Written by – Connor Murphy, undergraduate sports science student.
We all know that if improvements are to be made to performance, commitment to training in any domain, is vital. However, one area that can easily be overlooked and therefore hinder performance is rest and recovery.
The opportunity for muscle growth begins when exercise finishes, muscles do not grow in the gym or during activity. When we exercise our muscles are broken down and microtears occur, by a process labelled as catabolism. When exercise stops the recovery process begins, however, without a prioritised post work out recovery regime, recovery will not occur efficiently and “gains” will not be gained.
In order to understand how to recover properly, the definition must be recognized and the difference between rest and recovery established. Rest can be defined as a combination of sleep and time spent not training, whereas recovery can be defined as actions and techniques implemented to maximize your body’s repair.
Below are the main components of rest and recovery which aim to enhance the process and improve performance.
Getting enough quality sleep may be the most important aspect of recovery. Adequate sleep helps to provide hormonal balance and muscular recovery. Aiming for 7 – 10 hours sleep per night is ideal. Some individuals may have to make sacrifices and changes in daily routines in order to achieve this, by perhaps cutting time watching TV for example. However, optimum sleep varies between individuals. If this target is not achieved recovery will be affected, mental strength may also be affected, thus having an impact on training. Research has shown that;
- Hours slept before 12 are more effective than those slept after.
- Sleeping in a more natural setting will create sleep of a higher quality.
- Fresh air and cool temperatures improves the quality of sleep.
Remaining hydrated is key to remain healthy, stay energised, enhance recovery and perform at an optimum level. Many athletes often pay close attention to hydration during competition, however, frequently fail to pay attention during training and recovery, which can sometimes have just as much of an impact. Water has many functions within the body, from being part of muscle contraction process, to allowing the heart to pump blood more easily, whilst also flushing toxins created by exercise out of the body.
There are many ways to understand hydration levels such as studying osmolality (measure of solutes) of urine, or using dip sticks, however, the simplest way is to look at the colour of the urine. If it is a clear, yellowy colour you are hydrated, but if it becomes a darker yellow, brown, or black, dehydration has set in and water must be consumed. Some tips;
- Try to consume at least 2 litres of water per day.
- Drinking sports drinks can aid recovery and performance both pre and post workout, as they contain various ingredients such as electrolytes which aid muscular function, however these only need to be consumed in or around any session.
- Keep an eye on urine colour to determine your own hydration levels easily.
In this day and age everyone knows that what you eat can affect your body, food has the ability to either help or hinder your body. There is vast arrays of diets which have been suggested by various authors, and are able to be tailored to the specific exercise being completed, but the most important factor to be acknowledged is the consumption of a clean balanced diet is key.
Food is fuel, when we exercise we burn fuel, this therefore means that once we have finished exercising, re-fuelling must take place in order to allow muscles to recover. Research has shown that the correct fuelling both pre and post working can reap benefits. Ensuring that energy levels are optimised and restored by consuming complex carbohydrates, such as oats, potatoes, and rice, whilst also ensuring that muscles have a adequate supply of protein for repair can make the difference between taking a week to recover or two days.
Recent academic literature suggests the use of various supplements to aid recovery alongside a balanced diet. Some examples include; Omega 3, found to reduce muscle soreness after exercise, green tea promotes weight loss, antioxidants, such as black currents, reduce inflammation and fatigue and whey protein shakes can help to ingest protein quantities rapidly after exercise.
It can be difficult to make the correct nutritional choices with a busy lifestyle, but what is key is that you are enjoying the food you are eating, it is important to not let nutrition over rule your life. Here are some tips to help achieve a clean diet;
- Plan and cook meals in advance, for example, shop for and cook all meals during one day of the week.
- Eat clean foods that aren’t processed and consume a balanced diet.
- Consume complex carbohydrates (rice, potatoes, pasta) and lean proteins (chicken, turkey) at a ratio of 2:1 both pre and post workouts.
- Use some nutritional supplements alongside a balanced diet and enjoy food!
Stretching is important as it allows our muscles to remain flexible and helps to remove tightness. It is important to include stretching in workouts, with dynamic stretches before and static after. Stretching helps to remove muscular tension and can therefore reduce muscle soreness after workouts. Try to find areas of tightness within your muscles and work on them, vary the stretches used and keep at it. Stretching can also aid posture, this can happen by loosening the tight muscle groups which are pulling your posture out of alignment, for example, cyclists gluteal muscles. Some tips;
- Stretch before and after exercise.
- Plan the routine to ensure it doesn’t get skipped.
- Massage & Self Myofascial Release (SMR)
Massage can be a good way to improve recovery times after exercise, although it may not be an option used regularly as it can be costly, however, after especially hard sessions it can be wise. Various research suggests that receiving a post workout massage can have many benefits, some of the main benefits include;
- Increased blood flow, therefore increased nutrient delivery and toxin removal.
- Decreased inflammation of the muscles.
- Increased mitochondria (powerhouse of the cell) activity.
- Reduced muscle tightness.
SMR also has many benefits and can be more popular as it is much less costly. You may have heard it as trigger point release or active release techniques, however they all mean the same thing. It involves using a foam roller (or tennis, golf, cricket balls etc.) to remove adhesions (may be known as knots) within the fascia (connective tissue) of the muscle, which are caused by stress within the muscles. The adhesions prevent muscles from working properly so must be removed. Use of a foam roller or similar, can remove them and allow the muscle to work more freely, other benefits include; prevention of injury, removing knots and tightness, and increased flexibility.
To conclude this article, recovery is key, both to ensure training can effectively resume day after day, and to allow full benefits of training to be gained. Using various recovery techniques such as the ones mentioned in this article, and others not mentioned such as the use of compression garments or ice baths can enhance the recovery process and ensure that performance goals can be achieved. One final tip, making small individual changes to routines by gradually adding in new techniques, keeping the process realistic and easy to follow will eventually create the perfect recovery routine.
Connor is an undergraduate Sport and Exercise Science (performance) student with keen interests in nutrition and physiology. He has always been involved in sport, competing at a national and regional level in Cross Country Mountain biking, with his best results being ranked 16th nationally.
Follow Connor on Twitter @CompletePerform