One of the most satisfying parts of any workout might be the sweat. As any Seinfeld fan will tell you, “good beads, nice beads,” are an essential part of the routine. What you may not realize, however, is that it’s the recovery that comes after those good beads that matter the most.
When it comes to your body, transformation doesn’t happen without sweat. You have to push yourself every time you work out to build muscle, lose fat, and sculpt a physique that makes you proud to hit the beach. But what most people don’t understand is that you don’t build muscle during workouts—you build it between them. That’s why many trainers call recovery after a workout the most overlooked aspect of training.
“The overwhelming majority of novice athletes—and many intermediate athletes as well—underestimate the power of recovery,” explains Jonathan Mike, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist, strength coach, writer, strongman competitor, and founder of The Strength Exchange, a training information site. “That’s in part because until recently the overwhelming majority of science has focused exclusively on training.”
That began to change in 2008 when an influential paper from researchers at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa rounded up what was then known about exercise recovery and asked some pretty fundamental questions, like what does the term actually mean? Can it be accelerated by certain forms of therapy? And what role does fatigue play? The paper spurred interest in recovery among performance researchers, and subsequent studies have helped shed light on the subject.
Let’s start with the first question: What is recovery anyway? According to the Tuscaloosa team, it can be categorized in three ways: immediate recovery between exertions (e.g., reps); short-term recovery between bouts (e.g., sets or circuits); and training recovery between workouts. In this article, we’ll focus on the latter.
Training recovery involves the normalization of things like heart rate and blood pressure, as well as a replenishment of energy stores (e.g., glucose and muscle glycogen), and a restoration of cellular enzymes, such as phosphofructokinase, which is used in carbohydrate metabolism. Functionally, it can be thought of as a return to a point where the body can match or exceed its performance in a previous exercise session or competition. Can you once again nail that big lift, or perhaps even lift a little more?
“That’s the goal,” says Lance Dalleck, Ph.D., director of the Center for Wellness and Human Performance at Western State Colorado University. “But to design a training program that facilitates achieving that goal, athletes and trainers need to understand the factors that are driving the recovery process.”
Benefits of Recovery After a Workout
Replenish Depleted Fuel Stores
Every cell in your body runs on the same energy source, a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). During intense workouts, ATP is largely produced by one of two pathways—the phosphogen system, which uses creatine phosphate to produce ATP, and the glycolytic system, which uses glycogen to produce ATP. The system that’s used depends on the intensity and duration of exercise. If you’re doing sprints or snatches, you’re going to burn through your creatine phosphate stores. If you’re doing metabolic circuits or 800-meter repeats, you’ll exhaust your glycogen.
“If you don’t fully replenish those substrates prior to your next exercise session, then your performance will be compromised and fatigue will set in much sooner,” says Dalleck.
Clear Out Metabolic Byproducts
As your body produces ATP through those two pathways, metabolic byproducts build up. The primary one, and the one with that most people are familiar is lactic acid. As it accumulates in muscles during exercise, it begins to inhibit ATP production and impair muscle contraction.
Think of your body like a car engine filled with compounds that gunk it up. Like that engine, until that lactic acid is cleared from your muscles, performance will suffer.
Repair Muscle Damage
Tough training damages muscles, creating micro-tears and roughing up everything from connective tissue to contractile proteins. That’s not a bad thing—indeed, it’s quite normal, and necessary for muscle growth. But until the repair process is complete (usually within 24 to 48 hours), the muscle won’t be able to generate peak forces, and the transport of glycogen into its cells will be slowed.
“It will also feel sore,” says Dickens.
So what can you do to facilitate the process?
“An active recovery, when compared to a passive recovery, is better at removing metabolic byproducts,” says Dalleck. In other words, perform light exercise—yoga, easy runs, hikes—on your rest days instead of marathon-watching House of Cards.
Sleep and nutrition also play important roles.
“Most of us don’t get enough sleep, or lack overall quality,” says Mike. “This can have devastating effects on recovery, and thus impede training progress.”
Most hard-training athletes need about seven to eight-and-a-half hours of sleep a day, he says, and deep sleep is especially vital for maximizing physiological growth and repair.
On the food front, protein supplementation combined with healthy carbohydrates and antioxidants/anti-inflammatory nutrients can aid recovery after a workout. Milk, cherries, blueberries, and pomegranates have been all been studied with promising results.
Massage also has its place at the recovery table, helping to break up scar tissue, boost blood flow, improve mobility and range of motion, and reduce soreness. Plus, it just feels good.
“Most trainees and athletes don’t spend enough time with recovery measures,” says Mike. “For athletes to achieve optimal performance, proactive recovery must become a planned and systematic part of the training program.”