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The Science Behind Exercise Recovery

Written by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

science recovery

Story at-a-glance -

  • Although you may have pushed yourself to the limit in your workout, muscle building doesn’t start until the recovery phase, which you may impact by staying appropriately hydrated, using whey protein and steering clear of anti-inflammatory medications
  • Overtraining may result in injury, illness and poor performance; you may reduce your risk by paying attention to your body’s signals, improving your post-workout recovery routine and incorporating rest days in your workout schedule
  • Inflammation is one way your body transports necessary nutrients to damaged muscles, but you may help reduce post-workout soreness using Epsom salts baths, ice baths or a foam roller to lengthen muscles and perform myofascial release
  • A strong post-workout recovery program will include active recovery on your hard workout days, finishing with light movement, quality sleep and parasympathetic breathing techniques to slow your sympathetic nervous system and improve muscle growth

You might have pushed yourself to the limit in your workout today, and although it was tough, you didn't build any muscle, because muscle growth actually begins after you stop lifting, running or rowing. You can enhance growth by using proper recovery protocols. Prioritizing your post-workout recovery will help you get the most from every workout and help your body begin to repair.

Additionally, using a post-workout recovery protocol will reduce second and third day post-workout soreness and fatigue. Although there are methods promising you'll get over your muscle soreness in a hurry, feeding right in to Western societies desire for a quick fix, a more sustained and holistic approach will garner better results.1

It is also important to remember that while some suffer from lack of exercise, others may overtrain and experience breakdown in their muscle and health. Making sure you spend enough time and effort in recovery is as important as the exercise itself.

Overtraining Sabotages Your Workouts and Performance

As high-intensity interval training becomes more popular in an era when "more is better," a greater number of athletes and fitness consumers are hitting a brick wall, posting poor performances and leaving them at risk for high levels of fatigue and an increased risk of injuries. Overtraining is common in nearly every sport or fitness activity, and happens when you do more than your body can recover from between bouts.

There are several symptoms of overtraining that are usually overlooked or ignored as they may be attributed to other health problems. Here are some symptoms you'll want to pay attention to in order to recognize you're overtraining:2

Feeling exhausted instead of energized

Being regularly sore for days at a time

Feeling blue

Having a short fuse

Decreased performance

Increased rate of overuse injuries

Decreased coordination

Decreased strength

Weight loss

Training fatigue — legs feel "heavy"

Nausea and decreased appetite

Elevated heart rate and blood pressure

Getting sick easily, or taking a long time to get over a cold

Having difficulty sleeping, or not getting enough sleep

Changes in menstrual patterns

John Rusin,3 an internationally-recognized strength coach, speaker and writer with a doctorate in physical therapy, believes athletes may be suffering more from an under-recovery problem than an overtraining problem.

He goes on to say recovery is multifactorial and depends on training, nutrition and lifestyle. Although training is a common scapegoat for injuries and burnout, lifestyle and nutritional factors must also be addressed to optimize training performance.

He believes your goal is to design a training program according to your individual body and not someone else's, which may be the best recovery tool you can use. Recovery, and preventing overtraining, is not a passive process and requires active modalities to prevent experiencing the symptoms listed above.

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How and How Much You Hydrate Has an Impact on Recovery

Science writer Christie Aschwanden set out to answer questions about exercise recovery in her new book, "Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery." She says:4

"The most important skill that any athlete can develop is a sense of how their body is responding to exercise. How they're responding to their workouts; how they're feeling; what it feels like for them to be recovered or under recovered."

Being hydrated using pure clean water is vital to achieving optimal health. During times of high-intensity exercise or strenuous activities, your body needs plenty of water. During long periods of exercise you may also need to replace important electrolytes and minerals.

While your first inclination may be to reach for one of the hard-to-miss, heavily advertised neon-colored sports drinks, these will do more harm than good, as most are loaded with sugar and other unwanted ingredients. If your workout causes intense sweating, you might consider making your own rehydration drink instead.

Once your body has lost between 1 to 2 percent of your total water content you'll get thirsty, which is a good guide to determine whether or not you need to drink. Coconut water may be one of the best rehydration drinks; it's a well-known source of natural electrolytes.

You can drink it plain or add a little natural citrus juice, such as lemon, lime or orange, for flavoring. The water is rich in vitamins, minerals and trace elements and packed with amino acids, antioxidants and phytonutrients. It's also a powerhouse of natural salts, especially magnesium and potassium.

That said, Aschwanden5 also warns of the danger of overhydrating as this can lead to hyponatremia or water intoxication. Drinking too much will dilute your blood to a point where your brain can swell from a lack of electrolytes. This may happen when drinking multiple glasses of water every hour, especially if you're not thirsty.

These dangers became clear during the 2002 Boston Marathon when a 28-year-old runner collapsed and died two days later from hyponatremia. Subsequently, a study was published in The New England Journal of Medicine6 analyzing runners in the same marathon, finding 13 percent had hyponatremia that correlated with excessive fluid intake.

Focus on Nutrition and Whey Protein — Feeding Muscles in Just Minutes

What you eat and when after your workout matters when it comes to fueling your muscles. In one study,7 researchers showed eating fewer carbohydrates after exercise enhanced insulin sensitivity, which is key to optimizing your health.

Providing your body with the correct nutrients is crucial to stopping catabolic processes in the muscle and shifting the recycling process toward repair and growth. If you fail to feed your muscle at the right time, the catabolic process could potentially damage muscle and negatively impact your recovery.

