Pete McCall by Pete McCall
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You make your health and fitness a priority. You schedule your week around your workouts or favorite fitness classes, and rarely does a day goes by that you don’t walk through the doors of a fitness facility. But here’s something you may not realize: The time you spend working out is only one part of the equation necessary to achieve your fitness goals.

Exercise is the process of applying a physical stimulus to the tissues of the body. One thing that is often misunderstood is the fact that your body becomes stronger after you exercise, not during the actual workout. Top health and fitness professionals and strength coaches know that the real secret to getting results actually depends on what happens during the recovery period after the workout.

When a muscle achieves a point of momentary fatigue or soreness, that’s a signal that an appropriate amount of either metabolic or mechanical stress has been applied. Metabolic stress happens when a muscle has to produce the energy to contract. Mechanical stress occurs when muscle fibers experience structural damaged as the result of performing a series of contractions against external resistance. It’s not yet clear which one is more important, but both metabolic and mechanical stresses are necessary to stimulate the muscle growth that takes place after a workout. This is what makes the post-exercise recovery period so important.

If you’re interested in how you can maximize the benefits from your workouts, take a look at what you do after you exercise to help achieve optimal results. Following these top strategies can help you increase the effectiveness of the post-workout recovery period.

Types of Recovery

First, it’s important to define the type of recovery we are discussing. There are specific types of recovery: short-term, which occurs immediately after a set to allow the muscles to eliminate the waste products of contraction; and longer-term, which refers to the period of time between workout sessions. Short-term recovery can be anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes and is important to ensure that you replace energy stores after each set. The longer recovery period between workouts is the one to focus on because it is the time period after the workout when the body adapts to the stimulus applied during the exercise session. The proper care of your muscle and connective tissue, consuming the right type of post workout nutrition, the quality and quantity of sleep and, believe or not, the types of clothes you wear, can all promote the post-workout recovery necessary to help you maximize the results from your time spent sweating.

Compression Clothing

You may have noticed a recent trend of folks exercising while wearing knee-high socks, tights on both their legs and upper bodies, or sleeves over their calves or arms. Wearing compression clothing before and after a tough workout is a relatively new form of recovery treatment that, according to the research, may be an effective solution. The pressure from the tight clothing can improve circulation; specifically, the venous return of blood back to the heart, which helps remove metabolic waste from muscle and promotes the flow of oxygenated blood to help the tissue repair and rebuild. In studies on the recovery effect of compression clothing, some researchers were able to use specific measurements of metabolic byproducts from exercise, such as creatine kinase (CK, a marker of muscle damage as the result of a workout), and found that subjects who wore compression clothing in the period after strenuous exercise had lower CK-levels than the subjects who performed the same workout but did not wear compression clothing. (You can see specific studies addressing the use of compression clothing here, here and here.)

Vibration Training

You may have walked by a vibration training platform like the Power Plate and wondered what it was and why you should use it. There is a tremendous amount of research demonstrating the effectiveness of using a vibration platform. A vibration platform works by oscillating at a speed of 25 to 50Hz per second at an amplitude of 2 to 4 mm, creating an upward force in all three planes of motion. Force is the product of mass and acceleration; if the ground accelerates underneath us, it creates an upward force into the tissues of the body. As the platform vibrates, it triggers the nervous system to reflexively generate 30 to 40 micromuscle contractions per second. The vibrating motion enhances blood flow to any part of the body that is placed on the platform. This three-dimensional, high-speed movement can improve the viscosity of the fascia and connective tissue that surround muscle fibers, and enhance the sensitivity of the nervous system. As a component of a cool-down, the vibrations of the platform can help flush metabolic waste from the muscles used during the workout potentially enhancing recovery time.

