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Regular exercise is one of the smartest ways to spend your time, and millions of people join gyms every year for this reason. But while everyone understands the importance of exercise, the importance of recovery is understated. In this article, we will explore how you can go about relaxing your muscles and why you should do so.
Benefits of Recovery
Recovery is where your muscle gains occur, it is NOT in the gym. When you exercise, you are actually breaking down muscle fibers and causing inflammation. Without recovery, your muscles will begin to waste and catabolize. It is through recovery (which includes sleep, diet, and other practices) that the muscle fibers are repaired and rebuilt to be stronger and bigger in size (known as muscle hypertrophy).
While making sure that your training program is correct is important, concentrating on your recovery will yield better results. If you look at professional sportsmen and women you’ll see some of the extreme measures they take to get the best recovery.
In this article we will explore both well known and experimental techniques to relax the muscles and help them to recover from a strenuous workout.
Technique #1. Foam Rolling
The foam roller has exploded in popularity over the last couple of years with many gym bags containing one or sometimes even two, alongside the usual kit. Many of the benefits of foam rolling have been greatly exaggerated – no a foam roller will not help prevent injury, nor will it improve flexibility or range of motion. They cannot prevent muscle inflammation either!
But studies have shown that foam rollers used after an intense workout can help to reduce post-exercise soreness, allowing you to train the next day. The trick is to not overuse them, 5 minutes at the end of a workout, or 5 minutes at the beginning of the next workout can reduce stiffness in the muscles enough to allow you to train. Don’t think of the foam roller as a miracle worker, but as a handy tool and you will be pleased with the results.
Technique #2. Post-Exercise Protein Shake
You might have heard of the anabolic window, a period of time after a workout where you MUST consume protein – or your muscles will waste. While this window does exist, it is nowhere near as extreme as people believe. The anabolic window can be as large as 6-8 hours post-workout depending on your pre-workout nutrition!
However, just because you don’t need to down a protein shake 30 seconds after your last set is over, doesn’t mean that a post-workout protein shake is a bad idea. You need to increase protein anyway, as studies have shown that people who exercise regularly require double the protein intake of sedentary people.
What better way to add 30-40g of protein to your daily intake than drinking a protein shake after each workout? It will help fuel muscle protein synthesis – the process by which amino acids repair damaged muscle tissue, it will also help you feel full and replenished after a hard session.
Combine that whey protein with creatine and you will also be replenishing muscle creatine levels, which help you work harder in the gym as they provide fast energy to the muscles during a contraction. You can also combine protein with a carb source that will stimulate insulin production – another way to speed up muscle protein synthesis.
As you can see there are many benefits to your post-workout protein shake, and while you don’t need to take one (having dinner 3 hours later will provide the same benefits) taking a protein shake is habit forming and fast acting.
Technique #3. Sleep
Increasing the duration and the quality of your sleep is one of the best ways to improve your muscle recovery. Muscle protein synthesis (where amino acids repair and strengthen muscle fibers) can occur at any time, but is particularly active at night. A bad night’s sleep can inhibit recovery as the body will produce less testosterone and growth hormone. Two hormones that are necessary for muscle protein synthesis to be effective.
Athletes have already started to take sleep more seriously with a lot of professional teams scheduling midday naps and ensuring that their players are getting adequate sleep at night too. Not only can sleep improve your recovery but it can also improve your ability to train hard the next day. Reaction time, power, strength, and aerobic capacity are all improved by a good night’s sleep.
Taking supplements such as ZMA (Zinc, Magnesium, and Vitamin B6) can help improve sleep, boost testosterone, and improve recovery from a workout. You can also take casein protein which improves sleep and recovery from workout.
Technique #4. Sports Massage
Whether a sports massage will relax your muscles or not may be up for debate, but it can certainly help with recovery. Massaging muscles should help relax them and the manipulation will help prevent a buildup of tension. Many people use massage as a form of relaxation even if they don’t workout.
Technique #5. Warm Bath
A lot of sportsmen and women believe that ice baths are a great way to relax muscles but the science tends to disagree with this belief. Whilst an ice bath may prevent inflammation – you need inflammation for muscles to grow. In fact, an ice bath may even have negative effects on your health.
A warm bath on the other hand can help you physically and mentally relax and recover after a workout. In fact, you may even see some performance benefits from the hot bath transferred over to your training.
Technique #6. Meditation
This technique may work for some people and not for others, it depends on how much you believe in the process. But meditation has been proven to relax the mind and improve mood and focus. This can carry into your muscles by relaxing your posture. Definitely worth giving it a go.
Technique #7. Yoga or Pilates
Both yoga and Pilates are very popular methods of muscular relaxation, though the initial exercise can be surprisingly demanding. The best way to integrate either one into your program would be to perform them completely separately from your usual training. So if you normally strength train 3 times per week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, then you can add a Yoga or Pilates session in on a Saturday or Sunday.
There are many ways that you can relax, meditation may have some benefits, as would yoga, and even some light stretching. But if you are going to follow any of them then the best ones by far are the sleep and protein ones. Make sure that you follow these as they will ensure that your muscles get maximum recovery and relaxation after a workout.