Recovery is a weapon.  Sounds brash, but it is true.  It’s not unusual for me to see multiple 60 + year old runners, cyclists or triathletes in the office on any given day.  Many of the people I see are pushing their training harder and harder.  They are also trying to shorten and improve the time frame necessary for proper training and recovery. In essence, they are pushing the envelope. But therein lies the risk.

Even if you think you are training properly… you are always at risk for over-training. Allowing for a proper recovery, and perhaps improving your recovery time is critical to proper training and avoiding maladaptation and overuse injuries.

Given the huge number of training programs available and the huge number of wearables or trackers pushing us ever harder, it is even more important for you to understand the role that recovery has in your overall training.

What is Exercise Recovery?

During exercise, and depending on the duration and intensity of your training you will stress your body in many different ways.  You will deplete your energy stores and you might risk being dehydrated.  You stress your cardiovascular system, you stress your muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments and you stress your system as a whole.  After intense exercise, your ability to handle aerobic activities diminishes.  Your muscles break down and release chemicals into the bloodstream and your entire system releases chemicals to respond to the stress of your exercise.  Recovery, therefore, involves rehydrating, restoring your glycogen or energy stores, and it involves an improvement in your cardiovascular status, repair of your muscles, and a decrease in the chemicals seen in your blood during periods of high stress. An important concept to understand is that we all recover at a different rate.  So a recovery time frame for a colleague might not work well for you.

Why Should I Care About Exercise Recovery

One of the biggest downsides to exercising too vigorously, and too often is the issue of over-training.  Overtraining simply means that you are not allowing your heart, lungs, muscles, etc to recover properly after a previous workout.  This can have deleterious effects on your cardiac function, lung capacity, muscle function and most important, due to diminished muscles strength, power, and stamina, you will find yourself at a much higher risk of injury.  Very few of us want to rest for a day or two… but avoiding an injury which sidelines you for months should be very high on your list of exercise-related priorities.

The potential issues which arise with over-training and poor recovery include:

  • Muscle soreness and weakness
  • Poor exercise performance
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Increased risk of infection
  • Decreased quality and quantity of sleep
  • Gastrointestinal abnormalities

Improving Your Recovery

We live with very complicated and rigid schedules, as such recovery strategies are essential to improve performance and reduce the risk of stress-induced injury.

Fatigue following competition is related to:

  • Dehydration
  • Energy (glycogen) depletion
  • Muscle damage
  • Mental fatigue.

Recovery strategies should ideally be targeted against the major causes of fatigue.

Hydration:

Our prior thinking on hydration was to drink prior to thirst and put down six 8 ounce glasses of water per day, minimum.  It was also felt that water was likely the best rehydrating liquid.

Currently, our recommendations are to drink according to your thirst.  When you are thirsty, drink. Seems simple enough.   With that strategy, most research shows that you are still a bit behind.  However, mild dehydration doesn’t seem to impact performance and some of the water you are losing is tied to the fat and carbohydrates you burned as energy.  So the goal is not necessarily to prevent weight loss and fully rehydrate yourself.  You risk creating an electrolyte imbalance by doing so.

Water used to be held as the best rehydrating liquid.  For short activities or if you are exercising in cooler weather that might be fine as long as you replenish your salt and minerals in other ways.  For many short training runs, hydration during training isn’t likely necessary.  Don’t feel like you need to carry a water bottle on every run.

Certain sports drinks, which contain essential minerals which you also lose during exercise are considered better for rehydration and recovery purposes.  This paper showed that your recovery is enhanced with sports drinks containing sugars and protein which help replenish muscle glycogen stores and aids in muscle recovery. Hydration powders contain minerals and some contain glucose. By containing minerals, the fluid more closely matches the osmolality of your blood and therefore reduces the chance of over-hydration and creating a condition called hyponatremia — where your sodium levels drop too low.

The “Recovery Window” is a period between 15-90 minutes after your training when your muscles are most receptive to receiving glycogen and protein to repair itself.  Many elites will replenish their glycogen and protein during this time frame after a long run or intense training effort.

The experts on hydration are changing their thoughts on how much to drink, what to drink and when to drink it.  Stay tuned for more and feel free to comment and I will update this accordingly.

Protein Supplements For Exercise Recovery:

Many athletes will choose to rehydrate during a race with drinks containing both glucose to restore glycogen and protein.  The thought process is that the protein is enhancing their performance.  The medical literature does not necessarily support this.  This paper reviewed the available literature and found no improvement in performance with the addition of protein to your rehydration cocktail during training or a race.

When recovery and perhaps an improvement in muscle mass is considered the research shows that consuming protein within the recovery window and afterward may increase muscle mass and future performance if training is appropriate. Protein supplementation can include hemp protein,whey protein, and plant-based protein.

