Your eyes flutter open as you become faintly aware of the vibrating Fitbit on your wrist. As you slowly sit up in bed, your legs remind you of the brutal training session from the day before.
“Why did I want to do 8 sets of squats again?”
Shaking your head, you somehow manage to
hobble crawl into the bathroom and wash your face to prepare for the day ahead.
Cup of oats. Scoop of whey protein. Chia seeds. Almond butter. Cocoa powder. Cinnamon. Stevia. Raspberries.
You proceed to drive into work but spend 6 and half minutes trying to get out of your car because your legs have seemingly stopped responding to voluntary commands from your brain.
1 cup basmati rice. 8oz gound bison. Salsa. Avocado. Sprinkle of cheese. Greens, lots of greens.
“SON OF A NUTCRACKER. Why does it feel like someone put my legs through a meat grinder?!”
You knock out a protein shake along with a handful of almonds before trying to resume your work and keep your mind off the crippling soreness mounting in your lower body.
DOMS, Deadlifts, and Donuts: Oh My!
We’ve all been there – the preworkout hits a little too hard, your favorite playlist comes on Pandora radio, or that cute girl on the treadmill glances over for half a second before you start your set.
Before you know it, you’re 10 sets deep with Eminem blasting in your ears and sweat dripping off your nose. #doitforthegram
Related: 10 More Creative Gym Hacks & Tips You Need to Know
While you may have had a great workout, your inability to brush your teeth or get out of bed the next day might put a damper on your quality of life. So, the question remains – what can you do about it?
Here are 5 simple suggestions which might come in handy the next time you decide to overdose on caffeine and triple your volume load in a single session.
Outside of exogenous anabolic steroids, there is nothing more beneficial to recovery than sleep. This is the single most important variable which anyone can utilize to improve their recovery. However, we need to have a serious conversation about sleep; it’s never as simple as “6-8 hours of uninterrupted, deep restful sleep.”
What if you have trouble falling asleep? Or staying asleep? What if you can’t seem to feel rested despite sleeping “enough”?
Sleep is an incredibly complex, innate biological process which accomplishes much more than you realize. I’ve written extensively about the topic in the past; if you truly want to maximize your performance, then you need to read these and start making some lifestyle alterations:
- Sleep Science: Nature’s Most Effective Performance Enhancer
- Sleep Science: Nature’s Most Effective Performance Enhancer (Part 2)
- Hacking Your Sleep 101: Nine Tips for Better Gains
2. CARBOHYDRATE TIMING
We’re not just talking about the macronutrient in general, we need to consider the timing of carbohydrates relative to your training session and the associated hormonal implications. You see, taking carbohydrates DURING the training session may affect more than you think. For example:
Lower prevalence of upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs)1,2
Carbohydrates have been shown to decrease the exercise mediated immune depression which typically follows a training session.
Yes, the linked research occurred in long distance running bouts but I can tell you that we have just finished multiple studies at ETSU on the immune mediated response to strength training and the cytokine response was very, very similar.
Improved muscle glycogen5
During training, you experience an upregulation in a glucose transport protein known as GLUT4. This only becomes active during activity/exercise but it is essentially the shuttle to get carbs out of your bloodstream and into the muscle.
If you have higher circulating levels of glucose, there is a greater chance it will be shuttled directly into the muscle tissue and stored as glycogen.
Blunted cortisol response3
Carbohydrates seem to play a role in blunting the cortisol response to exercise by increasing substrate availability and insulin. You see, cortisol is typically secreted when energy needs to be mobilized for activity.
However, if there is readily available energy being consumed during the training session, cortisol isn’t as needed and this can promote a more positive hormonal environment for adaptation (i.e. improved T:C ratio - aka a marker of anabolism)4.
But, let us not forget the context of this situation. I am by no means suggesting that you need to consume intra-workout carbohydrates (along with whey) if you have just ingested a whole food meal within 1-2 hours of the training session.
Given that it takes roughly 3-5 hours for digestion of a normal sized, mixed macronutrient meal, there is little need to add additional carbs and protein right after a meal. This suggestion would most likely be used in the case of someone lifting early in the morning or 4-5 hours after their last meal to ensure an optimal hormonal environment for adaptation.
Related: How Long Should I Workout? Getting Down and Dirty on Duration
I know what you’re thinking, “Thanks for that startling revelation captain obvious, I’ve definitely never seen that anywhere else on Instagram.” Relax tough guy, let me explain…
Aside from the obvious, slight dehydration of greater than 2-3% can lead to a marked decrease in endurance and strength performances, respectively.6 This can not only affect performance in an acute sense, it can also alter systemic recovery in the long term.
