Senior Lecturer, Dr John Fernandes, answers your questions on recovery from exercise.
What happens when we exercise?
During exercise muscles undergo a variety of contractions; some where the muscle is shortening (your quadricep when driving off of your standing foot at the start of a sprint) and some where the muscle is lengthening (your hamstrings when you’re decelerating after a sprinting).
To fuel these contractions your muscle uses glucose. We have large stores within our body, as glycogen. When the exercise is long in duration or sufficiently intense, then it is possible to deplete these stores of glycogen. Obviously, this is problematic because athletes need to be able to perform these movement tasks.
The next thing that can happen is muscle damage: now we’re not thinking about this in an injury sense but rather it’s more akin to those feelings of soreness in the days after exercise.
Essentially, when our muscles undergo lengthening contractions (think back to decelerating) the weaker parts of the muscle extend beyond their usual length (e.g. pulling a rubber band to the point where it doesn’t retract). Fortunately, within a few days the muscle recovers but if exercise bout is unaccustomed or has lots of lengthening contractions then recovery can take longer.
If the damage is really extensive then an inflammatory response occurs and you might notice some swelling. In some cases this can take up to 14 days!
So, what do we mean by recovery?
For context I’m going to talk about the second bit of the question above – repairing the damaged muscle.
We can measure this practically by using muscle strength and soreness.
The former, muscle strength, is our best practical way of doing this – if you can’t produce as much force in the days after exercise then it is likely because you have not recovered. Muscle soreness is a useful marker as you’re unlikely to perform as well if you’re sore.
There are two little caveats in using soreness that is worthy mentioning; it doesn’t follow the same time course as actual muscle damage. That is, soreness has a delayed peak (24 to 48 hours after) whereas muscle damage is greatest immediately after exercise. Also, some people might be able to “override” their soreness and still perform in its presence. So, it might not be the best markers and personally, I wouldn’t use it in isolation.
In terms of our two markers, when these shows changes (reduction in strength or increase in muscle soreness) that would indicate that we are damaged. When they return to normal then you’re recovered.
Practically, you can measure soreness using visual scales or questionnaires; you could also ask yourself how sore you feel, although this isn’t the most objective way. In terms of strength, jump type testing (e.g. squat jump) and upper-body plyometric testing (e.g. plyometric push ups) can provide a practical alternative when expensive equipment isn’t available.
Why is recovery important?
This one might be fairly obvious but just to make the point, if your muscle has lengthened too far, and is damaged, then your ability to perform forceful (e.g. collisions) and powerful (e.g. jumping) movements will be compromised.
In fact, muscle damage can negatively affect the vast majority of sporting movements e.g. change of direction, repeated sprints, endurance performance to name a few. Notwithstanding the performance perspective, it is likely that muscle damage will reduce your training quality. If you’re sore and fatigued in the gym/training ground you’re not going to be able to sprint as fast or lift as heavy weights as you normally would.
So, if you want to perform and train to your best ability, make sure you have recovered. It’s worth mentioning here that schedules don’t always allow for full recovery, so the majority of people will be training and performing in an unrecovered state.
A way around this is to structure your training so that muscle groups can recover e.g. push, pull and legs split.
What recovery methods are available?
There are plenty of methods available; cold therapies (cryotherapy, ice baths, contrast water immersion), warm water immersion, active recoveries, stretching, foam rolling, massage, compression garments and nutritional interventions (these are extensive but a few promising ones include omega 3s, tart cherries, vitamin D and protein).
About the Author
John joined Hartpury University in August 2017 as a lecturer in Strength and Conditioning. He currently leads the BSc Sport and Exercise Sciences degree. Prior to this he lectured at the University of Chester whilst completing his PhD which examined the fatigue and recovery responses to resistance exercise in trained middle-aged males. John’s recent research has focused on velocity-based training, particularly seeking to explore the reliability and agreement of wearable accelerometers and linear position transducers. His other research interests include exercise-induced muscle damage and ageing.
UWE photo by Paul Jenkins. UWE #4 is Jake Ryan