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The 4 R’s of Post-Exercise Recovery
So, its Sunday morning and you’ve just finished your 2-hour run in preparation for next month’s London Marathon, and what do you do? Quick shower and off down the pub with your mates to watch the footie all afternoon with a few beers and a kebab on the way home? Some might argue that this is an ideal way to spend a Sunday afternoon, but could you be doing other things to promote recovery, which will enable you to feel revitalised and ready for your next training session, or the one after……
The optimal way to recover
Attention to recovery from exercise should be an integral part of a well structured training program. Many people with established training programmes will take the time to incorporate a certain amount of recovery into their programmes – either in the form of very easy sessions or complete days of rest, in order to facilitate physiological adaptation to the exercise that has been performed. Recovery is an important part of periodisation and one of the main principles of training. For example, top-level swimmers will spend at least 4 hours a day in the water, 1 session in the morning and 1 again in the evening. However, most will have at least 2 sessions off per week with an additional day off during the week too. It is during the recovery phase that the body adapts to the stress that it has been under from exercise, and it becomes fitter, stronger or faster.
The 4 R’s…….
The main benefits of a structured recovery include refuelling the muscle and liver after energy expenditure and replacing the fluid and electrolytes lost in sweat. An appropriate recovery post exercise allows the immune system and repair mechanisms to facilitate adaptation, which includes the manufacture of new proteins, red blood cells and other cellular components.
How can the 4 R’s be achieved ? – Pro-active ways to recover
Appropriate recovery is vital after each exercise session. Tremendous physiological benefits can be made by ‘warming-down’ or ‘cooling-down’ following a hard session. Low to moderate intensity exercise for 10-15 minutes after hard efforts promotes the removal of metabolic products from the working muscles. This includes lactic acid, an intermediary of anaerobic metabolism, which is taken to the liver by the blood and converted back into glycogen, and later re-stored in the muscles and liver. During the warm-down phase, your heart rate and blood pressure will gradually reduce, along with your sweat rate and body temperature. The warm-down phase can be completed in a different activity to your main session, however, it should not be too long or too intensive as this will promote further glycogen breakdown, making recovery even more difficult.
When you stop exercising, there is a tendency for the muscle fibres that you have used during the exercise to shorten. Because the muscles will be warm, they will be very receptive to the effects of gentle stretching, which will serve to elongate the muscle fibres. Stretching may also help to prevent muscular injury and/or strain. Try to incorporate exercises that will stretch the major muscle groups, such as hamstring and quadriceps stretches, calf, shoulders and triceps.
Scoff scoff scoff ……
Think of your body as if it were a car (preferably a fast one !); without fuel it’s going nowhere, and during exercise of particularly long duration or high intensity, the body can utilise the majority of its carbohydrate stores (a.k.a. ‘hitting the wall’). Immediately following a hard race, training session or competition (or a long journey in a car), the body (or car) needs to be refuelled – and the quicker the better in terms of the body’s requirements. But it is not just any type of food. The body refuels best with carbohydrate that can be quickly converted back to glycogen, the optimal store of energy for athletes. Researchers have found that the body needs approximately 1 – 1.5 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of your body mass within 30 minutes of exercise. Therefore, a 70 kg person requires anywhere between 70 – 105 g of carbohydrate within 30 minutes of finishing exercise in order to enhance the rate of recovery.
The following foods contain approximately 50 g of carbohydrate, therefore between 1-3 of these portions should be consumed immediately, depending on your body weight and the extent of exercise you have just performed. Repeat this intake after two hours or until a normal meal can be consumed.
650-800 ml of sports drink
500 ml of fruit juice, soft drink or flavoured mineral water
60g packet of jelly babies
3 medium pieces of fruit
3 muesli bars
2 crumpets with vegemite
300g baked potato with salsa filling
The recovery diet should contain foods that have a high GI (glycaemic index) (e.g. white bread, honey, jam, ripe bananas), as these type of foods promote greater glycogen storage than foods with a low GI (e.g. brown bread, potatoes, brown rice, unripe bananas). The intake of proteins and fat within 24 hours post exercise does not affect the amount of glycogen which will be stored as long as adequate carbohydrate is consumed.
