The Science of Post-Workout Recovery

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Feel guilty about missing your gym class? Couldn’t summon up the energy for a fun run? We are repeatedly told that exercise makes us stronger, happier, and healthier and have bought into the trend of high-intensity workouts. Science has shown how pushing ourselves that bit harder ramps up the benefits of exercise. Yet it’s a fine line between doing too much and too little. One workout too many can change the arc of your physical progression. Sometimes, the best thing you can do to enhance your fitness is to do almost nothing at all.

Partly in response to our all-out efforts of recent years, there is now a heightened focus on recovery. At gyms, you will find a slew of low-impact classes that promote mental relaxation and release for our weary, overworked muscles, and recuperation has been highlighted as a trend by the fitness industry. The message is that it is counterproductive to plough mindlessly through workouts without pausing to allow our bodies to heal and restore.

Your body needs time to adapt to the effort you have made. Only with that time can it effectively adapt and increase your fitness levels.

Paul Hobrough, a physiotherapist and sports scientist based in Northumberland, says that recovery should be the most important part of weekly exercise. “Your body needs time to adapt to the effort you have made,” he says. “Only with that time can it effectively adapt and increase your fitness levels. Without it, your body will begin to fatigue and eventually break down.”

But how should we recover? The process has become something of a science in itself, with everything from pomegranate and cherry-juice shots to ice baths and foam rollers touted as being essential to accelerating muscle repair. Putting your feet up, it seems, is not an option. However, recovery remains a minefield for many. To create a clearer idea of what works best, a series of studies were commissioned by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and carried out at Western State Colorado University. The research’s aim was to look at the effects of different recovery approaches for various activities and the results were published in the ACE journal Certified.

Lance Dalleck, the assistant professor of sport and exercise science who led the trials, wanted to find out if there were optimal techniques for speeding up recovery processes in time for the next intense bout of activity. “In my experience, the majority of people have the mindset that recovery will take care of itself,” Dalleck says. “However, when recovery is given its due diligence, training and performance outcomes are enhanced.” In other words, you can bounce back to work harder next time. Over time, a failure to factor in recovery leads to a downward spiral of fatigue and increased vulnerability to injury.

To test recovery from endurance exercise, such as moderate running, rowing, and swimming, Dalleck asked 15 volunteers to run on a treadmill at a reasonably hard pace — they were breathing quite heavily — for as long as they could. They then recovered for an hour before repeating the exercise. Between the activity bouts, the subjects practiced an “active” recovery — 15 minutes of slow jogging followed by 45 minutes of rest — or a “passive” strategy, in which they simply rested, doing nothing for an hour.

The results were emphatic, showing that doing something to aid your recovery was better than taking it easy

In a second trial, Dalleck and his team compared passive and active recovery methods by asking the same participants to perform bursts of high-intensity cycling on a stationary bike set at a high resistance. This would replicate other power-based workouts, including some resistance-training sessions and sports such as tennis, football, and squash played at a fast rate. For this exercise, the active recovery was a period of steady pedaling.

The results were emphatic, showing that doing something to aid your recovery was better than taking it easy. When participants jogged to recover from their endurance trial, their subsequent performance dropped by only 4.1 percent compared with 11.8 percent when they just sat down. After the high-intensity power-based session, performance decreased by only 0.8 percent when they pedaled gently to recover, but by 5.7 percent if they engaged in passive recovery. In a separate study, the benefits were found to be negligible if the recovery pace was too fast. The idea, Dalleck says, is to gently bring your body back to a resting state.

What else has science uncovered that might reduce unwelcome post-workout muscle fatigue? You will almost certainly need longer recovery times as you get older. “Our cardiorespiratory fitness levels naturally decline in later years, which equates to a longer recovery process,” Dalleck says. “Added to this are the decreased total antioxidant capacity of the body, lower levels of anabolic hormones, and increased levels of oxidative stress linked with aging, which will also delay recovery.”

