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After intense or prolonged training, our bodies need time to repair tissue that has been damaged and broken down (this is ultimately how we get stronger and adapt). To perform at our best we have to find a good combination of training stress and recovery...

When we train hard there are changes that take place on an intracellular level as well as microscopic tears that happen in muscle tissue. Basically muscle damage takes place and that leads to increased blood levels of several muscle proteins (like creatine kinase and myoglobin) and this causes stiffness and swelling.

Exercise-induced muscle damage can have a negative impact on our performance and prolongs recovery. Recovering quicker thus helps us train more effectively.

Recovery can be influenced by age, diet, genetics, an individual’s fitness level, sleep, environment and the amount of physical and psychological trauma an athlete has been exposed to. We will be looking at: sleep, body compression garments, cold water immersion (CWI), nutrition and massage.

In 2018, I got lured into ‘The 4 Peaks Mountain Challenge’ - a 24km trail race. I stepped into it very unconditioned and ran for a whopping 6 and a half hours! I know it’s bad... But like many runners, the bug bit (ok, and my ego), so come 2019, I started training really hard. I did all the right things: cross-training, hill training, LSD (long slow distance), stretching, the works. But very soon I realised a few things: I’m no longer 21 years old and I also started feeling more and more useless during my training sessions. So here are a few tips and what research says about recovery, to help you not make the same mistakes I did.

1. Sleep

Sleep has been identified as one of the most important recovery strategies. Sleep deprivation has shown to decrease glucose tolerance, increased cortisol (a stress hormone) levels and disruption of growth hormone (that assists with cell reproduction, bone growth and speeds up healing after an injury and repair muscle tissue after exercise) and negatively impacts the immune system.

In a study done on NBA (National Basketball Association) players, it was found that there was a significant improvement in performance when there was more time between games. Extended sleep has also shown improvement in shooting accuracy, sprint time and free throws.

Athletes who’ve had reduced sleep reported feeling less recovered and have a lower motivation to train. So this means the effects of not sleeping enough doesn’t just affect you physically but also messes with your mental game.

2. Body compression garments

The most important part of wearing a compression garment that makes it effective or not is a proper fit. Garments that are too tight can cause more discomfort because of too much compression, whereas garments that are too lose are mostly used only for fashion and ads almost no mechanical support.

In a study done on both men and women doing heavy resistance training, the use of a whole-body compression garment, compared to those wearing loose-fitting gym wear showed an increase in recovery rate on a psychological and physiological performance and a perceptual level. Both men and women wearing the compression garment presented with less muscle soreness, less resting fatigue, muscle swelling, and creatine kinase. They also showed a significant increase in vitality.

Unfortunately, there is limited knowledge of the effects of compression garments on endurance exercises.

3. Cold Water Immersion (CWI) and Cryotherapy

CWI and Cryotherapy has a vasoconstrictive effect and causes a decrease in nerve conduction, which leads to a reduced awareness of pain perception. It also causes a reduction in intra-muscular temperature and metabolism which helps lessen inflamm8ation and swelling.

It’s important, however, to also note that regular use of CWI has shown, in the long run (3 months), to reduce muscle strength and muscle mass in strength trainers, and a reduction of ribosome biogenesis (in short the body’s factory for protein synthesis) in skeletal muscles.

So, CWI is good for decreasing the effect of DOMS (delayed onset of muscle soreness), but should not be overdone, especially if your goal is to gain muscle and strength.

4. Nutrition

Fluids and electrolytes are important for staying hydrated and for thermoregulation. There is also more research on how dehydration can cause damage to cells because of oxidative stress. Side effects of an athlete that is dehydrated can be:

  • Headaches

  • Lethargy – causing a decrease in physical performance

  • Decreased mental performance (including visual vigilance, anxiety, fatigue)

Something that is very important to remember is that not hydrating properly with your current workout can have an effect on your next workout. It’s also very important to not just replace lost fluid, but also electrolytes and sodium that gets lost when sweating.

Although protein has many functions, it’s especially important for the maintenance and repair of muscles. The ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) recommends 1.2-1.4g per kg body weight per day for endurance athletes and 1.7g per kg body weight for strength trainers (speed workouts included).

It’s important to note that it is more beneficial for your body to consume proteins in increments (for example for breakfast, lunch and dinner) rather than all at once. The reason is that protein synthesis reaches a plateau despite more proteins being consumed.

Now, the tough one... Carbs (carbohydrates) - to eat or not to eat... Although this topic has been under a lot of investigation, research still shows that carbohydrates are most effectively used by the body during exercise. It is the only micronutrient that can be broken down fast enough to provide energy while we are still training (it’s especially helpful during longer training sessions).

It seems like there is also no real difference in performance in high-intensity runners when it comes to using moderate GI- or low GI carbs.

The other side of the coin does, however, show that physically active people can adapt to the use of low-carb, high fat and protein diets for fuel (otherwise known as a Ketogenic diet) and use more fat for energy.

Reasons why some experts still do not recommend such a diet are as follows:

  • Possible impaired cognitive performance and mood

  • Perceptions of fatigue

  • Inability to focus on tasks

  • A greater chance of muscle damage while training

  • When dehydrated, the body uses more carbs

With all this said, researchers also do acknowledge that athletes do need more proteins and some fats than was previously believed, but carbs still seem to be king when it comes to being the most effective micro-nutrient.

5. Massage

Many athletes undergo regular massage as part of their training and recovery routine.

Research shows that massage does not have any effect on muscle function, but it does reduce muscle soreness (DOMS) and reduces swelling by approximately 30%. It helps with blood flow, getting new oxygen to damaged areas and getting rid of inflammation. And that will definitely make a difference in how comfortable and effective your next training session can be.

Massage, in combination with stretches, seems to be even more effective in recovery.

Personal lessons I’ve learned about recovery:

  • Nutrition had a massive effect on my recovery and efficiency in training. There are two things that made a big difference: (1) was when I cut out sugar (I’m a bit of a junky). I honestly felt my fitness significantly improving. And (2) for recovery and energy during my run, a drink packed with Amino acids really made a difference.

  • Massage. I went through a stage where my body just constantly felt busted, sore and stiff, and after a proper hour and a half massage, I walked away with my body feeling relieved and I could jump 100% into training again. I tried thereafter not to wait too long before getting a massage again.

  • Rest. I eventually realised that my body was begging for a break. So, I would train hard for 3 weeks and take it easy on the fourth. Putting our bodies under so much pressure can mess with a lot of things (ladies, even your hormones). When your body tells you something, listen to it. You are worth it!

With all said and done, it’s important to see what works for you - your body, your schedule, your budget, your family, your preferences - and then make the best of it.

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