If we could train and not accumulate fatigue that would be the best, right? Unfortunately, every hard effort taxes our physical and mental reserves and requires some time to recover from. Racing, time trials or even fast-paced workout can leave our bodies tired and sore for a while. Even though it usually follows with a satisfaction of a job well done, accumulated fatigue is the enemy of progress.
Even cheetah, that is considered the fastest animal on the planet, suffers from fatigue. It’s so tired from sprinting that after lunch it sleeps all day in the sun.
As I see it, there are 4 steps required to speed up recovery after the workout. Read on how to help your body be fully back to speed faster.
Step 1: reduce non-workout stress
Before proceeding with immediate post-workout activities, we need to ensure that we are not wasting our energy in between workouts.
Stress is something that can drain our energy levels very quickly. It can influence our positivism and in general produce a lot of thoughts to worry about. It can help to pump up the adrenaline, yes, but more often than not it only taxes our mental and physical strength, weakens our immune system and allows diseases to take the better of us.
A lot of calories go into powering our brain alone, which is why we may feel tired towards the end of the day.
A secret to overcoming stress is to worry less. If the brain is free from worries and negative thoughts it’s much easier to live, I promise you.
The key to clearing your mind from unnecessary thoughts is to practice meditation. In some form, at least.
The easiest way to do it is to take 10-15 minutes daily to sit in a quiet place and not think about anything, breathe deeply and focus only on inhaling and exhaling. It sounds easier than it actually is.
If you stick to the practice, you’ll be surprised how fresh you will feel after this exercise.
I was intrigued by this the first time I was suggested to try it out. I remember I couldn’t get past the second breath without my mind not racing to some thought. With time I got better at it and noticed I could focus easier, stay calm in stressful situations and notice when my mind requires a “recharge”.
Quick naps can give you similar results as meditation – they are a great way to reboot your system. Power naps of around 20 minutes are just enough to feel the tension going away.
If you have a hard training schedule there’s nothing criminal in taking longer naps. Our muscles recover best when we sleep, after all. Just make sure you don’t sleep all day, that’s just unproductive.
When I went to training camps where we spent up to 6 hours per day working out I would spend 1-2 hours napping in between those workouts to get extra energy to take me through a 2 hour long session.
Step 2: get your nutrition right
Fueling properly is the next thing you want to consider when planning recovery. When we train hard we need to supply our body with exact building blocks from which it can re-build the damage we did during the workout and use as less energy for it as possible.
If we don’t feed our body right nutrients the recovery will not be as efficient as it can be.
First off, make sure you have enough energy throughout the day. That means eat breakfast, lunch and dinner (and snacks in between, if needed). If you haven’t eaten, don’t plan a high intensity training and take it easy – focus on technique or fat burning instead. You won’t be able to sustain the usual intensity on an empty stomach anyway.
Running or training hard on an empty stomach is like doing a drag race with no oil or fuel. You’ll burn out at some point.
If you plan a high intensity training, make sure you eat carb- and protein-rich food preferably 2hrs prior to allow the food to digest.
Water is involved in the energy production process and without it we are toast. Proper hydration ensures the body has the energy to function properly.
Water also helps to flush out toxins, so make sure you are well hydrated – that will aid recovery. The norm is around 2 liters of water, but if you train hard, aim for 3-4 liters.
For ladies – water helps to keep your skin tight and avoid wrinkles. Something to think about.
Protein is like Lego blocks – our bodies re-builds torn tissues from it. Don’t count on quick recovery (or muscle growth, for that matter) without a proper protein intake.
Active people should consume at least 1 gram of protein per kilo of own body weight. In reality that number should be around 1 – 1.5 grams for those who work out intensively.
However, don’t consume too much protein before going to bed. Body will work on digesting food while you sleep and you won’t wake up fully-rested.
Vitamins and minerals
All vitamins are important for the body, but if there are some I’d prefer over the others that would be all from group B. These guys calm down our nervous system, which allows us to worry less and overall be more productive.
If you have a stressful job or in general have a lot of stress in your life it’s good to look after your B vitamin levels and maybe take a supplement course every now and then if you feel it’s hard to cope with everything.
Healthy level of vitamins in the body comes from good variety of products. In particular – vegetables and fruits. They are not only rich in vitamins, but also in all possible anti-oxidants that help to keep our immune system strong.
Make sure you also include milk and dairy products, eggs and nuts in your diet for solid B vitamin intake.
In addition, keep an eye on vitamin C (general anti-oxidant, helps to keep the immune system secure), vitamin E (reduces muscle damage) and vitamin D (happiness vitamin, helps to fight diseases).
