January 21, 2013
If you surf on over to the “Start Here” section of BenGreenfieldFitness.com, you'll see a bunch of “categories” you can click through to, such as “Natural Remedies“, “Workouts“, “Triathlon“, etc.
One of those categories is “Recovery“.
The reason I prioritize recovery as a frequent topic featured on this website is because optimal recovery allows you to bounce back day-after-day, feeling rested and restored after your workouts and being able to consistently exercise. A few missed days here and there from getting injured or sick can literally stop you from reaching your goal, whether it's to do an Ironman triathlon or just shed a few pounds.
Recently, I had a chance to do an audio interview with David Tao (pictured left), chief research officer at the website Greatist, where he researched and penned the article “18 Scientifically Proven Ways To Speed Recovery”.
David is a former collegiate rugby player, who is currently challenging/tormenting himself by pursuing excellence in the sport of Olympic-style Weightlifting.
Unfortunately, after I recorded the audio interview with David, I messed up the audio file and made it unrecoverable (pun intended). But below is the full transcript of the interview, in which I ask:
–What happens physiologically when you sleep that allows you to recover faster, and is there any research into how much sleep you *really* need?
-We've all heard music can help you perform, but can it help you recover?
-Most people think massage just improves blood flow and that's how you recover faster, but massage or foam rolling goes way beyond that, doesn't it?
-Is there any research that shows compression gear actually works to help recovery?
-What about icing – is there one “best” way to use ice?
-Can anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen keep muscles from recovering?
-If you want to use naps for recovery, what's the absolute best time of day to take a nap?
-Is alcohol really all that bad when it comes to recovery? Is so, how much alcohol is too much?
Let's jump right in and discover the answers….
Ben: What happens physiologically when you sleep that allows you to recover faster, and is there any research into how much sleep you *really* need?
David: Sleep is one of those topics that unfortunately and perhaps surprisingly, doesn’t have a whole lot of research behind it, and in fact, scientists are still trying to figure out exactly why we need to get sleep. And it’s pretty multi-faceted. Sleep’s obviously something that’s very variable for different people.
Some people can function both physically and mentally very well on four to six hours of sleep, whereas other people need more like seven to nine, it’s about average. I, myself, time spent training for different athletics and sports have found that my ideal is, you know, toward the upper end of that, more like nine to nine-and-a-half hours of sleep is where I operate pretty well.
But beyond the fact that there’s still a lot of mystery surrounding sleep, there’s been some really cool research from the past few years showing a connection between sleep and recovery on a few different fronts. One of those is that clearly, when it comes to the endocrine system and protein synthesis, so how the body is able to regulate its hormones and certain chemical levels that are important for protein synthesis and muscle regeneration, it seems to be a pretty strong link between getting an adequate amount of sleep and the body’s ability to take those amino acids and actually form the… actually build the muscles that we need and that we’re stressing in the gym and in the playing field.
There’s also a pretty big and pretty solid connection between sleep and human growth hormone production. Now, originally, this connection was observed for young people, for children and young adults. So people kind of up through their early to mid twenties, but probably still true for older folks as well. So getting an adequate amount of sleep allows the body to produce the right amount of growth hormone to keep its muscles healthy and active. That’s especially important if you’re participating in resistance training and strength training regularly, which is being in resistance and strength training on a regular basis which we of course encourage. On top of the kind of physical connections that we’re still trying to work out, and again there’s a lot of variability from person to person, there’s the obvious benefit mentally when it comes to sleep.
Having enough sleep keeps you mentally sharp and able to keep you focused in training. It’s tough to get a really good workout if you’re feeling tired, if you’re having trouble focusing, if you’re having trouble preparing your body for the next exercise, or the next stage of practice or whatever else you’re doing in order to improve your overall fitness.
Ben: We've all heard music can help you perform, but can it help you recover?
David: There are a lot of things around that can improve recovery, and that relates to our physical well-being that’s really gonna start with the mental side of things. So being able to stay fresh and to stay focused like I said earlier when talking about sleep as an important part of getting the most out of exercise, and preparing your body for the challenges that it’s gonna have to go through.
