Optimise recovery from weight training with these simple guidelines.
Training with weights is the primary stimulus needed to build more muscle. But the training itself actually causes muscle breakdown (catabolism). It’s what happens next, specifically in terms of the actions you take, that determines the extent and efficiency of your recovery.
1. Don’t skip that post-exercise meal
First and foremost, weight training initiates an anabolic hormonal cascade that primes our bodies for the repair process. One of the more important hormonal responses is an increase in insulin immediately after exercise. This makes muscle more efficient at refilling its cells with glycogen and ‘shuttling’ amino acids into damaged muscle tissue, which allows the repair process to get underway.
That’s why the hour or so immediately after a gym session is commonly called the “anabolic window of opportunity”. While more recent research suggests that similar anabolic benefits can be derived from pre- and intra-workout supplementation with protein, a post-workout meal or supplement is important to halt the muscle breakdown caused by exercise, promote greater anabolism (muscle generation), and reduce the inflammation caused by exercise, which can increase tissue damage.
It’s also worth mentioning that eating something soon after an exercise session can reduce excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or Epoc (read more about this in point 4). One study has shown that Epoc has a longer duration in fasting individuals than it has in individuals who eat often (R. Bahr and O.M. Sejersted).
2. Nail your macronutrient ratios
The composition of your post-workout meal or supplement – the balance, type and form – is also important in the context of optimal recovery. Specifically, it’s advisable to avoid fats because they are more slowly digested. This reduces gastric emptying which delays the digestion and absorption of carbs and protein – the macronutrients your body needs right after a tough training session to start the rebuilding and repair process, and replenish glycogen stores in muscle cells and the liver.
3. Get sufficient sleep
When we sleep a number of anabolic processes ramp up due to increases in important hormones related to growth, particularly growth hormone (gH) and testosterone, to repair and rejuvenate our immune, nervous, skeletal and muscular systems. Over 90% of your daily gH supply is actually released while you sleep, mostly during the first hour, and testosterone levels also become elevated. Your body also shifts blood flow to resting, inactive muscles to aid the recovery process. If you get less than the required 7-9 hours of sleep a night you aren’t giving your muscles the time they need to repair and adapt.
4. Cool down
Immediately following intense exercise, your body’s primary requirement is the dissipation of body heat. This is mainly achieved through sweating and a rise in heart and respiratory rates. There are also a number of processes that are required to return our bodies to a state of equilibrium, or homeostasis following exercise, which also produce heat. These processes all have a direct impact on our rate of recovery, so jumping into a hot shower or bath can increase the time it takes to bring our body temperature down and return to a state of homeostasis. This can delay recovery, so instead of taking a hot shower after your training session, rather alternate between cold and warm water. You can also have an ice-cold drink, be it a supplement, bottle of water or electrolyte replacement drink.
5. Move more
For many of us a tough workout is normally followed by hours spent sitting at a desk, in traffic or on the couch. However, being sedentary for so long after exercise is highly detrimental to your recovering muscles. Extended immobility reduces peripheral blood flow, which impedes the delivery of anabolic hormones, macronutrients and anti-inflammatory cytokines to recovering muscles, and slows the removal of exercise metabolites. Electrical activity in your muscles also decreases, which reduces your basal metabolic rate. All of these factors combine to increase post-exercise stiffness.