How to Recover from a Tough Workout
How to Recover Properly
What's best for your body is a careful balance between exercise and recovery. "Your goal is to train hard enough to stimulate gains in your fitness level and to then back off and let your body adapt to the gains," Talbott says. If you tend to focus on one activity -- cycling, say -- consider swapping in one or two alternate workouts -- swimming, perhaps -- each week to give your quads a break while you're still exercising. Strength-training? Allow 48 hours of rest to help your muscles recover before another session. (Note: Rest does not necessarily mean hitting the sofa for some Seinfeld reruns. It does mean finding alternate activities that use different muscle groups, Dr. Hackett says.) Exercising in the early morning will also have less of an inflammatory impact, as this is when certain hormones, such as testosterone and cortisol, are at their highest levels and will make for a faster recovery, says Barry Sears, PhD, president of the Inflammation Research Foundation in Marblehead, Massachusetts.
In addition, what you eat can contribute to your post-exercise recovery, but you need to tailor your choices to your workout's intensity. After a four-mile run at a moderate pace, you might just drink water and refuel with a healthy dinner; after a 60-minute interval routine on the treadmill, you'll recover faster if you consume a 200-calorie snack of carbs and protein, like a glass of low-fat chocolate milk, within 20 minutes of your sweat session, Talbott recommends. Getting a minimum of eight hours of sleep a night and soaking your legs in ice baths after a tough workout can also accelerate repair and speed the inflammation process along. Also, a growing number of studies point to massage as a key to faster recovery.
That's what helped Anne Delp, 35, of Kensington, Maryland, stick with her summertime training for 5Ks and occasional half-marathons. "Every year I look forward to the better weather, when I can enjoy running outdoors," she says. What Anne doesn't look forward to are sore hamstrings, quads, and feet. A few years ago she found a sports massage therapist certified in myofascial release, a type of massage aimed at manipulating connective tissue and reducing tension and inflammation. It's made a huge difference, she says: "I'm able to recover faster for my next run and reduce overall soreness." Self-massage with a foam roller may offer similar recovery benefits. Meanwhile, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like aspirin and ibuprofen, are good options for reducing immediate swelling from a strain or fall, but active women should use them judiciously for chronic aches because overuse of NSAIDs has been linked to kidney failure and stomach disturbances. NSAIDs may also slow and inhibit bone growth and decrease the ability of a tendon, bone, or ligament to heal itself, Dr. Hackett says. Drinking a lot of water with ibuprofen may help minimize the impact the drug has on your organs, Talbott advises.
What about the growing number of anti-inflammatory supplements on the market? "On a scale of one to 10, I give vitamins, minerals, and herbs about a one; polyphenols a five; and fish oils a 12 in terms of their performance," Sears says. "If a product is labeled 'anti-inflammatory' but doesn't contain adequate levels of the ingredient demonstrated to reduce inflammation in humans, it obviously won't work," he explains. Sears suggests using supplements that contain fish oil with combined amounts of EPA and docosahexaenoic acid greater than 600 milligrams a capsule. Other effective inflammatory ingredients include proteolytic enzymes, like papain in papayas and bromelain in pineapples, and specialized flavonoids, such as xanthones in mangosteens, Talbott says. Before you buy any of these items, though, experts recommend that you look for clinical studies in humans that support the claims. Also, check with your doctor to be sure they're right for you.
Lifestyle choices also matter. More sleep and less stress are simple tweaks proven to reduce inflammation, as is meditation. A 2010 Ohio State University College of Medicine study found that after a stressful event, participants who did hatha yoga regularly had lower blood levels of compounds that are markers for inflammation.
Certain foods have also been found to fight inflammation. Tuna, salmon, and herring contain oils rich in EPA, a powerful anti-inflammatory agent. Colorful fruits and vegetables, like carrots and dark leafy greens, contain antioxidants that also combat inflammation. "Foods and supplements high in antioxidants, including vitamin D, prevent the production of free radicals, which can help avoid damage to other cells and excessive inflammation," says Ray Strand, MD, a sports medicine specialist and author of Healthy for Life.
"The more vigorous your workouts or training, the more inflammation you'll produce. A good diet can help you lower inflammation so you can do more high-intensity training with faster recovery," Sears notes.
In the end, dealing with inflammation requires a balancing act. Workout, rest, recover, repeat. The more you respect your body and its limits, the faster -- and better -- you'll reach your fitness goals.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, September 2011.
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