Recovery after exercise
It’s safe to say that tremendous advances have been made in sports and fitness science over the past few decades. And one area that has become as important as training itself is recovery.
According to the Sport Scotland Institute of Sport, effective recovery from intense training is the difference between success and failure in sport. But while recovery is an integral part of training for athletes and sports people, it’s also important for everyday exercisers who take their fitness seriously.
Recovery is important because training intensely has an impact on your body, causing a number of physiological processes including the following:
Depletion of glycogen (carbohydrate stored in muscle and the liver)
Breakdown/damage of muscle
Cell damage and inflammation
Recovery can be defined as what you do to re-establish the physical state or condition you were in before your training session. But it doesn’t just mean relaxing and taking a break from training. Exactly how you recover will depend on a variety of factors, including the type of training you do, how hard you train and for how long, and when your next training session is going to be. But to give you a general idea, here are some of the things you may want to include in your recovery strategy…
It’s important to drink fluids before and after exercise to prevent losing too much water through sweating – especially if you’re training in hot temperatures – and becoming dehydrated (if you do become dehydrated, it’s likely that your recovery will take longer than normal). If you’re training hard, it’s a good idea to take a drink every 10 or 20 minutes while you’re exercising too.
But what type of fluid should you drink?
If you’re not going to be exercising for more than about an hour, try drinking water as it should be all you need to restore your fluid levels. On the other hand if you’re going to be working out particularly hard or for a prolonged time, there’s a good chance you’ll need to replace the electrolytes you’ll lose through sweating (electrolytes are chemicals that are essential for the normal functioning of the body including sodium, potassium and magnesium).
One convenient way of replacing electrolytes during and after training is to have a sports drink designed for that purpose.
Strenuous exercise will deplete your body of fuel. So after a work-out you should be thinking of replenishing all that fuel you’ve used. Refuelling correctly will restore your glycogen stores as well as help repair muscle damage and build new muscle cells. It can help with hydration too, as foods such as fruit and veg contain water and are good sources of electrolytes.
Refuelling with nutritious foods will also help boost your immune system and help counteract any cell damage and inflammation your training efforts have caused.
First, aim to eat something that contains both good-quality carbohydrates and protein after your work-out, as according to the Sport Scotland Institute of Sport your body will use nutrients more efficiently during this time.
If you’ve been training intensely and are training more than once a day, have a balanced snack as soon after training as possible (ideally within an hour). Examples of post work-out snacks include a fruit smoothie, some fruit with Greek yoghurt, a bowl of cereal, a bread roll with meat or fish, and a banana with a glass of milk. For added convenience you could have a sports drink or shake, or an energy or sports bar. An hour later, try to have your next main meal, and a further snack an hour after that.
You should also consider having a meal or snack an hour or so after training moderately and when you’re training again the next day. Aim to have your next main meal within two hours of having your post work-out snack. But if your session was fairly light and you’re not training again for another couple of days, try to have a small post work-out snack a couple of hours after exercising.
Meanwhile, try to avoid having any alcohol for at least 24 hours after training, as according to the Sport Scotland Institute of Sport, alcohol can increase swelling to damaged tissues and delay repair processes. You could, however, try drinking some sour cherry concentrate. One study suggests sour cherry concentrate may help reduce muscular pain brought on by excessive exercise (i), while another found it helps with muscle recovery in marathon runners after drinking it for just five days before a race (ii). A 2014 study involving cyclists also claims drinking sour cherry concentrate may help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress brought on by intensive exercise (iii). Look for high-strength cherry concentrate products, as these are thought to offer the best results.
Stretching and massage
Stretching after a work-out is widely believed to be important for recovery as it helps your muscles to get back to their normal length after they’ve been contracting repeatedly. It’s also thought that stretching can help relieve muscle fatigue as well as boost the repair process.
Aim to stretch all the muscle groups that you’ve used during your work-out, including your calves, thighs, hips, neck and shoulders. Stretch immediately after you finish exercising, so that your muscles are still warm. And don’t forget to stretch both sides equally for the same amount of time (each stretch should be held for 15 - 30 seconds and repeated no more than three times).
Having a sports massage can also be useful if you take part in high-performance sport or are training intensively, as it may help reduce any muscle tension that can, over time, build up and make you more susceptible to injury. A massage can also help reduce muscle fatigue and soreness, and may help you to relax and promote a better night’s sleep.
Other recovery strategies that may be useful when you’ve been training hard include taking ice baths (or alternative hot and cold baths, if practical) and wearing compression garments – tight, compressive clothes, often made from elastin and nylon. These are widely thought to help speed up recovery as they may help reduce muscle fatigue and soreness, boost circulation and reduce muscle damage.
Connolly. DA, McHugh. MP, Padilla-Zakour. OL, et al. Efficacy of a tart cherry juice blend in preventing the symptoms of muscle damage. Br J Sports Med. 2006;40:679-83. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16790484
Howatson. G, McHugh. MP, Hill. JA, et al. Influence of tart cherry juice on indices of recovery following marathon running. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2010;20(6):843-852.
Bell. PG, Walshe. IH, Davison. GW, Stevenson. E, Howatson. G. Montmorency cherries reduce the oxidative stress and inflammatory responses to repeated days of high-intensity stochastic cycling. Nutrients. 2014;6(2):829-843.