Pete McCall by Pete McCall

Exercise—whether lifting weights, running, swimming or simply going for a vigorous walk—is the process of applying a physical stress to challenge the physiological functions of the body, but the act of exercising is only part of the process required for making changes in the body. The important part comes after the workout with how the body adapts to the applied stimulus.

If you want the most from your exercise program, then you must have a specific strategy for what you do after the workout to help ensure that the stimulus has the desired effect. Exercising too frequently will not allow time for your body to rest, recover and replace lost energy stores or rebuild new muscle tissue and could lead to overtraining. Exercising too infrequently will not apply enough of a stimulus to create any lasting effects.

Just as 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 more quickly from the hard workout. Runners and weightlifters both need recovery, but each will have different stategies and techniques based on the exercises performed. Here are a few specific recovery strategies:

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 to use cold treatments. Ice baths, ice packs, cooling vests or special chairs with pockets for ice packs are all 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. A second benefit is that it can reduce inflammation and promote healing in tissue that was used during the workout. Applying 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, whichever you prefer, can each be used to help promote recovery from a strenuous workout.     

2. Post-workout Nutrition

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 meet 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. 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 30 to 45 minutes post-exercise can help you recover from the day’s activity and get ready for tomorrow’s workout.

3. Flexibility and Tissue Treatment

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 that can limit tissue extensibility. If you tend to run out of time at the gym, 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 be a good way to wind down the day and prepare for a good night’s sleep.

4. Sleeping

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, it’s important to get a full night's sleep to allow your neuroendocrine system to play its role in the recovery process. 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 stimulus. If you typically love hard-charging workouts, the short-term drop in intensity might not feel like you're really exercising, but your body will appreciate the lower physical stress-load. 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 called 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 two to three weeks before the start of competition. This allows the body to rest before a competitive season begins, when the levels of physical stress will be at their peak. 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, 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, 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 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. Both linear and non-linear programs include 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

Wearing compression clothing before and after a tough workout is a relatively new form of recovery treatment that is proving to be effective. The pressure from tight clothing can improve circulation, which helps remove metabolic waste from muscle and promote the flow of oxygenated blood to help tissue repair and rebuild.

There you have it—six different techniques that 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 is supported by scientific evidence, but only you can determine which one will be best for you.