There have been several studies examining the effects of dehydration from a hormonal perspective relative to exercise. A 2008 study found cortisol levels were significantly higher in dehydrated subjects both at rest, during training, and immediately post exercise.7
Not only that, the typical post-exercise rise in testosterone was attenuated in the dehydration group. Similarly, another study from 2001 found that there was a marked difference in the exercise-induced growth hormone response when individuals were restricted from hydration during the training session.8
However, keep in mind that hydration encompasses more than just the overall amount of fluid one consumes. Electrolytes play an important role in regulating the intracellular environment.
When one encounters a stressful situation, your adrenal glands not only secrete cortisol, they also produce something known as aldosterone which helps to regulate blood pressure by reabsorbing sodium and water.
But, in the case of someone who is dehydrated, cortisol levels are actually higher which drops aldosterone even lower. When aldosterone drops, blood volume lowers and viscosity increases as you won’t retain as much water. Now you have essentially made yourself hemo-concentrated and altered the workload on your heart (viscosity changes the flow rate of liquids).
If this dehydration remains after the training session, your heart will have to work harder to deliver blood with vital nutrients to repair the tissues. Why work harder if you don’t have to?
Do you need a special supplement with lots of fancy sounding ingredients to get the job done? Nope, I typically just recommend 4-6oz of coconut water with a teaspoon of sea/celtic salt. Coconut water has nearly 4 times the amount of potassium as typical sports drinks and you can add additional sodium depending upon your individual needs.
Also, remember how we touched on the benefits of intra-workout carbs above? Coconut water has naturally occurring carbs due to the sugar content – two for the price of one, eh?
BRO TIP: Yes, it will likely taste less than pleasant (read: terrible). Add some crystal light and it will be much more palatable. Remember, you’re drinking this for performance, not taste. It’s not going to taste like a Pina Colada version of Gatorade.
Shoot for half your bodyweight in ounces and don’t worry about having to carry around a gallon jug because some bodybuilder told you that “everyone needs to drink a gallon per day.” If you’re a heavy sweater or you work out in a hot environment, you may need more.
Weigh yourself before and after the training session – for every pound lost you should ideally consume an additional 16-24oz of fluid.
4. HEAT, COMPRESSION, & MOVEMENT
When it comes to pain and recovering from training, most people default to 1 of 2 options: ice or NSAIDs. Sure, icing can limit edema formation via vasoconstriction and also reduce pain by slowing nerve conduction velocity but, outside of an acute injury, ice really isn’t going to do much for recovery from DOMS.
Not only will it promote vasoconstriction and potentially reduce the delivery of nutrients to an area, it will also slow lymphatic flow which assists the venous system in removal of debris from injured areas as they complete various stages of remodeling.
NSAIDs (Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug) are a whole different side of the story. We first need to understand what normally occurs when there is an injury or in this case micro-trauma (i.e. DOMS = micro-tears that occur at the cellular level).9
Your body naturally goes through 3 stages to initiate repair:
NSAIDs can profoundly alter this basic model by reducing the production of prostaglandins.10 This essentially shortcuts step #1 as prostaglandins are very important for both the promotion and resolution of the inflammation pathway.11
Not only that, there have been a number of studies linking NSAIDs to various issues such as increased joint laxity, non-union fractures, and decreased tendon strength.12,13
Remember, inflammation is necessary for adaptation
Sorry, I hate to say it, but if you can’t handle any pain then maybe you should find a new hobby before you start popping NSAIDs like skittles. Or, maybe if you found a good coach who understands how to prescribe an appropriate training stimulus you wouldn’t feel the need for NSAIDs because you’d quit running yourself into the ground. Just a thought…
Bottom Line: Heat, compression, and movement > ice & NSAIDs.
If you’re crippled from your previous training session, then your best bet is to apply heat and compression to the area. Take a hot shower, put on a pair of compression pants, then lay on the floor with your legs against a wall and let gravity assist your lymphatic system.
Similarly, low intensity movement (e.g. walking, biking, etc.) can help to pump blood back to the heart via the contraction of skeletal muscle and stimulate vasodilation.
Before you rush off to assemble the bevy of foods discussed below, please note the question mark above. As you’ll see in the hierarchy of recovery which is included at the end of this article, this final point likely contributes the least out of all that were mentioned.
