If you’re a professional or amateur athlete, you know proper recovery is an absolute must. But you also want to get it over with as quickly as possible. Lucky for you, a whole lot of scientific studies have been done on the right ways to recover fast - and we’ve poured over them all so you don’t have to. Read on for some of our favorite, scientifically proven ways to bounce back quickly and thoroughly after a strength workout, an endurance event, or a little bit of both.
Let your heart rate be your guide
Do you monitor your heart rate? If not, get yourself a monitor, stat. The data it picks up can be incredibly helpful in guiding your recovery.
How? It boils down to Heart Rate Variability (HRV), the time between each beat of the heart . Your healthy heart naturally has small variations in time between beats measured in milliseconds. However, a low heart rate variability or less variation between beats is associated with heart disease. So your goal is to have small variations in the time between heart beats. This is controlled by a part of your nervous system called the autonomic nervous system. When you’re at rest, your parasympathetic nervous system regulates your heart rate causing higher variability in heart rate. However, as you exercise and the intensity of exercise increases, the parasympathetic nervous system has less control of the heart and the sympathetic nervous system takes over .
This is important to understand for recovery because your HRV while resting could indicate if you need to lower the volume and intensity of your training. When you train for any sport, there is a period of overload (training), decreased performance (recovery), and super compensation (improvements/adaptations). After the last phase, you restart the process which allows you to continually make improvements and strive towards your genetic peak; this is known as the general adaptation syndrome. However, during the recovery phase, if you don’t provide yourself with adequate recovery, you can lead yourself into a state of overreaching or overtraining. During this period, your training or performance can suffer and you can’t make improvements - and your HRV may not return to normal, as it should during the recovery period. Therefore, using a heart rate monitor or the Elite HRV app during times of high training intensity can help you monitor your heart rate and define when you should increase or decrease your training, or taper or deload.
Make friends with extreme temperatures
Hot & cold temperatures—whether it be saunas, ice baths, or cryotherapy—are common techniques used to reduce inflammation and improve recovery after training . When doing any type of training, you’re causing muscle damage and cell swelling, which result in inflammation or soreness. And while inflammation is beneficial in making adaptations and progressing in your sport, excessive inflammation may impair your ability to make gains.
After you train, exposing your muscles to cold temperatures below 60ºF in water or ice (or -42ºF in a cryotherapy tank) can reduce inflammation caused by training . Using contrast water therapy (alternating between cold and hot temperatures) can also achieve a similar effect . These techniques can be as simple as filling your bathtub full of ice water and lying in it for 10-15 minutes, or going to your local gym and sitting in the sauna for 10-20 minutes after you train. If you have access to cryotherapy, which uses liquid nitrogen to cool air to as low as -82ºF, you can do 1-3 sessions per week where you stand in the nitrogen cooled air for 2-3 minutes. There is a caveat to using hot or cold liquid or cryotherapy, though. Because inflammation caused by training is one of the mechanisms to make gains, reducing inflammation can actually be negative. So stick to using these techniques during times you are excessively sore or training for a specific event, rather than using them several times per week.
Fuel your recovery with the right nutrients
Post workout is a key time to ensure you’re consuming the best possible nutrients for recovery. This includes optimal intake of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Your needs are primarily going to be based on your sport. Endurance athletes training or competing for 4+ hours will have significantly different nutrition needs than a football player training or playing intermittently for 1-2 hours. Carbohydrates are one of the most effective ways to optimize post workout recovery. After you train, your body’s stored energy (glycogen) is depleted because it was used to facilitate movement during training. A strength & power athlete such as a football player will require ~0.4-0.5g of carbohydrates/pound of bodyweight within 30-60 minutes after training. However, endurance athletes’ carbohydrate needs are 0.5-0.7g/pound of body weight.
As for protein, it not only maximizes your recovery post-training, but also optimizes the anabolic response to training. Most will say that your body can only absorb about 25-30g of protein at one time. However, this isn’t true. Your body will absorb (digest) all of the protein you consume, but the anabolic response to the protein consumption is maximized around 20-40g . Mixing our grass-fed whey protein into your favorite beverage is an easy way to fuel up post-workout and know how much protein you’re getting.
Then there’s fat. The amount of fat you should consume after you train is a controversial topic. Some say that it slows digestion and shouldn’t be used after training. Others say consuming fat post workout can be beneficial for recovery. Why the grey area? Different sports & activities have differing needs. Like carbohydrates and protein, fat needs will depend on the sport, duration, and intensity. Having a large amount of fat after you train is not a good idea for most, so keep fat intake between 1-10g. If you’re an ultra-endurance or marathon athlete, consuming 15-30g of fat after an event or training session is acceptable because during the event, you used intramuscular fat (think of marbling on a steak) as an energy source. (Learn more about dietary fat intake for strength & power athletes and for endurance athletes.)
Get your antioxidants in
Why do athletes need antioxidants? Between training and daily life, your body produces free radicals or oxidants that can cause damage to cells. This is a normal process your body regulates very strictly. However, during times of high stress, lack of sleep, and intense training, the production of free radicals can be higher than what your body can handle, causing your body to accumulate higher amounts of these damaging molecules. Vitamins such as vitamin A, C, and E have been shown to scavenge for these free radicals and stabilize them so they don’t have harmful effects. In addition, flavonoids found in fruits and vegetables, as well as omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and krill oil, can reduce inflammation after muscle-damaging exercise.
