Optimise recovery from exercise by avoiding these common pitfalls.
1. Skipping your post-exercise recovery meal
Exercise is a stimulus that causes muscle breakdown (catabolism), but it also initiates a number of processes that help to repair and rebuild this damage. First and foremost, it 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 production immediately after exercise as it makes our bodies more efficient at refilling muscle cells with glycogen and ‘shuttling’ amino acids into damaged muscle tissue, which allows the repair process to get underway.
The period of time immediately following exercise is commonly referred to as the “anabolic window of opportunity”, however new research suggests that similar anabolic benefits can be derived from pre- and intra-workout supplementation with protein. As such a meal and/or supplement ingested during the period immediately following exercise is more effective at halting the catabolism caused by exercise than it is in promoting greater anabolism.
Regardless, skipping a meal or recovery supplement after a workout is a sure-fire way to lose muscle and prolong the inflammation caused by exercise, which can increase tissue damage. It is also worth noting that eating something soon after the cessation of exercise can reduce excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (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. Eating the wrong macronutrients
While eating as soon as possible after a training session or race is vitally important, the composition of your meals should also be a key consideration. It is important to get the macronutrient balance right, not to mention the type and form of these macronutrients.
For instance, it is advised that you avoid high-fat foods 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 or race. Muscles need to a large dose of protein to start the rebuilding and repair process, as well as high glycaemic index carbs to replenish glycogen stores in muscle cells and the liver.
3. Staying up late
When we sleep a number of anabolic processes get to work to repair and rejuvenate our immune, nervous, skeletal and muscular systems. The release of important hormones related to growth increases when we sleep, particularly growth hormone (GH) and testosterone. 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 8-9 hours of sleep a night you aren’t giving your muscles the time they need to repair and adapt to your hard training sessions.
4. Doing nothing
For many of us a tough workout is normally followed by eight or more hours spent sitting at a desk, or an afternoon spent with our feet up on the couch. However, few things are as detrimental to your health and your recovering muscles. Extended immobility reduces peripheral blood flow, which impedes lactate removal and the delivery of anabolic hormones, energy substrates and inflammation-fighting cytokine inhibitors and anti-inflammatory cytokines to recovering muscles.
Electrical activity in your muscles also decreases, which reduces your basal metabolic rate. All of these factors combine to increase post-exercise stiffness and soreness, which can negatively impact your next training session.
5. Forgetting to replace electrolytes
Drinking water or a carbohydrate-based recovery drink may quench your thirst after a heavy training session, but they don’t sufficiently address rehydration needs. Important minerals and nutrients are lost through sweat while you exercise, most importantly electrolytes. These ‘salts’ play an important role in maintaining fluid balance, which is an important part of the recovery process, especially in hot, humid conditions.
Rehydration after exercise can only be achieved if the electrolytes lost in sweat, as well as the lost water, are replaced. Findings from a study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences titled: “Recovery from prolonged exercise: restoration of water and electrolyte balance” by Maughan and Shirreffs also suggests that the “volume of beverage consumed should be greater than the volume of sweat lost to provide for the ongoing obligatory urine losses.”