Muscle recovery is just as important as exercise itself, but our lifestyle choices can help or hinder this process.
There are reasons to believe that muscle recovery is just as important as exercise itself. Like an old pair of jeans, your muscles develop microscopic tears in their fabric during exercise. These are repaired by satellite cells during recovery, building your muscles back bigger and stronger. Our lifestyle choices can help or hinder this process. So what habits slow down muscle recovery and how can you overcome them?
The importance of muscle recovery
Muscle recovery is an essential part of any workout routine. This is when the damage sustained to your muscles during exercise is fixed, building your strength and stamina ready for your next workout. During exercise, especially strength training, your muscle fibres contract and stretch. This causes tiny tears that need to be fixed. Satellite cells rush to the damage site, building muscle strands back stronger. Exercise also requires a constant supply of ATP for energy, which has the unfortunate by-product of lactic acid, familiar from the burning sensation in your muscles during particularly gruelling workouts. ATP can build up during workouts causing muscle soreness.
The effects of exercise are temporarily uncomfortable, but this eustress (beneficial stress) actually leads to larger gains long term. Generally, muscle repair takes around 24-48 hours. So what behaviour should we avoid to speed up the process of muscle recovery?
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Bad habits for muscle recovery – passive recovery
It may be tempting to collapse on the floor after exercise or between sets. This relief is fleeting, however, and can actually harm muscle recovery. There has been much debate over whether active or passive recovery is best. Passive recovery, as the name suggests, requires no movement at all. Whereas active recovery involves continuing low-impact exercise even during breaks. Active recovery keeps your heart rate up, clearing lactic acid from your muscles more quickly . Introducing active recovery into your routine by running on the spot between sets or walking off your workout in a cool down period will help speed up muscle recovery.
Eating the wrong things for muscle recovery
We all know the health benefits of a balanced diet. But did you know that changing the amount, type, and timing of food is the most effective lifestyle change for improving health and longevity? One study found that switching from a typical Western diet to an optimal diet of legumes, wholegrains and nuts at age 60 could boost life expectancy by 8 years! .
What you eat is especially important during muscle recovery. Eating the right balance of high-quality carbohydrates and protein is key to restoring glycogen used during exercise and repairing muscle. There are some foods that hinder this process and are best avoided:
- Fatty foods. After completing a workout, it may be tempting to congratulate yourself with a high-fat meal. Unfortunately, this can undo your workout gains and impair muscle recovery. Foods high in both saturated and unsaturated ‘healthy’ fat can slow down digestion. This limits your body from absorbing much-needed nutrients. Avoid giving in to the lure of fast-food, as well as healthier options like oils, nuts and avocados.
- Spicy food. Similarly, spicy food that is difficult to digest will place your recovering body under more stress than it is already under.
- Heavy protein. Our muscles are made of protein, so it makes sense that eating more protein will build more muscle. However, heavy proteins like steaks that are hard to digest is not a good post-workout option. Instead, try lean meat like chicken or turkey.
Drinking the wrong things
What you drink also impacts how your muscles recover. During exercise, your body can become dehydrated as it loses water through sweat and respiration. It is important to immediately rehydrate by steadily sipping on water. This will continually hydrate you without making you feel too full. Other beverages are less beneficial:
- Alcohol. While it might be tempting to end the evening after your workout with a glass of wine, alcohol can cause dehydration as well as limit your muscle recovery. Drinking after a game is a team sport tradition. However, a study found that athletes who indulged in alcohol post-match experienced impaired muscle protein synthesis . Try to keep alcohol consumption to a minimum for the holistic health benefits, as well as for faster muscle recovery.
- Sports drinks. Unless you have just crossed the finishing line of a marathon, its unlikely that you need to consume these sugar-filled sports drinks. As well as blood-spiking sugar, they can also be full of additives and citric acid. Instead, try adding electrolyte tablets to water to rebalance your body without the sugar.
Using protein powder
Eating enough protein is key to building and maintaining muscle mass. Many gym-goers are supplementing their diet with protein powders to bulk up their intake. There is a plethora of protein powders available from plant, egg or milk sources. Unfortunately, many of these contain filler ingredients like sugars, flavourings and thickeners. It is therefore preferable to get your protein from high-quality, natural sources. Lean meats, dairy and legumes are all good choices.
Alternatives for improving muscle recovery have been popping up on the supplements scene for a while now. One promising active ingredient is urolithin A, a powerful postbiotic produced in the gut after eating certain foods. Urolithin A triggers mitophagy, a type of autophagy in cells that removes old and dysfunctional mitochondria. Unfortunately, only 1 in 3 people can produce enough urolithin A! An easier option is taking urolithin A supplements, like Timeline, which contain 500mg of Mitopure purified urolithin A. In human clinical trials, Mitopure was found to improve mitochondria function and muscle strength.
Not getting enough sleep
Sleep gives your brain a chance to switch off and your body to repair the damage sustained throughout the day. Sleep allows your heart to recover, cells to grow, and muscles to repair. A minimum of seven hours sleep a night is essential for health and longevity, as well as faster muscle recovery. If you have been working out, your body may crave even more than this. However, oversleeping more than 9 hours per night can also be damaging, and has been linked to chronic conditions. Keeping to a happy medium of 7-9 hours of sleep is essential for waking up the next day feeling energised and ready for your next workout.
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Photograph: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
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