Whey protein, derived from milk, is considered the gold standard by many and is one of the best types of foods you can consume before or after exercise. In a study8 of older men, researchers found whey protein stimulated muscle protein more effectively, which was attributed to a combination of faster digestion and absorption.

One reason whey protein works so well is it assimilates quickly into the muscle, often within 15 minutes of swallowing. But don't stop there as you can speed up your recovery time by incorporating anti-inflammatory whole foods on a daily basis,9 such as those high in vitamins C and K, including broccoli, sweet potatoes and Bing cherries.

Foods high in animal- or plant-based omega-3 fats such as wild-caught Alaskan salmon, herring, anchovies and almonds also help to reduce inflammation. Nutritionist Jessica Crandall, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics,10 believes a consistent diet of whole foods goes a long way toward supporting your exercise habit.

Massage Out the Kinks and Take a Bath

Another focus of athletes is to reduce the inflammation and soreness following a heavy workout. Aschwanden11 points out the information about inflammation is changing as scientists are realizing inflammation is an important part of the training response. Inflammation helps repair and grow muscle, giving you greater adaptation to exercise.

Although some athletes commonly take ibuprofen prophylactically before a workout or a race, I do not recommend using ibuprofen for this reason. Not only does ibuprofen have a significant number of side effects, but there is also evidence it can impair the repair process from an injury, both from the micro injuries you get from a hard workout and from larger injuries, such as a sprained ankle.

Some athletes believe using an ice bath or ice massage helps them recover faster and reduces some soreness following a heavy workout, and research confirms this. In one study,12 athletes who did cold-water immersion experienced reduced soreness for the first 24 hours after exercise.

However, while an ice bath may be helpful after an intense race or high-level performance, it may impede muscle growth after a workout. Another option is taking a tepid or warm Epsom salts bath following a strenuous workout, which will promote muscle relaxation and reduce muscle cramping.

You may also reduce soreness by getting a deep tissue massage or using a foam roller, the latter of which is also an excellent way of warming up before your workout, as it improves mobility and increases blood flow. Post-workout it helps to lengthen your muscles and provide myofascial release.

Active Recovery

It's important to incorporate active recovery directly after an intense workout and on rest days. Active recovery reduces the buildup of lactic acid and minimizes delayed onset muscle soreness. It can also help alleviate fatigue and promote blood flow to your joints and muscles after finishing a hard workout. This helps to counteract unproductive inflammation.

Using active recovery also helps maintain your heart rate at a steady pace and improves your endurance. Your cooldown phase could include light jogging or cycling at a slower pace, walking, yoga or doing low resistance rowing or elliptical training.13

Although you might like to believe you can go hard every single day, it's important to take recovery days and either rest or do very light training. Experienced running coach and author Jenny Hadfield believes lower intensity workouts should be a part of your routine and you should listen to your body.14

Using active recovery in place of lounging in front of the television is also a helpful mental and physical tool. Rest days give muscles a hard-earned break, but light movement helps your muscles to recover. Body weight exercises or light cardio after a heavy strength training session helps relieve soreness by stimulating blood flow.

Quality Sleep Is as Important as Quality Exercise

The harder you train, the greater your need for quality sleep. Sleep deprivation not only weakens your immune system and increases your risk of symptoms of overtraining, but it also increases your risk for diabetes and impairs aspects of your cognition. Unfortunately, estimates suggest 33 percent of Americans get less than seven hours of sleep at night, and 83 million adults in the U.S. are sleep-deprived.15

Many sleep problems are tied to lifestyle choices such as spending too much time indoors during daylight hours and/or excessive use of technology. In 1981, the U.S. military revealed a method to help people fall asleep in just two minutes, claiming a 96 percent success rate after six weeks of consistent implementation. The following summary of the process was published in the Evening Standard:16

1. Relax your whole face, including your tongue, jaw and the muscles around your eyes

2. Drop your shoulders and relax your arms

3. Relax your chest as you breathe out

4. Relax your legs, from your thighs to your feet

5. Relax and clear your mind, then picture yourself in one of the following scenarios:

a. You're lying in a canoe on a calm lake with nothing but blue sky above you

b. You're snuggled in a black velvet hammock in a pitch-black room

c. Simply repeat "don't think, don't think, don't think" for 10 seconds

Other tricks to improve your sleep can be found in in my previous article, "Top 33 Tips to Optimize Your Sleep Routine."

Parasympathetic Breathing Reduces Stress and Improves Recovery

For those who don't have an extra 15 minutes after every workout to devote to active recovery, Rusin recommends parasympathetic breathing, which can quickly reduce your sympathetic drive and improve recovery.17 

After training hard, your sympathetic response is in overdrive and may stay in a heightened response until the system finally fails and you crash. Although this limits recovery, it can also limit strength-building and performance as well. Spending just three to five minutes after working out to tap the brakes on your sympathetic nervous system helps improve your recovery.

Rusin recommends performing this technique before leaving the gym. He has his athletes lay on their back with their head resting on the ground, legs elevated above the level of the heart with knees slightly bent (resting on the seat of a chair), with arms outstretched overhead.

Close your eyes and relax your body, reducing any tension or stress. Use a quiet place in the gym away from music or any noise.18 From this position, focus on your breathing and start by inhaling for three to four seconds, holding your breath for two to three seconds, exhaling for six to eight seconds and then holding your breath for another two seconds before beginning the process again.

The main focus is on breathing under control in order to turn off the sympathetic nervous system before leaving the gym. Athletes should feel an instant calming sensation throughout the body when doing this.