Training is a process that takes its toll on the body. Whenever we take part in physical training, our bodies go through a myriad of changes. These changes are a part of one of our bodies’ most important abilities – adaptation. These “meat wagons” of ours, as Joe Rogan refers to them, have a miraculous ability to create equilibrium whenever they’re out of balance. So, after our bodies handle the shock of training, it’s time for them to enter recovery mode and start re-balancing.
During any physical exercise our bodies put in a real shift in order to get us through the increased demands we place. Most people are aware of the role our muscular and skeletal systems play during exercise, but often oversee the finer physiological processes that run in the background.
For simplicity’s sake, we’re going to divide the manner in which our bodies respond to training in two parts. The first is the physical aspect of handling the increased load that the body is under. The second is going to be physiological, encompassing all the biochemical processes that take place during stress. Because working out is just that – a form of stress.
Our musculoskeletal system is a work of art, designed to adapt to a wide variety of situations and handle huge outside influences. The skeletal system forms the structure upon which our bodies are based, while the muscles are tasked with dynamic motion. The muscles are a physiological furnace, demanding substrate for every contraction that they make. The intensity and duration they work at is in accordance with the available energy system for the task at hand. That, however, is a subject for another day. For now, it’s suffice to say that every muscular action burns “fuel” and wears and tears the tissue. Recovery is the process that helps replenish fuel and repair the tissues in question.
Physiologically speaking, the stress of training is handled by countless simultaneous processes. Hormones “go haywire”, the liver is working overtime and the lungs and heart get a beating. Most of the fuel readily available to our bodies is stored in the muscles and liver in the form of glycogen. These depots are quickly spent during exercise, depending on the intensity. The heart and lungs are tasked with delivering oxygen to the working tissues to complete the equation. However, the capacity and duration of work that these systems are capable of, are limited, and have to be replenished.
The role of proper recovery
All of the systems mentioned above are not capable of working constantly without he need for a break. On the contrary, their ability to sustain the increased demands is very limited and they require adequate rest. This means ceasing all external sources of stress (training) have to stop in order for our bodies to reset. This is where recovery comes into play.
Recovery is our bodies’ ability to bring order back to chaos and return the body into equilibrium. However, recovery cannot take place in the same time as training stress, which takes careful planning. Recovery is a highly trainable quality that has to be an integral part of any strength and conditioning program.
Recovery starts with repair. As soon as the training stimulus ceases, the body aims to return to balance as soon as possible. First and foremost, the body aims to rest the heart and lungs and lower the working heart rate into more acceptable ranges. From there, it’s time to start mending and refilling, by focusing on replenishing glycogen and fixing broken down muscle tissue. All of these processes that define our recovery ability can be improved and optimized with a correct approach.
The following options are by no means the most comprehensive, nor the only available tools to speed up recovery. They are, however, the staples of the body’s ability to return to homeostasis.
Stretching is probably the first thing that springs to mind when you hear the word ‘recovery’. Post workout stretching seems to be taken for granted though, and done in a completely wrong manner. Stretching needs to be perceived as a tool to aid recovery, not just a ritualistic routine to end training.
Despite what your PT teacher told you when you were in primary school, static stretching is not the only way to stretch. Sure, static stretching has its uses, but going deep into a hamstring stretch shouldn’t be the first thing done after rolling. Recovery should be aided by our post workout mobility protocol, not hindered by it. Going too deep into inappropriate stretches will do more harm than good.
The adequate approach here is a combination of active and static stretching, combined together. It can be done as a sequence of moves or as a yoga-style flow. This way, the muscles get both lengthened and massaged, resulting in faster recovery. Another great mobility option is oscillated stretching, meaning moving in as short range of motion while holding a stretch position.
Self Myofacial Release (SMR)
Going for a massage is by far the best option for athletes, but unfortunately rarely affordable for most. This is where Self Myofacial Release comes in. SMR is a technique that utilizes different tools in order to treat trigger points in the muscles. Apart from the ability to resolve muscle knots (trigger points), full body SMR also calms the nervous system down.
The tools most often used are foam rollers and lacrosse balls. There are a bunch of ways to use them and most of them work. The rule of thumb is to avoid feeling pain whenever you’re doing mobility work. Slight discomfort is OK, especially with SMR since the point is to dissolve the muscle knots formed during training. It’s a very useful technique that immensely helps recovery and should be a part of your post workout routine.
Still, try and allow someone that is a licensed chiropractor to professionally fix you up at least once a month.
The right kind of shower
Post workout showers are not just a way to wash and clean your smelly body. Contrast therapy is a technique of alternating hot and cold water to aid recovery. The concept behind the technique is that the warm water widens blood vessels, increasing blood flow, while the cold do the opposite, causing constriction of the vessels. As an added benefit, the lymphatic system gets the same treatment as the blood vessels. Contrast showers allow the body to recover, alleviating soft tissue trauma, muscle spasms and soreness.
A simple way to approach contrast showers for recovery is to build a routine. Remember to always begin with hot water. Start with a small temperature range, around 10°F at first and ultimately build up to ranges of 45°F. Go for 40 seconds of hot (~97°F), followed by 20 seconds of cold for the first week (~86°F). Do this for a total of three times. Increase the range the following week.
Although most people won’t find it hard to get in a full day of rest, some athletes simply must do work every day. In either case, active recovery is a great option to get your body back in tune. Just be careful not to be too active and turn it into a full blown training session.
For those of a lazier predisposition, I recommend taking the dog for a walk, going for an easy hike or a light swim if you’re lucky enough to live by the beach. Those who want to be more active may go for a yoga session or even have a bit of outdoor fun at the monkey bars. Just make sure you’re aware why you’re doing all of it in the first place – recovery. So a walk in the park with your significant other is probably a better option than doing a Crossfit WOD at the bars.
The last piece of the puzzle is nutrition. How we eat after working out is crucial to our recovery ability. Proper nutrition will result with timely and correct glycogen repletion and allow the body’s systems to go into recovery mode. Food is the fuel that drives our training, but it’s also the building block of our tissues.
Getting the right stuff in at the right time is crucial for complete recovery. The main idea is to stop protein breakdown and replenish glycogen stores. It doesn’t matter if you’re having a solid or a replacement meal after training – just make sure you get it in a hurry. By hurrying I mean to go eat as soon as possible after working out.
To prevent protein breakdown aim to keep insulin levels high after training. Insulin has anti – catabolic properties which are essential for post workout recovery. Getting insulin levels up puts a stop to protein breakdown and shifts the focus towards protein synthesis.
For glycogen repletion it’s again, all about the insulin. Two things are crucial in the post workout window: adequate amount of carbohydrates being available and keeping insulin high. The first is the substrate that allows for glycogen synthesis to take place. The second is the method which allows the ingested carbs to enter the muscles.
As bodybuilders often say “you don’t build muscle in training, you build it when you’re resting“. Although as grappling athletes our needs are different than bodybuilders, the same recovery principles still apply. Rest is the best way to ensure that our bodies have the time to repair the damage we did by training. So, get some quality shut-eye and get straight back on the mats!