Post Workout Activity
It will have happened in the past, in the days after having done a particularly demanding workout, to feel quite sore and tired. There is nothing abnormal about it: it is the way your body tells you that it needs a little rest to be able to recover from the effort made previously. However, it may not be obvious to you why we need rest.
What happens to the body during exercise?
To better understand the reasons behind our body’s need to recover after training, it is important to say a few words on the mechanisms underlying muscle work during exercise.
Exercise encourages self-control, speeds up the mind, improves the performance of the youngest, stimulates the growth of brain cells, increases executive functioning. It reduces the risks of silent strokes, makes us sleep better, prevents migraines, helps us quit smoking, and avoids taking drugs. It reduces the excessive consumption of food and is more fun than we anticipate.
As confirmed by several studies, especially running, it has been shown to have profound effects on the brain. This is due to structural and physiological changes in the hippocampus (memory center), running also increases the production of neurotrophic factors (the brain’s “food”), increases cerebral vascularity and neural plasticity. Running has other positive effects in itself.
The muscle under stress
Muscle contraction is the basis of all our physical and sports activities. Running, jumping, climbing a flight of stairs, or simply walking would not be possible without the work of the muscles and, for this reason, it is important to understand how these act and how they get the energy needed to perform their task.
To make it easier for us to understand, let’s take a very common gesture as an example: flexing the bicep. It is a popular exercise, which involves lifting a weight, usually a dumbbell, but sometimes also a rubber band, which is brought to shoulder height, using the elbow as a fulcrum, to train the bicep, the main anterior muscle of the arm.
How does the bicep contract and lift the weight?
It certainly needs energy, in the same way, that a car needs gasoline to be able to move. The “fuel” of the cells in our body is called ATP, adenosine triphosphate. It’s a molecule capable of releasing phosphate and creating energy in the process.
This energy is then spent to generate the bonds between actin and myosin, two proteins making up the cytoskeleton of the sarcomere, an elementary unit of muscle fibrils, and the basis, at the molecular level, of contraction.
It is perhaps a somewhat complicated concept, but it is enough for you to know that the link between actin and myosin is responsible for the shortening of the muscle fibril and that, therefore, it is precisely this process that is the basis of muscle contraction.
How does the muscle produce new energy?
Without ATP, therefore, muscle contraction would not be possible. The problem? Our muscles contain enough ATP to maintain the effort for only 15 seconds, which is insufficient time, to say the least for most of our activities! Therefore, a system must necessarily exist to regenerate the ATP consumed, to be able to continue the exercise for its entire duration. In this regard, the muscle has two forms of metabolism:
- Aerobic metabolism: This is how the muscle “breathes” when it has enough oxygen. It produces a lot of ATP by consuming the available glycogen stores and generates, waste products, water, and carbon dioxide, which will be eliminated with the breath. This system has the disadvantage of being very slow and, therefore, unsuitable for supporting the effort in case of immediate need for energy;
- Anaerobic metabolism: In situations of oxygen deficiency the muscle uses this system, also known as glycolysis. It produces little ATP but has the advantage of being very fast, therefore useful for maintaining effort in emergency situations. As a waste product, it produces lactic acid, which is traditionally associated with post-exercise muscle pain (although opinion is changing somewhat).
Aerobic or anaerobic metabolism? How does the muscle choose?
What determines the type of metabolism used? As you may have guessed, this is the availability and consumption of oxygen required to complete the activity. In other words, when we carry out an exercise at moderate intensity, for which we can maintain a light breath and the heart rate under control, aerobic metabolism is preferred, while in situations where the training proves to be particularly heavy the muscle folds on glycolysis, to still be able to obtain the energy necessary for contraction in this “emergency situation”.
So let’s go back to our example of the biceps. When we lift relatively lightweight for multiple repetitions, thus training muscle endurance, the muscle tends to prefer anaerobic metabolism.
