After all, putting your feet up on the couch isn’t a signal to your body to build muscle or fortify mitochondria; it’s the exercise itself that does that. The stress of exercise — small amounts of damage to working muscles, waste products like lactic acid, a buildup of carbon dioxide in the blood — is the fire alarm that sends the body rushing to fortify cells to better withstand the next stress, which will lead to improved health and performance.
Recently, researchers have begun to investigate recovery tools — ice, anti-inflammatories, active recovery, and nutritional supplements for example — for their role in suppressing the signals needed for adaptation.
Evidence is mounting, for example, that cold-water immersion might have short-term benefits but long-term penalties. Because of a combination of reduced muscle blood flow and increased hydrostatic pressure, sitting in a cold tub may help muscle soreness, fatigue and reduce signs of inflammation. But researchers speculate, the reduction in blood flow to the muscles also may impair “the muscle protein synthesis largely responsible for muscle growth,” said Brad Schoenfeld, a professor in the exercise science program at Lehman College in New York.
That might ultimately mean a reduced response to resistance training, including less of an improvement in muscle size, strength and power.
Similar findings have been established for nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines, or NSAIDS. Chronic use of ibuprofen has been shown to reduce strength and muscle size after an eight-week resistance training program in young adults. A review by Schoenfeld concludes, “The study provides compelling evidence that athletes concerned with maximizing muscular adaptations should limit consumption of ibuprofen, keeping both the dose and frequency of usage low.”
For athletes facing a race or series of competitions, when fresh muscles are needed more than adaptation, recovery can be the first priority. But, if you’re training for life — and strength, muscle and fitness gains are the goal — you should choose the tools that optimize those improvements.
So, which recovery tools can take away the pain but keep the gain?
When in doubt, experts say, start with the basics. Sleep and proper nutrition are still two of the best recovery tools. “Sleep deprivation can result in reduced performance, reduced reaction time, reduced learning, memory and cognition, increased pain perception, reduced immunity, increased inflammation and changes in metabolism and hormones,” said Shona Halson, an associate professor of exercise science at the Australian Catholic University. “So, sleep is essential for almost all biological functions and particularly for those individuals (such as athletes) who have significant physical and mental demands.”
Fueling with the right foods, and avoiding the wrong ones, can also encourage recovery and repair. According to Keith Baar, a muscle physiology researcher at the University of California at Davis, leucine-rich protein, such as that found in chicken, beef and fish, activates a protein that is essential for muscle repair. Alcohol, on the other hand, inhibits it.
After a really hard full-body workout, Baar recommends that athletes eat 0.4 g/kg of body weight of easily digestible leucine-rich protein. “You should try to consistently eat that amount of protein in each meal (every 4 hours) for the next 24 hours to keep that protein activity high during recovery,” Baar said. A resource for determining the leucine content of common foods can be found here.
Creatine also shows promise as a nutritional tool that can balance recovery with adaptation. A recent meta-analysis published in the journal Sports Medicine suggested that creatine monohydrate reduced the level of exercise-induced muscle damage as an acute training response while also promoting long-term training gains. A combination of less pain and more gain.
Preliminary research by Baar indicates that cannabidiol or CBD might have a similar effect. A study conducted last year indicates that CBD decreases post-exercise inflammation without blocking the signals associated with muscle building.
Schoenfeld adds that both massage and foam rolling appear to have beneficial effects on recovery, although research on the topic is somewhat confounded by the fact that it’s difficult to have a sham treatment for comparison. At the very least, he says, there is no downside, other than time spent, so both are viable options.
What about active recovery, a tool used by gym coaches for decades? A study conducted by a group of researchers from Germany and Australia, and published in Frontiers of Physiology, had a surprising answer.
The study looked at whether active recovery could help preserve the benefits of a four-week, high-intensity training program. Researchers hypothesized that a light 15-minute jog after a high intensity interval session would reduce the amount of circulating lactic acid, a potent metabolic signal and, thus, lessen adaptation. Instead, that active recovery not only protected performance improvements but also resulted in an even more pronounced increase in anaerobic capacity than the group that just passively recovered. The active recovery seemed to act as a way to prolong the workout, rather than as a means of recovery, the authors hypothesized, thus the extra improvement.
But, the easiest and most underutilized recovery technique might be not needing it in the first place. The reality, says Baar, is that if more people were really slow and progressive about workout choices, recovery wouldn’t be an issue.
“A lot of athletes, especially recreational athletes, adhere to this idea of no pain, no gain,” Baar said. “ ’I’m sore today’ means ‘I had a great workout yesterday.’ ”
But Baar doesn’t think working out to the point of soreness is the right approach. When we cause injury to the muscles, we aren’t “making muscles stronger, bigger or more enduring,” he said. The body’s resources, which could be devoted to building muscle, are instead spent repairing overtaxed muscles. In that way, recovery is paying back a loan rather than an investment in the future. If we don’t do a lot of damage, Baar said, we have all that we need to recover and adapt.
Ian McMahan is a freelance writer and full-time certified athletic trainer. He has a master’s degree in exercise physiology from the University of Maryland and has experience working for Major League Soccer, the Women’s World Cup and the San Francisco 49ers. Find him on Twitter @IanMcMahan.