Recovery: A Primer

The key to increased performance and injury avoidance
Article by Drew Price BSc, MASc – Nutrition Consultant

Do you want better results from your training? Do you want to train harder or with less soreness and more muscle? Maybe you want greater speed, power, strength and the increased performance to go with it?

If the answer to any of these questions is 'yes' then you need to look seriously at your recovery.

No matter what your sport or physical activity, be it bodybuilding, rugby, martial arts or anything else, there are two phases to conditioning the body; training and recovery. Recovery is when the body grows and adapts. When you train you damage the tissues of the body and tax the nervous system. This damage is registered by the body and after you train, your body tries to super compensate between sessions so it can come back stronger and more able to cope with the stresses. To do this takes time, time when you are unable to perform at your best, but there are some ways you can speed this process up:

General Diet
This is the only place to start as there's no point worrying about whether you need a magnesium supplement if your whole diet is lacking. What do we mean by lacking?

Lacking whole food
Lacking variety
Lacking good fats
Lacking sufficient quality calories

Your body is a machine that requires fuels of different types to supply both the energy and building blocks for cells and tissues. The diet you eat should be predominately whole food. Supplements are just that. Whole food provides not only the macronutrients but also the micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and quite probably a whole range of other things which haven't even been categorised yet! For this reason you should also ensure you have sufficient variety in your diet, and get as big a spread of nutrients from as many different food sources as you can. Not just for you health but for your sanity as well.

Connected with this issue are essential fatty acids (EFAs). Unfortunately today's food production methods mean that EFAs are very hard to source from whole foods in sufficient quantity. In addition to this EFAs are unstable and go rancid easily so supplementation is often necessary. Fish and flax oils are useful sources. Increased consumption of omega 3 has been linked to a reduction in whole body inflammation and this may well have a tie in with recovery.

Now why is the last one in the list above in bold? Many trainees these days worry about whether or not they should get 200g or 210g of protein but ignore the fact that they are simply not eating enough! Even professional athletes do it, with many actually being technically malnourished. Sufficient total quality calories from a balanced varied diet is number one on your list of things to look for if you are talking about boosting recovery. Everything else is second.

Post Workout Nutrition
One of the most important times to feed you body is right after an exercise session or event. When a muscle is worked hard the glycogen stores (the muscle's energy supplies) are low and the protein in the muscle tissue is starting to be broken down for energy. In order to recover you have to stop this, and quickly. When fatigued or damaged they are physiologically crying out for nutrients; any sugars and amino acids consumed are sucked up by the muscles, stopping their break down and stimulating repair and growth. Consuming a drink with high glycaemic carbs e.g. a sports drink and an easily digested protein e.g. whey protein straight after training (as well as just before and during, if you are able) feeds your muscles when they are primed to receive.

If you've just had a hard match or hypertrophy (muscle growth) is your game try to consume 1g of carbs and ½g of protein for every 1kg of your body weight starting immediately after training with a re-feed of whole food carbs and protein an hour later.

Training Smart
This is a whole other article but the things to look out for is plenty of sufficient rest, variety and avoiding the over use of advanced techniques like drop sets, etc. We all know that training for months on end five days a week can take its toll, but this level of work will actually get in the way of your progress and factoring in 'off' weeks and other types of rest periods will actually boost your performance!

Variety in the gym is also import keeping your mind and body fresh and on the task at hand. Many injuries occur due to the fact that the body has been trained a certain way for too long a time so that it's is either not firing the muscles correctly or there may be an imbalance across a joint. One way to avoid this is switch up movements, grips and foot positions often so to stimulate the body in a new way. No one routine is perfect so changing it up every 4-8 weeks will help you avoid injury.

This goes for advanced techniques too; using these for a prolonged period of time damages the body to a greater degree than it is able to repair it and you slowly get more overtrained. To get the most out of these techniques use them sparingly and don't concentrate on the same muscle group for too long.

