[Elizabeth Criner is a senior at NC State, currently working towards her bachelor’s degree in sport management while also minoring in business administration, business entrepreneurship, and psychology. She is currently participating in the Athletic Lab Internship Program.]

The actual process of exercising might seem like the most important part of working out, but what comes after a workout can be vital in keeping you healthy. When working out, your body is put through the ringer. Muscles form tiny tears, fluids are lost, heart rate rises, and many other things happen to your body all at once. All of these issues must be repaired and restored back to normal, before your next workout. One must replace fluids and fuels lost during exercise, make sure body temperature and regular cardiovascular functions return back to normal, and repair damaged tissue (Peake, 2019). One must ensure all of these return to normal before the next training session or competition. If not, you will increase your risk of injury, by not giving your body time to heal. Intense exercise can disrupt the nervous systems, cardiovascular, renal, endocrine, and immune systems. The main goal of recovery is to restore homeostasis, replace fuels and fluids lost, repair tissue, and heal through rest. There are many different ways athletes can choose to achieve these recovery goals. Some examples include: rehydration, carbohydrate and protein feeding, stretching, massage, sleep, and much more (Peake, 2019). If athletes train too intensely and do not give themselves enough time to recover, then they can experience overreaching. In the journal article, “Recovery after exercise: what is the current state of play?” by Jonathan Peake, overreaching is defined as, “the buildup of training and/or training stress leading to temporary impairment of performance capacity, with (or without) psychophysiological indicators of maladaptation, which may require several days to week to restore performance capacity” (Peake, 2019). If athletes reach this point of overreaching, it then can be detrimental to their training and require them to work backwards, which will result in a longer recovery time.

Recovery can be categorized into two interventions: nutritional and physical. Nutritional interventions focus on replacing fluids, restoring glycogen, and stimulating muscle protein synthesis (Peake, 2019). The nutritional interventions used to help post exercise can be broken down into the “4 R’s”. The 4 R’s in relation to post exercise recovery are: rehydration, refuel, repair, and rest (Bonilla et al. 2020). These 4 R’s all have their own individual reasoning behind them and are important when looking at what to do post-exercise.

Rehydrate

One of the most important and easiest ways to heal after exercising, listed as the first R, is to rehydrate. We can see an influence on how much an athlete sweats during a training session based on individual characteristics such as physical fitness, body mass, metabolic efficiency, etc. The environment can play a role as well. If your athlete is training in a hot and humid environment, then you will see a greater loss of fluids and electrolytes. It takes between four to 24 hours for our body to fully rehydrate after a workout. Consuming drinks containing sodium can help improve fluid retention and rehydration. Also, the consumption of sodium rich foods such as peanuts, crackers, cheese, etc. can help return the body back to its original hydrated state (Bonilla et al., 2020). You might wonder why you should eat or drink sodium containing things when trying to rehydrate. Salt normally is not good for you; however, sodium is an essential electrolyte that helps deliver water to your body’s cells. Sodium can help with fluid retention and rehydration. It has been shown that consuming a sodium containing drink after exercise will help stimulate the kidneys as well as aid in the stimulation of thirst and fluid retention.

Refuel & Repair

The second and third Rs’ stand for refuel and repair. These two Rs’ go hand in hand because they both relate to the consumption of carbohydrates and proteins. When working out, your muscles use glycogen stores for fuel. As intensity increases while exercising, an even greater utilization of glycogen is seen (Peake, 2019). Carbohydrates can be used to help replace glycogen. This refuel step in the recovery process relates to carbohydrates and refueling your body back to its original pre-workout state. The process of increasing your carbohydrate intake is based on the individual’s features, total energy released, and more. “Resistance/power athletes do not need as much carbohydrates as endurance athletes to maintain optimal liver and muscle glycogen” (Bonilla et al. 2020). The first two hours following exercise are an essential period for replacing muscle glycogen (Peake, 2019). If you consume carbohydrates immediately after exercising, then you can see a much faster resynthesis of muscle glycogen, compared to ingesting them two hours after exercise.  It takes roughly four hours for carbohydrates to be digested and, in turn, absorbed into muscle and liver tissues to be incorporated as glycogen (Bonilla et al. 2020). The repair step in recovery has to do with muscle protein synthesis, which is when protein is produced to help repair muscle damage caused by exercise. Consuming protein after a workout will benefit you greatly. It helps to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. It is said that consuming 20 grams of whey protein during your recovery can help maximize muscle protein synthesis. In addition to this, you will see a higher rate of muscle protein synthesis when consuming animal-based protein versus plant-based protein (Peake, 2019). Depending on your body mass, sex, and age, you may require more than 20 grams of protein after exercise to maximally stimulate protein synthesis (Peake, 2019). In summary, if you consume moderate amounts of carbohydrates and protein together after exercising, ranging from immediately after the workout to two hours following the workout, you will see benefits in replacing muscle glycogen and stimulate muscle protein synthesis (Peake, 2019). Carbohydrates and protein are two of the most important nutrients for post exercise diet.

