How to Recover Faster from Workouts
If you've been reading our recent posts, you'll notice that we love the cold! Today we are going to explain how cold therapy can actually help us recovery from workouts faster!
First and foremost, it’s important to note that exercise creates two major types of stress in the body: metabolic and mechanical stress.
Metabolic stress occurs when your muscles swell up as a result of increased blood flow. This is commonly known as “the pump” and it doesn’t just make your biceps look bigger after a set of curls. “The pump” actually restricts subsequent blood flow to those muscles, which indirectly induces anabolic signaling for muscle growth.
One of the byproducts of metabolic stress is an increase in reactive oxygen species (ROS). This leads the body to initiate a redox or (oxidative reduction) response. This is essential for activating a muscle adaptation response, which is what we want from exercise. We want our muscles to grow more accustomed to the stress we put them under, so they become stronger. But too many ROS (otherwise known as oxidative stress) can cause structural damage and increase the time to recover.
Mechanical stress, on the other hand, is the actual tearing of muscle fibers that occurs when you run, lift weights, play polo, ride a bike, or do pilates. The muscles are being physically damaged when you exercise them, but eventually repair themselves and become stronger.
But the human body is incredibly smart, and when it notices muscle becoming damaged, it engages the sympathetic nervous system to activate an inflammatory immune response. This increased inflammation decreases the rate in which muscles recover.
Cold therapy, as you might be able to guess, reduces inflammation. If you’ve ever sprained an ankle or bruised a knee, you might be familiar with the RICE method. Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. This is all meant to combat the inflammation response that your body uses to protect your injury.
The same concept applies to exercise, which is a form of cellular injury. Blunting the inflammation response with the cold ultimately prevents secondary damage and improves recovery time.
Research also shows that the cold reduces the metabolic rate (otherwise known as energy consumption) of muscles post-workout, which decreases levels of metabolic stress and resulting ROS production.
Now, there are of course other physiological changes that occur during cold immersion and cryotherapy that I haven’t mentioned because they’re a bit more nuanced and difficult to explain concisely. But If you’re interested in learning more I’ll link the main study I’ve referenced in this post on metabolic stress and reactive oxygen species.
White, Gillian E., and Greg D. Wells. “Cold-Water Immersion and Other Forms of Cryotherapy: Physiological Changes Potentially Affecting Recovery from High-Intensity Exercise.” Extreme Physiology and Medicine, vol. 2, no. 1, 2013, pp. 26–26.