Reader Request – Recovery Strategies

Reader question:

Can you provide information on how to recover from a brutal workout in terms of food, stretches, hot/cold therapy, etc…

Response:

Thanks for asking the question! Recovery should be a big part of your overall fitness and nutrition plan. If you are just killing yourself during workouts, and not doing anything to support that work leading up to your next killer workout, not only are you leaving progress on the table, you are setting yourself up for potential injury.

I will note that there is no magic bullet for eliminating muscle soreness in a new workout routine. The phenomenon of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is a result of metabolic stress from the workout, and you can’t really prevent it. Your body will adapt as you keep doing the load that caused the DOMS, and it will lessen/leave as time goes on. If you follow the principle of progressive overload and give yourself time to adapt to the work, you’ll minimize soreness. If you go completely banana sandwich crazy in your first workout, good luck moving the next day.

I’ll do my best to unpack some of the basic ideas that will allow you to formulate a good recovery plan.

Hydration – being properly hydrated is one of the most important things you can do, not only for recovery, but for general well-being. Your body, when properly hydrated, is about 65% water (and your muscles are about 75% water). I won’t go into painful detail about all of the benefits of staying hydrated (there is plenty of information about that out there), but at minimum, you should aim to replenish what you lost during the exercise session. Losing even 1% of your body’s water weight can affect performance & recovery. Post-workout, your muscles need to be properly hydrated as part of the repair process (protein synthesis). If you are dehydrated, the protein synthesis doesn’t happen properly, and repair is stunted. In terms of digestion, proper levels of hydration allow your post-workout snack/meal to be digested more effectively (which leads to better nutrient absorption). So, step 1 – DRINK LOTS OF WATER. In terms of how much, lean more towards 1 ounce of water per pound of body weight – not necessarily the eight 8-ounce glasses we’ve been told since we were kids.

Food – post workout eating can not only aid with gains, but also aid with recovery. During your workout, you are actually causing micro tears to your muscles. These tears are the result of repeated muscle contractions, and are known as “microtrauma.” This is a good thing. It signals that a repair has to happen. If you recover properly, the muscle will be repaired to handle a progressively larger workload the next time around. In the couple hours post workout, the receptors around your muscle are fiending for glucose (from carbohydrates) and amino acids (from protein). These nutrients allow the repair process to move along. If you eat a snack (or meal) that has protein in it (aim for 20 grams or more), you’ll be doing your muscles a huge favor by helping to buoy the rebuilding process. So, step 2 – EAT SOMETHING WITH PROTEIN IN IT! For example – I just finished a workout, and refueled with the following:

  • Bowl full of spring mix
  • 1 – 4 oz chicken breast diced up
  • 2 cups broccoli
  • 1/4 cup of homemade salad dressing (avocado oil, extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar, dijon mustard)

Bottom line – just eat something from your overall nutrition plan that has protein in it. You don’t need to spend tons of money on supplements, BUT, I will say that having a good clean protein powder in your pantry isn’t a bad idea. If I’m not ready to eat a full-fledged meal, and I need a quick post-workout boost, I’ll do a protein shake smoothie like this…

  • 8 oz unsweetened almond or coconut milk
  • 8 oz water
  • 2 heaping tablespoons of full fat greek yogurt
  • 1 scoop NutriBio unflavored whey protein
  • 1/2 cup frozen blueberries
  • 1 tsp 100% cacao powder

It’s simple and to the point – it gets me my protein, and tastes yummy (the blueberries and cacao are for the antioxidants). I picked that protein powder specifically after a long and exhaustive search because it’s clean – no junk, no additives – just 100% whey protein isolate. Be careful with commercial protein powders – they are so full of garbage a lot of the times.

If I were in a pinch, I’d grab either a Rise Bar (banana flavor is my favorite) or an Epic Bar (Bison is awesome). They aren’t 20 grams of protein, but they are a good go-to when you are on the move. I keep my desk drawer and business bag stocked with them at all times. Throw in a handful of almonds or macadamia nuts, and I’m sound as a pound.

