How to Recover from a Tough Workout
What Causes Inflammation and Why You Need It
It's not always the obvious injury or muscle overuse that causes inflammation. Every week some of your workouts are likely to set off the response, and that's a good thing. Vigorous sweat sessions or bouts of increased-intensity exercise can cause varying degrees of small injuries, called microtraumas, to muscles, connective tissue, bones, or joints, especially if you're not used to a workout's duration or difficulty, says Laura Goldberg, MD, a sports medicine physician at the Cleveland Clinic. You may not even notice any aches. These microtraumas trigger the body to release an increased number of cytokines, which rebuild the soft tissue cells in muscles, ligaments, and tendons to be tougher and more durable so they'll withstand a similar workout in the future. "Given appropriate rest and time to repair, the tissues adapt to the increased load and lead to improved strength and fitness," Dr. Goldberg says.
And there's a side benefit: Just as your muscles adjust and get stronger with each workout, your body's ability to modulate inflammation within appropriate levels also gets better. That means you can work out harder longer while breaking down your muscles less and recovering faster. A 2007 study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that only 12 weeks of aerobic exercise and strength training significantly decreased inflammatory markers in both younger and older people. "Women who exercise regularly tend to have lower stress levels and less body fat, both of which keep inflammation at a healthy point in the body," Dr. Lamm notes.Why Inflammation Is Good for You
Big picture: You need inflammation to fight infections and speed recovery. And small doses of inflammation will stimulate tissue to be more resilient to damage later; the more you work out, the more your cells can handle oxidation and inflammation.
On the other hand, too much can do a lot of damage, and inflammation is sneaky. One of the biggest problems for active women is that they don't realize it's time to ease up until it's too late. Alia Malley, 38, of Los Angeles, learned this the hard way when she dove headfirst into yoga after finding a class and instructor she adored. She thought only good things could come from diligently working on perfecting her poses. But after months of pushing herself through almost daily vinyasa classes, the yoga devotee found herself dealing with extreme pain in her knees. Her doctor's verdict? Partially torn ACLs in both knees, which would require surgery and physical therapy to repair. "I was ignoring the warning signs -- soreness and swelling," she says. "I kept pushing myself until I got hurt, because I thought I could handle it." Her physical therapist suggested post-exercise icing to reduce inflammation and nightly foam-roller exercises to release tension in her muscles and IT bands, the fibers running along the sides of the thighs. She also recommended that Alia diversify her workouts to allow for a faster recovery and not overuse the same parts of her body. "I'm using different muscles and ligaments this way," says Alia, who has added surfing and core-conditioning classes to her fitness repertoire.
"The challenge is finding your limits," acknowledges Tom Hackett, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at the Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colorado, and head team physician for the men's and women's U.S. snowboarding and raft teams. "It's obvious when your gums are inflamed, for example, but you can't see inside the inflamed fascia or muscle tissues that can cause tendinitis, arthritis, or even fibromyalgia. What you can do is know your body." In the same way that volleyball and tennis players realize they're more likely to injure a shoulder or an elbow and runners and skiers know they're more apt to injure a knee or ankle, be aware of your most vulnerable spots. "Swollen and painful joints, muscles, or tendons that repeatedly cause problems are signs that you need to rest," Dr. Hackett says. "If it's a chronic situation, you should see a doctor, trainer, or physical therapist who can help you establish a healthy cycle of exercise, rest, and recovery." Your doctor can also check the ratio of arachidonic acid (AA) to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in your blood; this is a reliable marker of levels of cellular inflammation in the body. If you're experiencing exercise soreness that keeps recurring in the same muscle or area of your body, it's probably an indication that your anti-inflammatory response is compromised. The risk: Inflammation can spread from that area to other organs in your body. "Studies of people who are overexercising show that they have excessive amounts of inflammation and stress hormones in their bodies," Talbott says. "This combination causes such things as a loss of muscle mass, an increase in belly fat, a higher risk for upper-respiratory tract infections, and significant mood changes with more fatigue and depression."
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