This involves an increase in breathing, to introduce more oxygen and to eliminate the carbon dioxide produced, and an increase in heart rate and contraction, to bring oxygen in the periphery to the muscle. It is, therefore, a commitment that does not only involve the muscle in question, but also the rest of the body.
The increase in blood flow and respiration is essential to provide an adequate amount of oxygen to the muscle, which otherwise would soon find itself in a difficult situation and, consequently, forced to turn towards glycolysis.
In situations where our biceps were to lift weight close to its one repetition maximum, or a modest load, but for a prolonged period, this would tend to prefer anaerobic glycolysis, to be able to obtain the greatest amount of energy. in the shortest possible time.
The effort, in this case, would require an amount of ATP that would not be possible to produce through the consumption of oxygen with the aerobic metabolism, which, being too slow, would require excessive time.
The consequences of muscular effort
The propensity for glycolysis during these types of exercise involves an increase in lactic acid in the muscle, which causes a reduction in pH, with a consequent state of acidosis, which seems to have the ability to negatively affect the ability to shrink.
In addition to this, the muscle under stress can undergo, especially in the case of considerable eccentric stresses, microscopic lesions at the level of the fibrils. These are almost inevitable during the exercise, to the point of being considered part physiological (almost normal), if not even desirable since it seems that it is this form of mild damage that stimulates inflammation and the release of cytokines that will then go to induce repair with consequent hypertrophy, i.e. the increase in mass.
Post-exercise recovery and how to improve it
According to the type of exercise performed, resistance or maximum, therefore, the bicep in our example is faced with one or more of these situations:
- Consumption of glycogen reserves: This occurs mainly in endurance exercises, which test muscular endurance;
- PH reduction: Mainly in maximal exercises leading to lactic acid production;
- Microscopic damage: Especially during eccentric contraction exercises;
- Inflammation: Induced by the body to repair damage and increase circulation, to eliminate the waste produced during exercise.
It is a lot of work that is anything but indifferent and that does not only concern the muscle, but the whole body! Even for isolated exercises such as biceps flexion in our example, there is an extra workload in various parts of the body:
- Cardio-circulatory system: Cardiac output increases to bring nutrients and remove waste accumulated during muscle metabolism;
- Liver: Deputy in the removal of the aforementioned waste, in particular, lactic acid, which must be converted into a form of usable energy;
- Lungs and kidneys: The respiratory and urinary systems are involved in the normalization of pH, through the elimination of carbon dioxide and waste.
A truly remarkable commitment! What can we do to help our body recover in the best way? Undoubtedly, taking a day off helps give the body the time it needs to repair the damage and eliminate waste, but there are some simple strategies that we can implement to maximize recovery. Let’s see them together.
Sleeping well helps with post-exercise recovery
That sleep helps us stay rested certainly won’t sound like a novelty, but how does this affect the post-exercise recovery process? Well, you should know that lack of sleep increases cortisol, a hormone linked to stress and inflammation.
If you remember from what has just been said, inflammation is one of those factors that our body tries to eliminate during rest!
In addition to this, in the absence of an adequate night of sleep, there is an increase in the concentration in the blood of the cytokine IL-6, also linked to the state of inflammation. A good night’s rest is therefore essential to be able to restore the homeostasis of our body.
Check your diet
The diet when exercising is not only used to control calorie intake [link] but also to reintroduce the nutrients consumed and those necessary for the repair processes.
We have previously seen how glycogen reserves in the muscles are consumed during exercise and how, following this, it is necessary to repair microscopic damage in the muscle fibrils. What does this entail? The need for raw materials to be able to perform these tasks, namely:
- Carbohydrates: Eating carbohydrates helps restore glycogen reserves, thanks to the ingestion of glucose and other sugars. These are then converted, through a process called glycogen synthesis, into glycogen, which can be stored inside the cells waiting to be consumed to produce energy;
- Protein: Introducing protein into the diet is essential to provide the body with the elements it needs to repair muscle.
