By Diana Gerstacker
When athletes, gym rats and beginners alike ask how they can improve, they usually ask about the workout. What workout will make them stronger, faster, fitter, the list goes on. While improvements to your workout routine will help with all of those goals, people too often forget that muscle isn't built in the gym.
Muscle is torn in the gym, and it is rebuilt in rest and recovery. Those buff dudes you see at the gym every single day didn’t get strong by camping out in the gym. The girls with six packs weren’t working on their abs all day, every day at the beginning (and chances are they aren't now either). The strongest, fastest, fittest people know they need to vary workouts to give muscle groups a break and they know their body needs rest. They got strong by recovering right and now they can afford to spend tons of time in the gym.
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is the pain that tells you that you're not quite ready to reenter the gym. DOMS is characterized by swelling, impaired movement and soreness. It happens in the days following strenuous exercise and you definitely know this feeling. It's the bittersweet sensation of knowing your workout was effective and not being able to walk up or down stairs for two days.
Ultimately, the goals of recovery are to minimize the effects of DOMS so you can get back to the gym faster, to reap the maximum benefits of each workout and, most importantly, to do everything safely. Recovery techniques, like workout plans, get easier through repetitive action.
From foam rolling to ice baths, we've compiled the strategies that research has proved most effective and ruled out the ones that just don’t work well. If you thought alternating hot and cold provided maximum benefits you need to read on and if you're on a super strict diet it might be time to reevaluate. Put down that Gatorade, grab some coconut water and click here to get back in the gym with maximal returns quickly.
While light exercise of the affected areas can be beneficial and we know continuing strenuous exercise of the same muscles is outright dangerous, time and rest are the only two methods that are guaranteed to safely help your muscles recover.
Time off is essential, and here are the experts’ not-so-conclusive findings: after a tough workout, you should let the targeted muscles rest for 24 to 72 hours. Some argue for longer periods of rest, ultimately it depends on factors like the intensity of said workout and the individual performing the workout.
Recovery weeks are popular among high intensity athletes and might be a good option for anyone who’s training consistently. Again there is a major discrepancy in suggested frequency. Some say to take a week off every three to five weeks, others say 10 to 12 weeks. And again, this depends on many factors and personal preference.
Quite possibly the single most important tool in recovery, sleep allows the body to repair and build muscle most efficiently. Muscle building (anabolic) hormones increase in concentration and effectiveness during sleep. During strenuous training periods six to eight hours of sleep simply isn’t enough. Shoot for at least 8 hours, and if you’re able to sneak in an afternoon nap, that will help too. The nap will be most effective two to three hours after exercise and if you’re training regularly experiments say it won’t inhibit night time sleep.
Unfortunately for those of us who love junk food, any weight loss goals are more dependent on what we eat than what we lift. You really can’t out exercise a bad diet. If a six pack is your goal and you’re not eating right, you could do crunches for eternity and you’d still never see those abs.
Conversely, there is a danger of simply not eating enough. If your diet is severe you could be starving your body and your muscles of nutrients. Restrictive diets are not only a huge health concern that should be taken seriously, but they won't leave you looking fit either. The body protects against starvation when you’re caloric intake is too low, making it hard to lose weight and when you do it’s unhealthy and often unsustainable.
Eat enough; eat right, everything in moderation.
What was the number one dietary tip that came up time and time again during research? Protein, protein and, you guessed it, more protein (with a side of carbohydrates). This is because among a ton of other things, protein helps build muscle and carbs efficiently replace the energy lost during a workout. That is a highly simplified explanation but it’s sufficient to say, among other nutrients, those are the two biggest things that need to be replaced following a work out. There are many other things that should be replaced (and usually are with a varied diet), so focus on protein, carbs and a pinch of salt.
Majority consensus is that you should eat a carb and protein rich snack around 60 to 30 minutes prior to working out and another snack 15 to 45 minutes after you finish working out. Sources suggested following that up with a balanced meal after two hours and one source suggested that a small protein rich snack before bed could help overnight recovery, but the experiment was small and hasn’t (to our knowledge) been retested.
Gatorade is rich in electrolytes, which is its competitive edge over plain water. But Gatorade also comes packed with diet destroying sugar.
You don’t need to focus on replacing electrolytes unless you’re working out for more than an hour or at an extremely challenging sweat-pouring pace. Even then, opt for a choice with less sugar, there are plenty. Coconut water is a great option, and according to a study it was easier for subjects to consume in higher quantities and caused fewer stomach issues, compared with plain water and carbohydrate-electrolyte beverages.
In addition to that coconut water, chocolate milk is a popular post-workout staple. Chocolate milk may have its downsides (for one, it’s hard for some people to digest), but it’s the easiest way to get a great carb/protein balance. Calcium is an added bonus.
But water is essential, so how much water should you be drinking? Women should drink an absolute minimum of 75 ounces per day and men should get 100 ounces. These recommendations change with increased physical activity and other factors.
After an intense gym session comes the muscle soreness and, for some of us, that pain has us reaching for the aspirin. But you might want to think twice before taking those pills. Research is varied on the relationship between NSAIDs and exercise recovery, but the consensus is that long-term use could be detrimental. The main concern of researchers is that NSAIDs could chemically alter how the body repairs muscle.
Beyond post-workout recovery, a study done on Ironman Triathlon participants tested the effects of NSAIDs used before the race. The study found those who took NSAIDs were at a higher risk for dehydration and potentially organ damage.
Technology is amazing; clothes can help our bodies recover from exercise. In recent studies, compression garments have been shown to aid in recovery by reducing lactate concentration and heart rate. An older study, done in 2001, concluded that compression garments “prevented loss of motion, decreased perceived soreness, reduced swelling, and promoted recovery.”
"Alternate ice and heat" has been the go-to advice for an overworked muscle or a minor injury for more than a decade. A 2009 study reveals that might not be the best way to recover. This study found that cold water immersion was a better post-exercise treatment than the hot/cold contrast and (of course) doing nothing at all. The exclusively cold exposure reduced soreness, returned full range of motion fastest and returned athletes to base strength before both other methods. The hot and cold combo only helped with soreness at the 24-hour test mark.
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