After a long, grueling workout, do you: 1. take a hot shower and collapse on the couch or 2. use your foam roller and fill your body with healthy protein and carbs.
Even though you might want to do #1, your body will thank you if you do #2.
Why? Muscle recovery – it’s healing your muscle fibers as they rebuild.
Muscle recovery isn’t just sitting in a bathtub. You can take steps to take an ACTIVE role in the recovery process, ease the after-workout pain and help your muscles heal - and build more efficiently.
First, let’s talk about:
What happens to muscles during an intense workout?
Muscles get broken down during exercise, and they actually form tiny tears. These small tears are perfectly normal, and the size depends on how intense the workout is.
This is when it’s essential to find the right balance in your workout: The bigger the tear, the sorer the muscles, and you can over-train, and that can result in a muscle strain or rupture.
How does the muscle build?
Tears disrupt the muscle cell organelles, which activate cells outside the muscle fiber to help with the damage. These cells mature into grown cells and fuse to the muscle fibers. This creates new muscle protein strands, which means stronger muscle fiber. It also means that your muscles become more resilient, and you won’t get as sore next time!
What is active recovery for muscles?
Knowing that muscles tear make it more apparent that you need to allow your muscles to repair fully after a workout, or you will likely cause injury the next time you are in the gym.
Recovery isn’t just about kicking up your feet and turning on Netflix; instead, you can take action - it’s called active recovery. And it helps; if you don’t allow your muscles to repair fully, you will likely cause injury.
There are simple things you should be doing anyway for overall health, but especially helpful after a big workout, and a few things that are worth a try as well.
First off, recovery needs to have the three basics met first: food, water, and sleep.
This may be the most significant part of recovery. During sleep, the body produces most of its Growth Hormone (GH) that aids in daily muscle repair and recovery and are primarily responsible for tissue growth and repair. Healing happens at night, so make sure you are getting 7-9 hours!
Water supports every metabolic function and nutrient transfer in the body. Having plenty of water will improve every bodily function - not to mention the need to replace the water you lost to sweat! Dehydration can impair your muscles’ ability to repair themselves.
Food truly is medicine, and putting the right food in your body after a workout can provide your body with what it needs to repair muscles and promote recovery. Protein is a huge component of that, and consuming protein after your training can help to repair muscle damage. When muscles are exhausted and hungry, the glucose from carbs and lots of protein improves efficiency. A whole-foods-based diet rich in antioxidants, whole carbohydrates, and lean protein Is always a good idea for optimal recovery.
In addition to those “basics” of active recovery, here are three things that athletes use on the regular for recovery: compression, myofascial release, and COLD water:
Compression products provide support to the repairing muscles when dealing with pain. They can help to reduce swelling and inflammation - which intensify the pain. They may also support the improved circulation and improve the flow of freshly oxygenated blood, which is needed for tissue repair and healing, reducing the muscles’ recovery time. Some compression aids have cold or heat packs. When tissue is damaged with a muscle strain that causes inflammation and swelling, it is an excellent time to ice the muscle. Heat packs work best for injuries at least a few days old by opening blood vessels, assisting the healing process, and alleviating some of your pain. In addition, keeping the muscles warm can help to prevent further strain and fatigue.
5. Myofascial Release: Massage and Foam Rolling
Doing either of these two immediately before or after exercise may help decrease soreness and speed muscle recovery.
After a workout, the idea is that myofascial release increases blood flow to the tissues you just used and can help speed up recovery time. Need a further reason to spend the money on massage? A 2020 review of studies support that massage improved flexibility and decreased delayed onset muscle soreness after exercise.
6. Cold, Cold Water
BRRR. This sounds horrible, but there is a reason you see elite athletes dumping themselves into an ice bath. Repeatedly constricting and dilating blood vessels helps remove (or flush out) waste products in the tissues. They can reduce pain, inflammation, and muscle tiredness after strenuous activity. Maybe this isn’t for everyone - but you can get results from a cold shower too!
And just know - maybe it’s time to break from strenuous workouts if extreme muscle soreness lasts for more than three or four days. How is your body responding to your workouts? Remember, your ideal training today might change, and that’s ok too! The essential component, always, is to pay attention to your body and how you feel.