Studies suggest the following: “The recovery process should be supported by eating macronutrients such as proteins and carbohydrates and micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. You should also sleep seven and a half hours a night because most of the growth and repair occur when you sleep and your testosterone and growth hormone levels are the highest.
It is better not to train until the recovery is complete, otherwise, you risk over-training, your progress will stabilize or regress, or even worse you will get injured ”.
Do some light exercise
Although it may seem unintuitive, carrying out low-impact exercises can promote the recovery process of our body following exercise. This is called active recovery and is useful for keeping the body active even when we are not planning a proper workout, stimulating circulation and thus promoting the removal of waste and an improvement in the state of inflammation.
What does active recovery mean in practice? We are talking about non-tiring activities such as walking, swimming (obviously at low intensity), and Yoga. These are all forms of exercise with low impact on the joints and which do not particularly strain the heart, but can go a long way in helping the body recover during rest days!
Massages and vibrations
Receiving a massage is undoubtedly a relaxing experience, but it can also be very useful for “loosening” the muscles. The manipulation of the area that has suffered the effort can help improve circulation, facilitating the removal of waste, in particular lactic acid, in a manner comparable to active recovery.
Not everyone has the opportunity to undergo a manual massage after a workout, but luckily for us many solutions allow us to obtain great benefits even when we are alone:
- Foam roller: The simplest and cheapest solution. It is a rubber or plastic tube, often with an irregular surface, which is used to massage the sore muscle;
- Massagers: The benefits of a manual massage whenever you want? Masseurs can do this for you! There are different types, some specifically designed to work on certain parts of the body, such as the neck and feet, or universal, such as massage guns;
- Vibrating platforms: Vibrating platforms can help improve blood circulation and, through vibration, are also able to exert an analgesic action, reducing post-exercise pain.
Good pain or bad pain? The risks of overtraining
No pain, no gain is an English expression related to training, in particular to bodybuilding, very widespread and which indicates that it is necessary to feel at least a little pain to be able to work properly on muscle mass. This is true, but only partially.
Although it is undoubtedly necessary to face physical exertion to be able to carry out the exercises necessary to improve our body, believing that post-exercise pain is an indication of a good workout is a fundamentally wrong belief, which can even lead to the creation of bad habits.
Although slight pain and a sort of soreness are normal after a workout we must not exaggerate, thinking that an increase in this corresponds to an increase in physical performance. It is important to remember that pain is a mechanism that our body uses to communicate a state of stress and danger, inviting us to take a break to allow for adequate recovery.
It is, in fact, all too easy to ignore the little pain and push further by continuing to train, but doing so runs the risk of suffering a serious injury to the muscles and ligaments. Another often-ignored risk is that of overtraining, a phenomenon that involves a reduction in performance increased fatigue, and an increase in minor injuries, which can worsen up to even quite serious situations, such as stress fractures.
Another situation that you risk encountering following excessive training is DOMS, Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, a situation characterized by the onset of very intense pain after an initial symptom-free interval. This can manifest itself after two or three days of too heavy exercise, beyond our reach, and can have a debilitating intensity, to the point of requiring drugs for treatment.
We have seen why our muscles, and our body in general, need rest after exercise, and in what ways we can promote this recovery. How long should we rest, then? This depends a little on your goals and a little on your experience.
For a fitness beginner, we recommend starting a workout that involves a commitment every other day, thus leaving our body a whole day for it to recover. For a slightly more experienced athlete, on the other hand, accustomed to training frequently and able to manage workloads, we suggest taking at least one day off for every 7-10 days of training, to avoid the risk of overtraining.
To conclude, we want to remind you of the importance of pre and post-exercise warm-up and cool-down, accompanied by stretching. These are essential to prevent injuries and can help the muscle to better manage the workload, promote recovery even before starting the rest period. Good fitness!