Clean and jerk performed in competition.

Exercise Recovery Techniques

Why post-workout recovery is important

You can work out more frequently and with more intensity when you have a good post-workout recovery plan. It will reduce or prevent muscle soreness, and hasten recovery so you can exercise again as soon as possible.

After intense workouts, you are faced with exercise-induced micro-traumas, lactic acid buildup in the muscle tissue, swelling, and nutritional deficits. Speedy recovery from these effects is one of the factors which separate successful athletes from the also-rans.

Ways to promote recovery immediately after exercise

Cooling down

Cool-down routines are important. If you cease exercise immediately, without cooling down, blood lactate buildup in the muscle tissue won’t be flushed away as efficiently, resulting in muscle soreness and swelling. Cooling down after exercise gives your muscles time to buffer the lactic acid, and it keeps the blood flowing through your capillaries, which reduces lactic acid buildup.

For those of you who experience excessive sweating after exercise, a cool-down routine is more effective than a cool shower at bringing your body temperature back down to normal in a reasonable period of time because it doesn’t cause vasoconstriction like a cold shower. Vasoconstriction reduces heat exchange between your core and the environment.

Another name for a cool-down routine is active recovery, but this isn’t to be confused with an active recovery workout, which takes place on a rest day and is a different thing entirely.

Post-workout nutrition

Immediately after working out, you have several vital nutritional requirements. Your progress will suffer without a proper post-workout meal.

Water

Rehydrate yourself after exercising.

Post-workout dehydration causes several unwanted conditions:

  • Waste products will remain in your muscle tissue, increasing your post-workout muscle soreness
  • Thicker blood stresses your cardiovascular system
  • Dehydration significantly reduces mental and physical performance
  • Nutrients, especially the serum amino acids needed for protein synthesis, will not be delivered to your muscle tissue as efficiently

Your recovery from exercise is dependent upon rehydrating yourself after working out. This is the most important step you can take. If you neglect rehydration, your recovery will stall completely.

Carbohydrates

To conserve or build muscle mass, post-workout carbohydrates are almost as important as rehydration.

Without sufficient carbs, you can’t fuel the protein synthesis that repairs damaged myofibrils (protein structures that cause your muscle fibers to contract). No matter how much protein you eat before, during, or after exercise, it’s useless without fuel.

In the absence of carbs, your body will burn dietary protein or break down muscle tissue to use as fuel; i.e. you’ll be in a catabolic state.

Long-term carbohydrate starvation, coupled with intense exercise, is a sure-fire way to hasten the onset of overtraining. Without the ability to replenish your glycogen stores, your body will catabolize its muscle tissue.

Electrolytes

World War II submarine mariners were issued salt tablets along with their water rations, football players have been known to drink pickle juice (brine) during intense training workouts, and virtually everyone uses salty sports drinks during exercise on hot, summer days.

Electrolytes — ions like sodium, potassium, and calcium – are essential.

Perspiration during heavy exercise depletes your electrolyte levels. You have to replace these salts before muscle recovery can occur.

Pure water is fine when you’re feeling thirsty, but if you’ve lost a significant amount of body weight to perspiration, you need to replace your lost electrolytes too.

Passive recovery from exercise

Rest

Without rest, you will eventually succumb to overreaching and overtraining.

Remember: professional athletes work out according to a sensible schedule drawn up for them by knowledgeable coaches. Too much intensity injures even the most naturally talented athletes among us. Keep accurate records of your exercise progress, and make sure you get enough rest.

Additionally, keep in mind that you can’t continually push for new heights of achievement. You have to incorporate deloading phases into your weight-training plans, and maintenance phases into your cardio schedule. World-class pro athletes need an off season so they can rest and recover from the rigors of near-maximum efforts on the playing field and in the weight room, and so do you.

RICE – rest, ice, compression, elevation

Injured joints and pulled muscles are a common result of excessive overload or problems with form. Treating these minor injuries hastens healing. Reduce or prevent swelling with an ice pack for up to 20 minutes, every 2 to 3 hours. Wrap a compression bandage around the injury site between icings. Keep the injury site above the level of your heart. You know the drill.

