Recovery from exercise is the process whereby the body is returned to a pre-exercise state (Halson and Jeukendrup, 2004; Barnett, 2006). This recovery process can be broken down into several parts.
First, it can be divided into two components: the fast component, and the slow component. The fast component involves the rapid decrease in heart rate, ventilation (breathing) rate, and muscle oxygen requirements (VO2). Though there is a rapid decrease in these values they can still remain elevated for some time compared to a pre-exercise state. The fast recovery also includes the restoration of the ATP/CP system (aka the creatine phosphate or phosphagen system) which is necessary for high intensity powerful movements.
The slow component of exercise recovery also involves heart rate, ventilation and VO2 but is the longer process of returning these to their pre-exercise or resting values. This can take up to 48 hours (depending on the intensity and duration of the exercise) and is broken up into two main processes: protein synthesis and glycogen replenishment. This is the part of recovery where post exercise nutrition is paramount.
During exercise our muscles undergo such stress that they develop micro tears. During the slow recovery our body must continue to burn energy (aerobic system) to synthesize proteins to repair these damaged tissues (Rattray et al., 2015).
The other part, glycogen replenishment, has to do with muscle glycogen stores. Glycogen is our body’s carbohydrate storage molecule, which is stockpiled in our muscles. During exercise, varying amounts of these stores (depending on intensity and duration of exercise) are used up to produce energy for our muscles (Rattray et al., 2015). During the slow component of recovery, our body continues to use energy (aerobic system) to replenish these glycogen stores.
Put simply, during the slow component of exercise recovery our body is rebuilding protein that was damaged and carbohydrates that were burned during exercise. This is why a properly balanced protein and carbohydrate-rich post-exercise meal is essential for proper muscle growth and recovery.
Now to look at the more overt symptoms of exercise recovery: muscle pain and stiffness, general fatigue (mental and physical), and reduced motivation. From the physiological side we see that muscle fatigue and stiffness/pain is closely tied to what is actually happening inside our muscles – energy stores are physically depleted and muscles are physically damaged. Some overt techniques that may help reduce discomfort associated with this part of the recovery include proper diet (pre- and post-workout) and light activity to promote healthy blood flow and reduce muscle stiffness. Some lighter activities could include going for a short walk, doing static stretching or yoga, or even doing a short (10-minute) My Viva workout at the beginner level with only body weight.
Regarding mental fatigue and motivation, proper diet is again extremely important, as well as sleep, and proper hydration. Proper diet provides not only your muscles, but also your brain with the fuel it needs to perform daily activities. Likewise, water or hydration is just as important – it is the medium through which all your inner bodily processes are performed. Dietitians of Canada suggest women should be drinking over 2.2 litres of water per day and men over 3.0 litres per day. Finally, research supports that sleep is one of the key strategies for athletes to achieve both mental and physical recovery following exercise (Halson, 2008) and that 8 hours per night can significantly improve sports performance (Mah et al., 2011).
Using these strategies, you can take control of your body’s recovery, allowing you to stick to your workout routine and feel good about it!
By Matt Sommerville – Kinesiologist