Recovery Week: Chill Out

Have you ever seen a penguin with a sprained ankle?

You probably never will- penguins are surrounded by one of nature’s best recovery tools- ice and cold water! (You also probably don’t spend a lot of time penguin-watching… They aren’t exactly native to most parts of the world.)

We can take some recovery lessons from the penguins though. Ice and cold water recovery treatments (collectively known as cryotherapy) kick ass when it comes to

• Maintaining subsequent training levels or performance.

• Decreasing inflammation, either from an injury or from the microdamage caused from training hard.

• Decreasing muscular spasms, aches and pains, as well as symptoms of DOMS.

• Enhancing removal of metabolic waste products like lactic acid.

• Restoring pre-fatigue training abilities.

• Lots of other nitty-gritty-sciencey stuff that results in you feeling a lot better, a lot sooner!

Decreased temperature leads to a temporary shrink in the blood vessels closest to the skin. This causes two things to happen simultaneously: a decrease in chemical reactions causing damaging metabolic waste products, and a faster removal of these metabolic waste products. Additionally, smaller blood vessels mean less fluid coming into the area, so swelling will be decreased as well. All of these add up to less muscle damage, and consequently less DOMS. Plus, the cold will slow down how quickly your nerves send signals to your brain, so pain sensations are decreased.

HOW: Get yourself cold! There are several ways to do this, and mostly it comes down to personal preference (and since cryotherapy isn’t generally a lot of fun, whatever you’re willing to do is good). It is super effective though- don’t be scared off!

Cold packs: Apply a cold pack for about 20 minutes to whatever area you think might be sore. While this might be the most pleasant of the options, it is also probably the least effective for recovery unless you have a reallllly large ice pack and can do a whole leg/arm/chest etc at once. On the other hand, this is a great way to treat a fresh injury.

Ice/Cold baths or showers: Chill out for a minute or two in the coldest temperature you can stand.

Contrast baths or showers: This is what I recommend for all my clients. Start with cold water for 30 seconds, then switch to warm or hot water for 30 seconds. Repeat each twice more and you’re done! If you aren’t having a shower afterward, finish on 30 seconds of cold for best effects.

Recovery Week: Day 4

Do your gym clothes make you recover faster? If you’re wearing compression shorts or a top (think Skins or 2XU), the answer is probably yes. While the scientists haven’t made up their mind (again) about these, coaches, athletes, and regular joes are all for them. There have been no reported negative effects from using compression garments, and while they can be a bit pricey, they are easy to use and by most reports highly effective in enhancing recovery and performance. They are also super-tight, and may feel a bit weird at first. Totally worth it when you’re barely sore after an max training session.

Decreased DOMS (Delayed onset muscle soreness)

There are a few ways compression garments are thought to decrease post-training soreness.

• The garment is tight, in part to reduce muscle oscillation, or small shaking of the muscle. My brother used to hit me in the thigh and call me “Jelly legs”. If I had had compression shorts, I would not have had a problem. Less oscillation leads to less muscle stress, so there’s a lower need for recovery.

• The tightest parts of the garment are at the points farthest from the torso. The pressure gradually eases as the garment gets closer to the torso, though it is always tight to a degree. This design promotes what the docs call “venous return”, meaning blood- and metabolic waste products like lactic acid- are more quickly removed from the working muscle.

• The pressure from the garment also means there is less room for swelling in the muscle (caused by damage to the active proteins). The swelling is thought to be one of the causes of DOMS. In this case, the garment is thought to be more effective the longer you wear it post-training.

Enhanced Performance

Compression garments are also thought to improve performance in strength, power, and endurance exercises.

• Wearing a compression garment may improve your warm up by increasing your skin temperature. If the skin is warm, it means the muscle underneath is warmer.

• Better removal of metabolic waste products like lactic acid means that you can train harder, longer, or both, with fewer feelings of discomfort, pain, or wishing for death.

• Compression garments may provide mechanical support to the body. For example, in a study involving a vertical jump, subjects wearing compression garments had increased torque at the hip joint. In plain English, they generated more force and jumped higher when they were wearing compression shorts.

• Don’t underestimate the psychological boost you can get by wearing these!