Music can actually be really relaxing. And what it can do, especially after a really tough or intense workout, is bring the mind and body kind of down to a more static state. So it helps people… researchers suggested that listening to slow tempo music post exercise can actually help restore the heart rate to closer to what might be in a resting state or before exercise. It helps the body do that in a nice controlled manner. On top of that, it can just help reduce stress. Exercise can be very stressful. It can spike cortisol levels, and being able to kind of help the mind calm down, especially after a tough workout, has been shown to have a remarkable and significant physical effect.
Ben: Most people think massage just improves blood flow and that's how you recover faster, but massage or foam rolling goes way beyond that, doesn't it?
David: You know, the benefits of massage by a professional are extremely similar to the benefits for self myofascial release, so foam rolling, taking lacrosse ball or a tennis ball and really getting into those intra muscular joints, into that kind of deep tissue.
What massage does is it helps breaks up the fascial connections that can form in response to stress in the muscles, and it can also basically warm up the muscles and stretch out the muscle tissue in a controlled, not always not painful, there’s definitely some pain involved that you’re gonna grit your teeth through at times. It kind of help tissue loosen up.
You know, we’ve all had… we’ve all woken up in the middle of the night, due to a Charlie horse or perhaps you have cramped up on a long run or something like that. And what massage, be it self massage or done by a professional massage therapist, can do is help reduce some of those tension in the muscles and reduce the likelihood of the muscles reacting in that same way in the future.
When it comes to recovery, it’s not all about getting out of the gym and not doing anything and taking a rest. Rest is obviously important, but there are actually active things people can do to improve their recovery, reduce their recovery time and better prepare their body for the next bout of exercise. Massage, or self myofascial release, we just say SMR, those are two techniques that work.
Ben: And it's not just massage, right? For example you can use muscle sticks or foam rollers…
David: That’s correct. The stick is a popular one. I know a lot of runners like to use those on their quads, or IT bands, trigger point roller, the rumble rollers, one of my favorites. Basically, it’s foam roller in various sizes with really evil looking ridges kind of sticking out of it. Foam rolling is another topic that still needs a lot of research to kind of help us understand the full scope of how it can help, but it’s also one of those techniques that a lot of people try the first time and they almost immediately say anecdotally that really works for me.
And that’s what it all really boils down to. Recovery is about improving how you feel and how you’re going to feel for the next workout and optimizing your performance from one bout of exercise to the next.
Ben: Is there any research that shows compression gear actually works to help recovery?
David: Yeah, compression gear is often billed and marketed as a kind of magic armour that’s going to increase or improve your athleticism just by throwing on a pair of skins or something, you’re gonna be able to run faster and jump higher kind of reminds me of all those red ball jets commercial from like the ‘60s and ‘70s, like you them in old time movies. It’s not really like that.
Compression gear isn’t really providing enough support to make your muscles stronger, or to make you able to lift more weigh or be more explosive. It might feel like that when you put it on. A lot of people enjoy that feeling. They feel a little bit more supported, but it’s really just like tight fabric or material that’s not really gonna help a lot in that case. But what compression garments can do post exercise is promote optimal blood flow to those muscles that undergo the most stress during exercise. So really, the benefit that research shows, and it is a measurable benefit, it’s not 50% faster recovery time or 50% increase strength over a controlled group, but it is a measurable amount… it does provide a measurable amount of benefit for the decreasing recovery time. So a lot of original compression garment research that’s still going on uses endurance athletes.
So say a cyclist goes for a 40-minute bout, and then puts on compression gear for a certain period of time post exercise, whereas in the control group, they don’t put on that compression gear. The cyclist who put on the compression gear will likely be able to go a little stronger and little longer during the next bout of exercise, be it the next day or the day after, than those who did not wear the compression gear.
Ben: What about icing – is there one “best” way to use ice?
