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You actually grow when you are resting. Working out is the stimulus, but it is the recovery from the workout that leads to increase in muscle, strength, and fitness.
This is known as super-compensation in the scientific world. Simply stated, you are breaking down your muscles as you workout, and as they recover or rebuild, they layer a little extra muscle on to cope with the increased demand you put them under. In other words, they ‘super-compensate’ and come back slightly bigger/stronger than they were before.
Considering it is the recovery process that leads to an increase in strength and fitness, it is surprising that so much time and thought is dedicated to the training process, and so little to the recovery process.
Failing to sufficiently recover between training sessions means you are only breaking the muscles down, without giving them the opportunity to rebuild and become stronger. This would be called over-training.
If we can increase our capacity for recovery, we can train more/harder/longer and still recover. Over time that means more work is done in less time, more super-compensation takes place, and we meet our fitness goals quicker.
Let’s take a look at the most important things to consider when optimizing our recovery from exercise, starting during/immediately after your workout.
The entire body is made up of 80% water. A lack of hydration quickly lowers our strength, as well as slowing every single process happening in the body.
Of course, exercise increases the need for water further, so make sure you are drinking plenty of water before, during, and after exercise. If you live in a hot climate, consider adding hydration salts to replace some of the minerals lost through excessive sweating.
The body needs sufficient calories (energy) to rebuild itself. Undereating is going to compromise your recovery process simply because there’s not enough energy for the body to work with.
A small calorie deficit is fine if you’re dieting, but otherwise you want to get enough calories to sustain your activity level and recover from exercising.
Muscles are made of protein and it is the most important nutrient to give the body soon after exercise. The more you workout, the more your need for protein will increase.
Make sure you’re eating a moderate to high protein diet, and especially the first meal after training should be high in protein. Try to eat within 90 minutes of the end of your workout.
If you’re in a rush, consider using a protein shake. You can also add glucose (carbohydrates) to increase the calories and speed recovery, if you struggle to take enough calories in over the course of the day.
This is especially important if you deplete a lot of glucose via extended endurance workouts (marathon training, cycling, triathlon, etc).
We’ve considered the things your body needs to recover, but even focusing on eating immediately after training isn’t when most of the recovery happens. Your body does the bulk of the rebuilding at night, while you sleep.
Exercising will increase your need for sleep, as your body has more processes to go through (the recovery from exercise added to everything else it is already doing).
Get 7-9 hours sleep per night, at consistent sleep/wake times, in a pitch-black room. Sleep quality is as important as sleep quantity.
It’s often looked at as a badge of honour to not sleep in our culture. From a health or fitness perspective, this is simply stupid. You must sleep to recover from the stresses of the day.
Even one night of bad sleep will leave you noticeably sorer than you would usually be, from the same workout.
Aside from the food to rebuild, and the time asleep for your body to do it, the next thing to affect your recovery is your general health.
Is your immune system occupying energy, fighting something? Is your hormonal balance out of rhythm, causing high stress and bad sleep?
Living a healthy lifestyle is a long-term endeavor that will lead to better results in your health, your fitness, and your general quality of life.
Eat a healthful, balanced diet, remain hydrated, lower stress, exercise, get sunlight, etc.
The best way to reduce soreness and speed recovery time is actually to get the muscle working again. It might seem counter-intuitive, but when you do gentle exercise the blood flow to the muscle increases.
More blood flow brings with it more oxygen, more nutrients, and thus speeds the recovery process.
An ‘active-recovery’ day will help you recover from proper workouts faster. Simply going for a walk, cycle, or swim, or hitting the gym and doing a gentle workout will leave you feeling better than before. The key is to not push too hard. You’re not trying to further break down the muscles, just increase the blood flow to them.