Sauna, ice baths, cryotherapy, steam room, massages… with so many ever increasing recovery methods it is hard to know which one is right for you and which ones are not worth your money and time.
First off, it is important to be aware of why we are even trying to recover better?
Here we have to distinguish between a couple drastically different goals:
- We want to recover faster, so that we are ready to perform again at the same level in a short amount of time, for example in a multi-day competition, during in-season with the next game/competition just around the corner, between heats in a CrossFit competition…
- We want to recover faster to feel better and perform daily tasks normally, e.g. reducing muscle soreness to be able to return to a physical job or to ease tension in the neck to enhance sleep quality…
- We want to recover optimally to enable the best possible adaptation to training, to enhance performance in the long run…
Why is it important to know what you’re recovering for? Because your recovery goal determines what methods (if any) are best for you and your goal and also because sometimes it is almost like a trade-off between adapting optimally and recovering faster, but more on that soon.
So let’s go over the top recovery methods.
Starting with the basics, even if they are not fancy, but these are the things that influence your recovery from training the most.
1. Training Program
How your training is structured is the main driver for your recovery.
→ Consider individual session training volume! Struggling to recover from one training session to the next? Maybe it’s time to adjust your training load, or reduce the number of total sets or increase rest periods between sets?
→ Consider Microcycle volume! Your performance gets worse or stagnates from one week to another? Reducing the amount of weekly training sessions and volume could just do the trick. Could be as simple as going down from 6 training sessions per week to 4-5.
→ Consider Mesocycle volume! This refers to the whole training block or the amount of weeks in one cycle, usually somewhere around 4-12 weeks. Structured deload weeks can help alleviate the volume throughout one mesocycle.
→ Consider Macrocycle volume! A macrocyle is a series of mesocyles, usually somewhere between 4 months and a whole year. Does your macrocycle include periods of lower training volume (you could refer to this as off-season) to facilitate recovery throughout the year?
→ The aim of the game is to find your own individual “Maximum Recovery Volume” (MRV) not just from session to session, but long term.
2. Passive Recovery
This includes everything you do outside of training. Your sleep (quantity and quality), activity level at your job (sedentary or are you on your feet all day), how and how much you relax (e.g. do you chill on the couch at night or go play golf with some friends), stress management (is your life go,go,go from the moment you wake until your head hits the pillow or rather easy going)…
→ Make sleep a priority! Aim to get 7+ hours of sleep opportunity every night, go to bed and get up at about the same time every day, our circadian rhythm loves consistency! Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark and cool and avoid alcohol, caffeine and training close to bedtime. [Here is our BEST Sleep Article]
→ Practice direct relaxation (by avoiding doing stressful things outside of training) and indirect relaxation (like meditation, breathing exercises etc), particularly in the 2 hours after training and an hour before bedtime.
→ In any case aim for at least 45-60 minutes of passive relaxation per day, that can be anything from watching TV or listening to music, doing yoga or spending time with friends and family.
→ Get in the habit of not letting yourself get upset about minor things or things you cannot control anyway. Try to see the positive/ the lesson in every stressful or upsetting situation (we call this ‘positive focus’).. Emotional stress affects our recovery more than we think.
→ Create a supportive environment for yourself, spend time with loved ones and like-minded people, emotional support is a huge aid in stress management.
Through adequate nutrition we refill our glycogen storages, repair muscle tissue, make sure we are adapting as best as we can to the training stimulus and are ready to go for the next session or competition. Not eating enough calories overall is one of the main reasons for poor recovery.
→ Avoid hypocaloric stages for optimal recovery and performance (in other words, calorie deficits). But, if aesthetics is your goal and you simply want to maintain performance as best as you can during that time, moderate calorie deficits paired with low intensity cardio are going to be much less fatiguing than severe deficits and HIIT. If you have to cut weight for a competition, it is best to cut nice and early in the off season.
→ Not sure how much food is enough? Tracking calories and macros is what we use as nutrition coaches to ensure our clients eat enough.
