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The Science of Exercise Recovery

Exercise recovery describes the process of allowing the body to rest and adapt following a training session. Exercise itself is a stressor that triggers several physiological responses throughout the body. When performed safely and effectively, stress from exercise is combatted within a few minutes to days, similar to a brief illness. Just as with illness, the body needs time to recover effectively from exercise, and understanding the how and why of recovery will assist you in becoming a better and healthier athlete.

While it is extremely beneficial in adequate doses, too much can lead to symptoms of overtraining and can be season or career ending for athletes (Overtraining). Side note: there is no such thing as too little exercise, but many people would benefit from increasing the time they spend active. Current recommendations for healthy adults are 30 minutes of aerobic exercise 5 days per week.

While exercise provides a beneficial stimulus to the body, resulting in countless health benefits, it is often forgotten that recovery is just as important as the session itself. Not only does recovery allow for the body to rest and replenish necessary nutrients, but it also allows the athlete to derive greater benefits from training. Afterall, whether you are training for a local 5k, conference championships, or to walk around the block with your dog, the goal is to promote adaptation through exercise to achieve a goal.

So, what does exercise recovery look like? Exercise recovery within a single session is typically as simple as a decrease in intensity or a brief rest period. The surface level answer is as intensity increases, the rest requirement increases as well. In terms of strength training or interval style aerobic workouts rest periods should be anywhere from 30 seconds to 4-5 minutes. For team sport participants rest periods may be as short as 10-20 seconds between plays or 30-40 minutes at half time. Regardless, it is important to understand how the body responds to exercise and how various recovery options act on the body. Lastly, it’s important to remember that feasibility is often the limiting factor. You may not be able to sleep between plays as a recovery tool, but you can run to the sideline to get a drink of Gatorade to replenish fluids and carbohydrates.

In recent years various techniques have been advertised to promote recovery, including compression boots, massage guns, recovery beer and main more that we will discuss briefly. If you’re interested in a great read on recovery check out ‘Good To Go’ by Christie Aschwanden.
Some of the science

Upon cessation of exercise the goal is to return the body to homeostasis. Many physiological systems are either upregulated (increased activity) or downregulated (decreased activity) during exercise to allow for optimal performance and efficiency. For example, body temperature, heart rate (HR) and blood pressure (BP) all typically increase with exercise, so the pathways that are associated with such increases are downregulated during recovery. Other factors to be considered during recovery include replenishing of muscle glycogen, fluid replacement, protein synthesis, and timing of your next exercise bout.

Body temperature increases during exercise due to the inefficiency of metabolism. When energy is produced from the breakdown of fats or carbohydrates 80% is lost as heat while the remaining 20% is used for locomotion. Thus, as exercise intensity or duration increases you may feel yourself getting hotter and hotter. During recovery it is important to replenish liquids and cool the body down to prevent overheating. Prolonged heat exposure during or following exercise can result in serious illness.

Heart rate and blood pressure increase as the cardiovascular system responds to exercise. The primary role of the cardiovascular system is to pump blood as a means of transporting oxygen to working muscles. Oxygen is necessary for various metabolic processes that produce energy, so more oxygen is pumped to muscles during exercise. To accomplish this, cardiac output (product of HR x stroke volume) increases. Hormones such as epinephrine (commonly known as adrenaline) and norepinephrine are released in great amounts to increase the force of heart contractions and to also dilate blood vessels carrying oxygenated blood to muscles. While these are normal exercise responses, and allow for increased performance, both HR and BP decrease within several minutes. Substantial changes in HR and BP in athletes should be monitored closely. Replenishing liquids will assist in returning HR and BP to resting levels as blood volume decreases throughout prolonged exercise due to sweat loss.

Nutrition and the refueling process are vital for both overall health and performance enhancement. During exercise fats and carbohydrates are the primary fuel sources with fats being the most prevalent in the body. Carbohydrates on the other hand can be depleted, particularly within the muscle, during prolonged exercise. Upon completion, it is recommended to consume 0.7-1.2g/kg/hour of carbohydrate for the first 2-4 hours. This means that a 150lb should aim to consume 47-82g of carbohydrate per hour. By acutely increasing carbohydrate intake muscle glycogen is restored for subsequent bouts of exercise. Along with carbohydrates, protein consumption is necessary to remodel, and repair broken down muscle tissue. Upon completion of exercise it is recommended to consume 20-40g of protein (protein synthesis).

Once homeostasis is reestablished, the focus can be placed on adapting to the exercise bout. Following an intense session, the muscles and systems stressed can be compensated for 48 hours or more. During recovery the body continues to promote protein synthesis, increases in mitochondrial density, plasma volume, and many other factors beneficial to health and performance.

How long you should recover following a given workout is too specific of a question to provide a concrete answer. However, the simplest way to approach this conversation is to listen to your body. Ballpark recovery timeframes are typically 1-3 days for very intense strength or aerobic training while 24 hours is often more than enough for low to moderate intensity workouts. Within these times frames is a great time to try a different mode of exercise. With that being said, more and more coaches are adopting a ‘flexible’ training plan that allows for the athlete to rest or adjust volume/intensity as needed. For your own safety and success as an athlete, speaking up when you feel too fatigued, sore, or injured is well worth the conversation. If you are a post-competitive athlete who is continuing to train, you are likely your own coach. Listen to your body and if you have specific questions about recovery feel free to reach out to us or contact your physician to discuss the best plan for your recovery.
9 Recovery Tactics.

Massage Gun – The primary purpose of massage guns as a recovery tool is to increase blood flow to the targeted site. Due to increasing temperature, breaking up tissue, and activating neurons in the area, blood flow increases. Just as blood is used to transport oxygen to muscle tissue, it is also the medium in which various molecules necessary for recovery are also delivered. Also, there is no harm in a massage, so if you enjoy it and it feels good, go for it!

Sleep – The #1 recovery plan for your body. Most of the body’s systems are in an anabolic state during sleep. During quality sleep all systems that are diminished or weakened can be repaired and replenished. There is an added benefit as sleep is the body’s natural response to recovery.

Nutrition – As mentioned above, replenishing carbohydrates and protein accordingly assists with recovery.

Time Off – Time off. Read that a third time if you need to. No matter the level of sport or activity you are participating in, everyone needs time off. True time off allows the body to recover and reestablish a baseline.

Hydration – Total blood volume decreases with prolonged exercise and should be replenished within 4-5 hours following completion. By rehydrating, any cardiac drift (what is cardiac drift?) symptoms that are experienced during exercise are negated and the body can return to homeostasis.

Foam Rolling – The primary purpose of foam rolling is to increase blood flow to the targeted areas. Some people have found that foam rolling can decrease delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Also, there is no harm in foam rolling, so if you enjoy it and it feels good, go for it!

Compression Boots – The primary benefit of compression boots is like that of foam rolling and massage guns. By compressing and constricting vessels in the targeted areas there is a subsequent increase in blood flow. Also, there is no harm in compression boots, so if you enjoy it and it feels good, go for it!

Stretching – Stretching has been one of the more common recovery strategies for all individuals in the past. While some people have found success and claim to feel better after stretching, it is likely not your best option. Active stretching and mobility work may promote blood flow to active sites more so than passive stretching.

Ice Bath – Ice baths have been found to reduce the perception of fatigue by triggering other physiological pathways in the body. Some research has shown that ice baths decrease DOMS and can be beneficial when competitions do not allow for adequate rest in between.
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