Marty Munson—Can you shop your way to faster recovery and pack in a few more quality workouts this week? With the proliferation of recovery beverages, bars, clothes and devices on the market, it seems like it: Just do this or wear that and you’ll spring out of bed in the morning, ready for your next interval session.
Of course if it were that easy, we’d all be winning medals. So what does work to help you recover from a long or hard workout and get you ready to nail the next one?
“The world of recovery is a mixture of folklore and some science,” says William Sands, Ph.D., former director of the Recovery Center at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. And, he says, a lot of “I saw an athlete do X so it must work” reasoning. “It’s not always wrong, but much of the time it is. And unfortunately, a lot of the science that should be straightening out all of these recovery questions is still in the beginning stages,” says Sands, who’s currently the director of education at the National Strength and Conditioning Association. That means there’s a big gray area in which myths can grow. Here’s the truth about some of the more popular ones:
Myth 1: I don’t really need all the recovery days my coach gives me.
Truth: Sure, tough workouts that leave you fatigued are essential to hitting your goals. But so are days and weeks when you’re not doing that. “You dig the hole, and that’s OK,” says Sands. “But you have to fill the hole and then make a hill to improve your performance. The worst thing you can do is dig a hole and keep on digging. If you don’t rest properly, you can sabotage your training.”
“It’s easy for athletes to think that if they’re going hard, they’re getting fitter. That’s not true,” says Matthew Weatherley-White, co-founder of a popular-among-pros online tool called Restwise that helps athletes know how recovered they are. “Hard work creates the conditions for physiological adaptations. And adaptation happens during recovery. If you don’t hit the best stress-to-recovery balance, you’re not optimizing your training.”
Myth 2: Carbs are overrated as recovery fuel.
Truth: “There’s no question that having enough carbohydrate in your diet after you work out to be sure muscle glycogen is restored is still the best science out there,” says Trappe.
A long or hard workout depletes your glycogen (stored sugar in your muscles that they use for fuel), and you need to replenish those stores if you want to be able to have a great workout again within the next 24 hours.
“The sooner you’re going to work out again, the more attention you need to pay to refueling efficiently and quickly,” says Monique Ryan, author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes. “We know you can make back your fuel stores in 24 hours, but triathletes are often in a position of having less than 24 hours to recover between workouts.”
Conveniently, your body wants to help you out. For the first 30 to 60 minutes after exercise, the “refueling window” is open and your body is primed to restock glycogen stores efficiently. When you get home from a really long workout, you should refuel with 0.5 grams of carbs for every pound of body weight (for example: A 150-pound athlete should eat 75g), says Nancy Clark, a sports nutritionist in the Boston area and author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook. About two hours after that, when you’ve showered and have made lunch or dinner, you should get that amount of carbs again.
Use common sense—if you did a workout that burned 600 calories, then you don’t need to refuel with 800 calories. But if you burn thousands, then you will want that refueling snack or light meal, then you will have lunch/dinner, and then a few hours later you will probably be hungry again and get a bowl of cereal and so on. “Your body talks to you if you listen to it,” Clark says. “I encourage people to be responsible, but not obsessed with the numbers.” How many carbs you should get “is a concept, not an exact ratio. If you get more carbs than you need, you’ll have them around. If you get less, you’ll be hungry.”
So there are guidelines, but they are just that—guidelines, not rules. Apply them with common sense.
Myth 3: More recovery means less training.
Truth: More recovery could mean more efficient training. It means recovering when you need to recover and training hard when you need to train hard, not just slogging through endless hours of mediocre workouts just to log them. “Beware of defining yourself by training volume rather than the results of your training,” says Weatherley-White. Instead, be aware of when you’re too fatigued from work, travel and everything else going on to hit your splits, and be aware of when your body can absorb and be productive with that training volume. That’s what performance gains are made of, he says.
Myth 4: I need extra protein after a hard workout.
Truth: “Most workouts for triathletes are about spending glycogen. A really long bike ride might dip into muscle protein for a little bit of fuel,” says Ryan. Eating a normal amount of protein takes care of it. And that’s not a couple of steaks—0.5 to 0.8 grams per pound of your body weight should do it. For a 150-pound athlete, that’s about 75g protein a day. One 3-ounce chicken breast gets you a third of the way there.
Myth 5: The older you are, the longer it takes to recover.
Truth: Maybe not. “I devoted four-plus years of my life to this question and didn’t really come up with an answer,” says James Fell, Ph.D., senior lecturer and exercise science program coordinator at the University of Tasmania. “Anecdotally, the common thought is that more recovery or a reduced training load is needed. However, my research has not confirmed this.” He did find that older people said they felt more soreness and fatigue than younger ones felt. But their performance wasn’t affected by it.
In one study, older cyclists rode just as hard whether they felt that fatigue and soreness or not. It’s possible that performance drops with age in part because people think they shouldn’t train as hard. His recommendation: If you do find that your body’s not ready for the next hard session, take more recovery time between sessions, but don’t reduce the intensity of those sessions.
Myth 6: Ibuprofen helps you recover better.
Truth: Over-the-counter doses of ibuprofen and acetaminophen may actually work against recovery. Current thinking is that they interfere with the ability of your muscles to repair themselves and get stronger after hard workouts, says Todd Trappe, Ph.D., professor at the Human Performance Lab at Ball State University who has researched the compounds’ effects on muscle.
Normally, “your body’s rate of protein synthesis goes up 50 to 100 percent after exercise,” he says. But in one of his studies, “when people took the maximum over-the-counter doses, the drugs eliminated the ability of the muscle to turn on the protein synthesis response. If you kept taking these analgesics day after day, there’s no way you’d get muscle to grow or adapt.” Plus, other research suggests that these drugs may mess with healthy muscle adaptation by affecting the production of compounds like collagen that help give tissues strength.
Too addicted to the relieving effects to give them up? Think again. In Trappe’s study and others, there was no difference in soreness between people who took the drugs than in people who took a placebo—although it’s possible that the achiness was too great for the drugs. The caveat: In a small study that shocked even the authors, Trappe and his team found that OTC analgesics in people over age 64 didn’t turn down muscle building after exercise—they raised it. Stay tuned for more if you’re in the masters group.