Post-exercise recovery is an important process that has the ability to influence overall fitness. In today’s busy world recovery is often overlooked as most people want to get in and out of the gym as quickly as possible. However, sometimes sparing as little as 5-10 minutes at the beginning and end of your workout can really increase your response to training. Our exercise physiologist sheds some light on the recovery process and provide her top tips for getting into a good routine.

How many times a week should I be training? Is it possible to over-exercise

The Australian physical activity guidelines recommend a minimum of 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75-150 mins of vigorous-intensity activities each week, as well as a minimum of 2 days per week of strength training. You should try your best to meet the minimum requirements as this will reduce your risk of developing the disease later in life. Over-exercising is definitely possible, although it is not common in the general population. Athletes who engage in a very high volume of training (often several hours per day or more than one session per day) may become affected by the detrimental effects of overtraining. During exercise our immune system improves, however immediately after it becomes suppressed and we are more susceptible to injury or illness – this is known as the ‘open window’ hypothesis. For most average people this is not usually a significant risk. In general, there isn’t really a set amount of exercise that is considered too much. You can exercise as much as you like provided you are keeping in good health, but it’s important that you are exercising for the right reasons. Exercise can become an addiction. If you’re going to suffer from addiction you might think that exercise would be one of the safer options, but don’t be fooled into thinking it can’t be dangerous. If you believe you might be suffering from exercise addiction, seek help by speaking to your GP.  

What is exercise recovery and why is it important?

Exercise recovery refers to the 24-48 hour period following exercise where the muscles undergo physiological processes that help to repair and strengthen them. It’s extremely important as the recovery process is the mechanism by which muscles produce exercise-induced adaptations. Interestingly, after you exercise your muscles actually become weaker before they get stronger. This process is known as ‘supercompensation’. If you exercise the same muscles during the period where they are weakened, they may not be able to get to the stage where they overcompensate and become stronger.

How much time should I leave for recovery between each workout?

Your muscles are undergoing repair and remodeling for up to 48 hours post-exercise (depending on age, training status and overall health this may vary). Exercising the same muscles during the first 48 hours may hinder the repair process and prevent your muscles from adapting. If you are someone who wants to exercise every day, the best way to get around this issue is by splitting your sessions into different muscle groups. This will ensure your previously exercised muscles are well-rested during the critical period.

What about sore muscles?

Although your muscles may feel sore for up to 72 hours after exercise, most of the muscle repair and regeneration is complete after about 48 hours. Research has shown that muscle soreness does not equal muscle damage. In other words, the muscles actually recover before the pain has a chance to subside. So, theoretically, if you can tolerate the soreness then you should be able to train the same muscles after that 48-hour window.

Is stretching really necessary, and should I do it before or after my workout

Stretching is definitely necessary. Whether you do it before or after exercise depends on the type of exercise you are doing and what you want to achieve. Stretching prior to exercise is best when you are performing cardiovascular training. Evidence shows that this reduces the risk of injury and may enhance performance. Ultimately, if you perform better, you will experience greater improvements in fitness. With regards to strength training, if your goal is to significantly increase strength and performance, you should most definitely avoid stretching prior as evidence has shown that stretching impairs both. Instead, you should end each session with some stretching. During strength training, our muscles shorten under significant amounts of load. Frequent contractions that shorten the muscles can result in them becoming tight. In order to reduce this risk, it is very important to stretch the muscles out to lengthen them back to a healthy, resting state. Interestingly, there is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that antagonist stretching (stretching the opposing muscle) in between sets may enhance performance, however not enough research has been done to consolidate this theory.

How important is a warm-up and cool-down?

Very important. A warm-up may reduce the risk of injury and improve performance by getting the body ready for the activity that is about to be carried out. The type of warm-up that you do should be specific to the type of exercise you are going to do. For example, if you are going to perform sprints then your warm-up should be running or jogging. A cool-down should similarly be specific to the exercise, with the aim of allowing a gradual recovery of heart rate and removal of metabolic by-products. Both a warm-up and cool-down should each take between 5-10 minutes. With regards to strength training, performing a warm-up set on lighter weight prior to your working sets is a good option. Other effective warm-up techniques include mobility exercises and self-myofascial release (e.g. foam rolling) which both result in an acute increase in range of motion.

What role do hydration and diet play in recovery?

The nutrients provided through your diet are what make muscle recovery possible. During exercise, your muscles incur damage that leaves micro-tears to their fibers. To be able to repair these tears and allow the muscle to return stronger than before the damage occurred, a regular supply of protein and amino acids is important. This doesn’t just come down to consuming protein after exercise but actually ensuring that you are consuming an adequate amount regularly throughout the day. It is also important to consume carbohydrates after exercise in order to replenish muscle and liver glycogen stores. Hydration is also a vital component of the recovery process. During exercise, a significant amount of water can be lost through sweat. The amount lost depends on the intensity of exercise and environmental conditions. It’s important that any fluid lost during exercise is replaced to avoid dehydration. The general rule is to consume 1.25-1.5 L fluid for every 1 kg of body weight lost through exercise. In addition, you should always aim to begin every exercise session well hydrated. A lack of water can impair performance and cause early fatigue.

Top tips for getting into a good muscle recovery routine:

1. Remember your goals What you want to achieve through exercise is made possible by practicing good muscle recovery. You are only doing your goals a hindrance if you do not partake in ineffective recovery techniques. 2. Have a plan Going into the gym ‘blind’ or not having a plan of attack will leave you unprepared. Most people are so exhausted by the end of a work-out that they simply can’t be bothered to do a bit of stretching or cooling down. If this is incorporated into your plan then you are more likely to complete it. 3. Think long-term Do you want to have sore, tight muscles that down the track that lead to injury? I’m going to say that your answer is no! Think about this every time you have the urge to skip your recovery routine. You’re exercising to better your health and quality of life, not to worsen it. In summary, if you want to maximise the benefits of all of the hard work you’re putting in during your exercise sessions, it’s vital that you practice good recovery. Having said this, whilst exercise is beneficial to improve overall physical and cardiovascular health, as well as mental health, always remember if you’re on a quest for body composition results, nutrition is paramount. By Katherine Christie, Exercise Physiologist –  BSc ExPhys If you have any questions regarding this article or would like to know more, you can contact Katherine via email at kath[email protected] or via Instagram @katherine.equalutionteam