You’ve done your squats until your quads screamed and curled your biceps until they near gave out. You’ve worked yourself to exhaustion,l but what happens to your body after a hard workout may be just as important.
It turns out recovery is even more critical than the workout itself! Recovery allows your body to maximize the growth of stronger muscles, and repair damaged tissue quickly to prepare for the next workout. For you to find the best recovery, you need to understand the chemical interactions in your muscles after exercise.
Our muscles use oxygen to accomplish most of what we do day-to-day (called an aerobic process). But when we perform strenuous exercise, our bodies can’t turn oxygen into energy fast enough. When this happens, our bodies produce energy using our glycogen stores (an anaerobic process), which is when you start to burn fat and other nutrients in your body’s storage. This is where it can start to hurt.
Our bodies have a way of preventing permanent damage during extreme exertion though. When working too hard for too long, those glycogen stores turn into lactate, which increases the acidity in our muscles, making them harder to energize. In essence, using muscles produce something that hinders its own capacity for more work.
However, contrary to popular belief, it is not lactic acid build up that makes our muscles sore, but the acidity formed by the process of making lactate. This is called DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). It peaks 24-72 hours after our strenuous workout and induces an inflammatory-repair response, to return the muscles back to normal. This is the part after a hard workout when your muscles are the most sore and you may find it the hardest to perform daily activities like lifting a backpack or taking the stairs. (For more detailed information, visit Scientific American.)
If the day after a hard workout you feel a little sore but energized, you’re in a good place, but if you wake up stiff as a board and hardly able to walk to the shower without screeching in pain, your body is trying to tell you to take it easy. Remember, hard workouts are meant to push our bodies’ limits, not to obliterate them. The reality is, no matter how fortified you are in your mind, sometimes the body just can’t keep up.
Many things can be done to help reduce inflammation. These include taking ice baths, massaging or using muscle rollers, and getting lots of sleep.
After a hard workout, muscle cells are damaged and trying to repair themselves. One of the best ways to restore muscle cells: feed them protein! Your meal after a workout should contain 50-60 percent of your daily protein, 20-30 percent of your daily carbs, and about 10 percent of your daily fat. This will refuel your body and help build those damaged cells so they can grow larger and stronger.
So, in the next days when DOMS is peaked, and it’s hard to even roll out of bed (and takes ten excruciating minutes to counter-balance your way down the stairs), do you take a few days off?
If you can help it, no. Getting your muscles working again can get oxygen flowing back into your muscles and reducing the acidic build-up. However, a rest day can be beneficial if you need it, and you should listen to your body. If your body is too sore to lift a box of cereal, you probably shouldn’t get back on the bench press. You’ve already pushed your body hard, and it’s trying to recover. But, if you can, a few stretches or yoga poses could aerate the body and help reduce the acidity in your muscles.
The day after an especially hard workout should be taken easier than usual. A few laps or more aerobic activities to get your heart rate up and your muscles moving can speed recovery. But remember to listen to your body. Bodybuilders and Olympians aren’t built in a day!
For more tips and tricks to staying safe and maximizing your workout, checkout the Player’s Health Blog!