When you’ve gone big, you know it. You might not be sore immediately following a long, hard run, bike ride or extended workout session, but you can bet the muscle tenderness, fatigue and energy depletion is coming.
Especially when the only thing you nurse an epic adventure with is a big beer, hamburger and multi-hour rerun session on the couch.
Sometimes, due to micro-trauma tears to muscle fibers that occur when you’ve pushed to (and over) your max, pain and fatigue can set in even later, up to 72 hours after an arduous session.
The best way to avoid an athlete’s hangover? Get really good at recovering properly. It takes a little time and TLC, but following these easy, at-home steps can get you back on your feet faster.
Water is so vital for athletes. It helps us regulate body temperature, keep our joints malleable and transport nutrients to the moving parts that need it most.
While everyone requires different amounts of water to support varying activity levels, continuing to drink after exercise is critical to avoiding dehydration, which shows up in yucky forms like cramps, dizziness, nausea, dry mouth and heart palpitations.
In fact, according to the American Council on Fitness, you can help your recovery by starting to drink 17 to 20 ounces of water two to three hours before you exercise. Drinking at least 8 ounces of water within 30 minutes of ending an exercise session is ideal.
To make sure you’re hydrating enough, monitor your urine: It should be light yellow or colorless. If it’s dark, it could be a sign of dehydration.
Stretching and movement
One of the toughest things to remember or motivate yourself to do after a grueling workout is stretch — and continue moving.
Too often we hole up on the couch and take the next day off entirely, which could be detrimental to recovery, explains Colorado-based massage therapist and certified athletic trainer Gwyneth Short: “It happens all the time. We have soreness following exercise and we think, ‘If it hurts, I shouldn’t move.'”
The opposite is actually true. Proper stretching and light movement the following day will be your best friends.
The key, says Short, is holding stretches long enough to allow the muscle to first tighten, for nerves to reach their threshold, and then for the muscle to lengthen properly.
Short typically asks clients to hold stretches for twice as long as they think they should: between 30 and 45 seconds per stretch.
Likewise, getting out and walking or moving gently the day following an intense exercise session is optimal for recovery. “Basic movement like walking on flats will get the muscle contacting and relaxing, making it more pliable,” says Short.
“Essentially it facilitates the muscle taking care of itself better.”
Supplements for sports lovers can assist with all types of ailments, from inflammation to immunity. The key is pinpointing your specific issues and testing the lot to see what works for your body.
There are herbs and homeopathic tinctures such as lemon and ginger, historically thought to help with inflammation and muscle soreness. Glucosamine is a popular supplement for keeping joints loose and functioning properly over the long haul.
There are also options for keeping immunity up — something that athletes who over-train might struggle with when white blood cells decrease and stress hormones increase.
In a 2013 University of Houston study, baker’s yeast beta glucan, for example, showed significant benefits for participants in the Austin Livestrong Marathon: It was linked to an up to 45 percent reduction in the number of days with upper respiratory tract infections for all 182 athletes followed.
“This study confirms that beta glucan has tremendous benefits for athletes under physical stress,” says Reggie Black of Better Way Health, which is committed to supplements that restore or maintain optimum health through a more natural means.
From personal trial and error, I’ve found a natural herbal mix that I swear by: Kick-Ass Immune by WishGarden.
Most athletes have already spent some quality time with a foam roller, perhaps grimacing while Play-Doh-ing that excruciatingly tight IT band after a big run.
While on the surface it feels like it’s helping loosen things when you roll out after exercise — and it is, to some extent — one way to recover faster is to foam roll before a workout.
“Foam rollers are a great tool to be used to break up scar tissue that forms in the muscle from repetitive motion,” says Dr. Williams, a board-certified sports chiropractor and founder of Integrative Spine and Sports in Manhattan.
“When working on a muscle group, you should do four or five passes on that area, then stretch the muscle that was treated [rolled] and repeat that process three times. And remember to always roll before working out.”
Ice and heat
Athletic trainers around the country all seem to have their own take on how to best pair ice and heat for the smartest recovery.
The overwhelming consensus, however, has always been that ice is nice — for the first 48 hours. Cold application helps reduce inflammation, which is the initial step in healing sore muscles.
“Remember: Longer is not better,” says Short. “I suggest icing for 15 to 20 minutes two to three times after a workout for soreness in a specific area.”
For those boney parts that need extra attention, add some water to your bag of ice so it’s supple and can therefore penetrate where it needs to. For a full-body overhaul after, say, a taxing event like a marathon, a complete ice bath could be in order.
This is the go-to recovery method for most of the professional athletes we know. “It’s not comfortable, but it can be incredibly effective,” Short says. “Veteran athletes I worked with would ask for it.”
Heat, on the other hand, can complement ice after reducing acute soreness with cold. Its effectiveness can vary by athlete; some trainers suggest heat therapy before exercise, which in effect warms up and loosens a tight muscle before adding tension to it.
Short explains, “Heat creates vasodilation [the widening of the blood vessels] more quickly and more dramatically, increasing flow of blood and helping muscles become more pliable.”
She says heat may be helpful for more-chronic injuries.
Many athletes swear by a good old-fashioned Epsom salt soak. And the beauty is you can get this simple, natural compound all bagged up from Walgreens for next to nothing.
Epsom salt is made of magnesium sulfate that, when dissolved in warm water, is shown to reduce swelling in body tissue and relax muscles.
So, with a big bottle of water on hand to simultaneously hydrate, toss up to 2 cups of those salt-crystal elixirs in a warm bath and let this form of passive recovery ensue.
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