Workout Tips

The New Rules of Recovery

Maximize your post-workout downtime with these suggested methods.

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Man with acupuncture needles in his face, shoulders and chest

Marius Bugge

The recovery methods you’re free to use (if you like them)

1) Rocking your favorite yoga poses immediately after a session

Like romance, there’s one thing you can say for sure about stretching: It’s complicated.

For one thing, there are two types of stretching, dynamic and static, and each has different effects on the body. Dynamic stretching involves constant movement, like arm swings or trunk rotations. Static stretching means reaching into a position, then holding it, like a bentover hamstring stretch. For years the consensus was that you should do dynamic stretches before a workout, to increase blood flow and prime your muscles for exercise, and static stretching after a workout, to rid your muscles of lactic acid buildup, stave off soreness, and increase flexibility. (Also, studies showed that static stretching before a workout is a big no-no because it will impair your strength.)

It turns out that’s not exactly correct, because not all your muscles are created equal. The more elastic parts of your skeletal system, like the calf and Achilles tendon, can recover quicker from a static stretch since that’s partly what they were built for. Larger muscles, however, like the rest of the lower body, are made much weaker because they are not meant to be stretched, according to a 2014 study.

Bottom line: Do dynamic stretching before a workout, but only after a warmup, like a round of jumping jacks to get blood and oxygen flowing into the muscles. In the case of static stretching, the latest research says it reduces strength in your muscles for up to 24 hours afterward, so do it only if you’re not hitting the gym again the next day. Otherwise, keep it dynamic and pre-workout.

2) Donning the coolest new tights

Compression is the biggest new trend in fitness, specifically compression sleeves and tights. Amazingly, there’s still limited data on what, exactly, it does.

But a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that delayed-onset muscle  soreness was substantially lower in rugby players who used compression garments over those who didn’t. Of course, a lack of soreness isn’t definitive proof that it aids in recovery, but it’s certainly a positive sign. And given that there appear to be no negative side effects, it’s worth trying.

3) Dabbling in acupuncture or pulling a Michael Phelps and trying “cupping”

Anecdotally, athletes and fitness trainers claim that a whole host of methods can aid in recovery. Two of the most popular are cupping and acupuncture.

Cupping, which was all the rage at last summer’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, involves a special cup being placed on the skin, with heat or an air pump used to create suction. The idea is that suction draws blood to sore muscle areas, which helps to promote healing.

Acupuncture, sometimes called dry needling, is a much older technique, in which small needles are inserted into various trigger points on the surface of the body, the theory being that the needles unblock energy flow (or chi) and help the muscles relax and recover. Unfortunately, there’s very little in the way of definitive proof on either technique. As Pasternak says, “There are a number of things you can do that have little evidence to support them. As long as they don’t hurt you, and you personally feel that it helps, then by all means do whatever you want.”

The recovery methods you probably shouldn’t use

1) Lolling in a giant tub of ice

Ice baths have been a mainstay of post-workout recovery for quite some time—which is a problem for two main reasons.

First, a study last year at the English Institute of Sport measured various markers of physiological stress before and up to 72 hours after cold-water immersion and found no positive improvement over those who didn’t use an ice bath—meaning they didn’t promote recovery at all.

More troubling, that same study showed that ice baths may actually hinder recovery. Ice blunts inflammation—great for treating an injury. But certain types of inflammation are important for recovery’s repair and adaptation processes; and in terms of decreasing inflammation, ice is indiscriminate. While massage may blunt only the right types of inflammation, ice hits them all.

Remember, recovery is all about your muscles repairing themselves. Because of this, the study’s author, Jonathan Leeder, Ph.D., recommends using an ice bath only in a competition scenario, when the feel-good factor is more important than any training gains. During training, however, ice baths should be avoided.

2) Applying tons of heat

So if ice-cold water isn’t a cure, what about heat? 

Sorry, but there is exactly zero research that suggests that heat is good for recovery, either. While heat can help relax muscles, relaxation alone hasn’t proved to be a route to recovery. On the other hand, heat hasn’t been shown to impede muscle recovery—at least not yet. So if a dip in the hot tub feels good a few hours after a hard workout—no harm, no foul.

But if an injury is involved, heat can actually be a detriment—at least while the injury is in its acute early phase. If that’s the case, absolutely lay off.

Ultimately, recovery is like Gestalt psychology, which says one must look at the whole rather than the sum of its parts. Some recovery methods may help a lot, some may help a little, some may simply work as psychological placebos.

But all of it can work together to give you the best possible chance at realizing your goals, so failing to come up with proper recovery protocols is putting yourself at a severe disadvantage.

“I have friends who train six, seven days a week,” Kingsbury says. “When you lift weights on a day that used to be a rest day, it’s not the most effective way of making progress.”

The fact is: If you want to get bigger and fitter, what you do outside the gym is just as important as what you do in it.

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