Rest

The final R stands for rest. This might be the most obvious recovery process, but it also is not always taken seriously. Many people struggle to fall asleep and can have issues due to a variety of different reasons. Not only being distracted by phones and social media, but also what you eat before bed could be crucial in making sure you get a good night’s rest. Some of the nutrients that have been shown to help improve sleep quality include: carbohydrates, melatonin, antioxidant-rich fruits, micronutrients, and more (Bonilla et al., 2020). Another type of nutrient talked about to boost sleep quality, is casein proteins. These are “a type of secreted calcium (phosphate)-binding phosphoproteins, are among the most common nutrients used for pre-sleep nutrition given they are considered a high-quality protein source with high digestibility and bioavailability but with a slower digestion rate in comparison to whey” (Bonilla et al., 2020). Ingesting casein protein right before you go to bed can help increase muscle protein synthesis and will be effectively digested and absorbed. In summary, if you consume between 40 to 48 grams of casein protein, about 30 minutes before sleep, you will see an improved post-exercise recovery overnight (Bonilla et al., 2020). We might not think what we eat before bed matters, but it could provide a huge difference in the quality of our sleep.

Physical interventions are the second way in which we can help heal our body post-exercise. Some of these physical interventions are: stretching, massage, and hydrotherapy. Stretching will be the first intervention covered.  Stretching is one of the most common things people do after exercising, but it might not be the most effective.  Stretching is used to help restore strength and reduce soreness during recovery from working out. Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) normally happens after exercise. A study completed by Dupuy, Theurot, Bosquet and Duggue in the journal article, “An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis,” showed that stretching has no positive effect on DOMS. This study also showed that stretching within six hours post-exercise might even produce DOMS (Dupuy et al., 2018). Some believe that stretching combined with other strategies, such as massage, can produce recovery benefits. Massage, either manually manipulating tissues with body parts, or mechanically with equipment such as foam rollers, can help increase range of motion, skin and muscle temperature, while relieving cramps, and improving circulation (Peake, 2019). All of these effects from massage are said to help your body recover post-exercise. Unlike stretching, massage is said to help reduce DOMS, inflammation, reduce perceptions of fatigue, and assist in the restoration of both maximal isometric force and peak torque after exercise (Peake, 2019). Massage increases muscle blood flow which in turn helps combat against DOMS. In conclusion, if you are debating on whether you should stretch your muscles or massage them post exercise, the more scientifically supported conclusion would be massage.

Another physical intervention used to help athletes post exercise, is hydrotherapy. Hydrotherapy is the use of water, at varying temperatures, to help your body heal. Hydrotherapy can be broken down into four categories: thermoneutral immersion (>20°C to <36°C), hot immersion (≥36°C), cold immersion (≤15°C), and contrast immersion, which alternates between cold and hot water (Peake, 2019). Many studies have been conducted to look at the effectiveness of these different therapies. Both cold and contrast immersion have been shown to reduce DOMS, while hot water immersion, on the other hand, can be less effective. The most effective water immersion to help with reducing muscle soreness, occurs when water is between 11-15 degrees Celsius, for 10 -15 minutes (Peake, 2019). Of the four immersion therapies, cold and contrast immersion provides more consistent performance benefits when compared to hot and thermoneutral immersion (Peake, 2019).

A new trend among athletes for postexercise recovery is wearing compression garments. Supposedly, compression garments are said to help “enhance recovery from exercise by reducing dilation, venous stasis, and lymphoedema, and enhancing venous return, microcirculation, and elimination of metabolic waste products” (Peake, 2019). Since compression garments are a fairly new way to help with recovery, there is not much research to support or oppose their effectiveness. It is said that wearing compression garments can help combat DOMS and even help with perception of fatigue. Until more research on compression garments is conducted, it is hard to tell how helpful they are. It is suggested that wearing these garments can offer benefits for some aspects of recovery after exercise (Peake, 2019).

There are many different ways to help heal your body post exercise. Research has shown that participating in some of these nutritional and physical interventions can be very beneficial to keeping our bodies healthy and moving. In conclusion, there are a lot of different ways you can refuel post-exercise and the best decision is to find what works best for you individually.

References

Bonilla, D. A., Pérez-Idárraga, A., Odriozola-Martínez, A., & Kreider, R. B. (2020). The 4R’s Framework of Nutritional Strategies for Post-Exercise Recovery: A Review with Emphasis on New Generation of Carbohydrates. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(1), 103. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18010103

Dupuy, O., Douzi, W., Theurot, D., Bosquet, L., & Dugué, B. (2018). An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Physiology, 9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2018.00403

Peake, J. M. (2019). Recovery after exercise: what is the current state of play? Current Opinion in Physiology, 10, 17–26. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cophys.2019.03.007