression clothing during a tough workout can help keep tissue temperature elevated – important for avoiding an injury. Wearing compression clothing after a hard sweat session is proving to be an effective recovery strategy because he pressure from the tight, specially designed clothing can improve circulation, specifically venous return of de-oxygenated blood to the heart, which helps remove metabolic waste from muscle while promoting the flow of oxygenated blood to help the tissue repair and rebuild.
There you have it, a few different techniques which help the body to recover from one workout and prepare for the next one. The common theme is to improve circulation to help remove the waste from a muscle and bring new oxygen and nutrients to support building new tissue. Each of these methods are supported by scientific evidence but only you can determine which one will be the best for your needs.
To learn more about the types of exercise you should be doing and how to promote optimal recovery from your workouts, puck up a copy of my book: