We've all had a tough session in the gym where we wake up the next day and hobble around like an OAP. But what causes this and how can we recover from this?
The first thing to remember is that you will normally suffer with DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), when you change your training stimulus or have done a session more strenuous than normal. This could be going and doing something you’re not used to, like going for a run or doing a new gym class, especially if you have been away from the gym for a while and just getting back into things again. Or when your trainer gives you a new program, this is the time to expect some soreness in the days that follow.
DOMS are caused by damage to the muscles or a breakdown in muscle protein as a result of a training session (usually a weight training session and more so with slow eccentric, or lowering phase of the lift). So when your trainer tells you to slow down the lowering of the weight… you might feel it the next day!?
So how do we go about recovering after sessions and reducing DOMS?
Lets break this down into 3 parts, to make it easier to apply to yourself after your sessions:
The first things you need to look after training is refuelling. Your body will have used stored glycogen (carbohydrate) to fuel your session and if you have done an intense weights session, then you have likely started to degrade muscle protein. The goal therefore is to start replenishing these glycogen stores and give your body the protein it needs to keep protein synthesis as high as possible and prevent muscle loss - in body composition (weight loss, toning etc…) we want to keep as much muscle as possible while losing fat.
So after training we want to start taking in protein along with a source of carbohydrate, this could be as simple as a mixed meal containing a source of meat or fish, some potato or rice and plenty of veggies.
Often this type of meal isn't always easy to have straight after training. You may be going back to work after training, or you may not always feel like eating (especially after a tough session). This is where having a protein shake can be important. A lot of my clients like the ones they made in the gym with protein, water and banana or mixed berries.
Your next meal, then needs to be similar to the one mentioned above, but with only a small portion of carbohydrate (potato, sweet potato, rice). It is important to make sure that you have a good helping of protein with this meal (at least 1-2 palm sized portions) and plenty of veggies (for vitamins and minerals), as these are going to help your body with muscle repair and the removal of waste products from muscle tissue, helping recovery and repair.
The final point on this is hydration. Water will help with the transport of nutrients and the removal of waste products from muscles, so make sure you keep drinking!
After nutrition, sleep is the other main factor when it comes to recovery. If nutrition gives your body the nutrients and fuel it needs to replenish; good quality, deep, restful sleep gives it the time and environment in which to repair.
If you have lifted enough weight, for enough sets and reps in your session (your trainer will usually make sure that you do this!?), then your body will release growth hormone as a response to the stress placed on the muscles. You will usually get a small rise just after the session, before it drops again, with a large rise at night when you go to sleep.
This is why deep, restful sleep is important in helping your body to recover as much as possible.
Growth hormone helps your muscles to repair after training, so when combined with adequate protein and carbohydrate intake, it keeps protein synthesis raised, allowing your body to repair the muscle tissue.
The more you can do this, the quicker you are going to get rid of the soreness in your muscles.
Aim to be in bed early, around 10-10.30pm and be waking at a good time each day, 6-7am.
Do things that relax you before bed; take a hot bath, read a book (not off an iPad or phone or laptop), do some light stretching.
Avoid artificial light or things that stimulate your mind, such as TV, iPads or phones in bed - these will keep you mind ‘switched on’ and make it harder for you to get that restful sleep.
Also avoid caffeine in the late afternoons and evenings; look at swapping these for herbal teas, chamomile, peppermint or Valerian root before bed can have a relaxing effect.
A good quality ZMA supplement might be a good idea, particularly if you have started an intense training period or have a stressful job as well. Zinc and magnesium are 2 minerals that can become depleted during stressful times, and when supplemented with can help with sleep and repair at night.
This section is a little less quantitative than nutrition and sleep. This takes in the little things you can do to help flush the lactic acid and waste products from the muscles and aid the repair process.
The first thing to do is keep moving. If you stop moving and rest completely, it is likely that the waste products will sit in your muscles and keep you feeling sore. Doing less intense or weight bearing activities such as swimming, yoga, or walking can help to keep muscles moving, but without increasing the damage done to the muscles or decreasing the repairing process.
Stretching, or more specifically mobility work, light foam rolling or massage can also help in ‘flushing’ the muscles, removing waste products and encouraging blood flow to the muscles, which in turn brings in the nutrients gained from good nutrition and improves recovery. As a side note here (and so you don’t hate me for suggesting this), keep it light when foam rolling or having a massage after sessions (and do it the following evening or the next day), as it is likely to feel very tender and you don’t want to be doing more damage to already distressed muscles.
Doing things that relax you and reduce stress can also help; reading a book you enjoy, taking a hot bath (which also improves blood flow), massage, going for a walk. Training is a stress on your body, a good stress, which applies a positive stimulus, but nevertheless, still something that you need to recover from, so by managing external stressors (from work etc…) can help to reduce stress hormones and increase the hormones that will increase muscle growth and repair such as growth hormone and testosterone.
Finally, for most gym goers, the one thing you want to avoid is doing ice baths, or the plunge pool in the gym. Hot and cold treatments, which you often read about athletes doing for recovery, are there to allow them to be ready for multiple training sessions or competition. Most of us aren’t doing multiple sessions or high level competition, so don’t need to do this. These recovery methods reduce the stress stimulus on the muscles, so you are likely to get less gains in strength from your training. Athletes are likely only doing this at certain times of year or in certain training cycles.
Take home points:
- Make sure you take on adequate protein - either a shake immediately after the session and/or 1-2 palm sized portions of meat or fish with your next meal
- You need some carbohydrate - fruit in your shake or a small amount of rice/potato etc with your meal should suffice
- Hydration - make sure you keep drinking plenty of water
- Aim to get 8 hours restful sleep
- Doing relaxing activities before bed to help you ‘switch off’
- Avoid iPads, phones, laptops, or tv in bed
- Keep moving - light activity can help with removal of waste products
- Light massage, foam rolling and mobility work can help ease muscles
- Relaxation - reduce stress to allow your body to relax and increase recovery
Andrew is a personal trainer, lifestyle and nutrition coach, working with Pro-Fit personal training, based in Wilmslow, Cheshire.
Since achieving a degree in Sport with exercise and coaching science, he has been coaching clients on how to make changes to their nutrition and lifestyle, along with their training in the gym to achieve some awesome transformations. He is passionate about educating you on why good nutrition is so important, empowering you to make better nutritional choices and how to fit healthy, enjoyable meals and snacks into your daily life. He can also show you how to be more effective in your fat loss efforts in the gym, which when combined with the right nutrition will lead to a new leaner you.
Book a session with Andy, or find outabout personal trainers at your club