However, there is an emerging body of research which suggests that these specific foods could play a direct role in influencing the recovery process so they are worth mentioning.
Tart Cherry Juice14
“The cherry juice appears to provide a viable means to aid recovery following strenuous exercise by increasing total anti-oxidative capacity, reducing inflammation, lipid peroxidation and so aiding in the recovery of muscle function.”
BRO TIP: If purchasing cherry juice, ensure it is the “tart” variety and contains one and only one ingredient – “tart cherry juice”.
“Supplementation with pomegranate juice attenuates weakness and reduces soreness of the elbow flexor but not of knee extensor muscles. These results indicate a mild, acute ergogenic effect of pomegranate juice in the elbow flexor muscles of resistance trained individuals after eccentric exercise.”
BRO TIP: If purchasing pomegranate juice, ensure it contains one and only one ingredient – “pomegranate juice”.
“This study demonstrates that the ingestion of a blueberry smoothie prior to and after EIMD accelerates recovery of muscle peak isometric strength.
This effect, although independent of the beverage's inherent antioxidant capacity, appears to involve an up-regulation of adaptive processes, i.e. endogenous antioxidant processes, activated by the combined actions of the eccentric exercise and blueberry consumption.”
BRO TIP: Frozen blueberries are a game changer in smoothies. You’re welcome.
Related: How to Reduce Inflammation With These Foods and Supplements
“The experimental group demonstrated superior recovery of contractile function and diminished effects of delayed-onset muscle soreness after downhill running when compared with the placebo group.
Our results indicate that protease supplementation may attenuate muscle soreness after downhill running. Protease supplementation may also facilitate muscle healing and allow for faster restoration of contractile function after intense exercise.”
BRO TIP: Protease is a proteolytic enzyme which functions to assist in the breakdown on protein. Pineapple contains very high levels of the protease bromelain.
“This study demonstrates that daily consumption of raw and heat-treated ginger resulted in moderate-to-large reductions in muscle pain following exercise-induced muscle injury. Our findings agree with those showing hypoalgesic effects of ginger in osteoarthritis patients and further demonstrate ginger's effectiveness as a pain reliever.”
BRO TIP: Utilize fresh ginger whenever possible, the powdered version is quite potent and can easily ruin a good smoothie.
Interestingly enough, the San Antonio spurs have been utilizing many of the foods above as they’ve been on a cold pressed juice kick for the last 3 years. Even more intriguing is the fact that they lead the league with fewest games missed due to injury.
Now of course, correlation doesn’t equal causation but it certainly doesn’t hurt to experiment on yourself. All the above can easily be purchased at your local grocery store and consumed daily without any issues.
Recover Well, Recover Often
Like any component of health or performance, there are certain overarching, foundational principles which provide the largest return upon your investment.
You can think of this as the “hierarchy of recovery”. Rather than break these down in text format, I’ve provided a simple pyramid below which should help you to understand the level of importance associated with each variable.
If you take nothing else away from this article, simply remember and reference this pyramid.
- Carbohydrate supplementation affects blood granulocyte and monocyte trafficking but not function after 2.5 h or running.
- Carbohydrate and the cytokine response to 2.5 h of running.
- Nutritional and contractile regulation of human skeletal muscle protein synthesis and mTORC1 signaling
- The impact of an ultramarathon on hormonal and biochemical parameters in men.
- Contraction-stimulated muscle glucose transport and GLUT-4 surface content are dependent on glycogen content.
- Effects of acute dehydration and starvation on muscular strength and endurance
- Effect of hydration state on resistance exercise-induced endocrine markers of anabolism, catabolism, and metabolism.
- Effect of hydration on exercise-induced growth hormone response
- Is Postexercise Muscle Soreness a Valid Indicator of Muscular Adaptations?
- [NSAID and its effect on prostaglandin].
- Prostaglandins and Inflammation
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs' impact on nonunion and infection rates in long-bone fractures.
- NSAID therapy effects on healing of bone, tendon, and the enthesis
- Influence of tart cherry juice on indices of recovery following marathon running.
- The effect of pomegranate juice supplementation on strength and soreness after eccentric exercise.
- Supplementation Strategies to Reduce Muscle Damage and Improve Recovery Following Exercise in Females: A Systematic Review
- Effect of New Zealand blueberry consumption on recovery from eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage.
- The effects of protease supplementation on skeletal muscle function and DOMS following downhill running.
- Ginger (Zingiber officinale) Reduces Muscle Pain Caused by Eccentric Exercise