In order to discuss recovery- we actually need to define what the hell we’re talking about.
We’ll use a definition that’s common in the literature:
“The ability to meet or exceed performance in a particular activity”(Bishop, Jones & Woods 2008).
Generally then, the idea of “recovery” practices are to undo the fatigue or damage incurred in training so that we can meet or exceed performance.
So what causes fatigue? There are 2 primary hypotheses.
It is likely that our experience of fatigue after any given training session is a combination of these two things:
- Central fatigue- muscles are capable of greater output but the CNS blocks continued extraordinary effort perhaps as protection from injury
- Peripheral fatigue- muscle homeostasis has been disrupted either metabolically or via tissues damage to the point that the muscle is biochemically or mechanically incapable of responding as effectively as when rested.
Said another way- either our nervous system is blocking our muscles from a certain amount of output or our muscles themselves are incapable of producing that output.
If our goal is maximizing our performance potential- we want to get in as much high quality training as we can recover from effectively. Because, let’s remember that the benefits of strength training actually occur from recovery process itself.
In order to continue, we need to review a few principles:
Principle 1: Inflammation
Inflammation is always bad, right?
No. No. No.
Inflammation is inflammation. It’s not good or bad.
Acute inflammation is generally beneficial whereas chronic inflammation is generally problematic.
Acute inflammation is actually how our muscles recover from exercise.
So do we really want to be suppressing inflammation all of the time? No. In fact, the use of NSAIDs and other anti-inflammatories have been shown to blunt training adaptations. Why? Because they’re blunting the inflammatory response which is instrumental to muscle repair and regeneration. (Barnett, 2006)
So we need some amount of inflammation.
Principle 2: Hormesis
Hormesis: most widely used in toxicology where investigators used it to describe a biphasic dose response with a low dose stimulation or beneficial effect and a high dose inhibitory or toxic effect.
Said another way… hormesis is a process in which exposure to a low dose of a chemical agent or environmental factor induces an adaptive beneficial effect on the cell or organism while exposure to higher doses can be damaging. (Mattson, 2008)
Image from Owens et al 2019
What the hell does that have to do with recovery from exercise?
Well it applies very nicely to the role of inflammation in the recovery process- some is beneficial- too much for too long is likely harmful- and will prevent us from getting in quality subsequent sessions over the course of any given week/ training cycle.
So let’s look at some variables that impact recovery time:
Training age (how long you have been training)- the “younger” our training age, the more quickly we can recover because many of our “newbie gains” are due to nervous system adaptation as opposed to muscle tissue adaptations. The exception to this is likely when we literally just start training- our recovery process will take longer as our body is learning to adapt to the brand new stimulus of training. Below is a graph of how I think the process generally goes.
Training volume- there are a lot of terms we could use here- I’d like to highlight a couple…
- minimum effective dose- this is the smallest amount of training possible to get the adaptation we are after
- maximum adaptable volume- this is the range where we optimize adaptations
- maximum recoverable volume (MRV)- this is training at our absolute maximum threshold- doing the most amount of work possible that we can recover from without sustaining injuries
Everything with performance and recovery is a bit of a give and take.
We definitely want to have some period of training where we are “over-reaching” or really pushing our capacity because that will likely lead to the adaptations we want- however training at MRV all the time is impossible because we won’t be able to show up to subsequent sessions at our best if we are just pushing our threshold at this level constantly.
These terms seem more straightforward for body building training- where we can track sets and reps/ body part, but less so (in my opinion) for multimodal sports like CrossFit.
And flexibility training seems to be another realm entirely. I have not seen one research paper on maximizing adaptations to flexibility training, so we are really working from experience in that department (thanks @stephanietallant_pole for always experimenting on yourself)! Note on flexibility training- I think improving mobility/ flexibility is the most misunderstood thing in sports (and in physical therapy)! I have seen countless therapists having people do “passive stretches” to improve mobility. It makes me sad for my degree honestly. But lucky for you guys, I know better :)) Active flexibility is soooo key- that is being able to move yourself into positions- and gradually increasing the active range of motion of your tissues. I promise you that constantly cranking yourself into deep passive stretches is not going to make any meaningful changes to your active range of motion- you have to actually DO something with that motion!!
