by Joe Giandonato, MS, CSCS
Senior Sport Science Editor, JoshStrength.com
Your ability to perform hinges on your ability to recover. Augment your recoverability with these tried and true strategies.
Athletes are always in search of something to give them an edge on their competition. Some outwork their competition in the offseason. Some will seek out world class strength and conditioning coaches for training tutelage. And some will shell out thousands of dollars to ensure their body is in the uttermost condition.
However, many athletes make the mistake of working too hard as they don’t give themselves a sufficient amount of time to recover. Moreover, many athletes don’t know what proper recovery entails. And the large majority of athletes out there can’t afford to procure the services of the best strength and conditioning coaches and trainers, nor can many spend the equivalent of a developing nation’s GDP on recovery modalities.
For the readers out there who are toiling with heavy pig iron day after day and week after week, we will provide you some low cost strategies to boost your recoverability.
Getting Your Body Right
Let’s take a trip back to Exercise Physiology 101. If we paid attention, we’d remember that exercise breaks the body down. Exercise imposes a fusillade of demands on the body. The body responds to exercise with a number of bioenergetic and neuromuscular adaptations.
In order to sustain favorable adaptations, the time devoted to exercise needs to be paired with corresponding time dedicated to rest and recovery
In other words, if there’s an imbalance between exercise and rest, you can kiss those adaptations good bye.
Training hard on consecutive days and going for broke each during workout would impose physiological and orthopedic demands so great, that many people wouldn’t be able to rebound from them. While days off are vital, they alone may not be enough to recover.
Let’s take a look at some low cost recovery solutions to improve your performance.
Deloading is the practice of reducing or removing loading parameters (i.e. volume, load, intensity) from your training. Standard deload periods typically span a week or more which follow intense and/or voluminous training blocks. Undulating deloads may also be incorporated throughout an athlete’s training program on a rolling basis. For instance, an athlete’s training week may consist of a heavy squat day, a light bench day, and a moderately heavy deadlift day. Each week may call for measures such as the athlete deloading a certain lift, reducing their energy systems work, or cutting down their accessory exercises. Deload periods are typically dictated by the training goals and competitive demands of the athlete.
Intermediate and advanced strength athletes may deload every three or four weeks, whereas lesser trained individuals would be better served deloading every 8 to 12 weeks. Undulating deloads may be more appropriate for team sport athletes due to competitive demands, practice, travel, and time constraints.
Steady State Work
Prolonged cardiovascular exercise conducted at low intensities may provide regenerative benefits. The age old practice of going for a run after a game has been advocated by sport coaches for years. Lower intensity steady state exercise is typically performed at or below 70% of one’s maximum heart rate and maintained for 20 minutes or longer. Interspersing lower intensity steady state sessions between your workouts will enhance your aerobic fitness which improves your body’s ability to recover.
Recent research has suggested that aerobic recovery workouts may be effective in staving off delayed onset muscle soreness. Additionally, the protocols used in the study (low and moderate intensity cycling) were not found to interfere with isometric and dynamic strength (1).
Tufano JJ, Brown LE, Coburn JW, et al (2012) Effect of aerobic recovery intensity on delayed-onset muscle soreness and strength. J Strength Cond Res 26(10):2777–2782.
Eliminate or Reduce Eccentric Stress
Most of the soreness from training is associated with eccentric stress. Eccentric muscle actions involve a deliberate lowering of the load, which places the muscle’s elastic elements under an intense stretch. Eccentric stress causes calcium to leak from the sarcolplasm, causing it to pool in the mitochondria as well as degrade contractile proteins within muscle fibers, triggering a substantial inflammatory response, resulting in swelling, pain, and residual fatigue.
Strength athletes wanting to train more frequently could reduce the amount of eccentric stress within their training program by cutting back on movements that have a heavy eccentric component. Dead training, which involves movements performed as singles and initiated from a dead stop or at the bottom, mitigate soreness. “Dead” movements such as Dead Squats, Anderson Half Squats, Dead Benches, and Overhead Presses performed from the pins in a power rack, and of course Deadlifts, which include pulls from blocks and rack pulls, do not involve any reversible muscle action when performed as singles. Dead movements can be clustered or performed in one rep sets throughout the course of the workout.