Sleep
When you sleep a few very important processes accelerate recovery. You produce a plethora of hormones that stimulate growth and repair. Growth hormone and testosterone make a potent stack and are secreted by the endocrine system during REM sleep stimulating anabolism, i.e. when muscle fibres are repaired and the tissue super compensates. Sleep also causes muscle paralysis and it is in this state the body really sets about working on that damaged muscle tissue, but it doesn't end there! Good sleep improves your nervous system's ability to fire the muscle fibres and increases you ability to focus and concentrate. It also speeds up reaction times and allows you to properly learn the skills you need to perform something you definitely want when you are under a heavy bar or on the field!

Deep restful sleep is what you need and ideally you should be aiming for 8 or more hours a night. However in this fast paced, modern world it can be hard to achieve but there are things you can do to make the sleep you do get of better quality. Avoid caffeine towards the end of the day, get into a pre bed routine that doesn't involve to much thought; putting out work clothes or making a lunch for instance, also try to go to bed at the same time each night, These will make falling asleep much easier. Supplements may help some and can aid sleep quality without having to necessarily leave you drowsy, these include magnesium to relax your body, preparing you for sleep and valerian root which acts a little like natures sleeping pill deepening your sleep but will not leave you drowsy.

Active Recovery
It may be the last thing that you want to do but moving those just-trained, tired, aching limbs may be one of the best things you can do for them. Low intensity, low impact exercise such as walking or using a cross trainer for 15 minutes will warm the muscle, stimulating blood flow into it, which in turn delivers nutrients and removes metabolic waste. Ever wondered why football players all seem to take up golf? Now you know! Movement itself will help break up the microscopic adhesions in the muscle caused by broken or damaged fibres due to hard training and will increase the production of synovial fluid which feeds, oxygenates and lubricates cartilaginous tissue in the joints.

Massage
Daily massages by a trained masseuse with 15 different certifications in deep tissue, sports and Swedish massage are for the likes of David Beckham and Lance Armstrong. However you don't necessarily have to have regular and total body massages to feel the benefit. A 15 minute massage on a problem area, say one that feels unusually tight, every 2 weeks can have a great effect reducing the tension in the muscles, breaking down the microscopic tears in the fibre and stimulating lymph flow. You also don't have to take a passive role; if you can comfortably reach the area with you hand you can work on it yourself. A variety of 'tools' are available from physiotherapy shops, but a simple golf or squash ball can assist you - use a long rolling action down the muscle and/or work on knots in the muscle in a spot relief-type way.

Foam Roller Work
These really follow on from massage but due to their being such a useful, they deserve a separate mention. Rollers (about 1m long, 10-15cm in diameter and quite solid) are great from myofacial release type techniques, and not only are they cheap and easy to use, but they are brutally effective at reliving stiffness and improving the quality of the muscle tissue. They are one of the best ways to go about avoiding injury and probably best money you will ever spend on you training.

Epsom Salts Baths
After a long hard training week take the time to have a warm bath with around 300g of Epsom salts in. This can decrease inflammation, promote muscle relaxation and also increase blood flow to the muscles. Epsom salts contain magnesium sulphate which has been shown to increases blood magnesium levels, a mineral athletes are often lacking in, which is vital for proper muscle function and hormone production.

Contrast Showers
There is a little controversy as to why these work, but work they do! What is certain is that they increase peripheral circulation, which will aid the transportation of waste away from the muscles. After hard training session get into the shower and run it for a minute hot and then 30 seconds cold. This really gets the circulation going and gets blood into those aching limbs. A word of warning though, this is a powerful technique and should not be used if people have over-use injuries or extreme inflammation.

The Bottom Line
Let's face it, you need days of soreness, stiffness like you need a hole in the head, especially if you are competing. And, whilst they aren't sexy (in fact they are pretty mundane) using all these methods will make a world of difference to both your performance and your comfort levels! They can easily take your training to the next level, see you able to push past training plateaus, perform with more power, speed, strength and skill and also help you avoid injury.

Whether you know it or not there are only two reasons you train, to stimulate and force the body to recover, are you guilty of concentrating on one and forgetting the other? Recover and raise your game!