Also fun fact- muscles produce their most strength through the middle of their range of motion- that is- you’re not as strong at end ranges of motion as you are through the middle. So- if you can increase the range of motion of your tissues- that is make the distance that your muscle can contract through longer- you can increase the range of motion where you have the capacity to generate more force! My favorite way to increase range of motion? Eccentric contraction- which you can read about next!
Type of contractions (isometric, concentric, eccentric)- eccentric contractions cause greater stress on our muscle tissues and therefore will require longer to recover from. Eccentric contractions are anything where muscles are lengthening under tension.
In a squat- it’s the portion of the lift where you are sitting down into the squat position…
In the deadlift- it’s the portion of the lift where you are lowering the bar back down to the floor.
In the pull up- it’s the portion of the movement where you are lowering yourself away from the bar.
In the GHD- it’s the portion of the movement where you are reaching back toward the ground.
Excellent teaching point- ever wonder why high volume GHD tend to make you crazy sore (especially if you haven’t been doing them frequently). Hello long lever arm eccentric contraction. You are forcing all of the tissues on the front of your body to lengthen rapidly under load as you reach back toward the ground. This places a large eccentric load on all of those tissues! Is this bad? Absolutely not- just useful in understanding why that movement makes you so sore.
Lean tissue mass- this inherently means that men and women have different recovery rates as men tend to have greater amounts of lean tissue than women (ON AVERAGE). Women tend to be able to tolerate higher levels of training volume (likely because we tend to have less muscle mass & because our max strength numbers are lower than those of men) and women also tend to be better at working at higher percentages of our 1RM. For example a 64k female would likely have a greater training volume than a 96k male.
So then what can we do to improve recovery? Here’s the 99%
- Eat enough food. Eat maintenance calories or slight caloric surplus. If you’ve ever trained in a calorie deficit you know that you don’t recover as well.
- Drink enough water- what’s enough? Body weight in ounces divided by 2 plus 15 oz for every hour of activity. 80-100oz will be a good starting point for most active humans. Remember “water follows solutes” so adding carbs (which will be used to restore liver and muscle glycogen) and electrolytes (primarily sodium) will help in the rehydration process.
- Macronutrient factors: adequate amino acids (aka protein) for tissue repair, adequate carbohydrate (for energy and to replenish liver and muscle glycogen), and adequate fat for hormone production (I don’t like to take women below 50g/ day or men below 60g/ day) and fat soluble vitamin absorption (A,D,E,K).
- Sleep (quantity and quality): Deep sleep is when all the magic happens; Restricting sleep to less than 6 hours for more than 4 nights in a row has been shown to impair glucose metabolism and appetite regulation
What else can we do to improve recovery? The other 1%
- Recovery modalities like massage, stretching, compression. Evidence for physiologic benefits is lacking but the psychological benefits cannot be underestimated!
- “With regard to recovery between stressful training sessions, evidence as to any positive effect of current recovery modalities is lacking. Massage, active recovery, contrast temp water immersion, hyperbaric oxygen therapy stretching and EMS do not appear to be advantageous. NSAIDs have potentially negative health outcomes and may negatively affect muscle repair and adaptation.” (Barnett, 2006).