Key minerals you want to look for are magnesium (reduces pain, fatigue and insomnia), iron (aids in oxygen transport) and zinc (involved in body’s defense system).
Bear in mind, though, unless you spend more than 2 hours per day on aerobic training you don’t need to take additional vitamin and mineral supplements – proper nutrition is enough. Just make sure B vitamins are finding their way in your body to keep the stress away.
Step 3: perfect sleep
As much as we want to watch all possible TV shows, play all possible video games and complete all tasks in our to do list, doing that by reducing sleep is not the best way for proper recovery.
Without sufficient sleep throughout the week we don’t get rid of accumulated fatigue and don’t have all that energy to properly recover from solid training efforts. It’s important to get consistent sleep every day.
Getting 5-6 hours of sleep every day and sleeping until noon on weekends doesn’t count. Muscle recovery happens mostly on 7th and 8th hour of sleep when our mind is fully rested and our body can really work on healing those micro-traumas.
Step 4: take post-workout remedies
Preventing fatigue from accumulating is nice, but where’s the fun in that, right? Sometimes we just really need that hard workout to test ourselves that leaves us sore for a couple of days.
I intentionally put this point as last, because immediate actions after a workout are only a tiny fraction in the whole post-workout recovery process.
Probably the most popular post-workout remedy is to stretch your muscles. That has to be done immediately after the workout while muscles are still warm – they stretch easier that way and there is less risk of injury than while stretching cold muscles.
Stretching helps to lengthen tight muscles and stimulate the blood flow. That will help to recycle the lactate accumulated during the workout.
Most importantly, stretch gently and don’t push too much. Muscles already had a beating during the workout, we only need to help them relieve the tension, not to punish them more.
Another good way to stimulate blood flow is to wear compression clothes after the workout, like socks or pants.
These were originally invented for travelers who sit a lot in an airplane and don’t move much. At some point runners and other athletes started to use compression clothes to aid in recovery and get the same benefits.
I like to wear compression pants after a long run for an hour or two when I feel pain in my legs. Somehow it makes it less noticeable.
To help your body recover from the workout as fast as possible try to consume a sugar rich snack (like banana or dried fruits) right after the workout and a protein rich food 30 minutes to 1 hour after the workout.
Sugar-rich snack doesn’t have to be big, but it will give the body the energy it needs to start repairing the immediate damage and after it’s digested (20-30 min) you give the body required building blocks to start recovering properly.
If you’re planning on taking supplements, focus on proteins that contain BCAA amino acids (leucine, isoleucine and valine), as only those 3 are responsible for muscle synthesis.
Massage helps to relieve stiff muscles and increase the range of motion. Be careful, though, a strong massage can be considered as a workout itself, as it puts a lot of pressure on muscles and joints, which may result in micro-traumas and soreness as well.
If you don’t have access to a masseuse, use a foam roller to massage problem areas yourself, but do so gently. It’s very easy to overdo it without noticing.
Saunas and hot baths
Muscles tend be more flexible and relax in warm temperatures, so it’s a good thing to include saunas and hot baths/showers into your post-workout recovery plan every now and then.
For a greater relaxation effect – jump into cold water right after exiting a sauna or switch the hot shower to cold suddenly.
Limit “sauna-sets” to 3-4 and don’t schedule a hard-effort workout the day after going to sauna. Your muscles may be “tired” from all the heat still.
Finally, my least favorite, but super productive measure. The process is exactly as it sounds – fill a bath with cold water, put lots of ice there and submerge for around 15 minutes.
Micro-traumas are followed by inflammation and the best way to treat it is with cold.
This process is best for leg-specific workouts and, in particular post-running recovery.
Recovery may sounds as counter productive to getting fit and strong, but it’s actually the most critical part in progressing. Without recovery we risk accumulating fatigue that prevents us from improving.
To go around it, make sure you minimize your stress levels or at least spend additional time meditating. Create a progressive training plan and set your nutrition on track. Also, good thing is to check if you eat late at night and then wake up as if you were partying – maybe it’s time to end that.
All those small things add up and slow down our recovery. Professional athletes get rid of bad habits for a reason – they don’t let them use all their energy efficiently.
Remember that immediate remedies can only help to speed up recovery after one hard workout or race, it will not compensate for the lack of proper training program or too intense of a schedule.
One very important factor I haven’t added here are easy-paced workouts (Zone 1 training). These are critical to help recycle the lactic acid and strengthen your cardiovascular system that will translate into faster recovery overall. Read about the physiology behind it and the secret to consistent gains in my other post about recovery.
That’s all there is to it.
I hope this helps you get consistent gains from you training schedule. Let me know your thoughts or experience on recovery in the comments below.