David: Yeah. This is a really interesting topic and the article that we’re referencing might not be, actually, be most up to date, it is on my to-do to update it this week. But we’ve all kind of seen, you know, if you’re a big baseball fan, you see after a big game, the starting pitcher will have a giant ice pack on his shoulder to provide really localized cold to reduce the inflammation that comes from putting a lot of stress on their arm and on their shoulder. And that’s kind of what people are used to. If something hurts post exercise, you put ice directly on that area.
That reduces inflammation and that’s supposed to boost recovery. That can still be effective for reducing pain and still, very well, maybe, an important recovery technique, but it’s not something that recent research suggest should all do as a blanket statement after all types of exercise. Now, there is a lot of recent research that shows contrasting hot cold, like full body immersion, say if you are in a bath tub, you go from a very cold tub to a warm tub and vice versa. That can actually improve blood flow and can help reduce recovery time, and that’s a pretty well agreed upon aspect of recovery.
But as far as localized icing, there is some research suggesting, a lot of it anecdotal right now, but still needs some clinical, some large scale trial, that show localized icing might not be as effective as we once thought. So what I tell people, if you’re going to use cold for post exercise recovery, try full immersion, whether it’s a hot cold contrast shower or if you have the resources to do this, like hot cold contrast baths. Localized icing might not actually be kind of the panacea that it was once thought to be. So that’s an interesting thing to follow research-wise in the coming months and the next year, too.
Ben: Can anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen keep muscles from recovering?
David: Yeah. You know, anti-inflammatories and pain medication should be used in moderation for for a variety of reasons. One is obviously it can cause some gestational issues. They can also potentially create a lot of stress on the kidneys and liver. The organs that are trying to kind of flush toxins and chemical by-products of the body can make their job very difficult, which can in turn endure recovery, coz those organs play an important role in recovery as well. A lot of recovery basically taking these free radicals and a lot of substances our body builds up on de-stressing getting them out of our system. Any time that you tax the kidneys or the liver, you potentially hinder their ability to play their natural recurring role in recovery. Some anti-inflammatory medication can actually also directly hinder hypertrophy, which is muscle growth.
When people say hypertrophy, that’s you working out a muscle and it gets damaged and in response, the body builds it up bigger and stronger during the recovery period. It turns out that there are certain classes in anti-inflammatory medication, and again there’s still a lot of exciting research going on on this that could potentially inhibit muscle growth. So you know, after a tough workout, after a really session of squash, you can barely walk, you might be really sore, but hold off from reaching from that ibuprofen just yet. It might actually be better long term for your body and for your training to kind of deal with the pain. Or at least avoid using drugs like that as a method to deal with and manage post training soreness.
In fact, in the same article, I mentioned earlier, I talked about tart cherry juice and some other really cool research surrounding its ability to reduce post muscle soreness, especially delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, as people in health and fitness industry talk would say. Tart cherry juice, as well as some extracts from ginger and a few other herbal extracts, have been shown to reduce perceived muscle soreness post recovery, especially forty-eight hours post recovery, which is kind of that magic window when muscles get really tight and really sore after a workout, you know, it’s never the next day after the workout, it’s the day after that where you kind of feel the worst sometimes.
It turns out tart cherry juice can be really, really effective in reducing that soreness and that tightness without reducing muscle growth, or without hindering muscle growth and some of the body’s positive natural reaction to exercise.
Ben: If you want to use naps for recovery, what's the absolute best time of day to take a nap?
David: Yeah, you know, there is some research suggesting that napping, as far as nap times, can be optimized to promote the optimal release of human growth hormone. You know, when you sleep, like we discussed earlier, the body produces growth hormone which speeds recovery and helps repair muscles. Some suggests that taking a nap in the afternoon kind of promotes people like between 2 pm to 6 pm range, depending on your schedule, that might be optimal. You know, again, it really kind of depends on the person, your schedule and what works the best for you.