Unfortunately, protein supplementation has not been shown to diminish muscle soreness after training.  This paper reviewed the effects of protein intake on recovery and muscle soreness.  While the authors agree that protein intake definitely increases protein synthesis and theoretically muscle repair; they note that protein supplements did not diminish the onset or time that you will suffer from muscle soreness.

As you can imagine, the protein supplement diehards will state that the opposite is true, and that protein increases muscle mass, decreases the recovery period and diminishes the risk of DOMS – delayed onset muscle soreness.  All of these claims have not been proven to be true.   This paper suggests that a protein load ingested after an intense workout will improve your performance 48 hours after an intense period of exercise… but it will not diminish the rate or recovery from DOMS.  Further complicating this issue of DOMS, this paper suggests that a 100gm protein meal will potentially diminish the period of DOMS post exercise.

Tart Cherry Juice

Tart cherry juice concentrate has been studied extensively due to its natural anti-inflammatory effects.  Studies have shown that tart cherry juice can improve the quality of life and diminish the symptoms of arthritis knee pain.

But what about the use of tart cherry juice in athletes?

There is literature to support the use of tart cherry juice to minimize the rise of inflammatory chemical markers in your blood after intense exercise.  The authors conclude that ingestion of tart cherry juice may aid in recovery by lessening the inflammatory response to exercise and thus shorten your recovery period.  More research is needed in this area.

SLEEP is Your Number One Weapon

The benefits of getting 7-9 hours of restful sleep on a daily basis cannot be overstated enough.  Sleep is a potent recovery weapon.

Sleep deprivation may be detrimental to the recovery process after exercise, resulting in impaired muscle glycogen repletion, impaired muscle damage repair, alterations in cognitive function and an increase in mental fatigue.

Ways to improve your sleep is to lessen bright lights, use light that diminishes blue light.  Use of white noise generators can also improve sleep patterns.

It is important to understand that recovery is a process and not related to any one single intervention e.g. protein supplements. The lack of sleep can unwind your best recovery strategy.  Proper hydration, and supplementing protein, will not make up for a lack of a good nights rest.  A good nights rest is likely to be proven to be your number one best recovery strategy.

Wearables, Heart Rate Monitoring, and Heart Rate Variability

Monitoring is becoming mainstream for many athletes … elites and non-elites alike.  If you “listen” to your body it is signaling you that it may or may not be ready for your next intense exercise session.  Accumulating fatigue is a potential enemy of your training program.  If your body has not yet recovered enough from your previous session, it may be time to rethink your training schedule or recovery process.  Accumulating fatigue simply means that your body is not keeping up with your training schedule.  This is counterproductive in many ways and puts you at significant risk for an injury.

Assessing your heart rate variability is a science whose implications are only being heavily explored over the last few years.  Recent apps have brought this tool to any athlete or weekend warrior.  By measuring your heart rate variability you will be able to determine the effects that your training and recovery is having on your system as a whole.

Most athletes tend to underestimate how hard they are working during training.  They believe their heart rate is lower than it actually is.  For most weekend warriors that could mean that you are overtraining, and it could be the reason that you do not see steady improvements in your cardiovascular status.  Most training programs for runners and cyclists follow something similar to the 80/20 rule.  This means that 80% of your workouts are performed at a heart rate in the aerobic range.  For a 50-year-old like me, that means I need to maintain my heart rate between 120-135 during many of my runs.  Only 20% of my workouts cross that threshold.  Running too often near your maximum heart rate ( roughly 220-age) is a recipe for being seen in a doctors office :-(.

Heart rate monitors are useful in this regard.  Simply set your Garmin or Fitbit to show your heart rate during a run or ride and keep the heart rate pinned in zone 2 or low 3.

Recovery is a strategy unto itself.  It is a strategy not well understood by untrained athletes, runners, and cyclists alike.  A little effort into training smarter, and recovering better could go a long way in improving your ability to compete better and longer.  Watch what you eat … just because you exercise doesn’t give you permission to throw down a cheesecake. Athletes have heart attacks too.   SLEEP is your best recovery weapon.  Monitor your heart rate, and if inclined your heart rate variability.

Disclaimer:  this information is for your education and should not be considered medical advice regarding diagnosis or treatment recommendations. Some links on this page may be affiliate links. Read the full disclaimer.

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About the author:

Howard J. Luks, MD

Howard J. Luks, MD

A Board Certified Orthopedic Surgeon in Hawthorne, NY. Dr. Howard Luks specializes in the treatment of the shoulder, knee, elbow, and ankle. He has a very "social" patient centric approach and believes that the more you understand about your issue, the more informed your decisions will be. Ultimately your treatments and his recommendations will be based on proper communications, proper understanding, and shared decision-making principles – all geared to improve your quality of life.

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