Foods high in vitamins, flavonoids, and omega-3s are considered recovery aids because they decrease the inflammation caused by training. However, similar to heat and cold therapy, these come with a caveat. Inflammation is a driver of the gains we make when training, therefore, consuming antioxidants around the training window all of the time may hinder your gains. Consuming foods such as green leafy vegetables and fattier fish, or supplements such as Krill Oil and Supergreens, are great if your goal is to recover quickly and prepare for a match or event. However, if your goal is to optimize your gains while training, these supplements should be taken with caution around the training window and should be taken as far away from your training periods as possible.
Take sleep seriously
Sleep matters when optimizing recovery. While you’re passed out, your body goes through physiological changes which allow you to adapt. Exercise can actually improve your sleep habits by promoting longer sleep, but if you exercise too close to bedtime, it can hinder your shut-eye. That’s because when training, catecholamines (adrenaline) are increased. This can cause you to stay awake and alert even if you’re dying for some rest.
There are natural nutrients that can help improve your sleep, too, in turn helping to accelerate your recovery. Magnesium, a mineral readily lost in sweat, can improve sleep when deficient. Vitamin D, another commonly deficient vitamin, can also improve sleep. Glutamine is another supplement that has potential to aid in sleep. A natural supplement blend like AMRAP Natural Deep Sleep Formula combines several vitamins and minerals often deficient in athletes, for deeper sleep and optimal recovery.
Replenish your fluids (without overdoing it)
Water consumption is one of the easiest ways to improve recovery after training. Depending on sex, hormones status, external temperature during training or sport, and intensity of training, water consumption will vary from athlete to athlete. Endurance athletes may require more water during their training than a strength and power athlete due to the environmental temperatures and duration of their training. Therefore, they’ll require more fluids after the event. A 1-2% water loss during training will lower performance. The effects of dehydration may become severe when water loss exceeds 5% and may become deadly as water loss approaches 20%.
Generally speaking, to measure water needs after training, take your pre-training weight and subtract your post training weight plus fluids consumed during training to determine the weight of fluid you should consume after exercise. This will ensure proper hydration after training. Another concern is the addition of electrolytes, specifically sodium, to post-training fluids. Sodium is readily excreted via sweat during training, therefore, consuming adequate water with sodium after training will optimize recovery. Learn more about post training fluid and electrolyte consumption in this article.
A little ommmmm can’t hurt
It can be hard for athletes to stop moving — but zenning out can be good for your recovery. Forms of meditation such as Epsom salt baths, sensory deprivation, and traditional meditation can aid recovery through reducing stress and anxiety as well as improving control of breathing, heart rate, and mind-muscle connection.
Epsom salt baths use a combination of aromatherapy and heat therapy. This meditation technique can relax muscles, eliminate or reduce muscle spasms, and have positive effects on your mood.25 Indulging in an Epsom salt bath is as simple as picking up a bag of the salt at your local drugstore, adding it to a warm bath at home, and soaking for 15 minutes.
Sensory deprivation is essentially a period of abstinence from all normal stimuli such as light and sound for a short (30-60 minutes) period of time. This can be performed in a chamber or flotation tank to allow for deep reflection without interruptions. Might as well try it at least once, right?
The easiest of all of these techniques is meditation. Not necessarily easy in practice, but easy enough that you can do it right now. Meditation is commonly prescribed to people who suffer from chronic anxiety along with exercise and yoga. 27 Apps like Headspace make it simple to sit down and zen out for a few minutes, which is all you need. You can combine any of these relaxation techniques or just choose one to help yourself unwind after training, and enjoy both the physical and emotional benefits.
Massage those muscles
Much like the use of antioxidants, temperature therapies, and meditation, massages can help reduce inflammation and anxiety. Massage therapies can also reduce long-term muscular pain and range of motion, so they’re worth the investment for an athlete. 28 You can choose from a wide variety of massage styles, such as a standard (Swedish) massage, which relaxes the body and mind through light, feathering touches to the surface of the skin; Deep tissue is also a popular choice for athletes, as it works into the muscle to release myofascial pressure, eliminating pain and restoring motion. On a budget? You can get the same effect at home by using a foam roller, medicine ball, lacrosse ball, or golf ball to apply pressure. Deep tissue massages and myofascial release work via similar mechanisms by releasing tension within the muscle, which can build up within or around a muscle due to training.
Although the goal of a standard massage is to promote relaxation, it is effective when you want to reduce training- and life-induced stress. Myofascial release techniques have the ability to increase range of motion of a joint that may have been limited by training. 29 In addition, a standard massage can reduce markers of inflammation after muscle damaging exercise, which can improve your recovery time.
Now, you’re ready to recover
As you can see, there are a lot of ways to help your body bounce back after a strenuous training session or event. You don’t have to do all of them — experiment and find out what makes your body feel best. As a general rule, getting great sleep, replenishing lost nutrients, and taking the time to relax will help you avoid the dreaded “overtrained” state.
If you have any questions about post-workout nutrition or a related topic, reach out to us and we’ll be glad to share our expertise.
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