We at Greatist don’t recommend napping within 5 hours of bed time because that can throw off your sleep for the coming night, which is obviously one of the most important steps you can take in recovery if you get a good full night’s sleep. So definitely, we don’t recommend napping, say you go to bed at midnight, doing any napping at post 7 pm. Same thing goes for ingesting caffeine at night. Kind of avoid it, at all cost, if you can, because you don’t want to inhibit a really good night’s sleep. Now some people as far as the normal time to nap, we normally say in the afternoon, but again, it really varies from person to person. If you can get a nap in, and it happens to be a little early in the day, do it.
Napping is fantastic. A lot of top athletes famously keep sleep logs nd take naps to boost recovery. You mentioned the triathlete who slept for 12 hours a day. There are a lot of even more mainstream athletes in some of the biggest sports and the biggest sports stars, are huge on napping.
Lebron James is said to sleep between 10 and 12 hours every day. And notice that it’s not all in one big chunk at night. Steve Nash is one of the popular NBA players to popularize keeping a sleep log and then convinced a lot of his friends in the NBA to start doing that. And sleep can be seen as something that takes place mostly at night, but it can also benefit people during the day.
We don’t normally recommend naps of either 30 minutes or 90 minutes if you’re taking one during the day, because those are time intervals that allow the body to kind of hit a full sleep cycle and wake up feeling not so groggy. Naps that last like 60 minutes or 120 minutes don’t really coincide with an optimal time for the body to wake up. That kind of put you in the middle of a very deep sleep and waking up during the middle of a deep sleep causes really terrible groggy feeling, so 30 or 90-minute naps kind of in the early afternoon or later afternoon but not within 5 hours of bedtime is pretty much the most specific recommendation we can give at this point.
Ben: Is alcohol really all that bad when it comes to recovery? Is so, how much alcohol is too much?
David: You know, taking a bit of booze in is not the end of the world. Everything in moderation. Arnold Schwarzenegger who might not be the best example for everyone to follow as far as recovery and athleticism, was once said at one point in his training, it was said that his favorite post exercise meal was a whole chicken and a pint of beer. Now, we’re not recommending that at all.
In fact, a lot of people listening to this podcast probably cannot stomach a full chicken and a pint of beer post exercise. But there is a really cool research suggesting that one to two standard alcoholic drinks which is a 12 oz beer or a 5 oz glass of wine, one shot of hard liquor, it’s a big thing of that much alcohol. One or two drinks post exercise really isn’t going to harm recovery all that much, if at all.
Now, it’s when you get into the 3 to 4 to 5 drink ranges where you see reduced protein synthesis and you see harm in the body’s, some restriction in the body’s ability to repair its muscles. Also, more than one or two alcoholic drinks at a time, especially close to bed time can reduce sleep quality, which is we talked about earlier is an important component of recovery. So alcohol can be bad for recovery from two different perspectives, but keeping it in moderation which is generally seen as one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men, is probably gonna be okay. It might have some health benefits of its own.
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Do you have questions about these scientifically proven ways to speed recovery? If so, leave your thoughts below (and next time I promise not to lose the audio version).
5 thoughts on “The Zen Of Bouncing Back Faster: Scientifically Proven Ways to Speed Recovery”
Thank you for the article. I came across it when I was looking at the benefits of Tart Cherry Juice.
Out of curiosity, would taking Tart Cherry Juice, or even taking an Cold Shower – both as a means to an anti-inflammatory effect (for the purpose of recovering faster), post-workout, blunt the effect of the workout I just did? Or can you suggest modifying their timing so I can get the best of both worlds (fast recovery, while still getting the proper muscle adaptations)?
Thanks for your PODCAST, Ben. It’s my weekly favorite thing to listen to.
Hey Drew, yep, just like cold showers save anything that blunts the hormetic response to exercise for LATER in the day (e.g. 2+ hours later) OR the next morning…
Thanks for sharing this article. ☺
It's funny how many parallels there are between recovering from a strenuous activity and recovering after an eventful night on the town. Many of these have helped me out time and again.
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brain that how a user can know it. Thus that’s why this piece of writing is amazing. Thanks!