So even though scientists still think the jury is out, the majority of people at every level of activity benefit greatly from wearing compression gear. Definitely worth the investment!


Recovery Week: At a stretch…

…Stretching might be ok.

I know this goes against the traditional “stretch to warm up and cool down”, but there is little to no evidence that stretching is a beneficial method of recovery (please note that I am talking only about recovery stretching here, not flexibility work).  The idea behind a post-workout stretch is that you can restore muscle length and function, reduce or eliminate soreness, or decrease injury risk.

Unfortunately, even after years of research, none of this has been conclusively proven.

Stretching after a workout does not appear to decrease risk of injury, or to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness, DOMS for short, which is the tender, sore, or painful feelings you get anywhere from 1-3 days after training. A post-session stretch can restore muscle length, but how long that will last is unknown, and you’ll quite likely need a stretch again the next day. As an aside, static stretching to increase flexibility may help decrease injury risks, but that is another post for another day.

On the other hand, it wont do you any harm. If you enjoy your stretch at the end of a session, there’s no reason not to.  I often get my clients to stretch at the end of a session, for various reasons including routine and enjoyment. I never stretch after my own workouts for recovery- I usually either just want to get home, or I have a laundry list of things to do.

So the take-home message about stretching is that you can finish a session and walk away, or you can finish and stretch for another 20 minutes. You’ll be fine either way, but if you are serious about helping your body recover, you’d best be adding another recovery modality to your routine as well.


Recovery Week: Sleep tight

Sleep: overlooked and underrated in the daily rush. For the second in a week-long series covering different recovery modalities, let’s look at the most important aspect of recovery.

Sleep puts you in the most anabolic, or muscle building, state possible. Quite simply, your body can repair and build itself faster when you are asleep. All but the most essential bodily functions stop so growth and repair are maximized.

All of this is very well and good, except that most of us don’t sleep anywhere close to what we should. The fact that you might need more or less than the traditionally recommended eight hours doesn’t help, nor does the fact that feeling tired quickly becomes feeling normal, so you aren’t prompted to go to bed any sooner. On top of it all, science shows that athletes and active people need not only more sleep, but deeper sleep as well.

Sleep is made up of five stages: Stages 1-4 and REM. Each stage is characterized by different patterns of brain activity, which is a little too indepth for this blog! Suffice to say, during a nights sleep you progressively cycle through stages 1-4 and REM sleep four to six times on average. Dreams almost always occur during REM sleep, which is one of the lightest stages, and recovery processes peak during stages 3 and 4, the deepest two stages. It is at this point that metabolic activity (the processes of anabolism and catabolism) is at the lowest level, and the endocrine system increases the output of growth hormone (yes, that is actually it’s name. Not surprisingly, it’s a major player in recovery and growth processes). Low levels of activity combined with a major stimulus for growth = growth and repair.

HOW: We know sleep is important. While you can’t actively improve you sleep quality while you are asleep, there are a few things you can do before you go to bed that can help you rest well.

1. Know what you need. Next time you wake up feeling energetic and alert, make a note of how much sleep you’ve had. If that doesn’t happen to you often, you might need either less sleep, or more. If you fall asleep at the drop of a hat and “catch up” on your sleep on the weekends, you might need to go to bed earlier. On the other hand, if you are getting a lot of sleep but still feeling lethargic during the day, you might actually need a little less.

2. Get on schedule. Create a routine and a sleep schedule. Your internal clock needs consistency to be efficient, and going to bed and waking up at the same time every day is one of the best ways to keep that on track. Irregular bedtimes often make it more difficult for you to fall asleep.

3. Create your space. A cool, comfortable, quiet, and dark environment will help you fall asleep and stay asleep. Studies show that temperature, noise and light disturbances can disrupt sleep by prompting changes in the nightly chemical and hormonal balances, even if you don’t wake up. Draw the blinds and put the air conditioning or a fan on if it’s hot.

Recovery Week: Day 1

I was recently asked about effective methods of muscle recovery to decrease delayed onset muscle soreness and to better prepare for upcoming sessions. The truth is, there is no one best method of muscle recovery. In fact,  there is only limited scientific evidence that says these recovery methods work.  That’s not to say recovery is a urban myth- quite the opposite actually- it just takes a lot of research before science will say something is “proven”.