→ Prioritize carbs for your recovery! The actual amount of carbs you should be consuming, depends on your sport, the intensity level of your training and what you do outside of training. If you need to cut weight as an athlete, you should cut excess fats before you unnecessarily cut carbs.
→ Protein being the next important macronutrient for recovery, should not fall short either. But about 1g/pound of body weight is appropriate in most cases and much more does not necessarily mean fast recovery, especially not if it comes at the cost of cutting carbs short.
→ Fat is the least important macro for recovery from training, as long as minimum amount necessary for hormonal function is meat (roughly around 0.3g/pound of body weight). Power and strength athletes, whose recovery is largely neurological, can benefit from having a slightly higher percentage of fat in their diet.
→ Don’t overthink meal timing. Bunch your carbs around training (especially post work out if you do multiple sessions in a day) and for endurance athletes or extra long training sessions it pays to consider intra-workout carbs as well. Spread protein evenly throughout the day and limit fat intake in the meals around training.
→ Proper hydration is super important for recovery, especially before, during (if needed) and after training. Adding electrolytes to your water should not be necessary with a balanced diet.
Then, and only then, can we find Active Recovery methods on the “recovery pyramid”.
Active Recovery Methods
|What?||Local icing, ice baths, cryotherapy…|
|How?||Anti-inflammatory effects, are vasoconstricting which means blood vessels arrow and hence reduce flow of blood and biofluids, neuromuscular recovery.|
|When?||Immediately after exercise for optimal effects.|
|Pro||Cold methods can minimize bruising, swelling and speed up return to full training. Capacity, lower perception of pain and fatigue.|
|Con||Adaptation to the training stimulus may be minimized, no performance
Enhancement past the initial point, no heeling of structural damage.
Performance: Best used during competitive phases when fast return to same performance level is more important and adapting to training is not the main focus. Most beneficial in sprinting/ jumping type sports rather than maximum dynamic or isometric strength tasks. Not advisable when in a phase when an athlete is actively trying to improve performance.
Lifestyle: Reduction of swelling or bruising is more important than adapting to training (for example after a forest run when your joints feel achy from balancing out uneven ground).
|What?||Sauna, steam room, hot baths, heat packs …|
|How?||Hot methods have antispasmodic effects, are vaso-dialating which means blood vessels expand and hence enhance flow of blood and biofluids.|
|When?||Two hours or more after exercise to allow for any potential swelling to go down.|
|Pro||Hot methods can reduce delayed onset-muscle soreness, increase removal of
“waste products” in the body, repair of muscle tissue, increase psychological relaxation which may be one of its main benefits, because as we have learnt relaxation alone is high up on the recovery pyramid.
|Con||Adaptation to the training stimulus may be minimized (although not as much as with cold methods), does not improve performance.|
Performance: Can be used at any time throughout the season if tissue repair is more important than adapting to training. Can be applied in any sport, not advisable when swelling/bruising/severe inflammation is present.
Lifestyle: Reduction of muscle soreness is more important than adapting to training (e.g. overall body tension does not allow for optimal sleep or does not allow you to perform daily tasks well because of a stiff neck etc.)
|What?||This is the combination of both hot and cold methods.|
|How?||Higher cardiac output, muscle blood flow and diffusion of muscle waste products in the blood, less formations of edema|
|Pro||Less inflammation AND better tissue repair|
|Con||Not very practical for most people. This would be something like a hot bath (5 minutes) followed by an ice bath (5 minutes) and repeat about 3-4 times|
|What?||Compression clothing etc.|
|How?||Vasodilation (blood vessels opening up) and increased blood flow through external pressure.|
|When?||Anywhere from 2-48 hours after exercise.|
|Pro||Increased recovery of exercise performance, reduced soreness and perception of pain, improved lymphatic drainage. Can easily be paired with cold methods.|
|Con||Effects are relatively small, possibly comes at the cost of adaptive potential from
training, but more research is needed.
