Facts and myths about recovery

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A tough workout can really get you breathing hard, and figuring out ways to speed up your recovery will not only help you get ready for your next set or interval sooner, but it will help you feel better faster and decrease the overall stress on your heart. You want to push your heart to improve your fitness, but getting it to slow down quickly when you aren’t working is also important. While exercise increases your heart rate in the short term, it lowers your resting heart rate in the long term which places less overall strain on your cardiovascular system and drastically increases your lifespan.

Heart Recovery Rate

One of the ways to test your fitness and your heart health is to measure your Heart Recovery Rate. Basically measure your heart rate at the end of a tough activity and then measure it 2 minutes later. The difference between the two numbers is your Recovery Rate. The higher your number, the healthier your heart. It’s a good way to track your cardiovascular improvements over time and it can also serve as a way to take a general assessment of your heart health.

If your Recovery Rate is:

Less than 22: Your heart’s age is slightly older than your calendar age.
22–52: Your heart’s age is about the same as your calendar age.
53–58: Your heart’s age is slightly younger than your calendar age.
59–65: Your heart’s age is moderately younger than your calendar age.
66 or more: Your heart’s age is a lot younger than your calendar age.

The faster your heart rate and respiration can return to normal after a workout, the more fit you are. Recovering quickly is also important during a workout. Real fitness improvements come by giving your best during each set or interval, and starting the next one exhausted will limit your progress. I’ll get to some simple tricks below that will help you recover faster during or after your workout, but first, let me go over why they work.

It’s not about lack of oxygen, it’s about too much carbon dioxide

People understand the concept that huffing and puffing during a workout helps deliver more oxygen to working muscles, but most people don’t understand that the more important function of increased heart rate and respiration is to remove all the waste carbon dioxide from your system. It seems pretty obvious if you think about it. If it was all about providing oxygen, then wouldn’t your breathing instantly go back to normal after you stopped moving?

Many studies have confirmed that getting rid of the carbon dioxide is more beneficial to recovery than getting more oxygen. Researchers have found that breathing supplemental oxygen does not help recovery at all, and those football players breathing pure oxygen on the sidelines after a play are receiving more of a psychological benefit than a physical one.

An oxygen tank may just be a placebo, but there are things you can do to improve your recovery during your workout and after. If the goal is to help get the carbon dioxide laden blood out of your system faster, then you can help this process along by focusing on positions and movements that help and avoiding the ones that hinder it.

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What helps recovery:

Hands on your hips: There are two positions that people naturally assume as they get tired. One is to place your hands on your hips and the other is to slouch forward and place your hands on your knees. Coaches and trainers like to tell you slouching forward is bad (more on that below), but in reality they both help quite a bit. There’s a reason that people universally do these two poses without ever being taught them. Just like how people naturally curl up in a ball to preserve their heat when freezing, we instinctively assume these positions to speed up recovery. Placing your hands on your hips takes the weight off of your arms and transfers it through your legs into the ground. This instantly lightens the load (a little bit) and conserves energy. It also opens up your chest to allow deeper breathing from the diaphragm, and it opens the axillary vein running through your armpit to improve the flow of blood back to the lungs. Placing your hands on your head has similar benefits, but it actually increases the weight of your arms rather than reduces it. Since you get pretty much the same benefits from placing your hands on your hips and it feels more pleasant than putting your hands on your head, your might as well assume the hero pose.

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Leaning forward with your hands on your hips: This is the position your coach told you to avoid. For years people thought this bent over position impairs deep breathing which means it would hinder recovery, but a study from Western Washington University found that athletes’ heart rate dropped an additional 22 beats per minute compared to those that stood up straight with their hands on their head. The researchers found that the slumped over position actually moves the diaphragm so that it can actually draw more air into the lungs. In addition, this position enables your abdominal muscles to help push more carbon dioxide out. They also theorized that this slumped over positioning triggers the sympathetic nervous system (your fight or flight system) to relax and fires up your parasympathetic nervous system (your rest and digest system). The bent over posture also reduces your heart’s battle against gravity. Just think how much easier it is to walk up a hill verses climbing a vertical wall.

Walking around: The toughest workouts are ones that involve your legs. These big muscles require a lot of energy and they can also pool a lot of carbon dioxide-rich blood. Exercise causes your blood vessels to dilate to increase the flow of fuel and oxygen to working muscles, and this makes it much easier for spent blood to get trapped in your legs. Fortunately, every contraction of your leg muscles acts like a little heart beat to drive the blood back towards your lungs, and the best part is that it hardly requires any effort. Just walking around at 1 or 2 miles an hour creates more than enough contractions to drive spent blood out of your legs. People think they need to slow to a jog after an intense run to properly cool down, but really just a few minutes of slow walking is more than enough.

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Slow music: We’ve seen plenty of research to show that fast-paced music helps you work harder without even trying, but other studies have shown that music with a slower tempo improves recovery significantly faster than no music at all. Our body responds to the beat and relaxing music causes our blood pressure and heart rate to slow much faster. The studies showed that the type of music didn’t matter, as long as the beat was slower. Our beat-sync feature not only helps speed you up when it’s time to work, but it helps you recover when it’s time to rest.

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What hinders recovery

Sitting: If you want to stress your heart unnecessarily after a tough workout, sitting is a great way to do it. This is one of the times when our natural instinct has it wrong. Sitting may feel easier because you’ve significantly reduced the weight that your legs need to carry, but you’ve also effectively tied a tourniquet around them, trapping all that carbon dioxide in your legs. Your heart has to work much harder to pump the blood out of your immobile legs. This not only increases your recovery time, but it can also cause dizziness and fainting. If you’re absolutely wiped out and need to sit down, you can lie on your back and elevate your legs slightly to help them drain out.

What about lactic acid and soreness?

You’ll notice I didn’t mention anything about lactic acid build up or DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). This is a great example of where the science got it wrong early, but the new findings by researchers are having a tough time displacing the old beliefs. People still think that exercise causes lactic acid to build up in your muscles and that if you don’t flush it out with stretching after your workout, you’ll be sore the next day. This has all been shown to be a myth. Not only does lactic acid have nothing to do with soreness, it’s not actually a waste product. Your heart, liver, and kidneys use lactic acid (or lactate) for fuel, and as you get more fit, the mitochondria in your muscle cells become more efficient at oxidizing lactate as an additional fuel source. The old concepts of anaerobic threshold are wrong. There isn’t a point where your muscles become starved of oxygen and must switch from aerobic to anaerobic energy production. As I mentioned on the subject of using fat versus carbs for fuel, your body is always using both to one degree or another. It’s the same with aerobic versus anaerobic systems. Your body is always using both and it’s not a lack of oxygen that limits aerobic energy production, but rather inefficiencies with how your mitochondria shuttle the “waste” lactate to where it can be used as fuel. It’s why high intensity interval training improves your long distance endurance. Intense training floods your system with lactic acid which trains your mitochondria to remove it more efficiently.

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