We exercise enthusiasts are repeatedly told there is a price for greatness. We’re conditioned to think we need to train harder, faster, longer. We are bombarded with expressions like “beast mode,” “No pain, no gain” or “There is no off-season.” And it’s easy to get consumed by the madness of it all.
I’m not opposed to a little blood, sweat and tears when it comes to training. In fact, that’s a critical component of the process. But we have to remember that the time in between workouts is when the results from training take place. And our approach to recovery can be a true difference-maker when it comes to workout performance, training adaptations and reducing the risks of injury.
Simply put, the body needs to recuperate from the demands that are placed on it. But rather than simply “waiting” on an off-day, it’s imperative to be more proactive during your downtime.
Outlined below are some of the easiest and most effective methods to ensure you are getting optimal recovery while still reaping the benefits of all of your hard work.
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The benefits of massage for recovery are quite extensive. Repeated bouts of exercise can create tightness in the muscles and lead to the formation of adhesions (i.e. muscle knots). This can lead to decreased blood flow, which inhibits oxygen and nutrients getting to the muscle, which in turn prolongs the healing process, decreases mobility and increases the risk of acute or chronic injury.
Essentially, massage helps to reverse this. How? By separating muscle fibers and adhesions caused by the micro trauma of exercise, increased blood flow and lymphatic circulation, which aids in the removal of waste products from exercise and supplies the muscles with nutrients faster to speed recovery. Also, massage helps to break up the accumulation of adhesions in the muscles, which greatly helps to restore optimal flexibility and range of motion.
Ideally, the frequency of massage should be at least once per week. However, if that isn’t realistic with your time or budget, foam rolling is a great alternative. Foam rolling is a self-administered technique that is performed by lying on a bio-foam cylinder and rolling out/massaging your muscles. Foam rolling has the same benefits as massage therapy. A recent study by the American College of Sports Medicine found that those who foam-rolled post-workout had less muscle soreness, increased range of motion and higher muscular force production than those who didn’t.
Sleep has been said to be the “athlete’s steroid.” Benefits include improved cognitive function, increased reaction time, better immune system function and, of course, an exercise recovery aid. There are five stages of sleep, and we reap the benefits once we reach deeper levels.
Specifically, in stage 3, “slow wave sleep” starts to take place. Once we reach this level, the body begins to secrete human growth hormone (HGH). HGH is important in tissue repair, healing, muscle growth, brain function, bone strength, energy, endurance and metabolism. As we continue to fall deeper into stage 4, we then physically and mentally replenish our energy, and the body does most of its work and regeneration as HGH continues to be released. So the question is, how much sleep do we need? The National Sleep Foundation recommends at least 7-8 hours a night. To increase the likelihood of successful slumber, use the following tips:
▪ Unplug. Keep the TV, cellphone, and computer/laptop out of the bedroom. And also as a general rule, you should refrain from using any of these devices 30-60 minutes prior to bedtime. This is because they stimulate your central nervous system with both light and sound, which makes it more difficult to unwind. Plus, some research also shows the electrical currents from these devices can alter sleep patterns.
▪ Keep your bedroom cool. A warm room can make it difficult for your body to shut down since it cools right before sleep. Somewhere between 65-69 degrees Fahrenheit is recommended, though you could go as low as 60 if desired. It may take a little experimenting to find what works best for you. In general, if your bed is chilly enough to make you shiver a little once underneath the sheets, you’re good to go.
▪ Keep it darker. Did you know that melatonin will only be produced by your body when it is dark? Any small amount of light can interfere with its production and impair sleep. Light creeping in through the doors or windows, the LEDs of electronic devices, cellphones — you name it. Having good blackout shades, covering any devices in the room or using an eye mask can help make a big difference.
A recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research suggests that both immediate and 24-hour cold and heat help to prevent muscle soreness from exercise. For reducing pain, cold therapy performed slightly better than heat. Also in the same study, the group which received no therapy after exercise showed a 23.8 percent drop in muscular strength on the day after exercise, while the immediate heat and cold groups showed a only a 4.5 percent drop in strength.
While there are many methods of applying heat or cold, hot/cold packs and hydrotherapy are typically the most convenient. Unfortunately, scientists have yet to determine the optimal parameters for both hot and cold therapy. The general suggestion for application time ranges between 10 and 15 minutes on the affected area if using packs or for water immersion (a hot or cold bath). It should be noted that heat is contraindicated if you have an acute injury. Otherwise, both are very effective in reducing muscle soreness and speeding recovery.
“Unload” every 4-6 weeks
The old rule of thumb is that you should switch up your workouts every 4-6 weeks for continued results. This should also be the time that you “unload” with a lighter workout week. It’s during this period that our body finally gets a chance to play catchup and physically adapt to the training demands placed on it. Otherwise known as “supercompensation,” this is where we experience increases in strength and endurance as we carry over into the next 4- to 6-week training block. You can unload by cutting your workout times in half, decreasing your intensity or simply participating in recreational activity that is not specific to your training goals. After a week of unloading, you should feel physically and mentally refreshed, with a heightened motivation to get back into training.
Jason Wanlass, the owner of Champion Fitness Training in Meridian, has more than 20 years of experience in the fitness industry. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or championfit.net. He writes a monthly fitness column.
Guidelines for using a foam roller
• Once you roll over a tight area, stop and rest on the “hot spot” for 20-30 seconds. You should experience a decrease in discomfort or feel the muscle release during this time. Continue further along the muscle until you find the next “hot spot.” This usually doesn’t take long for the first-time user.
• Hold only to the point of tolerance; you should not experience sharp pain. Slight discomfort is what you are shooting for, similar to a deep-tissue massage. Many manufacturers offer foam rollers with different densities depending on your pain threshold.
• Remember to breathe, maintain good posture and engage your core muscles.
• Repeat 1-3 times per side.
• For optimal results, foam rolling can be done daily or at a minimum of 3 times per week.
Here are my favorites:
IT band: Lie on your right side, supported by your right elbow; keep your head in neutral and ears aligned with your shoulders. Place the roller under your right thigh and place your left leg over and in front of the right leg. Roll just below the hip joint down to the lateral thigh to the knee.
Piriformis/glutes: Sit on full roller and cross your right ankle over your left knee. Roll on the right hip area while pulling the right knee toward the opposite shoulder to increase the stretch. To massage the glutes, sit on the roller with your feet and hands in front. Push the roller backward with your buttocks.
Quadriceps: Lie on your belly with the foam roller above your knees and elbows bent with forearms touching the floor. Pull the abdominals in and tighten the glutes to help prevent the back from sagging. Roll from the pelvic bone to the knee, emphasizing the front and lateral thigh.