This week, we explore the entire ‘recovery toolbox’ available to reduce muscle soreness in endurance-based athletes.
During intense training, ultrastructural muscle injuries occur, resulting in a loss of muscle function and force generating capabilities. In return, muscle performance drops, and work capacity in following sessions decline.
Muscle fibre damage is one of the key factors in muscle fatigue, and strategies to restore this will be key to training session and competition success.
This is known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which is the soreness, stiffness, loss of range of motion and intramuscular swelling that starts 6-12hr post exercise and peaks ~48-72hrs post.
In this case, a 2019 review by Hotfiel et al has identified the core drivers to accelerate recovery from exercise induced muscle damage (EIMD) to help develop your ideal recovery protocol:
1) SLEEP: This is the best performance enhancing regenerative tool an athlete has – focus on sleep hygiene habits to improve sleep onset latency (time taken to fall asleep), sleep quality and duration: Aim for 7-9hrs/night and aim to awaken well rested, and remain to be alert throughout the day.
2) COMPRESS: Compression garments (6hr use post exercise) have shown positive effects on recovery of strength and function of treated muscle groups – potentially a result of improved clearance of metabolites from the circulatory system, enhanced repair of the damaged muscle and improvements in muscle stiffness. Intermittent compression (i.e. NormaTec) may play a role in recovery, but research is lacking.
3) COLD: Cold water immersion (CWI) therapy is an effective strategy to alleviate physiological and functional deficits: Between 11-15 °C for 11–15 min appears to be most effective to reduce DOMS in endurance-based modalities.
However, those with heightened hypertrophy goals may need to consider CWI due to the potential reduction in anabolic signalling and changes in long term muscle development (Roberts et al, 2015) – Therefore the question is, what’s most critical, adaptation vs recovery?
4) HEAT: Controversial and mixed findings – Some studies have shown improvements in muscle repair, circulation, tissue nutrition, strength, and hypertrophy. Some research has contrasting findings. When combined with CWI, contrast therapy (HEAT) supports recovery, but not superior to other recovery methods.
5) ACTIVE: It’s been proposed that low intensity exercise after hard training can alleviate DOMS due to the breakup of adhesions in sore muscles, an increased removal of waste products via an increased blood flow or an increased endorphin release: 15 mins of low intensity pedalling directly after intense exercise may have recovery enhancing effects but may not play a role in muscle healing.
6) NUTRITION: As this section is huge, please tune into S1 Ep15 of the Average to Elite podcast ‘Ultra-Fast Recovery’ on Spotify or iTunes for an in-depth overview of nutrition and supplemental strategies.
Ultimately, an athletes aim should be to restore homeostasis as quick as possible to ensure optimal performance is achieved, therefore, mindfulness surrounding these strategies is strongly advised to support this outcome.
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