Say No to Anti-Inflammatory Drugs
While anti-inflammatories have been proven helpful in combating DOMS, they do not contribute to restoring muscular function (1). Furthermore, some anti-inflammatory drugs carry numerous risks. Although non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs – NSAIDs, they retard the body’s natural inflammatory response by way of decreasing prostaglandin production, they do so by blocking an enzyme called cyclooxygenase (COX). COX is related to many physiological functions including homeostasis, gastrointestinal and renal tracts, platelet function, and macrophage differentiation (2). Individuals who consume NSAIDs regularly or in vast amounts place themselves at greater risk of upper gastrointestinal tract damage. Usage of anti-inflammatories should be limited to acute injuries such as sprains and strains and should not be used to deal with muscle soreness.
Tokmakidis SP, Kokkinidis EA, Smilios I, et al (2003) The effects of ibuprofen on delayed muscle soreness and muscular performance after eccentric exercise. J Strength Cond Res 17:53–9.
Gillepsie H (2011) Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. ACSMs Health Fit J 15:46–7.
Perform Self-Myofascial Release
Self-Myofascial Release, or SMFR, has generated a lot of buzz in the strength and conditioning and fitness communities in the past few years. The rationale behind self-myofascial release is that it irons out adhesions that form within the triple layered fascia cocooning our muscles. These adhesions can potentially alter muscle function. Additionally, self-myofascial release has been purported to create a shift in cellular fluid, promote blood flow, and influencing parasympathetic drive, in theory, collectively enhancing recovery. Recent research has suggested that SMFR confers two key benefits – it helps reduce post-exercise fatigue (1) and improves joint range of motion (2,3).
Healey KC, Hatfield DL, Blanpied P, et al (2013) The effects of myofascial release with foam rolling on performance. J Strength Cond Res [Epub ahead of print]
MacDonald GZ, Penney MD, Mullaley ME, et al (2013) An acute bout of self-myofascial release increases range of motion without a subsequent decrease in muscle activation or force. J Strength Cond Res 27(3):812–821.
Sullivan KM, Silvey DB, Button DC, et al (2012) Roller-massage application to the hamstrings increases sit-and-reach range of motion within five to ten seconds without performance impairments. Int J Sports Phys Ther 8(3):228-236.
Self-myofascial release can be performed with a myriad of tools and objects. Athletes and lifters may use foam rollers, PVC pipes, medicine balls, tennis balls, lacrosse balls, and golf balls. Things to consider when choosing an object to use for SMFR: the surface area, the density, and the amount of contact the body is making with the ground during the movement. Smaller objects are typically suggested for smaller muscles and where muscles converge at a joint. It is advisable that “tighter” athletes and lifters perform SMFR prior to their workout to improve range of motion as the aforementioned research suggested.
Static Stretch to Recover
While static stretching held for longer durations (<60 seconds) prior to competition has been implicated in reducing performance (1), it may accelerate recovery between training sessions. When a muscle contracts, it tightens. Repeated contractions may cause tighter muscles which can alter joint movement. Static stretching can potentially aid in recovery as stretches works to restore muscles back to their natural resting lengths.
Kay AD, Blazevich AJ (2012) Effect of acute static stretching on maximal muscle performance: a systematic review. Med Sci Sports Exerc 44(1):154-164.
It is suggested that stretching follows training sessions and is not performed via long durations. For those looking to gain a restorative benefit, it is advisable that stretches be performed following self-myofascial release between training sessions.
A recent study involving rugby players revealed players who took ice baths and contrast baths, outperformed the control group and were able to recover more quickly between matches (1). Another recent study, which involved tennis players, demonstrated that protocols comprising of ice baths may improve lower-body power while reducing soreness (2).
1. Higgins T, Cameron M, Climstein M (2012) Evaluation of passive recovery, cold water immersion, and contrast baths for recovery, as measured by game performances markers, between two simulated games of rugby union. J Strength Cond Res [Epub ahead of print]
2. Duffield R, Murphy A, Kellett A (2012) Recovery from repeated on-court tennis sessions: Combining cold water immersion, compression and sleep recovery interventions. Int J Sports Physiol Perform [Epub ahead of print]
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