Mobility/flexibility/programming – This is where people usually err, and it costs them. In my opinion, a good exercise protocol consists of:

  1. Dynamic warmup
  2. Strength skill training
  3. Metabolic and/or heart rate circuit
  4. Easy dynamic stretch cool down
  5. *programmed flexibility/mobility training on non-strength days
  6. *programmed rest days to allow full recovery to the muscle group

For the purposes of recovery, I think 1 & 4, 5, and 6 are key. Before that, a quick note on programming (if you write your own exercise programs). Muscle is torn down when you exercise, and rebuilds when you rest. I’ll say that again – YOU DO NOT BUILD MUSCLE AT THE GYM. You MUST HAVE PROGRAMMED REST for areas you are hitting hard. At minimum, you should consider 24-48 hours before you attack the same muscle group again. It is very possible to see strength gains by only doing a strength workout for a body part/group one day a week. It will take you longer to reach your goals, but it’s possible. If you are looking to fast track your gains, you want to re-engage the muscle group again as quickly as possible after its fully recovered. That is why people will train the same muscle group a couple times per week. What you don’t want to do is nail the same muscle group before its fully recovered. That is counter-productive and an overall waste of your time.

Dynamic warm ups lube up the body and joints by not only getting your heart rate elevated, but by also getting the synovial fluid in your joints pumping.  I always aim to create a mini circuit of dynamic movements for about 3-5 minutes. It could even be as simple as jump roping for 3-5 minutes. Heck – do a mixture of jumping jacks skills for 3-5 minutes. The key is to lube up the body by moving across multiple planes (vertical, horizontal, transverse). Here is a favorite of mine – 30 seconds each:

  1. side rotation
  2. overhead squat
  3. overhead side bend
  4. reverse lunge with twist over front leg
  5. world’s greatest stretch (named by Tony Horton)
  6. scorpion twists
  7. soldier kicks
  8. side leg raises

The dynamic stretch and cool down period (though low in intensity) is important also. Believe it or not, this isn’t to reduce soreness. Studies have shown that post-exercise stretching (right after) did not reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Contrary to popular belief, you are not increasing blood flow to the muscles either. This is mostly to let the heart rate come down. Some favorites include:

  • light jog
  • alternating knee pulls
  • flappy arm hugs
  • side to side lunges
  • beat your boots

Again – the above should be LOW intensity – just keep moving while your heart rate is coming down.

You should not do intense static stretching following an intense workout session. You should program separate days for intense stretching and mobility training. If you think that static stretching cures all ills, here is a very interesting article about how static stretching post workout could be a wolf in sheep’s clothes. So, step 3, HAVE A GOOD WARMUP AND COOLDOWN, AND GIVE YOURSELF PROPER REST BETWEEN STRENGTH SESSIONS.

Programmed mobility & flexibility training – in my opinion and experience, you should dedicate at least 1 session per week to some type of mobility/flexibility training, AND include foam rolling as part of the process. Aside from hot/cold therapies, foam rolling can reduce adhesions and increase blood flow to the muscles. In terms of mobility/flexibility training, you can’t go wrong with either yoga or pilates. Therefore, STEP 4 – TRAIN MOBILITY ON SEPARATE DAYS AND GET A FOAM ROLLER! Quick note about foam rolling – you can do it any time you want. In my experience, the more you do it, the better your muscles feel.

Heat/cold therapy – I’ll be quick on this one – don’t use ice for muscle soreness related to injury. Cold therapy should be reserved for reducing inflammation due to INJURY. Don’t consider DOMS to be an injury. I’m aware that cryo-tanks are a big rage right now, but, to date, there isn’t a lot of scientific evidence to support claims of eliminating muscle soreness. To help the recovery process due to exercise related metabolic stress, your best shot will be heat. It will increase blood flow to the area, and will overall aid/speed recovery. If you don’t want to believe me – check out this doctor’s article. STEP 5 – DON’T ICE YOUR SORE MUSCLES.

Sleep – And finally, STEP 6 – GET PLENTY OF QUALITY SLEEP! Rather than paraphrase, I’m just going to link to a great article on why you need sleep.

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