|Cardio||Often mistaken for active recovery. Only very light cardio (for example walking) is active recovery, everything else adds fatigue instead of reducing it.|
|Stretching||May reduce DOMS, but no significant effect on recovery.|
|Recovery Drinks||No significant effect if normal macro and calorie requirements are met.|
|No significant effect if normal macro and calorie requirements are met.|
|Cupping||Similar to massage, mostly beneficial because of the compassionate touch component, otherwise no significant effect on recovery|
|Yoga||No significant effect on recovery, beneficial because of increased relaxation.|
|Breathing||No significant effect on recovery, beneficial because of increased relaxation.|
|Acupuncture/ Dry Needling||Reduces localized pain and beneficial because of increased relaxation.|
|Foam Rolling||May reduce DOMS, otherwise no significant effect.|
Why is it important to consider the trade-off between faster recovery and better adaptation to training?
Proper strength training causes muscle tissue to break down, which means inflammation is caused. This is a stimulus that we WANT – for fat loss as well as for muscle gain, because after the inflammation was caused our body does its best to (super-) compensate for this tissue break down, meaning it repairs the tissue beyond where it was initially.
By decreasing the inflammation (through ice baths, taking Advil or consuming fish oil prior to training), we are also decreasing tissue adaptation (less inflammation = less adaptation) meaning less hypertrophy and increase in lean body mass. As mentioned, sometimes adapting is not as important as recovering (for example between back to back games for a Football Player). This is when recovery methods can most certainly be beneficial.
At the very bottom of the recovery pyramid are Therapeutic methods and Supplements
What constitutes as therapeutic methods?
→ Social support: This doesn’t sound much like a therapeutic method, but the minimizing effect on stress through social support is well documented. Knowing there is someone who cares, having supportive friends and family, loved ones you can rely on, all decreases your overall stress level and hence affect recovery from training.
→ Compassionate touch: For year massage was believed to be one of the biggest aids in enhancing recovery. Today research has shown that massage is just the best studied form of compassionate touch and because of that helps reduce DOMS and low- moderate intensity pain, simply by increasing your feelings of well being and improving perceived recovery. This also means that other forms of compassionate touch (like holding hands or a good hug can have a similar effect, just in a smaller dose due to the shorter duration.
→ Electro Stimulation methods: increases local blood flow due to muscle contraction which may have similar benefits to active recovery, but reliable recovery benefits have not been shown yet.
Keep it simple. Remember this is relatively minor compared to calorie intake or sleep.
→ Omega 3s, should not be taken before training to allow for inflammation through training.
→ Good quality whey protein as a fast digesting protein source around training if needed.
→ Carb powders like highly branched cyclic dextrin if needed around training times
→ Creatine (about 5g per day, no need to cycle)
→ Anything else you might have to supplement due to deficiencies, to help with hormonal balance or for gut health.
→ If your training program is not in line with your lifestyle/life stress and you are not sleeping/ eating right or managing your stress well, no need to worry about whether you should invest in cryotherapy or get a foot massage, fix the big blocks first.
→ Both, hot and cold recovery methods, can be beneficial when applied at the right time for the right reasons. Trade offs between optimal recovery and optimal training adaptation have to be taken into consideration.
→ You can’t get away with hard training and ignoring your nutritional demands; so make sure you’re eating adequate calories, sufficient protein, and if you’re performing hard or strive to be, enough carbohydrates as well.
→ The psychological relaxation or compassionate touch that comes with some recovery methods might be the main reason why we benefit from them, rather than them having a direct impact on our physical recovery.
This blog is written by Lisa Franz, a Boom Boom Performance Nutrition Coach. Lisa has her BEXSc (Bachelors of Sports and Exercise Science), CF-1, NCI (Nutrition Coaching Certification), Hormone Specialist Certification, Yoga, Massage, and still working on more. She’s forever engulfed in the science and study of the human body, which shows in her passion filled coaching and writing. Click Here Now to Apply For Coaching, With Lisa.