Of rest, ice, compression, or elevation, rest is by far the most important component of the RICE injury recovery protocol.

Of rest, ice, compression, or elevation, rest is by far the most important component of the RICE injury recovery protocol.


Remember that rest is far more important than ice, compression or elevation. All the ice in the world won’t help if you refuse to give an injury time to heal.

Contrast baths

During contrast therapy, soak a recovering body part in ice-cold water until it’s cold, then immediately transfer it to warm water until it warms up. Repeat this cycle of contrast baths several times.

Contrast baths are used to increase the blood flow in a localized area. They are most useful for areas that can be readily submerged, like elbows, wrists, and feet. Unless you have access to a fully-equipped training facility complete with whirlpool baths, contrast baths are impractical for larger body parts like hips or shoulders.

Contrast therapy alternates vasodilation with vasoconstriction. This increases the blood flow to the targeted areas, which may stimulate healing and muscle recovery. It also act as a counterirritant, which reduces muscle soreness.

Heat (or hot baths) should not be used on swollen areas, on recent injuries, or immediately after exercise.

Foam rolling and massage

 
Pro athletes have long understood the recovery advantages afforded by massage therapy. Now, with foam rolling, even casual fitness enthusiasts can enjoy some of the benefits of massage without shelling out money to a masseuse or physical therapist.

Foam rolling, sometimes called self myofascial release, lets you massage muscle knots or trigger points, and may even help prevent the formation of scar tissue.

Whether foam rolling is effective is still up for debate. There is a ton of internet marketing hype surrounding this relatively new development, but numerous anecdotal stories support its effectiveness. One thing’s for sure: foam rolling a hard-to-reach spot can be a workout itself!

Anti-inflammatory drugs

Aspirin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and related anti-inflammatory drugs are commonly used by athletes to reduce swelling, inflammation, or muscle pain. Don’t think that you are weak or cowardly for taking an anti-inflammatory pill. The judicious use of these drugs is a proven aid to recovery after exercise.

Active recovery from exercise

Did you know that certain recovery exercises enable you to work out again, sooner?

Active recovery workouts

A low-intensity exercise routine on an off day, especially after an extremely intense workout or competition, will assist with muscle recovery by flushing the muscles with oxygenated blood and removing lactate from the tissues. It also helps counter the psychological letdown that can follow a max effort day.

Pro athletes, especially those who “leave it all on the field” like football players and boxers, are increasingly relying on active recovery workouts to reduce the recovery period, combat soreness, and stave off post-workout ennui.

During an active recovery workout, try some enjoyable exercises that you don’t normally get a chance to do. Make sure your active recovery workout is different from your typical training routine. If you work out the same way you normally train, your recovery will stall.

Stretching workouts for active recovery

Flexibility training goes hand-in-hand with strength training and is an effective active recovery workout on its own.

If you can’t move your joints through a full range of motion during weight lifting, you will experience muscle soreness and the increased risk of injury. In fact, a lot of what inexperienced trainees assume is delayed onset muscular soreness (DOMS) are actually minor muscle pulls resulting from the weight-assisted stretching of inflexible muscles. Weight training without concomitant flexibility training is a recipe for injury.

Therefore, stretching is an essential component of active recovery.

Immediately after exercise, perhaps during the cool-down period, is a good time for some light static stretching. When the muscles are fully warmed up, they accept static stretching particularly well.

Off days – after the active recovery workout – are good times for dynamic stretching. This counterbalances the tightening effects of weight training. Remember to be careful during ballistic stretching; your goal is to increase flexibility, not pull a muscle.

Recovery during exercise

Many modern athletes use interval training programs to increase their work capacity. These athletes understand that they can work out at a higher overall level of intensity by incorporating recovery periods into the workout.

Generally, cardio athletes try to get the heart rate down below 140 beats per minute during the low-intensity phase of interval training. It’s handy to have a heart rate monitor so you can tell your heart rate at a glance. With time and experience, you can use perceived level of intensity to get a fairly accurate estimate of your actual heart rate.

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