Glug Glug Glug …..
It is not only important to refuel post exercise but also to rehydrate. During a 2 hour session as much as 3-4 kg can be lost in the form of sweat, and the only way to replace this lost water is to drink. You can refuel and rehydrate at the same time, by taking on-board a sports drink following exercise. However research has shown that athletes do not drink nearly enough fluid after exercise to rehydrate fully and many suffer the effects of dehydration, particularly in hot and humid climes.
Warning signs of dehydration
Loss of appetite
Dark urine, strong smell
As a general rule of thumb, for each kilogram of weight lost during exercise, at least 1.5 L of fluid should be consumed in order to restore fluid balance. Therefore if an athlete loses 2.5 kg during an exercise session in the heat, they will require at least 3.75L to replace the lost fluid. This should be replaced gradually in the 2-4 hours following exercise. Cool drinks (10-15 degrees) are more likely to encourage intake of fluid, than very cold drinks (< 5 degrees), as they are difficult to drink in large quantities. Water per se, can also be difficult to drink in excess. Generally, sports drinks and drinks that contain a small amount of salt (sodium) (2-5 g per litre) are best as they tend to promote the desire to drink. Sodium based drinks also tend to reduce the requirement to urinate so frequently, as they maximise the retention of fluid.
Try to avoid caffeinated beverages (coffee, tea, cola) and alcohol, as they act as diuretics, promoting water loss via the kidney as urine.
Never underestimate the power of sleep for effective recovery. It is during the sleep process that the majority of rejuvenation and repair occurs. Some body systems take longer to recover than others. For example connective tissue (tendons, fascia etc) and supportive tissue (ligaments/bone) take longer to recover due to the lack of vascularisation (blood supply) than the metabolic and cardiovascular systems. Similarly the repair of muscle proteins and synthesis of muscle glycogen takes longer to replace than other substances.
Make sure your bed is comfortable and firm, and the room is dark and at a comfortable temperature. Try to maintain normal patterns of sleep particularly during weeks of hard training and try to make bedtime and the number of hours as consistent as possible. Short naps during the day can also be useful in promoting recovery, particularly if they are between 2 training sessions.
One of the most researched aspects of recovery is the determination of suitable methods for removal of lactate from the blood. Accumulation of lactic acid in the muscle tissue often explains the feeling of muscle fatigue, and any method to dispel this feeling is usually most welcomed.
As mentioned previously, an effective warm-down will enhance the removal of lactic acid, however, recovery can be further enhanced and total work capacity increased by passive methods such as massage, relaxation baths and jacuzzis. Proper massage of at least 30 minutes from qualified professionals and /or self-massage will increase blood flow to the muscles in order to remove waste products and deliver nutrients to the muscle tissue. Regular massage will also allow the identification of tight spots or sore areas which can be a early sign of injury or over-use.
Relaxation baths (water temperature 36°C for approximately 10-15 minutes) are one of the oldest forms of restoration, and are thought to promote blood circulation and muscle relaxation, enhancing blood lactate removal and heart rate recovery. Make sure that the temperature is not too hot!
Other methods of aiding recovery include progressive muscular relaxation, self hypnosis, visualisation, showers, saunas, ultrasound and electrotherapy, autogenic psychoregulation relaxation therapy, and special pharmacologically derived diet and fluid replacement therapies. However, many of these require professional administration and may be difficult and costly for the athlete to access.
Key Tips for Post-Exercise Recovery:
Warm-down – low to moderate intensity for 10-15 min. including stretching
Refuel with 1–1.5 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of your body mass within 30 minutes of exercise.
Re-hydrate at least 1.5 L of fluid for each kilogram of weight lost during exercise.
Maintain normal patterns of sleep particularly during weeks of hard training