- Micronutrient intake considerations
- Omega 3 PUFA: good evidence to support management of exercise induced muscle damage (EIMD; Owens, Twist, Cobley, Howatson & Close, 2019)
- Vitamin D: role in muscle regeneration… nociceptors also express vit D receptor making them a potential vit D target. Daily dose of 4,000-5000 IU (Owens, Twist, Cobley, Howatson & Close, 2019)
- Vit C and Vit E: general consensus is that ascorbic acid (Vit C) and ɑ-TOC (Vit E) have limited ability to offset exercise induced decreases in muscle function- and high doses may interfere with exercise adaptations. General consensus is to reserve use for competitions when maximizing adaptation is inconsequential (Owens, Twist, Cobley, Howatson & Close, 2019)
- Creatine monohydrate: positive effects on satellite cell number and myonuclear content in response to heavy resistance exercise. Also beneficial for production of stomach acid which can lead to better digestion and improved nutrient absorption. There are one million other awesome reasons to use creatine. 5g/ day. No special timing required (Owens, Twist, Cobley, Howatson & Close, 2019)
- Zinc supplementation because muscle hypertrophy increases zinc requirement. And a small amount of copper supplementation as well as chronically high amounts of zinc supplementation (>45mg/ day) can lead to copper deficiency.
- Glycine supplementation to support connective tissue health and/ or assist with sleep. Can supplement glycine in isolation or via collagen/ bone broth protein.
- Dietary polyphenols: present in fruits and veggies and have been shown to possess antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. From an exercise induced muscle damage (EIMD) perspective, dietary intervention is unlikely to interact with primary phase of mechanical stress… what is more likely is an interaction with the secondary cascade which results in inflammation and production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) after damaging exercise consequently further exacerbation of damage may be modulated by dietary polyphenols and aid in the subsequent recovery process…at worst these foods provide vital nutrients, at best exercise recovery could be augmented (Owens, Twist, Cobley, Howatson & Close, 2019)
- Quercitin: limited evidence to support use
- Catechins: limited evidence to support use
- Montmorency cherries: accelerated rate of muscle function recovery and reduced soreness after EIMD has been observed in research
- Pomegranate: evidence supporting use for promoting recovery from EIMD
- Probiotic supplementation https://amzn.to/2KmWsWK; Bacillus coagulans produces digestive enzymes that have been shown help to digest proteins and improve nutrient absorption overall. (Jager et al 2016)
- Adaptogens- I haven’t seen any evidence to support the use of adaptogens (ashwaganda, rhodiola, eleuthro) for improving recovery time. Anecdotally, some clients benefit from using these supplements.
And things that we think help but might actually be hindering our progress
- Cryotherapy: overall evidence is weak and recent research indicated it may actually impair training adaptation when used consistently. Cold water immersion attenuated long term gains in muscle mass and strength. It also blunted activation of key proteins and satellite cells in skeletal muscle up to 2 days after strength exercise (Roberts et al, 2015).
- NSAIDs- evidence that these anti-inflammatory modalities can blunt training adaptations when used chronically. Consider using these modalities only when performance is a greater priority than maximizing training adaptations.
If you’ve made it this far you are a freaking rockstar! I hope you learned a thing or two about recovery! As always, DM me on Instagram @tiananicholetallant if you have any questions.
Papers referenced in creating this blog post:
Barnett (2006). Using recovery modalities between training sessions in elite athletes: Does it help? Sports Med, 36 (9). 781- 796.
Bishop, Jones & Woods (2008). Recovery from Training: A brief review. JSCR, 22(3).
Chevion, C, Moran, DS, Heled, Y, Shani, Y, Regev, G, Abbou, B, Berenshtein, E, Stadtman, ER, and Epstein, Y. Plasma antioxidant status and cell injury after severe physical exercise. www.pnas.org/ cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.0831097100. Accessed February 2003.
Jager et al (2017). International society of sports nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr, 14.
Maughan, RJ and Shirreffs, SM. Recovery from prolonged exercises: Restoration of water and electrolyte balance. J Sport Sci 15: 297–303, 1997.
Mattson (2008). Hormesis defined. Ageing Res Rev, 7 (1).
Owens, Twist, Cobley, Howatson & Close (2019). Exercise-induced muscle damage: What is it, what causes it and what are the nutritional solutions
Trappet, A, White, F, Lambert, CP, Cesar, D, Hellerstein, M, and Evans, WJ. Effect of ibuprofen and acetaminophen on post exercise muscle protein synthesis. J Physiol Endocrin Metab 282: E551–E556, 2002