Recovery may be the most overlooked aspect of exercise. Everyone seems to focus on how many minutes to bike or at what heart rate to run. Improvements in fitness, however, occur during the recovery period between exercise sessions and not during the exercise itself. Positive physiological adaptations to exercise occur when there is a correctly timed alternation between stress and recovery. When your clients finish a cardio or weight training session, they are weaker, not stronger. How much weaker depends on the severity of the exercise stress. If the stress is too great and/or your clients don’t recover before their next workout, their ability to adapt to subsequent workouts declines. Therefore, what they do the rest of the day when they are not exercising is just as important as what they do when they are exercising. The faster and more complete their recovery, the more they will get out of their exercise programs and training sessions with you.
Between working out over the lunch hour and picking up their kids from soccer practice, it’s easy for your clients to not eat after their workouts. But not refueling after they exercise, especially after long or intense bouts, is possibly the single worst thing they can do to thwart their recovery.
The most important aspect of optimal recovery from hard workouts is refueling nutrient-depleted muscles. Refueling after workouts is important for several reasons including the replenishment of fuel stores and the repair of cellular damage. In regards to fuel, carbohydrates are the most important nutrient to replenish. It has been known since the late 1960s that exercise performance is strongly influenced by the amount of pre-exercise muscle glycogen and that intense endurance exercise decreases muscle glycogen content.
Glycogen synthesis is a complex biochemical process largely controlled by insulin and the availability of blood glucose. Muscles are picky when it comes to the time for synthesizing and storing glycogen. Although glycogen will continue to be synthesized until storage in your clients’ muscles is complete, the process is most rapid if they consume carbohydrates within the first 30 to 60 minutes after their workouts. Indeed, delaying carbohydrate ingestion for just two hours after a workout has been shown to significantly reduce the rate at which glycogen is synthesized and stored.
To maximize the rate of glycogen synthesis, your clients should consume 0.7 gram of simple carbohydrates (sugar, preferably glucose) per pound of body weight within 30 minutes after their workouts and every two hours for four to six hours. It would be even better if they can eat or drink more often, since a more frequent ingestion of smaller amounts of carbohydrates better maintains blood glucose and insulin levels.
Regarding reparation of cellular damage, protein is another important nutrient to consume after hard and long workouts, especially when trying to build muscle. To repair muscle fibers that are damaged during training, tell your clients to consume 20 to 30 grams of complete protein (those which contain all essential amino acids) after their workout. Some studies have found that eating protein and carbohydrates together also maximizes muscle glycogen storage, although this doesn’t seem to be the case when an adequate amount of carbohydrate is ingested. The total amount of calories consumed seems to be more important for recovery than the carbohydrate-protein mix.
Since nutrients from fluids are absorbed more quickly than from solid foods, your clients should initially consume carbohydrates from fluids. For most commercial sports drinks (i.e., Gatorade) the recommendations for post-exercise carbohydrate intake correspond to nearly four eight-ounce glasses every hour for a 150-pound person. Admittedly, this is a lot to drink. Despite the many highly-advertised commercial sports drinks, any beverage that contains a large amount of carbohydrates will be great for recovery. For example, chocolate milk, which has a high carbohydrate and protein content, is an effective alternative to commercial sports drinks for recovery from exhausting exercise.
Water is vital for many chemical reactions that occur inside our cells, including the production of energy. When your clients sweat during exercise, they lose body water that can affect cellular processes. In addition, their blood volume decreases and becomes thicker if they don’t replace fluids. The result is a lower stroke volume (the amount of blood pumped by the heart per beat), cardiac output (the amount of blood pumped by the heart per minute) and ultimately a decreased oxygen delivery. The ability to exercise starts to decline with only a two to three percent loss of body mass due to fluid loss.
The best rehydration fluids are those that contain sodium, which stimulates the kidneys to retain water. However, if your clients’ workouts are at a low intensity and last less than an hour, plain water in combination with a balanced diet is just as effective. A good indicator of your clients’ hydration level is the color of their urine, with a light color indicating adequate hydration. On the other hand, if their urine looks like apple juice, tell them to keep drinking.
With hard training comes muscle damage and inflammation, which leads to muscle soreness and reduced muscle force production. While research has shown that ice massage or immersion in cold water doesn’t decrease the perception of soreness, it can decrease the level of the enzyme creatine kinase in the blood (an indirect indicator of muscle damage). Your clients should take a cold bath after hard workouts. Wear a hat to prevent hypothermia and limit the duration in the water to about 10 minutes to prevent frostbite.
Since any physical activity your clients do during the rest of the day when they are not exercising will influence their rate of recovery, it is important they limit their non-workout-related activity. For example, if they just completed an intense weight training workout with you in the morning, it would not be wise to go hiking with their kids that same afternoon. Sounds obvious, but it’s easy sometimes for your clients to let “real life” get in the way of their recovery. That hike will come back to get them during their next workout.
When you transiently decrease, or taper, your clients’ training, you provide their bodies the opportunity to recover, adapt and overcompensate to the training they’ve done so they’re prepared to tolerate a higher training load. How much or how long your clients need to taper depends on their prior exercise load, their level of fatigue, age and their genetically-predetermined ability to retain their training effects while reducing the training stimulus (i.e., how quickly they lose fitness). Usually a week is sufficient.
There are a number of physiological changes that occur during the taper period. Among the most prominent are changes in the characteristics of the blood, including increases in red blood cell volume, total blood volume and reticulocytes (immature red blood cells) and improvements in the health of red blood cells. These hematological changes reflect a positive balance between hemolyis (the degradation of red blood cells) and erythropoiesis (the production of red blood cells), leading to a greater oxygen carrying capability and improved cardiovascular endurance.
Tapering also increases muscle glycogen content, aerobic enzyme activity (allowing for greater aerobic metabolism) and muscular strength and power. A decreased level of creatine kinase in the blood, which reflects an increased recovery, has also been consistently found following a taper.
So next time your clients finish a hard or long workout, tell them to drink some chocolate milk, take a cold bath, taper their training and take the elevator instead of the stairs. These strategies will help to encourage optimal recovery in your endurance athletes.