The moment every athlete wants to avoid.
A muscle gives at the gym or on the track, leading to weeks of rehab. Sometimes it’s not even a single moment, but rather, countless hours of overuse that leads a muscle to strain or tear.
To avoid rehab, athletes need to be thinking about pre-hab. Get ahead of an injury before it happens.
Muscle recovery should be part of every training plan (specifically post-workout). But there are multiple strategies athletes can employ that lead to muscle health–even things like diet can impact how your muscles recover. Knowing what to do, and when to do it, can help avoid the injuries that’ll set you back weeks.
Why is Recovery Important?
An important goal of every training session is to break down muscle. Without recovery, a significant portion of that work might be a waste of time. So, what exactly happens during recovery? That’ll depend on the person and activity, but generally, four different things are happening while you’re resting.
Synthesis of protein: This is what leads to muscle growth. During recovery is when most muscle is built, because muscle protein synthesis increases by 50% four hours after a workout (like resistance training).1
Rebuilding of muscle fibers: Microtears in muscle fibers are a normal part of exercise, happening when we put strain on our muscles. Recovery allows these fibers to heal and become stronger during that process.
Fluid restoration: We sweat (and lose a lot of fluid through exhaled air).2 Hydrating before, during and after a workout is important, because these fluids help deliver nutrients to organs and muscle through the bloodstream.
Removal of metabolic waste products: Acids (via that pesky little proton associated with lactate) accumulate during a workout, and recovery gives the body time to restore intramuscular pH and reestablish intramuscular blood flow for oxygen delivery (among other things).
While you’re resting, your muscles kick into overdrive.
Recovery can be attacked several ways–some may be surprising, because they don’t directly target the muscles themselves. By approaching recovery through a few different avenues, it can be optimized.
Consuming Your Way to Recovery
It may not seem obvious, but a combination of hydration, diet, and supplements can do wonders for the muscles.
Hydration: During and After Exercise
Drinking fluids is a mantra repeated by coaches everywhere for good reason: muscles are 75% water.
Before and during exercise, hydration is key to maintaining fluid balance and can even improve endurance (it’s equally important to not over-consume water as well).3,4 But post-workout, consuming enough water is vital to helping digest essential nutrients and repairing damaged muscle.
The sought after protein re-synthesis requires muscles be well-hydrated. And coupled with post-workout eating, saliva–which is comprised mostly of water–is necessary to help break down food, digest, and absorb all the nutrients you’re hoping to receive. In one study, adequate hydration after a 90-minute run on a treadmill showed significantly faster heart rate recovery;5 this illustrates that hydrated bodies recover from exercise-induced stress faster.
Don’t rely on the age-old test of urine to determine if you’re hydrated; that has been debunked.6
A good rule of thumb is to weigh yourself before and after a workout, drinking 1.5x the amount of weight lost.
Diet: Protein, Carbohydrates and Fat All Work Together
Nailing the right nutrition strategy post-workout can encourage quicker recovery, reduce soreness, build muscle, improve immunity and replenish glycogen.
Your next workout starts within the hour your last workout ended.
Since exercise triggers the breakdown of muscle protein,7 it’s beneficial to consume an adequate amount of protein after a workout. Protein provides the body with necessary amino acids needed to repair and rebuild, while also promoting the development of new muscle tissue.8 Good sources of protein include: whey protein, whole eggs, cheese and smoked salmon.
Carbohydrates have a similarly important effect–they replenish glycogen stores. The type of exercise will depend on how much carbohydrate is needed. Consuming about 0.5 - 0.7 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight within 30 minutes of training can result in adequate glycogen resynthesis.7 Insulin secretion promotes glycogen synthesis, and is more stimulated when carbs and protein are consumed simultaneously.9
Carb sources are everywhere; but look to slow-release sources such as sweet potatoes, fruit, pasta and rice.
Fat shouldn’t be the main focus of an after workout meal, but should be part of it. Good fat sources include avocados and nuts. Milk is also a popular choice; one study found whole milk was more effective at promoting muscle growth than skim milk.10
Supplements: Protein, BCAAs and Omega-3s Build Muscle and Reduce Inflammation
We’ve outlined which supplements runners should take; it’s best to focus on protein, BCAAs and omega-3s–all these supplements help optimize muscle recovery.
While most athletes think protein is best left to bodybuilders, protein can repair the muscle damage that occurs during a workout, reduce the response from the “stress hormone” cortisol, and speed up glycogen replacement. Protein also accelerates the resolution of muscle inflammation.11,12
Whey, casein and soy are some of the most popular proteins. Whey is absorbed the fastest by the body, and is largely considered the most effective protein for muscle protein synthesis.13 Casein protein is geared more toward long-term recovery because it takes hours to absorb. Try introducing whey immediately post-workout, while using casein protein before bed; protein ingestion before sleep has been shown to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.14
Serious athletes should be taking about one gram of protein per pound of body weight.
If someone doesn’t consume enough protein, branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) can be a useful supplement.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. During exercise, the body breaks down protein into amino acids; those are absorbed and transported through the body to create new proteins that encourage building muscle. BCAAs help enhance muscle protein recovery by introducing more amino acids into the body. They preserve muscle glycogen stores, which fuel the muscles and minimize protein breakdown. Studies show BCAAs as effective for muscle recovery (as well as immune system regulation).15
Omega-3s, found in fish oils, have anti-inflammatory properties that help sore muscles.16