Simple nutrition helps whatever your age. Consuming some carbohydrates as soon as possible after a hard workout can help to restock supplies of muscle glycogen. But don’t overdo it. “It’s very easy to eat too much and you don’t really need a recovery meal after a gentle gym class,” Hobrough says.

Forget the protein balls; they can generally wait. Last year, a panel of scientists assembled by the American College of Sports Medicine published the latest position statement on sports nutrition. It suggested that, while eating protein an hour or two after intense workouts may help to reboot glycogen stores more quickly, there’s no proof that it has a direct impact on recovery. Shots of cherry or pomegranate juice, rich in antioxidants that are touted to prevent post-workout aches and pains, are probably a waste of time too. A Cochrane review published last December by experts at Sheffield Hallam University showed only a tiny advantage in taking antioxidant supplements and found that none of them resulted in a meaningful reduction in muscle soreness after exercise. In many cases, a placebo was just as effective.

What of other recovery aids that claim to speed up the process? Hobrough says that many are no more than “a fantastic marketing ploy” and Dalleck says that “there’s little scientific evidence to support many of the newer gadgets”.

You will probably be thankful to hear that hopping into an ice bath is probably unnecessary unless you have just completed an extreme challenge such as a marathon or triathlon.

You will probably be thankful to hear that hopping into an ice bath is probably unnecessary unless you have just completed an extreme challenge such as a marathon or triathlon. Even then the jury is out. A few studies have shown that submerging yourself in icy water reduces perceptions of soreness and speeds up the recovery of muscle function, but in 2016 Australian researchers concluded that it does nothing to fight post-workout inflammation. Last year, Swedish scientists at the Karolinska Institute found that a more inviting hot bath probably offers more benefits. Arthur Cheng, one of the researchers reporting in the Journal of Physiology, said that “warming muscles probably aids in recovery by augmenting the muscles’ uptake of carbohydrates”.

Compression socks and deep-tissue massage may help some people, but again the scientific proof is variable. “There may be a psychological advantage with some of them, which is part of the battle,” Hobrough says, “but don’t expect miracles.”

The golden rules, he says, are to practice active recovery in the form of a cool-down and to stretch overworked muscles when you finish. “I’d struggle to find suitable evidence for anything beyond that. Ultimately, with most of these things, it comes down to what works for you. If you find something that works, use it.”

Post-Running

Don’t stop a hard run suddenly. “Gradually cool down by slowing your run to a jog over five minutes as a minimum,” Hobrough says. “After that try some gentle, static stretching.”

You will need to stretch your quadriceps and hamstrings, but it’s your calf muscles that can take the brunt of an intense run. Don’t forget to stretch them after you finish. Stand with both feet on a curb or step. Move the heel of your right foot backwards so it’s hanging off the curb. Lower your heel down so you can feel a deep stretch in your calf muscle. Bend both knees to deepen the stretch. Repeat with the other leg.

Post-Swimming

Cool down by swimming a few lengths of varied strokes at a leisurely pace. Out of the pool, stretch to mobilize the shoulders and back. Start with arm circles — creating big circular movements in each direction with your arms — then perform a streamline stretch, in which you extend your arms straight above your head, elbows pressed against your ears. Cross your elbows behind your head, then rotate at the waist to the left and then to the right.

Post-Tennis

Once you have finished playing tennis, you should allow your heart rate to lower gradually by performing light aerobic exercise such as jogging, walking, or gently hitting balls to a partner. Tennis players tend to get stiff in the hips and hamstrings, so make sure you address those areas as well as the upper body with some post-match stretches.

Try some hip twists, performed lying on your back. Bend your left knee up to your chest and, with your right hand, pull your leg towards your right shoulder. Hold this position for 30-40 seconds on each side without turning your chest or lifting your back or head off the ground.

Post-Cycling


According to British Cycling coaches, the guideline is to allow enough time to progressively bring the heart rate down to near resting levels while still turning your legs over on the pedals. This will typically take five to ten minutes and should ideally be factored into the end of every ride. If your legs are stiff after being in a fixed position on the bike, spend five to ten minutes stretching as soon as you get off.

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