I recently embarked on what some people (me) would describe as an intensive exercise regime, and was unable to walk properly for the following week.
Getting out of bed required enormous willpower, walking down stairs was a precarious and daunting challenge, and bending to pick something up off the ground was out of the question.
I learnt my lesson, and vowed never to exercise again.
It was a good reminder, though, of the importance of exercise recovery, both to ease the pain of sore muscles and to keep consistency to my workout routine.
So, to find out how it’s best done, I called recovery scientist and former director of the Australian Olympic Committee’s Recovery Centre, Shona Halson.
“People tend to think of recovery as ice baths and compression garments,” said Dr Halson, who is also an associate professor at the Australian Catholic University.
“But recovery is the foundational things like sleep and nutrition.
“Those are the things we should all be doing well. The other techniques … they’re more like the icing on the cake.”
Firstly, why am I so sore?
A couple of things can happen when we exercise: fatigue and soreness.
“The fitter you are and the more accustomed you are to doing a particular type of exercise, the less fatigue and soreness you’re likely to have,” Dr Halson said.
But the type of exercise matters too.
Muscle fatigue typically arises from exercise that involves “concentric contractions” (where the muscle is shortening) and no impact with the ground such as swimming and cycling.
“You can swim for hours, you can cycle for hours. And you burn fuel, but you don’t really get super sore, you get more tired,” Dr Halson said.
Muscle soreness, on the other hand, comes about after exercise that involves the lengthening of muscles.
This can break the connections between muscle fibres, causing inflammation and swelling.
“That swelling causes the soreness,” Dr Halson explained.
The microscopic damage our muscles accrue can be the result of impact with the ground, for example through running, or with another person if you play contact sport.
It also happens when we force our muscles to work harder than usual, or exercise muscle groups we don’t normally use.
“Weight training is another type of exercise typically associated with soreness,” Dr Halson said.
“You have some shortening muscle contractions, but you also usually have some lengthening contractions, and it’s those lengthening contractions that cause the soreness.”
While the fatigue most people feel from activities like cycling and swimming tends to go away quickly, soreness from damaged muscle fibres can last for a few days.
Soreness isn’t a bad sign
If it takes up to 72 hours for soreness to go away after exercise, it’s probably a sign that you have induced a fair bit of muscle damage, Dr Halson said.
While it’s not much fun at the time, making progress with your fitness usually means pushing yourself a little bit more each time, she said.
“You’re not going to keep improving if you don’t generate some soreness and fatigue. It’s part of the process.”
That being said, soreness that doesn’t go away after three to five days may be a sign you’ve pushed yourself too hard.
If you are trying to build up your exercise routine, it’s important to do it gradually, and allow your muscles to adapt and repair.
But what if I’m a regular exerciser?
Consistent exercise provides somewhat of a protective effect against muscle fatigue and soreness.
“You’re still putting stress and strain through the muscles … it’s just you adapt,” Dr Halson said.
However, people who regularly work out still encounter muscle soreness because they’re often building their strength or aerobic fitness over time.
“You’ll up your weights, or try to run a bit further or a bit faster,” she said.
“Often, if you do exercise that you haven’t done before and you exercise quite extremely, it can be really painful.”
What’s the best way to recover?
Sleep is the answer
“Sleep is the most powerful recovery strategy that you have,” according to Dr Halson.
It’s well known sleep is important for brain function and memory consolidation. But, she said, it also plays a key role in restoring and repairing muscle tissue.
“Sleep is one of the most active times both from a physical and mental recovery perspective. There’s hormone release, muscle repair and restoring of the brain.”
When we exercise, our muscles initially use their stores of carbohydrates for fuel, before burning fat.
Sports drinks, which typically contain water and electrolytes for rehydration and carbohydrates (as sugars) for energy, were originally designed to replenish fluid and provide extra fuel for intense, long-lasting exercise.
But water should meet most people’s fluid requirements unless you’re a professional athlete, Dr Halson said.
“It’s important to rehydrate if you’ve lost fluid, and one of the best ways is to measure yourself pre and post-[workout], and replace 150 per cent of what you’ve lost.”
When it comes to food, Dr Halson said it was important to replenish any carbohydrates depleted during exercise, and protein — the main nutrient needed for muscle repair.
If you’re doing high intensity interval training or weight lifting, for example, you might want to focus especially on protein. If you work out is predominantly cardio-based, you should be looking at carbohydrate replacement.
“It just depends on your activity.”
Compression can work
While compression garments aren’t necessary for most people’s exercise recovery, Dr Halson said they can help reduce the perception of soreness.
“There are a couple of theories behind compression garments,” she said.
“One of the main ones is that the tightness [of the garment] basically compresses the superficial veins close to the skin, particularly in the legs, and that forces the blood to flow through deeper vessels.”
That increase in blood flow can help to clear “some of the waste products” in the blood, she said.
“That can be good for inflammation and swelling, which we know is what partly causes that soreness.”
Ice, ice baby
Ice baths are a popular recovery tool for athletes, and for good reason; like compression garments, water can be compressive.
“There’s hydrostatic pressure in water, so it has that similar effect on blood flow,” Dr Halson said.
But the benefits of ice baths can be achieved without actually filling up a bath tub with ice.
“As long as the water is colder than your skin temperature [about 34 degrees Celsius] … it will eventually cool you down.”
That means jumping into a cold swimming pool or the ocean after exercising can help to reduce soreness. Even a cold shower — though it won’t provide the hydrostatic pressure of a body of water — isn’t a bad place to start.
But what about the effects of freezing cold… air?
Cryotherapy is a treatment that involves exposing the body to freezing or near-freezing temperatures for several minutes, and its use has grown in recent years.
“There is a little bit of science … mainly in patients with rheumatic arthritis or an inflammatory disease,” Dr Halson said.
“But what you don’t get with cryotherapy chambers … is the hydrostatic pressure of water.”
Dr Halson said the evidence for water immersion was stronger. Plus, a dip in the ocean is free.
Stretch if you feel like it
For something so many of us do either before or after exercise, there isn’t a whole lot of evidence that stretching is effective at reducing injury risk.
“A lot of athletes say that if they don’t stretch, they feel more sore the next day,” Dr Halson said.
“But in terms of scientific evidence to say we should be stretching after exercise, there’s not a huge amount.”
For those who find it beneficial, there’s no reason to stop, she said.
“Stretching can be something that might reduce soreness and stiffness, especially if you’re someone that’s doing something you’re not really accustomed to.”
Listen to your body
Sometimes, when your muscles are feeling sore or fatigued, it can be helpful to do some gentle exercise to “work through the soreness and stiffness”.
But taking periods of rest is also important.
“If you look at elite athletes, even they would have one day a week off,” Dr Halson said.
“So, I think your average person should be looking to have at least one day [per week] of complete rest.”
The most important thing to do is listen to your body.
“If you are a bit sore, starting to get really tired, maybe not concentrating at work, or you feel like you might be getting sick, having a day off in the long run is probably better for you.”
By: Olivia Willis