If you’re not on the floor in pain and shaking at the end of a workout, you are doing just fine. Despite what many fitness enthusiasts would believe, no pain is probably more gain, depending on the food you eat and the rest you take in between workouts. Resting your muscles is as vital as flexing them while you work out towards optimal fitness.
Yes, the key to a chiselled body, improved physical fitness and optimal performance is working out regularly and intensively. Exercise breaks down microscopic muscle fibres, which are then rebuilt in the healing process, increasing in size each time. Yet, allowing muscles time to recover is just as important.
Many articles written on the topic of exercise and weight loss imply that exercisers should be so sore afterwards that they can barely lift their arms or walk down the steps. On the contrary, this misconception is a sure way to cause injury, slow recovery and lose motivation.
Here, we spotlight five dos and don’ts for healthy post-workout muscle recovery.
Even trained professionals and coaches often make the mistake of believing that pain is good – that your body is getting stronger and building more muscles, which isn’t completely true. In the aftermath of an intense workout, the body may suffer Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) caused by temporary muscle damage and inflammation. Although this is completely normal, this sensation should not be an indication of a great workout. Rather it is the body’s way of saying it has worked too hard and is struggling to keep up in the healing process.
Feeling sore after a workout is nothing to worry about, but you should still be able to move as normal and withstand another session the following day. Studies have found that muscles can grow regardless of whether you feel pain in the areas you worked out or not. Overtraining, on the other hand, leaves the body hurting and fatigued, requiring more time to heal and increasing the risk of injury, which quite often leads to muscle breakdown, loss of progress, strength, muscle mass and motivation.
Mind Over Muscle
Instead of looking for the burn, focus on mind-muscle connection. The path to a long-term success begins with a good foundation. Good form is everything in the gym – even more important than how much and how heavy you lift. Research published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that focusing intently on the targeted muscle area can lead to an increase in size as you contract it. Feeling your muscles engaged throughout a full range of motion, while keeping a good form, is enough to activate muscle cells and increase muscle-fibre size. Remember: quality over quantity.
Carbs and Healthy Fats
Fitness is not all about cutting calories and exercising religiously. Nutrition is also key to effective post-workout muscle recovery, and directly links to optimal fitness. The quality of the food you eat will be the fuel that drives your body to better performance. While protein is important for muscle repair – especially after intense resistance training – carbohydrates are the body’s preferred energy source. The National Academy of Sports Medicine in the US recommends that adults should eat 0.8g of protein per kg of body weight, and up to 1.2g per kg to maximise glycogen stores, within three hours of working out.
High-glycemic carbohydrates (simple carbs or fast-digesting carbs) such as potatoes, white rice and bread provide quick boosts of energy, while complex carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, whole grains and legumes help to sustain energy throughout the day. Omega 3-rich fatty foods like wild-caught salmon and grass-fed beef are great sources of protein while vegetarians and vegans can consume walnuts, avocados, tofu and chia seeds as alternatives. Whey proteins are available for effective and speedy post-workout muscle recovery, and don’t forget your daily dose of minerals and vitamins from fruits and vegetables to boost bodily functions and recovery.
Strength training can be addictive, thanks to the happy chemicals exercise induces, such as dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins. Nevertheless, for the body to recover effectively after an intense workout, it needs to rest. But that doesn’t mean you can’t keep moving. Active rest days dedicated to light activities support post-workout muscle recovery.
While the strength and muscle you have gained in your workouts do not disappear within a day of inactivity, regular activity helps to improve cardiovascular health, metabolism and digestion. During this process of recovery and light activity, the body is repairing and preparing itself for an even stronger comeback at its next workout session. Not only do you keep up the habit of physical activity, but by balancing intense workout with active recovery throughout the week, you can avoid overtraining, thus preventing sleeplessness, fatigue, risk of injury, loss of progress and motivation.
On rest days, go for a brisk walk, swim or do yoga. Foam rolling, ice baths and massage therapy are other forms of active recovery that help to reduce inflammation, muscle strain and body aches.
This should require little explanation, yet many adults still find themselves restless and sleep deprived. According to studies published by the US National Library of Medicine, muscle recovery and muscle mass are directly affected by quality of sleep. Those who slept for five hours or less a night were found to have 60 percent less muscle mass than those who slept at least seven hours.
A restful night’s sleep supports a series of changes that aid in the overall health of the mind and body. Deep sleep allows the brain and body to lower its pulse, slow down its function and engage in recovery and healing. Damaged cells and tissues can be repaired, hormones balanced and glycogen (the body’s source of energy) restored, allowing the body to wake-up to an improved physical and mental performance. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps once shared that he was able to train every day for nearly five years because he prioritised a good night’s sleep.
Whether you are a professional athlete, a weekend gym warrior or a home-workout junkie, the key to optimal fitness and performance is everything that happens in between working out and during recovery.
(Text: Zaira Abbas)