Recovery has become a buzzword in the health and wellness space, but what does it really mean? And why is it important? A short and simple answer is that recovery is an active process of healing the body and mind from exercise training and acute activation of the stress response. Therefore, recovery is vital to athletes, busy professionals, and anyone who wants to maintain a high level of physical or mental performance.
The long answer is that recovery is a two-fold process acting on two major systems in the body. First, there are the skeletal muscles. Exercise involves creating microtears in the fibers of activated muscles. This microscopic damage signals an anabolic (muscle building) response. It is only through sufficient recovery that the muscles are able to grow back stronger than they were before.
Second, there is the central nervous system. Exercise is just one method of activating the sympathetic (fight or flight) response. The response can also be activated through stress at work, a missed credit card payment, or a visit with the in-laws. But make no mistake; acute activation of the stress response is a good thing. Recovery is not meant to extinguish the stress response entirely. Rather its goal is to bring balance to the autonomic nervous system, so that we can readily and accurately respond to the presence (or absence) of external stimuli.
So even though our focus here is on accelerating sports recovery, know that some of these methods also act on the recovery of the central nervous system.
Studies have shown that compression gear can increase blood flow to restore muscle glycogen and clear out waste products produced during exercise. A pair of compression tights used post-workout can accelerate recovery and improve performance during your next workout.
Cold therapy, specifically cold water immersion, increases the flow of oxygen to the heart and brain through the mammalian dive reflex. The cold temperature also causes vasoconstriction, which dilates blood vessels, promoting better blood flow. More oxygen is taken in by the lungs and exercise-induced inflammation drops. The bottom line: a better functioning cardiovascular system leading to faster recovery.
Vitamin C works as an antioxidant to reduce levels of reactive oxygen species (ROS). Levels of ROS increase during exercise, and their subsequent reduction is vital to the recovery process.
Be sure to take these post-workout, as taking them before a workout can prevent the formation of ROS in the first place, which we don’t want. And if you're going to use a supplement, make sure it's made from real foods and not from a synthetic source. The Organifi Green Juice Powder is a good option here.
Omega-3 fatty acids increase muscle protein synthesis, benefit cardiovascular health, and reduce inflammation, allowing for faster recovery. Going along with this, it’s important to keep in mind your ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s. While omega-3s are anti-inflammatory, omega-6s are pro-inflammatory. So it doesn’t do much good to increase omega-3 intake if you’re getting way too many omega-6s. If your goal is to optimize your omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, consider reducing your intake of vegetable oils, sunflower seeds and pistachios that contain lots of omega-6s in addition to increasing your intake of omega-3 rich foods like salmon and chia seeds. Alternately, you can invest in an EHA-DHA supplement
If you suffer from excessive soreness, cramping, or reduced muscular output, you might have a magnesium deficiency. Magnesium, in addition to promoting optimal muscle function, healthy sleep, and energy synthesis, also helps the body metabolize vitamin D which helps maintain bone health. Many people supplementing with vitamin D aren’t actually getting any benefits from it because their magnesium levels are too low. The best way to get maximum absorption of magnesium is through topical gels
Fasting stimulates a process of cellular turnover called “autophagy”. This process is crucial for nervous system recovery, leading to improvements in muscular function. Muscle protein synthesis is also enhanced when exercise is performed in a fasted state (12-18 hours). The reason this happens is because exercise becomes even more stressful to the body when it has no food. This heightened stress elicits a greater adaptation response from the body, leading to better performance in the following session. As a word of caution, women can exhibit negative effects such as loss of lean muscle and hormonal dysregulation.
Only 17% of the protein in whey can be absorbed by the body. In fact, only half of the amino acids on most foods can be absorbed by the body. To preserve lean muscle mass and decrease recovery time, consider using some form of essential amino acids.
Exercise and sports performance is all about making continual progress, and those who can recover better ultimately perform better.
“Wolverine: A Complete Toolbox for Recovering with Lightning Speed.” Boundless: Upgrade Your Brain, Optimize Your Body & Defy Aging, by Ben Greenfield, Victory Belt Publishing Inc., 2020, pp. 240–258.