Muscle Soreness and Recovery
Measuring training through sets, reps, load, intensity and time means we can easily quantify the training load. What isn’t so easy is measuring recovery from training. Since training + recovery = adaptation, it makes a lot of sense to measure recovery in some manner, and to have a routine to enhance recovery periods. Most athletes prefer to focus on doing what they do best (training) and the focus on recovery is slim-to-none. Recovery occurs in the period that the body is rebuilding and strengthening, and thus maximizing ones recovery is as important as getting in specific training.
First take a step back from recovery for a moment and identify what responses training solicits in the body. Training loads causes a metabolic stress response in the body so that it may adapt to these higher levels of stress. Aside from microscopic muscle tears, the release of hormones and enzymes, as well as increases in respiratory rate and body temperature are part of the body’s reaction for up to 3-5 days post-workout. While we tend to ignore our heart and lungs when doing training, they too must adapt to exercise loads. The most noticeable physiological difference for endurance athletes is that they develop larger (hypertrophy) left ventricles to pump more blood. Blood pressure and blood cell counts (red and white) increase as a result of a training session. Our body responds to training stress similarly as the stress one encounters in daily life. Insulin is commonly affected, and it changes everything from glucose uptake, metabolism, glycogen storage, and fat production (lipogenesis). Aside from the above mentioned, there is a laundry list of physiological components that respond to training, and all have equal importance in the recovery cycle.
The sore and stiff muscles that athletes feel after moderate to strenuous exercise at the start or change of a training program (commonly referred to as DOMS; Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness) is part of the body’s response to exercise. These symptoms, along with loss of strength, decreased range of motion and neuromuscular function, usually occur after eccentric (resistance training, downhill running, plyometrics, sprinting, etc.) or other unaccustomed exercise. During these activities your muscles and connective tissue become more susceptible to structural damage. Exercise induced muscle damage and then muscle protein breakdown, results in cell inflammation and increased local muscle temperature. As a result pain receptors are activated, causing the sensation of pain. Metabolic waste products from the inflammatory response also increase vascular permeability and attract neutrophils (a type of white blood cell) to the site of muscle damage. Once at the site, these neutrophils generate free radicals which can further damage the cell membrane. Muscle damage alone may not be the complete explanation of DOMS. Inflammation and swelling should also be considered as they also activate and sensitize pain sensors around the muscle fibers. If one is training with intensity but doesn’t experience DOMS, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the above processes are not taking place. In fact, they most likely are, but at a level that doesn’t produce noticeable discomfort.
With the knowledge we have about the effects of exercise on the body, there is action to take. Before you take physical action, do some cognitive and emotional recovery to complete your training or racing. List what you did well, what you learned, and what actions to take for the next training session or race. Plan the actions, and start another activity to decompress. If you get caught in a loop of self-doubt or blame, recognize it and pull the plug so that recovery can begin.
One thing to recall is that in the treatment of the discomfort, we’re also hoping to speed muscle repair. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen have long been considered as a treatment for alleviating the symptoms of DOMS. NSAIDs usually help discomfort and they have a strong case for helping to combat the inflammation and swelling which occurs with exercise induced muscle damage. However, there is no proof to their efficacy in actually speeding recovery.
The recovery ride your coach prescribes has the effect of moving an increased volume of blood through muscles which brings more nutrients to the affected muscles. It also mimics perhaps the best way to avoid muscle soreness in the first place, a prolonged warm-up of 30 minutes of aerobic exercise. This has the affect of warming muscles and is thought to improve muscle function by leading to greater muscle elasticity, an increased resistance of muscle tissue to tearing, more relaxed muscles, and an increased extensibility of connective tissues within muscle.
Electrical muscle stimulation through units such as Compex and Cefar also provide active recovery for muscles. The electrical signal that they produce stimulates muscle neurons to signal muscle fibers to contract, much in the same manner that the brain does when one does a recovery spin. One benefit of this over the recovery spin is the ability to refuel, relax and rest while the EMS unit does the recovery, as well as other time saving benefits.
Supplements such as Vitamins C and E are known to reduce the proliferation of free radicals, and COQ-10 and L-Carnitine have also been investigated in the treatment of DOMS. There are a fair number of other anti-oxidants on the marlket such as N-acetyl cysteine and grape seed extract that show promise in helping repair the damage of inflammation.
The most basic and important recovery technique is sleep. While few of us have time for the afternoon nap, extending your primary sleep period in the evening has great benefits. For example, more sleep means that more hgh (human growth hormone) is produced and released. One needs to just get an extra 45-60 mins of sleep a night for this affect to occur. At the beginning of this article, I mentioned measuring recovery. Logging sleep hours and quality (good/fair/poor) is a good place to start, a well as checking your morning heart rate.
As much as we spend planning and executing our training, it’s advisable to take a few minutes to review what we do for recovery. While nutrition is often thought of as our biggest opportunity in this area, planning physical and mental recovery will produce noticeable effects rapidly.
Jonathan Siegel, Director of Coaching
JDS Sportcoaching, LLC
Jonathan Siegel, CSCS is the director of coaching at JDS Sportcoaching,LLC. After you recover from reading this article, contact JDS Sportcoaching,LLC with your comments or questions.
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