In fact, plenty of coaches and athletes at every level of sport will tell you that recovery methods do work, and some of them work quite well. There are many recovery modalities, so for the rest of the week I’ll cover some of the most common.

Method 1: Pre- and Post-workout nutrition

This is one of the biggies! And although you might not think of pre-workout nutrition as a method of post-workout recovery, they are equally important.

WHY: Both weight training and cardio work cause muscle protein breakdown, to varying degrees. While you generally can’t stop the breakdown, pre- and post-workout nutrition will allow your body to start the process of protein synthesis much sooner than it would have otherwise. In fact, the processes can take place concurrently, meaning that your nutrition can make your net protein balance positive, so you’ll be in an anabolic state.

HOW: Have a small meal, snack, or shake about 30-60 minutes before you train, and as soon as possible after training. Both pre- and post-workout nutrition should contain some form of carbohydrate (simple sugars work best) and protein. Essential amino acids are a MUST- without them, protein synthesis is not stimulated, and without that, what’s the point?

Building A Base

I had a post on power training planned for today, but as I was browsing through another blog I frequent, something caught my eye and prompted me to push the power training post back.

Eric Cressey, an in-demand strength coach in the United States, recently put up a post about speed training and its suitability for kids (very informative- you can read more here).  Eric is reluctant to do a lot of speed and agility work with kids (or anyone) who does not have a decent strength base, noting that ground reaction forces (what your body experiences when your foot hits the ground) are 4-6 times greater than bodyweight on one leg, each stride.  When your foot hits the ground, your body momentarily decelerates; the glutes, hamstrings, and gastrocnemius and soleus muscles of the calf eccentrically contract to slow you down and minimize ground reaction forces.

Eccentric contractions are very hard on the muscles, resulting in a greater amount of microdamage and delayed onset muscle soreness than a concentric contraction.  Your muscle needs adequate strength in order to deal with the stress of these contractions, so if you haven’t spent a significant amount of time getting strong before you start smashing the sprints, you are asking for injury.

These same issues are present in power training, whether it be jumping, bounding, skipping, upper body plyos, or even the Olympic lifts.  Power training of any sort involves the stretch-shortening cycle, where your muscle stretches like a rubber band and with quick movement snaps back with greater force, leading to greater power.  You get the same eccentric contractions and ground reaction forces when landing from a jump as you do when sprinting.

It stands to reason then, that you need the same strength base for high intensity power training as you would for sprinting and agililty training.  Since the glutes and hamstring are the major muscles involved in deceleration, it’s important to maintain a high level of strength- let’s think squats, deadlifts, and lots of single leg work.  Calves also play an integral role in deceleration, as does the gluteus medius, so it’s helpful to give these guys a boost as well with some calf raises and clams or other hip external rotation work.

Bearing all of this in mind, check back tomorrow for the first of the power posts!

McDonalds: An urban myth revisited

Have you heard about the McDonald’s burger than never rots?

Turns out this urban myth is a little less myth, and a little more reality.  In fact, quire a few nutritionists, dietitians, and other curious people have performed a few “burger experiments” of their own, with some pretty horrifying results.

This was recently brought to my attention courtesy of New York photographer Sally Davies’ Happy Meal Art Project.  Sally left a Happy Meal sitting on a table to see what happens.  This is it:

Sally Davies' Happy Meal Art Project: Day 137

And it’s only one of many.  Nutritionist Karen Hanrahan has kept a hamburger since 1996 (I’m assuming she still has it).  Or you can check out the video of 19-year-old burgers and the museum they live in.

McDonalds has issued a statement claiming “No preservatives are added to the beef patties in McDonald’s hamburgers,” but clearly something is up.  Normal food just does not keep like that. A quick Google search didn’t result in anything that looked like a serious ingredients list (the nutritional information that McDonalds supplies reads like an advertisement- what a surprise).

Choices, choices...

Why are we eating this stuff? Yes, it’s convenient, but at what cost to your health and fitness? Is there anyone who actually feels good after chowing down on a Big Mac? It might be cheap and filling, but it’s also nasty and will not provide much in the way of cellular fuel needed by people in training.  Spend a little more time and money on yourself- plan your meals and pack your lunch the night before.  Your body will definitely thank you.