the road to optimal sports performance
by Dr. Christine Louden
In years past, many of us were exposed to the “no pain, no gain” school of thought when it came to fitness and strength. Recently, though, research has shown that many of the performance gains to be made from workouts actually depend almost as much on successful recovery as on the intensity of the exercise. It turns out that recovery is the time when the body actually becomes stronger, faster and more efficient.
If you want to enhance your fitness, here are some guidelines to help you recover more effectively.
Productive Exercise IS Stressful
For exercise to be productive, your body needs to be taxed to enjoy the most positive and healthy changes in your body and mind. In fact, the stress hormones cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine are essential for the availability of fuel during exercise.
However, when you add high levels of other stressors (job, family, lack of sleep and improper diet) to a vigorous training schedule, the stress hormones can be harmful, your body can eventually be “overtrained” and lose its ability to make further improvements in sports performance and fitness. In fact, increased levels of cortisol increase muscle breakdown and suppress the immune system – the opposite of many people’s goals in their fitness programs.
A critical component of recovery is managing psychological stress and these activities can be quite pleasant, too! Music, meditation, yoga, deep breathing and laughing are all beneficial to the nervous system. The olfactory is one of the most primitive senses and scents like lavender and lemon have been shown to relieve anxiety and depression. I often recommend using these essential oils in an Epsom salt bath for stress reduction.
Good quality sleep is another essential element of recovery and will allow the individual to handle more daytime challenges. In fact, growth hormone is released during the first few hours of deep sleep, increasing protein synthesis (essential for muscle repair) and fatty acid release that increases the use of fat for fuel.
In my practice I have found nutrient deficiency to play a major role in sleep problems and when corrected deep sleep is restored. The most common nutrients that impact sleep are magnesium and B6.
Another key to recovery is managing the inflammation and tissue damage associated with a strenuous workout. The body responds to tissue damage by releasing mediators of inflammation. The inflammatory process results in increased blood flow to the area, leakage of fluid into intercellular spaces and increased immune cells which clean up the damaged tissue. These cells release toxins and free radicals which can then cause secondary muscle damage hours to days later. A key goal in recovery is to assist the circulation in and out of the worked muscle to moderate the inflammatory response and limit secondary muscle damage.
To help in this process, an anti-inflammatory diet helps reduce damaging levels of mediators and changes the cell membranes in the body so that when fatty acids are released, they will favor anti-inflammatory pathways over inflammatory ones. Anti-inflammatory foods include fish, nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocado, fresh fruits and vegetables.
By contrast, meat is one of the most pro inflammatory foods – especially chicken and grain fed beef. Wild game, grass fed beef, buffalo, and omega 3 eggs are good options for the athlete who chooses to eat meat, as these options tend to be more anti-inflammatory.
Certain herbs such as turmeric and ginger are well known for their anti-inflammatory actions and can actually improve joint pain and recovery from musculoskeletal injury. These spices have a pleasant taste and can be used liberally in the diet.
My favorite strategy for decreasing post exercise inflammation is supplementing my diet with bromelain. Bromelain is an enzyme derived from the pineapple stem. It decreases pain and inflammation while enhancing collagen synthesis.
Nutrition to Aid Recovery
Another trigger for increased cortisol following exercise is hypoglycemia.If nutrition is skipped after exercise, low blood sugar or hypoglycemia can occur. This stimulates further secretion of cortisol in order to increase blood sugar levels and will further the breakdown of muscle protein (which, in this case, the body uses for fuel).
If however, carbohydrates are consumed after exercise, hypoglycemia and increased cortisol can be avoided. Instead, we see a rise in insulin. After working out, the muscle tissue is especially sensitive to insulin. By eating carbohydrates within 15 – 30 minutes after exercise, your muscle tissue will utilize carbohydrate, slowing down muscle breakdown and increasing protein synthesis.
Sidebar – The Recovery Plan:
The following plan is ideal for recovery after intense workouts.
1. Within 15-30 minutes after exercise take in nutrition in a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein. This will stimulate muscle glycogen re-synthesis and control the rise of cortisol. Good options are chocolate milk, fruit smoothies with whey protein powder,
2. Take bromelain 30 minutes after the post exercise meal and again on an empty stomach twice the following day.
3. Take glutamine within 30 minutes of the workout and twice daily if your training is particularly intense. Glutamine is a conditionally essential amino acid. What this means is that although the body can synthesize glutamine, during periods of high stress, the body may not be able to keep up with demand and become deficient. Glutamine stimulates protein synthesis, liver glycogen synthesis and inhibits protein breakdown. Taking glutamine in the hours and days after a strenuous workout can help increase muscle synthesis and enhance the immune system, too.
4. Use hydrotherapy to enhance recovery and prevent muscle soreness. Many professional athletes have the luxury of massage therapists and ice baths to assist their recovery. While you probably don’t have this luxury, you can engage in self-treatment at home that will absolutely reduce muscle soreness and allow for faster recovery.
My favorite such treatment is contrast hydrotherapy with an Epsom salt bath. Here’s how it’s done. Within an hour after a strenuous or long workout, fill a bathtub halfway with warm water (about 100 degrees) and add one pound of Epsom salts. Fill a bucket or large bowl with ice water and add two or more washcloths. Submerge legs in bath (if upper body workout submerge the upper body) and sit for 5-6 minutes. Sit on the edge of the tub, lay the washcloths soaked in ice water on your legs one at a time, and rub the cold cloth vigorously from lower leg upward working each muscle group. Apply a new cold cloth to the other leg and repeat the cold friction. This hot soak of 5-6 minutes and cold friction of 1-3 minutes should be repeated for 3-5 rounds. You should always end with a cold treatment.
Through the process of cold (leading to constriction) and hot (leading to dilatation), this treatment increases blood flow through tissue, speeds elimination of lactate and other waste products, and reduces muscle injury and soreness. Soaking in salt baths also acc
elerates the excretion of stress hormones including cortisol in the urine.