Myofascial Release

You see them at the club and in most sports stores: foam rollers, compressions balls and rolling-pin-like sticks all help reduce muscle tightness, and at least one of them should be a part of your regular recovery program. If a muscle doesn’t experience a proper cool-down, or is held in a shortened position for an extended period of time, collagen, which are inelastic fibers that are a component of the connective tissue surrounding each muscle, can bind between layers of muscle and create adhesions or knots. Traditional massage therapy works by manually manipulating muscle tissue to break up adhesions, allowing the layers of muscle to slide against one another without restrictions. The pressure and motion of a muscle moving on a foam roller can help break up adhesions and realign muscle tissue to be able to function normally. In general, foam rollers provide the greatest response when an individual places a body-part directly on top of the roller and moves rhythmically to apply pressure to the underlying muscle and elastic connective tissue. Breaking up adhesions can help reduce muscle tightness and improve joint range of motion. Because it is not to hire a massage therapist after every workout, foam rollers, rolling sticks or compression balls can be used to apply the necessary pressure to break up collagen and promote optimal muscle recovery.

Sauna or Hot Tub

The heat from a sauna or hot tub increases the body’s circulation, which removes metabolic waste products like hydrogen ions, while also carrying oxygen and other nutrients necessary to help repair tissue used during the workout. 

Ice, Cooling Baths or Cryogenic Chambers

Another less comfortable, but extremely effective option for recovery is the use of cold treatments. Ice baths, ice packs, cooling vests or special cryogenic chambers are all options for cold treatment. A cryotherapy chamber applies a really cold temperature, up to negative 135 degrees centigrade, for a brief amount of time, and can be an effective way to promote post-exercise recovery. Cryotherapy clinics are popping up all over the country, providing an affordable way to obtain the benefits of really cold temperatures. Cold treatment can help cool down the body's core temperature, which is essential when exercising in hot weather, and 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.   

Post-workout Nutrition

During exercise, your muscles expend energy and experience physical stress. Recent research in the field of nutrient timing suggests that when nutrition is consumed relative to exercise may be as important as 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 refuel energy needs and increase insulin levels, which helps to promote the post-exercise utilization of protein for muscle repair. 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 timeframe will help your body to effectively use GH, T and IGF-1 to repair and build new muscle tissue. Evidence indicates that having a snack or drink with a 3 to 4:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio within 30-45 minutes post-exercise can help you recover from the day’s activity and get ready for tomorrow’s workout.

Sleep

Sleep is probably one of the most important components of a total wellness program that can help improve your overall health and fitness levels. Your body produces most of the hormones needed for tissue repair during the deep REM cycles of sleep. If you are planning a high-intensity workout, it is important that you have the ability to get a full night's sleep to allow the endocrine system, which produces hormones, to play its role in the recovery process.

Periodizing Your Workouts

“Muscle confusion” is a catchy term that marketers developed to promote a specific exercise program, but there is actually a lot of science that supports the practice of alternating between high- and low-intensity workout. Periodization refers to the process of scheduling phases of higher- and lower-intensity workouts and was developed specifically to maximize the recovery process for athletes preparing for competition. The general idea is that the intensity of a workout program should increase gradually over time and peak with the hardest workouts coming two to three weeks before the start of competition. As the competition or season gets closer, the workouts decrease in intensity, allowing an athlete’s body to rest and repair before the start of competition. Non-linear periodization alternates between higher- and lower-intensity days within the same week (this is what marketers referred to as “muscle confusion”). In a non-linear plan, Monday might be high-intensity strength-training workout using free weights, Tuesday a low-intensity aerobic-training workout, Wednesday a moderate-intensity body-weight 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. Most non-linear models 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.

Summary

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. Insufficient rest and recovery does not allow for optimal muscle protein synthesis and could lead to an accumulation of energy-producing hormones such as epinephrine and cortisol, which can reduce the ability to generate new muscle tissue. Loss of sleep or appetite, lingering illness and cessation of gains from exercise are all symptoms of overtraining, which can significantly affect your ability to achieve your fitness goals. If you have a busy period of work, travel or family obligations, 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.

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